Year of the Woman

Mittal Patel has been putting nomadic and de-notified tribes on the map

For the record: Advocating tribal rights.   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

The exposed red-brick exterior of the single-storey Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM) office in Ahmedabad gives it a rustic charm. The spacious interiors have an informal vibe.

Mittal Patel, 35, the founder and managing trustee of VSSM, has the easy elegance of the space she operates from. She talks passionately, in spite of being interrupted frequently by the ringing phone, about the 28 nomadic tribes (NT) and 12 de-notified tribes (DNT) of Gujarat.

Round the clock

She has been a catalyst of change in the lives of these stateless communities. It was due to her relentless advocacy of their rights since 2005 that they got their identity as Indian citizens and access to various welfare schemes of the government.

We meet on the eve of the Gujarat elections but the pace of work in her office is relaxed. She is studying applications for loans, housing and other amenities.

“We worked round the clock before the elections in 2007-09, when providing these communities with the voter ID card was our priority,” remembers Mittal. Now 90% of the NT-DNT are included in the census: before the elections this year, just a thousand voter cards were made.

The VSSM has been a platform for the NT-DNT communities and organisations supporting them. Its mission is to give them social identity, citizen’s rights, education, health facilities and livelihood options. It came into being in 2006 and was formally registered in 2010.

Mittal belongs to Sankhalpur, a village in Mehsana district. Her parents are involved in agriculture and animal husbandry.

From her childhood she has seen her father helping the poor by donating money, foodgrains and assisting them in building their huts. Mittal is very obviously her father’s daughter. She didn’t give up the cause of the nomadic tribes even after marriage. Her husband and six-year-old daughter give her all the support she needs, says Mittal.

On the fringes

The turning point in her life came when she went against everybody’s advice to meet members of the Dafer community, who were once branded as criminals. She then realised how abjectly poor they were. “When I asked a woman to feed her wailing infant she replied she couldn’t, as she herself had been starving for days,” Mittal says.

Start with rights

She was moved to tears: “What am I doing for those who are living a life we can never imagine?”

The communities lived on the fringes of the village, were deprived of water and paid poorly as wage labour. They were illiterate and suspicious of outsiders. They found no mention in any government record.

Mittal’s fight began with her writing about their rights, sitting on dharnas on footpaths with members of like-minded NGOs and meeting authorities. It has been an uphill task for VSSM but the efforts have paid off.

“Mittalben waded through knee-deep water to come to our settlement during the rains” recalls Mayuddin, who belongs to the Dafer community in Rethal village.

VSSM now has hostels for NT-DNT children in Ahmedabad and Naroda and also extends loans to the community. Mittal, for sure, has a lot on her plate, but she is undaunted.

The writer searches for positive stories across the country.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2022 5:11:05 PM |

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