Ramlal Bhil, 50, has tuberculosis and survives on leftover food given to him by his relatives. Rohit Jain
Ramlal Bhil, 50, has tuberculosis and survives on leftover food given to him by his relatives. Rohit Jain

India no longer has the largest number of poor people in the world, according to a study on poverty released by think tank the Brookings Institute last month.

But for India’s tribal communities, poverty remains a grave concern.

India’s most populous tribal group, the Bhil, who are mostly found in West India, have been uprooted from their ancestral lands many times. Their people have struggled to cope with modernization and they have been pushed into a vicious cycle of poverty.

Asia Times visited seven villages in Chittorgarh district in Rajasthan, a state where the Bhil tribe make up 39% of the tribal population. Tribal villagers in the district had no economic stability, healthcare or even education, with some often being forced to take up bonded wage labor, with monthly incomes as low as US$7, and sometimes even nothing.

“Due to the lack of a proper diet and overwork, many people in these villages have either been diagnosed with tuberculosis or died of it,” said Khemraj Choudhary, a local activist.

Chaudhary, 68, has been fighting for tribal rights since he was in college. He fought against the Madhya Pradesh state administration for the rights of the Bhil tribe in Alirajpur district, before moving back to his hometown Chittorgarh.

He is known in the villages for helping people break the chains of bonded labor and fighting for their rights and helps arrange basic rations for any villager who runs out of food. Choudhary gets some financial support from his friends in his fight for the tribal people.

He and his wife also run a residential learning center where girls from underprivileged communities are given a basic education. But after his recent cancer diagnoses, there is hardly anyone to carry on Choudhary’s work.

The lack of education and healthcare has also created a dependence on superstitions in the villages. Shayari Bhil, 40, is a good example. She saw a bhopa, or sorcerer, in a bid to solve the stomach aches she had suffered for a long time. The sorcerer touched the spot on her stomach with a red hot iron to “remedy” the pain.

“It is not easy for the poor to get treatment from a qualified doctor or in a hospital. There are government hospitals … but making several visits costs money, so overall, seeing doctors becomes a task. Superstition and quacks are easier to access for people here,” said Choudhary.

Being uprooted from their ancestral areas also deprived the villagers of owning land and pushed them into the practice of sharecropping. The villagers end up as tenants of farming land and have to give up part of what the earn from a harvest as rent. This often leaves them with little food and money for themselves.

When 33-year-old Beri Bhil and her husband cultivate about 1.2 acres of farmland, for example. they earn approximately US$663 per year. The couple give 70% to the landowner and still have to pay for labor and machinery. Eventually, they are left with US$127 to sustain their family of six for the entire year.

Their very low income forces the couple to borrow money from their landlord which keeps them into a cycle of debt.

This year, Beri Bhil hopes to earn a profit of US$88 from the half acre of land she owns with her husband. She has borrowed water from a neighbor to irrigate her fields which will cost her 30% of her harvest.

Also read: India’s young tribal girls finding freedom through sport

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