For many of India’s indigenous communities, poverty and displacement from their ancestral lands have driven large numbers to move to urban areas in the hope of securing education or employment there. All too often, however, these marginalized communities find their situation replicated in cities as they struggle with evictions, segregation and continued barriers to accessing even the most basic services.

Rangpuri, in south-west Delhi, a stone’s throw from the sprawling Indra Gandhi International airport and not far from the gleaming business district of Gurgaon, is typical of the fringes of India’s national capital. New and upcoming apartment blocks – in various stages of construction – crowd the skyline, built to house the multitudes that pour into this ever-growing city. Amid the dusty landscape, in what were once low-lying hills before the scramble for urban growth consumed the area, sits Rangpuri Pahari. Today, the surroundings have been reduced to a dumping ground for construction waste and litter.

Rangpuri Pahari is home to a community of Ghiyaras, a nomadic people, now settled, having migrated to Delhi’s outskirts from neighbouring Rajasthan in 1994. Tarpaulin tents and makeshift cabins, lining narrow alleys, make up the settlement and house around 200 families. Towards the end of the afternoon, children run about as the men, back after the day’s work, sit in a circle making small talk and smoking hookah (water pipe), while the women light their fires and begin to cook the evening meal.

Basanti Devi, baking rotis on her wood stove, describes the everyday difficulties for Rangpuri’s residents. ‘This was barren land,’ she says. ‘We settled it, when we came here many years ago. But it remains inhospitable. The government has done nothing for us. We have no water supply, no toilets, no electricity.’ Water in particular is a serious issue: while a municipal tanker makes the rounds once a week, the water it provides is nowhere near enough for the community and so residents are forced to buy water at considerable expense. As a result, they are only able to shower once a week. ‘Children are made fun of in school because they are not washed. And lack of toilets of our own, and disappearing wood cover all around, due to non-stop developments, means we often have to wait until nightfall to ease ourselves. There have been many cases of children being victims of snake bites.’

Ghiyaras’ access to basic services and social security programmes is practically non-existent.  The menfolk, smoking in a circle, note that other services too are scarce. And while identification documents are now common across the country, due to the government’s drive to formalize and connect all services, this is not the case for the hundreds of Ghiyaras living in Rangpuri. Their lack of identification documents locks them out of many services and social security benefits – most of which are now linked to biometric identification processes. Their situation is made even worse by the fact that they also do not possess ‘caste certificates’. These documents serve as passports to India’s elaborate system of affirmative action policies, including quotas in educational institutions and public sector employment, as well as access to social security programmes: without them, Ghiyaras are more or less unable to secure any of these benefits.

Their efforts to regularize their status have so far proved unsuccessful, obstructed by arduous and expensive bureaucratic hurdles. ‘We keep trying to obtain caste certificates too from the government, but there is no progress,’ says Satish Vaidji. ‘Patwaris [land revenue officers, authorized to confirm residence] make us go round and round in circles, asking for recommendations from local legislators and senior officers, each of which demands large sums of money as bribes, to do what they are supposed to do. We have had enough.’

Without identification documents or caste certificates, Ghiyaras remain trapped in their present state of exclusion, with little chance of escaping their predicament. There is no government school in the vicinity. A few students have recently managed to obtain admission to a primary school some distance away, but for the most part children in the settlement while their time away, waiting for the moment when they will themselves join their parents in the gruelling, poorly paid work on which the entire community depends. For the boys, this means hard physical labour on construction sites or occasionally falling back on traditional occupations, such as drumming at wedding ceremonies and serving as earwax removers. The girls, on the other hand, help with domestic chores and join their mothers as rag-pickers or domestic help in the houses of the middle-class families in apartment blocks nearby. During their short time in Delhi, Ghiyaras have experienced the full extent of what poverty in urban India can entail.

Another fundamental problem for Rangpuri’s Ghiyaras is their lack of title over the land they occupy and have made their home for over two decades. Dhanpat Pradhan, the community chief, reports that as efforts to secure recognition have stalled repeatedly, investors have begun to circle their land. ‘We have tried many times to get the government to give us title to land, so we could live securely, but no one listens to us. We are tired. And with property developers looking for more opportunities for newer building projects, they are always putting pressure on us to vacate the land. These developers are rich and powerful. They are able to bribe government officials, to deny us our rights and get them to force us to vacate.’  In recent years, their tactics have become more openly coercive, including threats of violence. ‘Initially the developers offered us money to leave. When we did not move, they began using threats and intimidation. In 2014, there was trouble, with property developers attacking us. The police and administration did not provide us with any support.’

Earlier, in 2013, the group had approached the courts to resolve the land title issue and managed to get relief in the form of an injunction against attempts by developers to force the community to vacate the site until the matter was settled amicably. This has eased the pressure on the community and is the only silver lining, residents said, in the dark cloud of their near-complete exclusion.

Ghiyaras are among India’s most marginalized, one of the broader category of ‘Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes’ that, according to government estimates, number some 110 million across India. These communities have traditionally earned their livelihood moving from place to place, making weapons and iron implements, performing on the streets – as musicians, puppeteers, jugglers, snake charmers and similar – herding livestock, selling traditional medicines made with herbs or hunting wild animals. The story of their present-day exclusion begins in British colonial times when, with the enactment of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871, the colonial government characterized specific ethnic groups as ‘addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences’ such as thefts. Describing Ghiyaras as ‘habitually criminal’, the law imposed restrictions on the movements of these communities, with adult male members forced to report weekly to the local police. In 1952, after independence, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed and some 150 communities were denotified, hence the term ‘denotified tribes’.

But that did not prevent the continued stigmatization of Ghiyaras and similar groups. Various laws passed by state governments and central government since independence have adversely affected the livelihoods of denotified peoples. Soon after the repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act, many states passed a Habitual Offenders Act (between 1952 and 1959), bringing those communities within the scope of this law, yet again curtailing the freedom of the groups. Subsequent legislation adversely affected the livelihoods of the groups without providing any alternative sources of income. The Prevention of Begging Act (1950) particularly affected groups such as Ghiyaras, who traditionally survived by holding street shows but now found themselves harassed by the police and frequently charged under the act. Communities that depended on wild animals for performances were also deprived of their livelihood with the enactment of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) and the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). Other pieces of legislation, the Medical Council Act (1956) and the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act (1954) rendered many traditional occupations ‘illegal’. More recently, legislation concerning cattle, such as the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Exports) Act 1995, banned the traditional occupation of cattle herding and trading groups in Rajasthan and Haryana.

In the context of the social prejudice the groups have suffered for centuries – mainstream society has yet to accept them as equals and they are still perceived as criminals, giving rise to frequent complaints of police harassment – the loss of traditional livelihoods and the absence of sustainable alternatives has driven such groups to migrate, in search of both new livelihoods and greater equality elsewhere. It was this search that drove Ghiyaras from Rajasthan to the outskirts of Delhi a quarter of a century ago, and which keeps them there, living in dire conditions in the hope of recognition and opportunities.

Today, most of the so-called denotified and nomadic communities have become settled, with some taking up newer professions, mostly low-skilled occupations such as construction work, domestic help, rag-picking, begging and so on, with little livelihood security and earning barely enough to survive. Evidently, there is little in the Indian growth story for Ghiyaras and other groups in similar circumstances, however close they might be to the engines of that growth. A recent survey on eight denotified and nomadic communities in Delhi found that, besides the lack of secure habitation, only a small proportion of households had access to adequate sanitation, while health care and education were also out of reach for most of them. A key element in this, the study found, besides state indifference and lack of documentation, was the constant threat of displacement that these communities faced from authorities – a situation of protracted uncertainty that meant many were not in a position to enrol their children in schools.

Pradhan is a cynical man. His scepticism is shared by his kinsfolk. But so is his stoicism.  ‘We have tried our best to get what we deserve. We have the same rights as anyone else, so why are we neglected and denied those rights?’ he says. ‘We have knocked on every door. But nothing has worked.  Like you, many people, including media persons, have come and spoken to us, interviewed us, written about us, shot films. And they have come again. But our life has not changed. But we will keep fighting for our rights, regardless.’

Sajjad Hassan