Development Ends Where Tribal Hamlets Begin: Life In Maharashtra’s Katkari Tribe

Before answering that question, I’ll give a bit of background.

Raigad in Maharashtra is the first capital of the former Maratha Empire, the land of captivating forts and free-flowing streams; the home to picturesque Konkan belt where tribal stay dormant deep inside jungles, as if incongruous. It is surrounded by Thane and Navi Mumbai on the north, Pune and Ratnagiri on the east and south respectively, while the Arabian Sea gently rests on the west. The city starts where the hustle of Mumbai ends or perhaps Mumbai begins where the rustic charm of Raigad ends. It is spread out into four subdivisions for administrative convenience, with 15 talukas and 1967 villages.

Raigad in Maharashtra is the first capital of the former Maratha Empire, the land of captivating forts and free-flowing streams.

As per 2011 census, Maharashtra has a population of 11.42 crore of which 9.35% are tribal, categorized as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Maharashtra has the second largest tribal population in the country, next only to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. Raigad has 26.3 lakh people, of which 11.58% are tribal. That’s about a little more than 3 lakh. More than 80% of them are Katkaris.

The Katkari tribes are located primarily in Raigad, in parts of Palghar, Ratnagiri and Thane districts as well as in some places of Gujarat. Katkaris are former criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, an inhuman piece of legislation enforced during the British rule. The act describes certain groups of people as “habitually criminal” and puts restrictions on their movements which leads to alienation, stereotyping and harassment, to say the least.

After independence, the Act was repealed, resulting in more than 20 lakh tribal people across the country being decriminalized. However, the stigma associated with the Act continues to haunt the Katkaris and several tribals to this day. Presently, the Katkaris are classified as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). The Government of India came up with this classification to introduce targeted interventions noting that some tribal groups had the least development indices as compared to other tribal groups. The criteria used by the state for classifying PVTGs was as follows:

  1. A pre-agricultural system of existence such as hunting, gathering
  2. Zero or negative population growth
  3. Extreme low level of literacy in comparison with other tribal groups
  4. A subsistence level of economy

Groups that satisfied any one of the above criteria were considered a PVTG. There are more than 700 tribal groups in India, and only 75 are classified as PVTG. Maharashtra is home to three such groups.

A Katkari woman with her children

During my initial days in Mangaon (a town in Raigad), I could not believe that people lived in such extreme poverty so close to urban megacities and still somehow went unnoticed. I started looking up the development indices. Maharashtra is the fastest-growing state in India. Its GDP is 360 billion USD and for comparison, the second in line is Tamil Nadu, much behind at a GDP of 230 billion USD. As of 2011, Maharashtra’s HDI was 0.752. Raigad’s HDI in the same period was 0.759. Now, that’s higher than the state’s! Data master, Hans Rosling said that it is dangerous to look at average data because often, there is a huge difference within.

Katkaris were historically forest dwellers. The name Katkari is derived from a forest-based activity—the making and barter or sale of Katechu (kath) from the khair tree (Acacia Katechu). It is produced by boiling wood from the Khair tree and evaporating the resulting brew. This makes an astringent used in Ayurvedic medicine and mixtures chewed with betel leaves.

The Katkaris was also one of the few tribal communities of India that consumed rodents. However, it is not clear if this practice still continues. The most common surname is Waghmare which means tiger slayer. They are bilingual, speaking the Katkari language amongst themselves and Marathi with others. A few of them speak Hindi as well. Today, most Katkaris have migrated from their forest dwellings to the plains while some hamlets are located on the hills.

Upon my visits to a few tribal hamlets, an apparent division was evident. Almost every tribal hamlet is located on the boundary of the main non-tribal part. These tribal hamlets are suffixed with the term ‘Adivasi’, e.g. Warak Wadi and Warak Adivasiwadi. The village cement road ends where the Adivasiwadi begins and seldom has a water connection and/or electricity. Schools and community centers are also located in the main village. This is an indication of physical exclusion.

Like most tribal communities, Katkaris are plagued with the issue of landlessness and subsequent distress migration. Most literature on the Katkaris cites landlessness as the single biggest problem making them vulnerable and deprived. The landless rate of 87% among the Katkari is much higher than 48% for rural households in India as a whole. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 rules that traditional forest dwellers shall have the right to hold and live in forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or self-cultivation for livelihood. Despite over a decade into force, only 13% of the Katkaris have been assigned forest land.

As a result of landlessness, migration is rampant, and livelihoods are seasonal. During the agricultural season of May to October, they work as labourers in the fields of Marathas which they deem as their golden period of the year and hence, life. They earn a wage of ₹300 per day, along with lunch and tea. They also catch fish and crabs during this season which they sell in the nearby towns. Some income also comes from minor forest produce. In the months from November to April, most of them migrate to become brick kiln workers or daily wage labourers. Bonded labor is prevalent, and living conditions are dismal.

Topping everything, Katkaris face eviction of all forms. Selective development brings its own bag of problems. The rapid rise of Mumbai and surrounding areas led to skyrocketing land prices leading to landholders selling off land to corporates and developers. This land is in close quarters to tribal settlements, and tribal are constantly intimidated to move to different locations. While India propels towards underground bullet trains, a section of the society is in that underground, waiting and dreaming of living a life above.

About The Author: Nikhil Kanakamedala is an India Fellow from 2019 cohort, placed with CSA (Centre for Social Action) in Raigad, Maharashtra as a part of his fellowship. He is working to strengthen the formation and functioning of a livelihood co-operative of tribal communities and market their products for better prices. India Fellow is currently inviting applications for their next cohort starting in June, 2020. To know more and apply, go here

Featured Image photo credits: Center for Social Action Database
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