By Shivalika Singh
Smoke fumes from a chulah, a lady dressed in a brightly coloured ghaghara with tinted glass bangles, and a cart carrying the baggage of the past. I remember watching this sight near the outskirts of my city Bhopal, wondering who these people were and how far their lives were from ours. Little did I know that this community pledged allegiance to Maharana Pratap almost 400 years ago and is still living up to its promise, unfortunately not in the ivory towers but rather in a life of alienation and poverty.
While turning the pages of history, the story of Gadia Lohar dates back to the sixteenth century, when this community of blacksmiths produced swords and other weapons for Maharana Pratap and his royal army. Later, towards the end of the sixteenth century it is said that when the Mughal forces tried to capture Rana Pratap’s territories like Chittorgarh and Mewar, it led to the start of the nomadic life of Gadia Lohar. These royal blacksmiths pledged to never return until the return of Mewari Rana. They promised to live their lives in carts or Gadia and vowed never to build a house and embraced a life as a banjara (or nomads).
Soon, in 1955, Pandit Nehru organised a Chittor March to bring the Gadia Lohar back to Chittorgarh and settle down to a normal life, however, by that time, many families had migrated to different parts of the country and were unable to find a place of their own.
Currently, the Gadia Lohar community is scattered in various parts of the country but can be primarily traced in the Northern and Central regions of the country such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. After passing on their lineage of traditional ironsmith skills, the community currently thrives by making small utensils for households, sculptures, and other ornamental works of art. Limited economic opportunities and growing market competitiveness highlight the need for urgent policy intervention.
A small makeshift settlement displaying handmade artefacts for sale.
Image Courtesy: Bhopal, January 2023
Addressing the Unaddressed
While education plays an important role in shaping the future of any individual, for the Gadia Lohar community, access to education is still a major challenge. As per a media report, out of the 250 Lohar families residing in Dehradun, almost none of their children have been able to attend school. This is mainly due to the fact that the community is still economically and socially marginalised, leaving the children without access to the necessary resources for education. Further, government-led Anganwadi schools (These schools are a government-run initiative aimed at providing early education and basic healthcare to children in rural areas of India) have been largely ineffective as they are often located in places far from the Lohar community, making it difficult for the children to travel and attend classes. Another challenge faced by the community is continuous housing discrimination. This discrimination starts with housing insecurity, as most of them do not have any ancestral ownership of land or property, leading to a deprivation of access to basic amenities such as water, electricity, and sanitation.
A still from a house near the side of a busy road.
Another facet surrounding this issue is the problem of forced evictions. In the case of Sudama Singh & Others vs Government of Delhi, this issue of forced evictions of Lohar community members living in the slums of Delhi was once again raised. The case argued that not only did the government fail to provide notice of eviction but also did not consider any rehabilitation policy before carrying out the eviction process. Through the judgement, the court ordered the inclusion of these displaced people in the relocation policy while ensuring “basic amenities” consistent with Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. The court also emphasised how state agencies frequently evict slum dwellers in the name of beautifying the city when, in reality, this is not the case. As a result of being relocated miles away from the city’s gaze, most of them end up creating more slums and suffering even more because these relocated sites are frequently devoid of basic amenities and create more slums. While the judgement had a progressive stand, the implementation of the policy remains a major concern.
Is it time for a change?
As their journeys migrate from one city to another, Gadia Lohars wish to make a new start in their lives, but this is not possible until they are provided with permanent housing infrastructure by the government, especially at a centralised level. In a survey by the Housing and Land Rights Network, it was discovered that only 2% of the residents of the Gadia Lohar community in Delhi possessed a caste certificate, because of which most of them lacked the official help they required to improve their quality of life. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of literacy and a temporary address with no ancestral fortune. Another significant measure is the notification of these tribes, as they are still included in the Denotified tribes (tribes that were once notified as born criminals under British rule) in several states, which deprives them of various essential government schemes and services and jeopardises them as they often suffer from societal stigma. Finally, the difficulty in influencing policymaking is made all the more challenging by their scant political representation. With a community living in social quarantine for years, there is a need for immediate intervention to bring about a change in their lives.
About the Author
Shivalika Singh is a second year law student at Jindal Global Law School, and her interests revolve around public policy, law, and governance.
Image Source: https://www.thestatesman.com/india/rajasthan-to-set-up-board-for-uplift-of-gadiya-lohar-community-1503132455.html