Every year, the 9th of August is observed as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The day aims to promote inclusion and participation of indigenous communities in societies. Joining the bandwagon on Unite Nations’ theme of “Leaving No One Behind,” we present excerpts from an interview with Valavan VS, Programme Manager at Railway Children India (RCI), which highlight RCI’s close collaboration with and relief measures for the Gypsy and Labadi communities in Katpadi, Tamil Nadu.

Indigenous communities face unique challenges.

The Gypsy and Labadi communities are based in Katpadi, Vellore district, Tamil Nadu. Like many other indigenous communities, they face unique challenges that often form the root of all their subsequent issues. In their case, the lack of statutory documents poses a hurdle for them to gain access to useful government schemes, and even to secure school admissions.

“The primary aspect of their lifestyle is that they do not have a permanent home or shelter. They move from place to place based on the opportunities available to them to sustain their livelihood.

They use the railway station where RCI conducts intervention to sell their products such as pins, beads, clips, etc. The communities are notorious for never exposing their children to education. This became one of the reasons for RCI to intervene and ensure education for their children.

When the pandemic hit the country, the operations at railway stations shut down completely. Consequently, the members of these communities lost their space, means of livelihood, and even struggled to secure one square meal a day. Their dismal state became the triggering point for RCI and our local partner The Hope House.

We began supporting them by providing 3 meals a day to ever family of the community. Our measures allowed us to enter their community a little deeper and identify some of their issues.”

“First of the many issues was that none of the members of the community had any of the statutory documents, which include Aadhar card or ration card. Without these documents they could not prove that they were the citizens of this land, which meant that they could not receive free ration and other social schemes offered by Tamil Nadu government.”

Child Rights Violations Within the Communities

Children from these communities have never seen a classroom or books. They either are spotted parents selling products with their parents at the railway station or roaming the streets on their own. Child marriages and children bearing children are also rampantly seen in the communities.

“The primary issue of not having a permanent shelter is the most detrimental for children, particularly adolescent girl child. Lack of safe drinking water and clean sanitation facilities force members of the community to defecate openly. This becomes a problem for all, but particularly for adolescent girls. Add to that, the girls in the community are not aware about personal hygiene or even menstrual hygiene.”

Malnourishment is a common condition among the children, with nearly 90% of them being malnourished. Upon identifying this life-threating condition, RCI along with our partner organizations took concrete steps towards improving the nutritional status of the children.

“We supported the children with additional nutritional supplements for 6 months. Further, we tracked their nutritional growth. We observed that the nutritional percentile has increased by 20% to 40%. This evidence-backed program also helped us reach out to the parents and show them that providing a low-cost nutrition-backed diet will benefit the child in the long run.”

While malnourishment was an issue wherein RCI could intervene with ease, a social evil remains prevalent in the communities, which may take a lot more efforts and time to reverse.

“Child marriages are highly rampant in the communities. As soon as the girl hits puberty she is a married off to an underage boy from the community, and within a year or so, she bears her first child. While have begun addressing these pressing issues of child rights violations within the communities, we must admit that these issues require a drastic shift in the mindset of the communities, which will take some time.”

Setting up Activity Centres in the Communities

Evidently, there was a vast gap between the children and a formal education. To bridge this gap and to improve literacy among the communities, we initiated activity centres for the children.

“In an open space within the community, we erected a shed and began enrolling children in our activity centre for a couple of hours every day. In these centres, we taught the alphabets of the English and Tamil language, a few rhymes, and numbers. Parallelly, we interacted with the parents and made them aware about the importance of formal education for their children. With their approval and understanding, we initiated the enrolment of the children in public schools.”

Here too, the lack of statutory documents posed a barrier for the children.

“We then took the case up with the district administrator of Vellore. Our partners, The Hope House, and their team require a special mention here. They persisted, fought, and delivered the respective documents for few of the families in the community. They were also successful in enrolling 15 children from the communities in the primary section of a public school.”

Permanent Shelters for the Communities

While RCI and our partner organizations are resolute in changing the distressing conditions of the communities, some issues such as providing permanent shelters for the communities require intervention by the local authorities.

“We took up the pathetic living conditions of these communities to the District Collector of Vellore. This resulted in the Collector visiting the community and directing his team to plan a permanent shelter for them. Currently, the survey of the land for the shelter is complete. While the construction of the shelter may take some time, it is a big positive step towards their permanent rehabilitation.”

Covid-Relief Measures

A nation-wide lockdown was imposed by the Government of India to curtail the spread of coronavirus. The lockdown was very harsh for these communities, but within 5 days of the lockdown, RCI, along with our partner organizations identified the communities and initiated Covid-relief measures.

“The foremost and greatest challenge was to make the community members aware about the spread of the virus, the disease, and the modes of protection that they could use. Initially, we began holding discussions with the community members, explaining the situation to them.”

“Next, we began with the distribution of our Safety Kits. We also ensured that we refilled the kits routinely. This lead to one of our greatest successes that none of the community members tested positive for Covid in the last one and a half years.”

Vaccine hesitation is a point of concern particularly in communities such as the Gypsy and Labadi. Since they have never had any form of immunization, their fear stops them from enrolling.

“We conducted multiple meetings and discussions but nothing seemed to convince them, until our partner organization presented the idea of a street play.”

“The street plays effectively and entertainingly conveyed the importance and mode of action of the vaccine. The street plays also mirrored the dismal state of the healthcare system, whereby people were dying due to lack of oxygen supply. All of these extensive measures made a small but valuable number of people come forward and enrol for vaccination. The enrolment of their fellow community members has motivated a few more members to register.”