The heat, oh the heat! I guessI knew in an abstract way that it would be hot in India this time of year. Sure, I’ve been to hot climates or at least I thought I had. I mean Africa (okay it was November) but I live in NYC, it’s so hot in summer their and the humidity can do you in. Still the heat I’m feeling here in Delhi is really kind of crazy! It’s over 100 degrees every day. I’m feeling more than a little disgusting and sticking to myself, I don’t want anything to touch me, I’m starting to dream of a shower, not literally but I am thinking about it hard. I know it’s going to happen and a cold shower sounds just about right. Knowing that I’m going to take that shower is something I can really hook myself into. Knowing that things change for me when I leave this place and that I CAN leave this place is really all the comfort I need at this moment.
Still this is not a story about my suffering, it’s a little story of how I came to be with and document the De-Notified and Freed Criminal tribes of India. Two weeks ago I had not even heard of these tribes but since arriving in India and working with Ruchira Gupta and her NGO www.apneaap.org I’ve learnt quite a bit and you can certainly look it up online to learn more but the bottom line is during the British rule they labeled these tribes who were as they said “addicted to the systematic commission of non-bail able offenses” Once a tribe became “notified” as criminal, all its members were required to register with the local magistrate, failing which they would be charged with a crime under the Indian Penal Code. The Criminal Tribes Act of 1952 repealed the notification, i.e. ‘de-notified’ the tribal communities. This act, however, was replaced by a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, that asked police to investigate a suspect’s criminal tendencies and whether his occupation is “conducive to settled way of life.” The de-notified tribes were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959. So basically these tribes were essentially given a scarlet letter and even though the law was repealed when India got it’s independence the damage was done. Stigmatized and marginalized within a society that often falls back on a caste system these groups do not even qualify for the lowest caste. As such they are treated with very little respect and find themselves living on the fringes in abject poverty. Setting up little tent cities on side roads with limited opportunity for adequate income.
As a result of the limited financial income options they are often forced to turn their daughters and daughters-in-law to prostitution and their sons to pimping.
As a documentary photographer I have seen a lot of poverty in India, Bangladesh, Africa and Australia but what I witnessed within the community of these DNT’s was far beyond what I had seen in the past. With barefoot children and adults thin and frail in tattered clothes performing the most basic of services like blowing up balloons to sell on the street.
Since it was so hot out many people were just taking refuge in their makeshift tents and sleeping while others were on beds on the edge of the road. When I finally got out of the car I was greeted with warmth and kindness. Young kids practicing their English on me “ what is your name?” “my name is David, what is your name?” they would giggle and repeat my name, “hello Dabid, my name is….”
Huge smiles stretched across their faces as they asked to be photographed. Each child trying to one up another and taking the main focus of the composition. How could they be so happy I thought to myself, living like this? When their very lives seem so precarious not knowing where the next meal will come from never mind safety or education.
We set up to photograph some portraits of the kids and adults to try and create images that would help to quickly tell a story of what goes on for these individuals to whomever viewed them. Communication was tough but thanks to Jasneet from apneaap we were able to get some great images.
It’s never my goal or intention to show people in a bad light, I try to focus on the positive and the human spirit. My goal is to make a “human connection” with whomever I photograph and with these individuals in a very short time I believe a trust was forged.
After about an hour or so we said goodbye and started to head back to the office of apneaap and I was scrolling through some of the images of the day. I was struck by the portrait of one little girl. She is using a pump to fill up a balloon to later sell on the street. I found myself getting a bit emotional while looking at this image. She was so sweet-looking but even more than that she reminded me of my little cousin. How is it that one person can be so lucky to be born in to a family that is financially and emotionally stable with all the love and support around her, not wanting for anything while another little girl is born into what appears to be the complete opposite. One with every chance provided to her to succeed having essentially won the lottery on life and one not even having enough money to buy a ticket for that lottery #thebirthlottery.
So many of us are annoyed when a beggar comes up to us and asks for money or is trying to sell some knickknack. I know I was like this but after meeting these people I have a new understanding for these kids. Certainly it’s not their choice to be in this situation. There are many reasons they are there. The obvious of course to make some money but there is also organized crime that manages these people.
I think a society can be judged on how well it takes care of it’s people and unfortunately in the case of what is going on with these De-Notified tribes there is a great failure going on. Nobody should go without education or basic necessities. Growing up without them almost guarantees that the cycle will continue.
There is hope though! With organizations like what Ruchira Gupta at Apne Aap have created bringing attention to these people and their at risk children is imperative to helping to make a change. To force the government to recognize these people, help them to get their Indian identites so that they can qualify for social services. Make them aware of what is theirs to help create a sweeping change
IN OUR LIFETIME!!