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“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity” – Nelson Mandela

Very little is known about urban tribals. They seem to be the invisible population that inhabit the city without an identity of their own, even though they should be afforded the position of primary natives. In Mumbai, the financial capital of the country, this concrete jungle, where life never comes to stop, it is remarkable for me to imagine the lives of these 5000 families. Primary natives of this land, they continue to live without access to basic amenities, are not afforded the right to vote and are denied some of their most basic constitutional rights.

The Warli tribe, commonly known as adivasis, has been living in and around Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai for centuries now. Living in the heart of the city, basic facilities like electricity, water, sanitation, health care and education still seem like a distant dream. As most of their homes are on the steep hills within the park, children walk for miles to access primary education. They depend on the meagre forest produce for their survival and grow vegetables for their own consumption. Through our conversation with the programme staff, we got to know that animal attacks, harassment from the authorities and the threat of being displaced from their land are just some of the problems they battle with everyday.

When they sleep here, they see the skyscrapers and a million lights shining in the distance, while all they have is darkness to settle for. These forests are their homes; these forests were uprooted to make this city. So while others live in luxury, the very people who gave up their homes for development are the ones who remain wanting” says Vitthal Lad. Vitthal Lad, a social worker, stumbled across the milk colony located in Aarey colony in Goregaon in the early 1980s and was outraged at the living conditions of the villagers. Cows were offered clean water, nutritious food and clean shelters. Meanwhile, the villagers continued to live at the margin, with no sustainable means of support.

He decided to demand for them what was rightfully theirs – ownership of their lands, schools for their children, healthcare facilities nearby, basic amenities and skill development opportunities. Jaag was formed in 1992 under the leadership of Vitthal who endeavours to work for these communities, ensuring that they are able to live a life of dignity.

After scaling a small hillock, we reached a hamlet known as Patacha Paani, one of the 56 that are inhabited by this community. Zindabad was a ubiquitous slogan. It was a way of greeting that unified them. We could hear children reciting poems inside a thatched hut, lilting voices singing in Marathi. These were the voices of the tribal children who attended non-formal education classes run by Jaag in the village. These classes fill in as a remedial school for those children who go to school but still needed help.

Concern India Foundation has been supporting 3 such village schools in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park since 1995. Over the years, students of these centres have gone on to get jobs as teachers, drivers, municipal workers, and more. They are now able to successfully support their families, bringing them stability and a steady income; while remaining connected to their roots.

Machindra Waizal, a 24-year-old youth leader helps his sister teach the children. Machindra went to a Jaag school himself and decided to work for his community to ensure that no other child has to suffer the hardships that he had to endure. “Now all the children are enrolled in education programmes and every child is immunized across 3 villages, thanks to the health camps. These are some significant changes against all the odds” he explained, beaming with joy.

Each of the 56 villages has a youth leader and several community workers who come from the community itself. They are educating the future generations of leaders and thinkers, creating awareness among the parents to bridge the gaps between the present and future. Vithal today is confident that Jaag can continue its work without him. “There is no need for me to be physically present anymore. I know I will be succeeded by these young people, who have the attitude and passion to take this forward even. They are motivated to secure the future of generations to come” he says, with pride.

Aahana Dhar, Communication Team, Concern India Foundation (Delhi)

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