The diversity of India is well known, and it is also a fact that even today many of the indigenous tribes are pushed to the corners. They continue to fight for their rights, space and integration in the development process.

These tribes exist far away from urban India, and away from the glare of mass media. They are of interest mainly to academics and those who are sensitive to the issues concerning their rights. The number of people comprising such tribes is dismally low.

One such tribe is the Raji tribe that can be found living in the remote mountains of Uttarakhand along the Indo-Nepal border. Their number is put at 1075, comprising 249 households. They are spread in the five blocks of Dharchula, Kanalichhina and Didihat of Pithoragarh, Champawat and Khatima in Udham Singh Nagar.

The tribe members are surviving under several adverse conditions that have been brought out by a recent landmark study carried out by Association for Rural Planning and Action (ARPAN), a Pithoragarh based organisation. Access to basic amenities like health, education and transport remains a big challenge that is reflected in a high school dropout rate, poor housing, low economic status and poor access to the government schemes.

One can imagine their plight from the distances they have to cover to avail basic amenities that have been elaborated upon in the study. The most easily accessible public health centre (PHC) is in Kulekh village in Kanalichhina at 500 metres while the residents of Khirdwari village in Champawat have to travel 11 Km on foot and 38 Km by road to avail the facility.

Similarly, to reach an Aanganwadi Kendra, the minimum travel distance again is 500 metres in Kulekh while the residents of Kuta have to move on foot for 6 Km. While there is a primary school available in Madanpuri village of Didihat, the distance that has to be travelled by residents of Chifaltara in Dharchula is an arduous five kilometre journey on foot to reach a road head, and then travel another 45 kilometres. Chifaltara happens to have the lowest Raji population of 45 people across 16 households.

“The distance these people have to cover on foot is full of challenges that involve moving across forests, climbing steep heights and crossing water bodies. Our study is a complete household survey spanning more than 300 pages,” Renu Thakur who is a senior functionary and one of the founders of ARPAN said.

The community of Rajis is also known as Van Rajis and Van Raji. “They used to address themselves as Bhula. The rest of the names given to them are by others. They call their language Batkao that belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family,” Professor Kavita Rastogi explained. She is an expert in linguistics from University of Lucknow.

She has worked among the community for more than two decades. In one of her papers she explained that the 2011 census had put the population of Rajis at 732 spread across 12 hamlets.

Vinod Pande who is an former forester having a keen interest in various communities of Kumaon told this reporter, “The Rajis have been traditionally forest dwellers, shy in nature preferring to keep aloof and away from other communities.

“They were known as ‘invisible traders’ in the past, known for making wooden utensils ideal for making curd or churning butter in the high mountain regions. They would come and deposit the utensils in households in the middle of the night only to collect food grains or other things of utility in barter. The house owner would keep the things at the same spot for them to collect on the subsequent night. For them money exchange was not a priority in the past.”

According to the study, “The dropout rate from secondary school is around 75%. Only 90 % of Raji children can attain education up to primary level. The main reasons behind dropout are inaccessibility to the schools, their remoteness and sending children for high school education becomes expensive.”

Similarly health facilities remain a major concern on account of malnutrition, stomach infections and accidents resulting in fractures and major injuries.

It has been pointed out, “Reproductive health issues affect the overall health of women. Early child bearing, frequent pregnancies, lack of proper nutrition and care and drudgery are major causes of deteriorating health of women.

“Alcoholism in the community is increasing. For their health problems the Raji community mainly depends on quacks or untrained doctors in their neighbourhood.”

Pointing at the access to government schemes, the study says, “Only 70% of Raji people have Antyodaya cards, around 40% have job cards and 57% of the families have some or other benefit from the government like goat or cow shed, chicks or work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MNREGS). Around 5% of the villages are still not electrified.

“Around 45% of Raji people do not have appropriate documents like Aadhar cards, land records, birth and death certificates etc. due to which they are not able to access government schemes and programmes.”

While 40% of their houses are kutcha (huts), 30% come in the category of pucca (linter roofs and stone walls). The rest are semi pucca marked by tin, grass or polythene for rooftops along with stone or wooden walls.

The documents points out that the 30% houses sanctioned 10 to 12 years ago are now in poor condition with leaking roofs. It further says that almost half of the families from the community do not have access to toilets.

On the issue of the political scenario among the community, it has been underlined that seven people were elected in the Panchayat elections between 2014 and 2019. There has been one MLA from the community in Gagan Singh Rajbaar. “Their participation in Gram Sabha meetings and other socio-political platforms is considerably low,” the document stated.

Pande has interesting details to share on Rajbaar’s election. “The locals did not want any of the candidates from the well off Bhotia community to win the polls from the Didihat seat in 2002. The people felt that though comparatively well off and powerful, the Bhotias were still enjoying the fruits of political reservation as they fell in the category of Scheduled Tribes.

“Hence, a group of people zeroed in on Rajbaar who was among those educated in Rajis and persuaded him to contest. He got the mass support and romped home,” Pande disclosed.

It is pertinent to point out that Rajis have been placed in the category of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) since 1975. The study says that it is a ‘resource poor and asset less community’ with the main source of livelihood being agriculture labour, daily wage employment at construction sites along with collection of food and fodder from the forests. Most of their work is seasonal.

Their daily earnings are between Rs 250 to Rs 1000 and almost all families have very small land holdings of about 0.05 acre that provides them with subsistence crops for two to four months.

“Climate variations, un-irrigated land and destruction of crops by wild animals are the main reasons affecting their agriculture. Their purchasing capacity is very poor; hence they rely on the market only for sugar, tea, cooking oil, salt and medical care,” it says.

The document says that their land holdings range from 0.05 acres to .75 acres and only 20% possess a land deed. “Under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, until now, only 83 families have received land deeds (only in five villages of Pithoragarh district); they are yet to receive their land titles. Community forest claim status is nil. The forest land where deeds have been passed is not being transferred to revenue land,” the study claims.

It has recommended that special and additional efforts for the Raji community are needed from the authorities at block, district and state levels given their PVTG status. There is a need for policies to strengthen social infrastructure and security to improve the condition of PVTGs.

It has been further stated that Raji villages be provided irrigation and soil testing facilities while considering value addition in agricultural production for skill enhancement. Rural employment schemes need to be linked with existing skills and special needs of Raji villages.

The study calls for special provisions for their health care and health insurance. It has been underlined that the education of Raji children needs special attention and the block resource centre should monitor their progress.

There is a call for proper implementation of ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.’ It has also been sought that the government departments and agencies should collaborate to prioritise the issues of the Raji community.

In her paper ‘The Covid Pandemic: Response of the Raji Revitalization Programmes’ published in IARS International Research Journal, Professor Rastogi has stated, “ During fieldwork, I noticed that they still prefer to sit in the dark, invisible corners of the dhabas and shops of nearby markets.

“Due to previous experiences, they have become suspicious of outsiders and do not easily trust others and as a result data collection has been a herculean task.”

She added, “Previously langur and porcupine hunting were their favourite occupation. Apart from this, they used to make wooden pots and vessels. But in the post-independence era, they were compelled to lead a settled life. As a result, to earn their bread and butter they shifted to agriculture, fish rearing, beekeeping, and often work as daily wage labourers.”

On the situation of their language she pointed out, “It is facing the problems that any endangered language faces: a very low socio-economic status, minuscule number of speakers, code-reduction, diminishing language attitude, etc. But as usual, the causal factors of language endangerment are mostly non-linguistic, and largely, socio- politico-economic.”

She said that after developing orthography with the participation of the community, in 2009 the first written record of this endangered language in the form of a primer was published.

“In 2017 we conducted a field trip to assess the results of the revitalization programs. The situation was quite disappointing, but we did observe certain good signs. We noticed that things have changed.

“The Rajis are regularly visiting markets and freely interacting with outsiders. In earlier times Raji was spoken exclusively in the private and intra-community domain; now adults are freely using it in front of Kumauni people (public domain). They do not feel shy or feel any kind of embarrassment about using their language. In fact, some local shopkeepers have learned their language,” her paper stated.

Renu Thakur disclosed, “The Pithoragarh District Legal Services Authority has taken cognisance of the study brought out by ARPAN.”

Meanwhile, there is a growing concern over the miniscule numbers among the community. It is felt that the scenario can improve with an improvement in the conditions of the community.