The Scene : Field full of sugar cane swaying in the breeze. You see a farmer cutting and throwing the cane back and moving forward, three four kids swiftly remove the blades of leaves and a silent working wife collecting all the sugar cane sticks and bundling them and loading them on a trailor. Doesnt these scene seem so nice, a hardworking family of farmers at harvest time. But there is a sad story behind this beautiful scene.
This family of three four chidlren, the man and his wife have left behind their village and their home and for six months are working as sugar cane harvesting labourers. In return for the labour the labour contractors give them a pittance of salary. Rs.25000 for six months.. for leaving behind their houses, villages the old and the elderly behind, schools of the children to work as a team of six people for six months for 10 hours a day. Just to keep the body and soul together, thousands of families in rural Maharashtra desert their villages and people for six months. Half of their lives and totally the future is in the hands of the contractors. They move when and where the contractor orders them to move, and continue for the sake of daily bread. We are on the doorstep of new millinieum and do such thing really occur in India, who could be these people ? these are the questions that come to our mind.
Yes, most of these people belong to the community called as Vanjari. Vanjaris are mostly found in rural Maharashtra, though some more fortunate members are found in the cities and towns.
Background : In modern times the Vanjari is like a unwanted step child. The Vanjaris and the banjaras in olden times were one and the same. Basically they were grain carriers and traders of commodities including quality cattle which they used to breed. The community was honest but was absolutaly frank in conversation. If they supported some thing, it was wholeheartedly. But this all changed with the advent of the British. The british change the landscape with opening of the frontiers with railways and posts and other means of communication, education etc. This meant doom to the traditional means of livelihood for the Vanjaris.
They could now get education, but who will get educated when the question of survival arises. The Vanjaris buy nature and type of occupations were nomads, on the fringe of the society and hence not having firm relation with others. After the loss of livelihood, having no education which would help them earn a decent living and with mechanisation of industries the value of hand crafted items declined. So per force, some of them had to steal just to keep their families alive. The British, in their typical fashion, branded the whole community as "Criminal tribes" and hence were always at the receiving end of the law. Even after independence the classification continued for sometime.
After loss of traditional occupations, many Vanjaris settled down as marginal farmers near mountains and hilly regions. Since they got the worst ariable lands, they stayed poor and could not rise above the crowd. Even today in Maharashtra wherever their are mountain you are bound to find the Vanjari community. The estimated population of Vanjaris is about 6-7 million, predominantly found in the districts of Ahmednagar, Beed, Parbhani and Osmanabad.
Since in most places they are able to get only one crop a year, the Vanjaris accepted the demanding job as a cane harvestor for the sake of feeding his family. He till his fields and harvests his crop in Kharip season and then when the sugarcane factories start in rabi season for six months works as a labourer. Today atleast 70 % ofthe harvestors are of Vanjari community. Also the porters working from Mumbai to Manmad on the rail route atleast 80% of them belong to Vanjari community.
The times are such, that the Vanjari on the eve of the 21st century is still trying to find a meaning to his existence. The community faces the uphill task of coming out of the vicious circle of poverty, baring few well to do and educated members of the community most of them are very poor. Most of them are rural, uneducated and labourers working thier lives in darkness. The need is for the new generation to get educated, so that they can break free from the vicious circle of poverty due to lack of education which is due to poverty.
The Government of Maharashtra has started some novel schemes for educating the children of these wandering labourers so that atleast the new generation does not have to face the hard life which their fathers did. The government is planning residential schools for these children so that they can study and get educated. Let us hope that the next century shall bring education and prosperity to all the vanjari's.