Mahila Bai Pardhi, the first woman from her community to give up the traditional occupation of hunting, is encouraging Pardhi children to do the same. The community was classified as hereditary criminals by the now-repealed Criminal Tribes Act, of 1871. Today, the Pardhis still contend with stigma. A harsh sun beats down on a dusty road—desolate even around 10 am, except for groups of cows snoozing in the middle—in Kunjvan, Panna district, Madha Pradesh. They are as yet undisturbed by honking motorbikes and auto rickshaws, which will soon start speeding through.
The silence is broken, however, by the squeals of children in Bahelia Chhatraavaas Bhavan, who are getting ready to go to school. Just a few meters from the wrought-iron gate of this chhatraavaas, or girls’ hostel, Mahila Bai Pardhi, 36, sits matronly and sanguine, in a bright purple sari on a cot outside her one-room quarter, where she lives with her husband Bottle Pardhi, 40, and four children. She has gone through the morning’s routine—having woken up at 3.30 am—of readying the 65 young schoolgirls from the Pardhi community. She helps them bathe and dress, oils and combs their hair, ensures they are fed and encourages them to revise their lessons before classes begin. And now she is taking a breather in the shade. This may seem like mundane rigmarole, but what Mahila Bai has achieved is no ordinary feat. The girls she has just sent to school are the first generation of Pardhis in Panna to receive an education.“Jungle-jungle Bhoomi aur bachchon ko le kar aayi (I roamed the forests to bring them here),” says Mahila Bai. “Some children’s fathers were in jail, some parents were very hesitant, but I explained to them that our future lies in their hands.”
It is owing to her efforts over the last 10 years that the community, branded criminal by a colonial-era law, has begun shifting from the traditional occupation of hunting and may be able to look forward to a future free of discrimination, routine harassment and ostracization.
This initiative, however, was born out of an entirely different concern. Between 2004-08, it was discovered that tigers had become locally extinct in Rajasthan’s Sariska and Madhya Pradesh’s Panna national parks, primarily due to poaching. The Pardhi community came under scrutiny, and in 2007, many of its members were caught in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat for tiger and lion hunting. “When I came into service, the Pardhis were being caught, beaten and sent to jail and kept there for two-three years,” says Gola Krishnamoorthy, who was field director of the Panna Tiger Reserve from 2007-09. “A special investigation team would come from Gujarat as well and the forest department here would round up the Pardhis and hand them over to the team.”
This is what eventually prompted Krishnamoorthy, in association with the government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) programme, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Last Wilderness Foundation (LWF), to initiate the process of rehabilitating and educating children from the tribe. But it would have been impossible without the support of the community, particularly Mahila Bai.
Shared By: Mandira Mitra,
Senior Consultant -PR & Marketing
Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board