By Aprameya Rao

Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior editor , The Indian Economist

Nowhere in the world will one find a 104 square kilometre ‘enclave’ of rich flora & fauna surrounded almost completely by an alpha world city. Indeed it is Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, more popularly known as Borivali National Park, which has the unique distinction of being the only national park situated within metropolitan limits. It is well connected by the Western Express Highway and the Mumbai Suburban Railway system.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park provides a perfect setting for those seeking a break from the monotony of urban life – some of the activities include, boating in the Tansa Lake, trekking through the jungles & spotting the usually elusive lions & tigers in a whirlwind safari. Sheltering more than 250 migratory & local birds, it also promises a field day to wildlife photographers & amateur bird watchers. History geeks, in particular, can have their date with history at the Kanheri Caves and marvel at the architectural genius of their ancestors.

These were the attractions that prompted a small group of final year economics students from a reputed South Mumbai College to make a weekend trip to the park this July. However, their trip was not just about Kanheri caves, safari and trekking. They were also required to carry out a minor survey to sensitize themselves to the socio-economic condition of the Warlis in the national park.

Warlis are an indigenous tribal community concentrated on the coast, as well as along Gujarat-Maharashtra border. They along with the Kolis and Agris were the original inhabitants of the area which we now know as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). While many living outside of Maharashtra identify the Warlis with their paintings, it is unknown to many that they are one of the few tribal communities in India who have preserved their culture and tradition despite all odds.

Originally forest-dwellers, the rapid growth of Mumbai in the early 70s & 80s forced many of them to reside on the fringes of the national park. Before the National park came into existence in 1974, many in the community practiced subsistence farming. However life has been a struggle since the day when they were forced to abandon their land to make way for the park.

The young students decided to carry out a survey of a few families living just 2 kilometres from the main entrance at Borivali. Armed with questions ranging from the monthly wages of earning members to the daily food habits of the family, the group started their journey to the adivasi pada, reaching the spot after a 20 minute walk.

The survey brought out some key facts about the socio-economic condition of the local Warli population, to a large extent validating previous reports which had exposed the widespread poverty in the community.

The work profile of the respondents was typical of a lower income group. All were either self-employed or unskilled wage earners. Every family had both spouses working. Self-employment particularly, was restricted to being a vegetable vendor. Many of the women who were surveyed were found to be working as domestic servants in the nearby residential areas of Borivali, while most men were found to be working on a contractual basis inside the park itself. Many adiviasis, whom the students spoke to, allege they were being employed on a contractual basis by the forest department only to deny them a permanent employment status. During the course of the interaction, they also asserted that the unholy nexus between forests officials, builders and influential politicians wanted to force them out of the park and encroach upon their lands.

On an average, the monthly income of every family varies between Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 9,000. However, when either of the spouse or both of them are employed on piece rate basis, the monthly income may vary to a large extent. The monthly household expenditure of each respondent is approximately Rs. 5000. Frankly, with the size of families varying between 2 to 5, each family having atleast 2 kids, a monthly income of Rs. 6000-9000 is definitely not enough to manage a whole family.

The food habits of the respondents too have been highly influenced by their income levels. Rising inflation and low income levels have forced most of the respondents to limit their non-vegetarian indulgence to a bare minimum. Mukesh, who works in the national park, revealed that non-vegetarian food is nowadays consumed only on special occasions. All families have a pink coloured ration card which entitles each family to get 5 kg of wheat, rice & 3 litres of kerosene. However, Sanjay, a father of three, claimed the entitlements that his family has been receiving is insufficient. While a rise in kerosene prices create a ‘political storm’ in the rest of the country, it seems to be a non-issue for the locals. The reason? The survey revealed that wood is still the preferred choice as a cooking fuel over kerosene, though the latter’s use is also gaining steam.

Lack of proper medical facilities inside the park has forced the locals to seek medical treatment outside the vicinity of the park. The nearest government hospital is atleast 6 kilometres away. The respondents however preferred private hospitals to government ones, for reasons that can be understood by every Indian. Unfortunately, the high medical costs put a heavy burden on their small pockets.

Educational attainment varies with respect to gender – as in the case in every other socio-economically backward community in India. While a woman respondent on an average did not study beyond 5th Standard, the male respondent on an average had studied upto 8th standard. However all respondents wished to see their children study well and break free from the life of constant struggle. However, lack of primary or secondary school within the national park is a major worry for the locals as their children have to move out of the park every day to attend the local school.

While the wildlife conservationists have made a beeline for the park, courtesy of the growing list of endangered species, not many have looked into the plight of these adivasis. The state machinery, controlled by parochial politicians, has largely ignored them, dismissing them as a negligible votebank. Hunger stalks many while the corrupt Public Distribution System looks the other way. They still live in ‘kaccha’ structures, which are filthy to say the least, still awaiting a ‘pukka’ structure as promised by successive governments. Sanitation facility is absent & so is electricity. Not a prayer but only a substantial contribution from the urban society –NGOs & private philanthropists minus the local authorities – can help resurrect the community. Or else the community will be history!

Aprameya is a final year student of KC College, Mumbai University, and is pursuing a degree in Economics. He has also completed an Advance Diploma in TV Journalism from KC College of Management Studies, Mumbai. He has previously interned with reputed media organisations like Press Trust of India & ZEE NEWS. A keen observer of Indian politics and international affairs, he aspires to be a political journalist. In his pastime he loves watching movies, especially Hollywood classics.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind