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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 110 (Suppl.), August 2009



Dr. Jaya Peter, SDB

National Director




In India to be a Gypsy in itself is a challenge! A Challenge, because the realization of the fullness as a human being throws a lot of unsolved issues, that are alien to a European cultural background. To understand the life realities of a young Gypsy we have to analyze and study the cultural, religious and ethical background of the land. In the given scenario, it is a challenge for us to get into the intricacies of this vast subject. We try to see the issue as an iceberg, where we are confronted with a minimal exposure to all the different aspects of this vast and never exhausting theme.

India with an incredible vast number of Gypsies, spread about in more than 3 million sq kms, it is beyond our imagination to categorize them and bring them under a theme to study and evaluate their life situations and their problems. What we are trying to do is to understand them as human beings, where their human dignity is    recognized and their human values respected. Here we are invited to think together and to find out solutions for their issues, where we are ready to accept them as our own. In the present scenario in India, it is a distant dream to bring them to the main stream, where the Gypsies  are given the human dignity, where they can go after the job, they wish and  lead a normal human life, with all the necessities of life, forget about the comforts and luxuries.  First of all let us come to the human side of the whole issue. Then we proceed with the evangelization and the issues pertaining to.

We all are called to be missionaries! It is our prime duty to live the faith in the Father, in communion with the Holy Spirit through Jesus in the Church, he founded. In a multi--cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethical background, it remains a big challenge for us to impart our young gypsies the feeling of just a human being. 

Government Initiatives

A government Panel says that there should be a separate ten percent quota for 578 nomadic and semi nomadic communities identified till now. Of these communities – clubbed together under the rubric of de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes- 474 are placed in the SC, ST or OBC categories, but 104 have no benefits at all. The panel has also called for a separate drive to provide voter ID cards, ration cards, below Poverty Line cards and houses for these wandering groups.

De-notified tribes are those communities that were notified by the British as criminal tribes under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. This was repealed in 1952 and these communities were thus “de-notified”. The nomadic communities include pastoral, nomadic communities, entertainers (acrobats, dancers, snake charmers, madaris), wild life related groups, artisan groups like the Gadia Lohars, and the banjaras.

Sources in the National Commission for De-notified Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes said:” Our extrapolations on the 1931 census put the population of these communities at 10.75 crore. We have thus demanded 10 percent quota for them. We have also asked the government to take those among them already in the SC, ST and OBC categories out of these quotas and place them in the separate 10 percent quota so that they are not swamped out by the better-off groups there.”

The Commission’s report - submitted to Social Justice and Empowerment Minister of India Mr Meira Kumar – has also demanded a special drive to provide voter ID cards and ration cards to people of these groups. “About 98 per cent of these people are landless and homeless. Many have no proof of Indian citizenship and no permanent address,” said a source. The report has also demanded a separate census of these communities, a separate Indira Awas Yojana to build homes for them and the extension of the SC and ST Atrocities Act to provide them security against victimization (1). 

Indian Cultural and Religious Backgraound

India is home to a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial society, where one experiences more diversity than any unity and uniformity. Hardly could we speak about an Indian culture, rather a mixture of about 5000 different cultural, social, religious and racial groups, where one can experience these cultural and religious activities binding them together in a remarkably well knit social and religious life. The proverbial harmony and tolerance among the diverse religious groups is a past history. The politically motivated and scrupulously working religious fanatics exploit the situation and instigate the common man against each other in the name of religion and God. Under this challenging and very difficult situation the Church has to evangelize and do justice to her call to be the “leaven in the world”. The Indian Church counts 25 Million Catholics but it is only an unimaginable 2.3% of the total population.

India attracted a special attention of many of the nations in the recent years mainly due to the economic growth. But at the same time it had to face the challenges of a social and multicultural transformation. The globalization could never overcome the social and economic inequality and the utter poverty in the land. The unemployment and the migration increase and the social and economic problems as such. The Gypsies as most of them are from the unorganized sector of the society suffer the most. The daily workers, the seasonal labourers and the migrants are the most affected ones. The duty of the Church is therefore to express the solidarity with these marginalized and the oppressed of the society. The Gypsies belong to this category where they are to fight for their existence and human dignity. In their struggle we have to accept them as human beings. I wish to quote what Bertrand Russel and Albert Einstein said in a manifesto issued on 5th April 1955: “We appeal as human beings, to human beings. Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise. If you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death (2).” 

Human Promotion of Young Gypsies in front of Challenges

Since last 10 years we are trying to bring our young Gypsies into the main stream of life. In this regard we could proudly say that Fr Renato Rosso is the Torch bearer, the moving force and the motivating factor in promoting the issues concerning the young Gypsies all over India.  We could present here many of our interventions and success stories. 

Rajasthan, in the North West part of India, is the region where most of the pastoral tribes are settled. Education of the nomadic children is given greatest priority by all the individual organizations of the area. Their cultural and religious values are given importance and their customs are respected and revered. All the groups have worked on facilitating the process of land allotment for many of the families through different welfare schemes of the Government. As they are always on the move, most of the families are not counted in the census and are unable to avail the benefits of many a scheme. Serious efforts are being made to include them in the census and certain nomads under ST category and some in SC category are in progress. Discriminatory cases and extreme human rights violations have been highlighted in the media and joint efforts along with other networks have been initiated. Advocacy on different issues like Exorbitant Grazing rates (the tax that was imposed on their cattle, when they are taken out into another region) and Wool Policy is continuously being pursued and the Rabari Association has taken up this issue with the Government.  There are many schemes executed to provide them a just livelihood. Gaduliya lohars, Rabaris, Bhawaras, Gujjars, Kanjars and Banjaras are the main tribes among whom we are actively involved.

Tamilnadu in the South East region concentrated on providing basic amenities to the Nomadic people like access to safe drinking water and primary health care in every settlement.  Advocacy and lobbying continues to pressurize the government for their rights especially to include them in the Census and provide them with identity and ration cards. Special efforts are made to enrol all children and retain them in school. Skill development and vocational training are imparted to the young Gypsies. The eco-friendly designer jewellery using wooden, ceramic and mud beads are in great demand. Access to government jobs and schemes is made available through various awareness programmes on community mobilization. There are hostels exclusively run for the education of these children, so that they can easily be streamlined into the main stream. Legal cells are constituted to protect them from the corruption and bureaucratic hurdles. Narikuruvas, Raapadis and Koravas are the main Gypsy groups.

Karnatka region is very active in educating the children especially the girls, and thus there is an enormous transformation in the life and activities of these young Gypsies. Through the hostels run exclusively for Gypsies, the education has picked up tremendously and most of them are being slowly educated. As the Lambanis are open to the modern way of life and activities, many young Gypsies have integrated into the main stream of life. The elderly are still proud of their culture, language and customs. The main groups are Lambanis and Hakkipikkis.

Madhya Pradesh, the Central Region, is a pioneer in the education programmes taking into consideration the ever roaming nomadic body as well the nomadic soul. The shepherd school with more than 85 groups comprising of 2225 children is a real innovative programme for the Bhil Community. The teachers go behind the children, as they go for grazing the cattle. Once they reach the destination, the children assemble in the field and are imparted education. Thus there is mobility as well as concentration. This school system has helped the children learn and do their work as well. Many children have passed the primary school and joined the middle schools. This programme has made a great impact on the government machinery. One of the most important achievements in the ministry is the evangelization of these young Gypsies by visiting them where they stay and work and bring them to the local church and enable them practice their faith and participate in the church activities. Together they celebrate the Sunday Liturgy. Thus these people come in contact with the local church and are introduced into the parish. Bhils, Bhilalas, Pardis, Kanjars and Banjaras are the main groups.

Orissa – the East Central region – concentrates on the work among the Fisherfolk. We are involved in the educational and social issues of these people, who are socially and economically backward. The young Gypsies are helped through the literacy programme. The social awareness programmes help them become conscious of their rights. Livelihood programmes and small saving schemes free themselves from the money lenders, who exploit them with high interest. The main groups are fishermen and Saperas.   

Maharashtra – the Western Region is the home of different groups of nomadic tribes especially the Banjaras and Bediyas. A lot of activities are undertaken especially income generating programmes, vocational training, self help groups and livelihood programmes to provide them a human and moral value system, where they are politically and socially suppressed.  


We need a human approach in working with and for our young Gypsies. As long as these our brothers are homeless and without an address, our work will continue, as our cause exists. We learn a lot of things from our young Gypsies. They travel through the nations, where it is taught that the mother and the motherland are valuable than the heaven. Everywhere is a home, where they sleep. “The whole world is a home”, as Vallathol, an Indian Poet sang, they practice it. Moving from one place to the other is life. They are like the birds of immigration. They know no boundaries. For them the Gospel is valid for ever. “Look at the birds of the air…your heavenly Father feeds them!” (Mt. 5:26). As they move, their mind too moves without being attached to any of the comforts or luxuries, that we deem sacred. The Church too is to look out for new means and methods to integrate these youngsters into the main stream of faith and action. Our approach and enthusiasm should bear fruit. To conclude my talk I would quote one of our staunch human right activists, in India, Mrs. Medha Patkar: “The Spirit of India can be kept alive giving a little of ourselves to make a lot of someone else’s life.”(3)  


1. Hindustan Times, p. 4, col.8, July 8, 2008, Bhopal, India.

2. The Hindu, p. 10, M. S. Swaminathan, Global Food crisis and Indian Response, June 2, 2008, Kochi, India.

3. Medha Patkar, A can-do Manifesto, India Today, p. 128 Vol. xxxiii, No. 27, July 1-7, 2008, Delhi, India