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Banchhada Community (DNT)– A Constant Struggle for Dignity and Existence

Historically recognized as having migrated from Rajasthan and being a nomadic community residing in Madhya Pradesh, the Bancchada community is presently a de-notified tribe (DNT). Notified as a criminal tribe in the regions of Indore, Dhar, Dewas sometime after 1871, their nomadic lifestyle made things difficult as they were being constantly hounded by the police. Resorting to begging and dancing to earn a livelihood with India gaining independence in 1947, they desired a piece of land to settle down on. Originally skilled in folk arts of dance and music, rural acrobatics and black magic, the Bancchadas adopted a peculiar practice of introducing their eldest daughters into the world’s oldest profession. How this practice came in vogue maybe obscure but parents induct their daughters Khilawdis (one who plays), into prostitution. Handed down to generations the evolution of this custom that has had severe repercussions on the stability and sustainable living of the community. The custom which evolved, probably as a defense mechanism, against colonial administration has become the cause of present misery for the women population with prostitution being given a societal approval. Women and girls engage in flesh trade to support their families becoming the bread winners for their families lending themselves to systemic exploitation. Men are lazy, doing little or no work and mostly act as pimps encouraging prostitution although it is illegal in the eyes of law.

Unlike most societies where the birth of a girl is seen as a liability on the family, the Bancchadas celebrate the birth of a girl child with pomp. The eldest daughter of the family is brought up with the knowledge that she will grow up into a life of body exploitation. As the elder sibling ages, the younger daughter sibling takes over, perpetuating the custom. The family residence has a dedicated room, exclusively for undertaking flesh trade. Historically the tradition may also be traced to the times when the women from the tribe would grow up to become respected courtesans – respect that is no more given to women indulging in sex trade. The only way out of this predefined life for the women is to find a suitor who agrees to pay her parents, the expensive dowry they demand for her and take her away as his wife!

In the Sixties, the tribe acquired 35-40 bighas of fertile government land at Laal-Magra, a few kilometres away from the village. The landed gentry did not take to this kindly. They were happy till the Bancchadas were at their mercy, working on their farms for little or no wages. The moment the Bancchadas got possession of land, the landlords became angry creating a class conflict. The Bancchadas settled down at Kund-ka-Magra without any patta building residential structures and excess land was sown with groundnut, gram and maize during the monsoon to yield more for the granary. However, agriculture activities were often disrupted using violent means by the influential landlord and they had to cease farm activities a decade ago. Eventually the village panchayat was successful in acquiring 30 bighas for distribution of houses under the government’s “Indira Awas Yojna” to those oppressed.

In a country obsessed with male child, the birth of a girl child is believed fortunate here and is celebrated. The bride price, merely Rs. 900-1000, 20 years ago, is now Rs. 70,000 due the economics of prostitution. This forces 50 percent of the population to remain unmarried. Girls are turned into prostitutes by their parents when they are between 12 and 14 years old. Almost all of them, staying in the same village, have children, born out of wedlock.

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The prevalent custom in the Bancchada community of eldest girl born to a family becoming a prostitute in order to support the rest has inherently been a survival strategy to have some form of economic stability. Today every fifth woman in the community is a Khilawadi. When the matter came to public attention a few years ago, there was concern from civil society if such practices should persist in a progressive society. In February 1983, the state Assembly had unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Government to make special efforts to eradicate this social evil. Though the girls, usually the eldest in their families, known as “Khilawadis”, practice flesh trade, they do not live in brothels and consider themselves superior to their counterparts in the red districts. In fact, they share the same roof with the family’s married women but are usually given a separate room, or even an outhouse, to entertain their customers. The Bancchada prostitutes suffer no social stigma. In some families, their position is stronger than that of men. Several rules and restrictions within the community further strengthen these practices indirectly including the imposed thoughts of family responsibilities in a girl’s mind.

  1. No Bancchada youth can sleep with a Khilawadi and a breach can lead to severe punishment – including social ex-communication by the Gram Panchayat.
  2. Similarly, a Khilawadi forfeits forever the right to marry a youth of her community, though she can marry one from outside with the permission of the Gram Panchayat.
  3. Married women cannot indulge in prostitution under any circumstances, and must always remain faithful to their husbands and where the men do not usually take on the role of the breadwinner, this clause discourages women from dreaming of an independent family life without having to resort to flesh trade which provides them with financial security.
  4.  “A woman accused of adultery is asked to put her hand in boiling oil to prove her chastity”. Such draconian rules also discourage women from leaving the trade as it is easy for them to get vilified by false accusations in a male-dominated society.
  5. The practice of prostitution has also adversely affected the status of women in the community, as is evident from the high rates of bride price. A Bancchada youth has to pay up to Rs 25,000 to his prospective in-laws. In fact, the khilawadis abhor the idea of remaining childless. Most of the children who are born out of wedlock are known by their mothers’ names. In keeping with the Khilawadi custom of making a livelihood, girls are often preferred to boys. Many pregnant Bancchada women pray that they be blessed with a beautiful daughter whom they can then send into prostitution.
  6. It is evident that poverty is the primary reason that forces the Bancchada women to turn into prostitutes. Others enter the profession out of an ingrained sense of duty towards their parents. But again there are also the comparatively better-off families which have not discontinued the practice even though they could afford to do so. “We are not prostitutes. We don’t solicit customers.” were the words of a Khilawadi, defending her role in the family as an important contributor. However these notions of being different and superior, passively induce the girls to accept a less holy practice as legal and worthwhile, creating a big hindrance in initiating societal changes.

The total population of Banchhada community, which is spread over 75 villages in the three districts, is about 23,000, of which at least 65 per cent are women. In 2015, the Madhya Pradesh Women Empowerment Department conducted a survey in 38 villages in Mandsaur. The data revealed that their population in the district was 3,435, with 2,243 women and 1,192 men. Meaning, two women for every man.A similar exercise conducted in 2012 in Neemuch in 24 Banchhada-dominated villages also showed that the number of women is greater than the men- 3,595 women and 2,770 men. The families are certainly giving preference to girl child, but for wrong reasons. Evidently, in areas and cultures like this, STDs and AIDS thrive. Blood samples taken from the population of 5,500 in two districts, has found 15-16 percent of them to be HIV positive, directly implicating the health liabilities of the population due to the profession.

The Khilawadis usually depend on stray customers to make a living. And to ensure a regular clientele, the community lives either in hamlets near larger villages, or by the side of highways, where truck drivers halt. On the Neemuch-Ratlam highway, trucks can be seen parked in front of their houses any hour of the day. Some of the better-looking women have rich patrons who provide them monthly allowances. Their income range is wide, varying from Rs 5 to Rs 75 per day. An official survey put their average income at Rs 200 per month. Despite the fact that the khilawadis are protected by a familial environment, their trade continues to be associated with its attendant social evils. Both men and women of the community are known to be fond of liquor. Many of the youth are notorious criminals, indulging in theft of standing crops or acting as conduits for other underworld criminals.

Human trafficking

Prostitution has led to the menace of human trafficking in the community. In order to improve the financial condition of the family, Banchhada members resort to buying girls from different parts of the State or country leading to illegal trafficking. They indulge in purchasing new-born girls from different areas. Once they come of age, they are thrown into prostitution. The rise in the number of women in the community is not only because of their birth but also because of rampant purchase of illegally trafficked infant or toddler girl child. Women born into a Bancchada family remain unmarried. They engage in prostitution in order to provide for the economic needs of their natal family. The Bancchada men have developed a strong resistance to any change in their mode of living. Moreover, the men of this community are treated just as small children and are made to feel important about little things they do. For many of the married men with grown-up children, “shopping in the city” is the foremost among the activities they do. Similarly, irrigating the fields occasionally or getting fuel wood from the forest are all bestowed with a disproportionate importance. Thus, even though most Bancchada men do not contribute much to their family income, they are not allowed to confront this fact on a day-to-day basis. Actually, this is not a profession but a multi-faceted problem. First, a large women trafficking network is active in the districts of Shajapur, Rajgarh, Guna, Sagar, Sheopur, Morena, Shivpuri, Sagar and Vidisha. The girls are sold to brothels in the State, the neighboring State of Uttar Pradesh (especially in Meerut and Agra), Rajasthan, and the rest of the country.

In order to prevent flesh trade, the court asked the government to act on two fronts: First, clamping down the trafficking network by enforcing Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act (SITA) at all vulnerable zones and appointing special police officers to implement the same. The latter were to be monitored by a machinery at the “top-level”. But merely two such arrests were made till late 1998! That too during the reign of a particular district collector who took interest in a number of social issues. Even a Gwalior High Court Bench (1990) directed the Madhya Pradesh Government to take specific steps to eliminate traditional prostitution. Unfortunately, many who do not opt to be part of this culture find themselves entangled into the grimy profession. The complete process of purchasing and selling a girl in Banchhada community is done in a very organized manner. Middlemen have an imperative role to play. Unfortunately, for the male members and a few female members of the community this is just an investment. A girl can be bought for a nominal sum ranging between Rs 2000 to Rs 10,000.

Government response

The Government formulated the six-phase Jubali Yojana but even the first phase of the scheme has not been implemented. The government campaign Nirmal Abhiyan was carried out on a large scale in Mandsaur. Many young girls were forcibly married off on the premise that marriage was the only way to end prostitution. The results were disastrous. Many of the “husbands” were traffickers who sold the women and absconded with the money. One of the very interesting tale that is told is about a rich king who abducted a Kanjar girl. The girl, it is said, extracted her revenge by putting the king’s daughter into prostitution.

While government has taken measures to curb prostitution and human trafficking in the community, social awareness is still not able to set roots. The State Government’s attempts to uplift the community have been half-hearted, the response too has been lukewarm.The state Government, on its part, has done precious little for the upliftment of the community despite an assembly resolution made five years ago to eradicate the demeaning practice. To date, it has opened two residential schools and a couple of sewing centres in an attempt to rehabilitate the women. Besides, anyone who marries a Bancchada girl is also given a cash award by the Government.

The official attempts, however, have turned out to be half-hearted and the response is lukewarm. The two sewing centres at Paheda and Bararia villages have only 30 trainees on their roles, and each of the women is given a stipend of Rs 115 per month. Despite the fact that boarding and lodging is free, few Banccharas have allowed their girls to attend the school. Similarly, the sewing centre has only managed to train 12 women as tailors. Even worse, there are reports that the hostel inmates of the sewing centres still indulge in prostitution. In Bararia village, for instance, half of the one dozen girls residing in the boarding house sneak out at night.

In the face of indifferent attempts to rehabilitate them, the “fallen” Bancchada women remain trapped in their present circumstances. The enduring reality is that the Government and their own community seem determined to leave them to their tragic fate. While female foeticide due to preference for boys is an issue that is plaguing India, there is a community in Madhya Pradesh that actually celebrates the birth of a girl child, albeit for not-so-positive reason. Members of Bancchada community, who operate family-based prostitution for livelihood, consider the birth of a girl auspicious as it means another breadwinner for the family. For the community, which is mainly settled in Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch districts of Madhya Pradesh, prostitution is a way of life, passed down generations and young girls are groomed to become prostitutes as male members mostly live off their earnings. Prostitution has led to the menace of human trafficking in the community. Police say that although measures were being taken by them to curb prostitution and human trafficking in the community, social awareness was required to eliminate these malpractices. 

There are other factors – local partnerships need to be developed to address the opium and alcohol addictions with the men of the communities, the other needs like school education and reproductive health needs of the community need to be addressed as well. Also there is a need to explore the interventions with the clients of the sex workers- truckers and migrants on the route through various partnerships. Thus a holistic approach would be needed to sustain these interventions.

The way forward

Caught in a society that sanctions their sexual exploitation, at least some of the Khilawadis are disgusted with their way of life. “I’ve to sleep with strange people.” Even the choice to marry outside her community remains a distant dream. Some of the Khilawadis have, in fact, tried to break away from the profession, often with disastrous consequences. There is stiff opposition to their attempts to change their way of life, most often by the community elders. Two nurses in Mandsaur district, who had been declared as khilawadis, had refused to sell their bodies. But with the spread of education, about 9 percent of the Banchcharas are now literate. There has been some awakening among the youth to change the lot of the khilawadis. Developmental actors – Government, Non-Government, civil society actors, media, private sector, law enforcing agencies, and judiciary, all have a role for addressing the immediate issues of the community and contributing towards a long-term amelioration of the social problem.

A few pointers to engage with the community

  • Local NGOs who have been working with the Banchhada communities can raise awareness on the social problems within and outside the communities with key stakeholders and developmental actors.
  • Work with school dropouts and children from the community will be an important area of work for all developmental actors to ensure the Right to Education and other child rights. Identifying talent both among male and female children and sending them to distant schools where they can get specialized education as per their choice and capability would help them look at life from a new perspective.
  • Victims of the sex trade need to be identified by local NGOs, rescued and rehabilitated in a dignified manner in close collaboration with the district administration.
  • Sustained capacity building of all key stakeholders including the reference communities – both women and men, girls and boys will be necessary especially for dissemination of information on their rights and entitlements from the Government and other duty bearers.
  • Orientation of the Truck drivers on the social issue and dangers associated with it especially the chances of contracting STDs & AIDS will be needed on a sustained basis. The engagements should be non-threatening and in a friendly environment.
  • Engagement with the Police though would be essential in critical cases, should be the last option after exhausting local level solutions with duty bearers such as PRI members, village elders etc. Enforcement of the relevant laws like the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act etc., though would be essential to ward off persistent offenders, should be exercised with utmost sensitivity.
  • Monitoring of families and regular and frequent census would be needed to establish a fear factor to prevent child trafficking especially those of the female children. Community-level monitoring of cases of trafficking will be crucial by the local communities/groups.
  • The Government and other developmental actors should ensure that the communities are able to better access the Government health infrastructure and services, especially Maternal and Child health, immunization schemes and programmes etc.
  • Provisioning of seed money to support these small businesses would be crucial for initial handholding and sustaining the business through linking up with nationalized banks.
  • Working with the youth both girls and boys will be important to collectivize them and support them with vocational trainings/ livelihoods trainings/micro-finance trainings and taking up small businesses and entrepreneurial activities through convergence with the Government schemes and programmes.
  • The State Government should design and implement a livelihood support programme for the youth of the Bancchada community.
  • Development of post-harvest systems, processing and storage of commodities to help the agri entrepreneurs to get a better market value for their efforts would encourage more men to abandon their role in the entire operation.
  • For those people who are already inducted into the trade and have no interest to take up alternate means of livelihood, regular health check ups would have to be mandatory and such certification could help in reducing the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) within the community as well as to the outside world.
  • To enforce strict action against any infant/girl child/adolescent girl/women trafficking, the DNA analysis of all children especially girls should be undertaken to establish the parentage within the community members and anyone found guilty of trafficking should be severely punished.
  • Local NGOs would be required to help look into the child rights and child protection issues and work in tandem with the reference families and key stakeholders for the protection of child rights at the district and state level.
  • Local NGOs can identify the eligible beneficiaries and link them to various Government development schemes and programmes including Public Distribution System (PDS), social security (Old Age Pensions) and employment (MGNREGS). They could also support through provisioning of legal aid to the victims and their families.
  • Local NGOs and groups could take up the issues of the Bancchada communities with other like-minded networks and alliances including women’s rights groups and support people-centred advocacy processes.
  • The possibility of sending children to far away foster homes in their formative years during youth maybe an innovative approach to prevent their exposure to the elements that make them susceptible to falling prey to parental pressure and community traditions.
  • With the advent of internet and availability of easy source of information, the cyber abuse for sexual activities by exposing minors to adult content also needs to be addressed to let the youth focus on more career and livelihood-oriented content.

The resistance of a community to societal changes emerges from the laggard nature of influential members. To create awareness, increased interactions with the outer world is required. This can be undertaken in different ways:

  • Identifying innovators and early adaptors and taking them on guided tours to different parts of the state or country (exposure visits) to bring about a change in their perception about life in the different parts and how they can adapt a few of the more modern practices.
  • Inviting personalities with high achievements/brand ambassadors/celebrities and influential thinkers to create an atmosphere of motivation and inspiration so people can aspire for better lifestyle.
  • Holding cultural events and encouraging community participation in events where artists, craftsmen and other vocational people get a chance to interact with the community and show case their ways of life.
  • Apart from this, improving adult education and awareness about the prevalence of the social problems in the community that need to be solved would help to bring about a change in the lives of the Banchhadas.

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