Social change her biggest aspiration, she crossed dual hurdles of gender and community to become a national athlete

Grateful that her parents encouraged her to study and didn't force her to marry at a young age, 20-year-old national level Kabaddi player Neelam Pardhi is aware that she has merely been lucky to do what she wanted in life. There are thousands of girls like her from her 'denotified' community who yearn to decide their own courses of lives — and the young athlete's greatest ambition is to inspire these girls to break free from the shackles of gender divide and get rid of the stigma attached to her community. A ground report from Madhya Pradesh's Panna.

Arun SinghArun Singh   17 May 2022 11:38 AM GMT

Social change her biggest aspiration, she crossed dual hurdles of gender and community to become a national athlete

When asked about her parent's occupation, the 20-year-old said her father sells medicinal plants to earn a living while her mother sells cosmetic items — occupations that they have adopted after quitting hunting about ten years back. 

Panna, Madhya Pradesh

"Samaaj me sudhaar aawe, sabse bada sapna sir yehi hai…" [There should be a positive change in the society, that's my greatest ambition]

Standing upright on the playground of her community hostel, 20-year-old Neelam Pardhi's voice had a rare mix of confidence and humility when asked about her aspirations in life. "Humare samaaj me ye hota hai ki paanch saal tak ki umar me ladkiyon ki shaadi kar dete hain… hum chahte hain ki un bachchiyon ka jaldi vivaah na ho, wo padhen…" Pardhi told Gaon Connection. [What happens in my community is that girls as young as five years of age are married off… I want to ensure that this doesn't happen and they get a chance to receive education]

A national-level Kabaddi player from a remote corner in Madhya Pradesh's Panna district, the 20-year-old athlete belongs to the first generation of her 'denotified' Baheliya family which has got a chance to receive formal education. She passed her 12th standard with 78 per cent marks and her successes at sports and academics have elevated her as a local celebrity. She is an inspiration to hundreds of young girls from the Baheliya community for whom it was impossible to dream of such empowerment until 'Neelam didi' did it.

Also Read: Basic amenities missing, national athlete KM Chanda's family lives amidst mining dust in UP's Mirzapur

Denotified tribe, generational stigma

Pardhi's baheliya samaaj (hunter community) which she finds to be stuck in a bygone era, is historically known to be a forest-dwelling, hunter-gatherer community which was 'notified' by the colonial British government as a criminal tribe in 1871 under a racist law which the Britishers named as Criminal Tribes Act — a legislation aimed at branding Indian people as generational criminals by the virtue of their birth in a specific tribe or a community.

Following independence from the British yolk, the Union government 'denotifed' the Pardhi community along with 126 other communities from the colonial notification and replaced the British Act with another legislation named Habitual Offenders Act, 1952 which although decriminalised the tribes but still classified them as 'habitual offenders' — a tag which in effect left hundreds of communities at the mercy of the local law enforcement.

The Pardhi community's traditional occupation of hunting in the forests of central India posed a serious challenge to the conservation efforts which led to the making of the Project Tiger in 1973.

What followed were the government's initiatives to educate the younger generations of the Pardhi community and ensure their skill development in order to train them for other occupations.

Neelam with her family members in her Khamtara village in Panna.

The Paradhi Residential School was one such school set up by the government. The school cum hostel facility was the young athlete's first brush with the outside world as she came out of her Khamtara village which is situated almost 80 kilometres away from the district headquarters.

"I learned a lot here. I have been studying here ever since I was eight years old. I learned to write, read, mathematics, science, and sports. I feel that every child in my village should get a chance to experience this learning," she told Gaon Connection.

Last Wilderness Foundation, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation has been organising skill-development programmes for the children from the Pardhi community for almost a decade. One of its functionaries told Gaon Connection that Neelam has been an inspiration to her entire community.

"I have known Neelam Pardhi for the last ten years. We funded her education from classes ninth to twelfth. She is the only child from the community who has excelled in sports. She also qualified for her training at the Bhopal Sports Academy but her parents refused to send her away from Panna," Vidya Venkatesh, founder of the non-profit told Gaon Connection.

When asked about her parent's occupation, the 20-year-old told Gaon Connection that her father sells medicinal plants to earn a living while her mother sells cosmetic items — occupations that they have adopted after quitting hunting about ten years back.

"Earlier, hunting was the only source of livelihood but for almost a decade now, my father has been selling medicinal plants and herbs while my mother sells minor cosmetic products to earn a living. My community members are coming out of the hunting profession as they don't like killing animals and there is a lot of stigma attached to it," she said.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old's mother told Gaon Connection that she wishes that her daughter soon finds a job as there is little income to support her household.

Neelam Pardhi (third from right) at a national-level Kabaddi tournament in Maharashtra's Amravati.

"We barely manage to survive, I sell choodi-bindi (cosmetic goods) and we somehow just manage to eat twice a day. I feel happy that my daughter is studying well, I just wish she finds a job soon," Ajmer Bai, 52-year-old mother of the budding athlete told Gaon Connection.

Also, her father who has been one of the most skilled hunters ever known in Panna told Gaon Connection that it gives him peace that his daughter will not have to face the hardships he faced in life. "We have lived a challenging life with little comfort. I feel happy as a father that Neelam won't have to face all those hardships we faced," Raketlaal Pardhi (57) told Gaon Connection.

'Unmatched passion for sports'

Rahul Gurjar, the young athlete's coach told Gaon Connection that her passion and dedication for sports reflects her spirit in life.

"I have coached many young athletes but Neelam's dedication is something truly rare. It's as if she wakes up every morning with a mission to do better in life. She has played at a national level event in Maharashtra's Amravati in 2019 but it's not just Kabaddi she is good at, she is an exceptional athlete and has developed skills in football, discuss throw, jumps, 100 metres sprint, and 200 metres sprint," Gurjar told Gaon Connection.

The 20-year-old athlete belongs to the first generation of her 'denotified' Baheliya family which has got a chance to receive formal education.

However, the athlete's coach pointed out that the nutritional needs of budding sports talents like Neelam are not met in the present circumstances.

"If this girl gets the monthly diet which athletes of her calibre should ideally get, she will do wonders not only for her community but also for the country at large," the coach remarked.

Pardhi community coming out of isolation

Efforts of the officials of the Panna Tiger Reserve and some non-governmental organisations are bearing fruit. A small but significant section of the population is gradually doing away with the traditional ways of living and entering the mainstream.

Indrajit Singh Bundela, the field coordinator from the Last Wilderness Foundation told Gaon Connection that many children are challenging the public perception of their community.

Also Read: Pardhi tribe members still roam the forests of Madhya Pradesh — as nature guides, not hunters

"We have also launched a programme in collaboration with the Panna Tiger Reserve in which we train the young fellows to guide the tourists inside the forests. These trained professionals are called 'nature guides'. The trekking guide safaris are called 'Walk with the Pardhis' and at present we have trained a total of ten such guides," Bundela said.

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