How the Gadia Lohars have been marginalised to Delhi’s roadsides

The Gadia Lohar community’s cultural identity, which is built on their traditional blacksmithing work, is also being washed away as their profession now provides bare minimum sustenance. Rishi Kochhar for The Caravan
21 January, 2020

In 2012, Kiran Singh Sankhla, then a teenager, witnessed government authorities evict her family, and demolish their makeshift house in west Delhi’s Khyala area. The family had been evicted from temporary accomodations many times, but this eviction was particularly harsh on Sankhla—she was appearing for her tenth-standard examinations at the time. Some of her books went missing during the eviction and some were damaged. “It affected my career badly,” Sankhla, now 23 years old, told me. “Our entire community has been suffering from such evictions,” she added. Sankhla’s family hails from the Gadia Lohar community, a historically nomadic group of blacksmiths with its origins in Rajasthan.

Like many Gadia Lohars in Delhi, Sankhla and her family spent a good part of their lives recovering from such demolitions while they struggled to make ends meet. Some of the challenges they have faced are the basics of everyday life, such as access to toilets and drinking water. “Mainly, male members spent their time in arranging food every day,” Sankhla said. In such a scenario, “who cares about education?” she added. Despite this, Sankhla aspired to become a lawyer while growing up. She studied even “in odd hours, in the light of lamp post.” But Sankhla could not fulfil her dream—she ended up completing a bachelor’s in arts through a correspondence course from the University of Delhi. She told me that she has not come across any other graduate in her community barring herself and a friend, Reena Gadia Lohar, a 25-year-old woman.  

In 2018, Reena and Sankhla started participating in a study by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit organisation, on the Gadia Lohars in Delhi. HLRN surveyed fifty eight settlements of the community, with an estimated population of at least twenty-five thousand. It published a report titled, “Mapping the Marginalized: Delhi’s Gadia Lohar Community,” in September 2019. The report bore out Reena and Sankhla’s lived experiences—it stated that 64 percent of the surveyed Gadia Lohar settlements did not have access to toilets; 44 percent did not have access to schools; and 41.4 percent did not have access to drinking water.

According to the historian Rima Hooja, Gadia Lohars have been victimised by “both history and the present,” in spite of their contribution to “the material culture of India.” In my reporting from over ten Gadia Lohar settlements, it was evident that the government’s failure to provide the community with basic facilities has marginalised them to Delhi’s roadsides. The community’s cultural identity, which is built on their traditional blacksmithing work, is also being washed away as their profession now provides bare minimum sustenance. “Their rehabilitation is the most important thing in the places like Delhi. But, they have been ignored,” Hooja told me.  

According to the community’s legends, the Gadia Lohars worked as blacksmiths in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh area during the sixteenth century, under the Rajput king, Maharana Pratap. In particular, the Gadia Lohars were skilled craftsmen of swords and shields. When the Mughals captured the Chittorgarh fort in the late sixteenth century, Pratap and his subjects had to leave the city. The blacksmiths vowed before the king that till they defeated the Mughals and reclaimed the fort, they would not come back to their home and forgo everyday necessities such as having a house, sleeping on a cot and lighting a lamp during night.

Consequently, the blacksmiths became nomads, moving their belongings from place to place in bullock carts. They started to treat the bullock carts as their homes. The community then came to be known as Gadia Lohar—gadia refers to a bullock cart and lohar means a blacksmith. They continued making “metal parts of bullock carts, like the parts of the wheel, kitchen utensils and many other small instruments like the spindle for the spinning wheels,” Hooja said.

But with time, their socio-economic status deteriorated significantly. Hooja said that despite this, “they have retained many cultural, religious and linguistic elements of their place of origin.” She added that “in their incessant travels, they have infused these elements into the local cultures, and at the same time they have imbibed a lot from the places of their visit.”

The Gadia Lohars could never go back home. As a symbolic victory, in 1955, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru led a march with around four thousand Gadia Lohars to the Chittorgarh fort. Few of them settled in Rajasthan. Hooja told me, that in Rajasthan, “they have a better condition than Delhi.”

The Gadia Lohars I met in the national capital still do not have proper housing facilities. Reena’s family, which has five members, has been living on the footpaths of Manglapuri for the last 35 years. They reside in a makeshift home in a space that measures ten feet by ten feet. The structure shares a wall with the boundary of a park, and the rest of its sides are covered with plastic and tarpaulin, instead of concrete walls. The family uses this space for bathing, cooking and sleeping. Reena said she aspires to join the Indian Administrative Service “to set an example for our community for its identity. But due to our financial crisis, I have to support my family.” 

Mashal, Reena’s mother who is in her sixties, does whatever work she finds. The mother said half of their family income is spent on using private toilets. Mashal said that she hopes that someday, the prime minister Narendra Modi and the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, would fulfil the promises about development that they made to the citizenry during elections, so that her community can also progress.

The central government’s Swachh Bharat Mission, which aims to make the country open-defecation free by constructing toilets, has also not reached most members of the Gadia Lohar community that I spoke to. The scheme focuses on constructing toilets in households, but the Gadia Lohars “do not have a permanent place to live,” Shivani Chaudhary, the managing director of HLRN, said.  

Many Gadia Lohars live in makeshift homes which do not even qualify as jhuggis, according to HRLN. Several Gadia Lohars narrated their experiences of government authorities terming their homes as illegal, and forcing them to evict by demolishing their homes. “State government’s slogan ‘Jahan Jhuggi, Wahin Makan’”—Where there is a temporary house, there will be a permanent one—“is not applicable to them,” Chaudhary said.

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, a body of the state government, is supposed to work towards improving the life in jhuggi-jhopri bastis—huts and temporary structures grouped together as slums—in Delhi. It is responsible for carrying out surveys to ascertain which slums are entitled to rehabilitation and development. Only five Gadia Lohar bastis feature in the list of the jhuggi-jhopri bastis that DUSIB is responsible for, according to the HLRN report. “We found that they are neither identified not recognised,” she added. According to her, the state government agencies told HRLN that “they would start a survey of this community.”

The union government had once made efforts to provide Gadia Lohars with housing in Delhi. According to the HLRN report, as a part of the Gadia Lohar Rehabilitation Scheme, the Delhi Development Authority, a body of the central government, had constructed a settlement with 34 shops-cum-homes for the community in Mangolpuri in 2003. Saheb Singh Verma, the then union labour minister, and Bandaru Dattadreya, the then union urban development housing minister had inaugurated the settlement.

But the houses and shops have not been allotted to the community till now. The structures have withered with time and the entrance of the settlement has become a garbage ground. A couple of the Gadia Lohars, who continued living in makeshift homes in front of the unallocated DDA houses, have preserved pictures from the inauguration ceremony. They still hope that the houses will be allotted to them. The DDA has not responded to queries about the allotment of the houses.

The community’s socio-economic and official status varies from state to state. In Rajasthan, they are classified as a Most Backward Caste, whereas in Haryana and Delhi they fall under the Other Backward Classes category. In the capital, according to the HLRN survey, only two percent Gadia Lohars have caste certificates, which are necessary to avail reservations in education and job provided to the community. Most of the Gadia Lohars in Delhi were unaware of their rights.  

In spite of the financial constraints, the Gadia Lohars I met in Delhi continued to take pride in their heritage. In north-western Delhi’s Budh Vihar area, Banjara, a Gadia Lohar in his seventies, lives in a plastic-covered temporary shelter on a roadside. He  struggles to survive, and earns less than one hundred rupees per day from repairing iron tools used by agricultural and construction labourers. Banjara does not know any language but his mother tongue, which makes every day communication difficult for him. He has preserved a damaged and dust-laden bullock cart, a symbol of the glory of his community.

Hooja said the community believes that their vows to Pratap have been passed down over generations. Tripti Pandey, the author of India’s Elephants who has studied Indian culture, told me that as the community cannot survive on their traditional occupation, “many have turned into construction labourers, while some chose to cater to the tourism industry making iron souvenirs using their age-old skill.”

Out of all the Delhi-based academics that I approached to understand the culture and the craft of Gadia Lohars, few even knew about the community’s existence. Jog Shree Pawar, a museologist, had studied the community by visiting their settlements for an assignment while she was pursuing her masters’ degree, back in 2015. Pawar said that other nomadic communities, such as Manganiyar, Kalbeliya, Bhils, et cetera, are “interacting with the world” by performing their art and craft. “But I feel that Gadia Lohars are still hidden. If they do not get proper support, their art will be lost,” she said.  

The Gadia Lohar community has its own language, but it does not have a name, according to Prasannanshu, the director of the Centre for Linguistic Justice and Endangered Languages at National Law University, Delhi. The centre’s indigenous and endangered languages project has named it the Gadia Lohar Bhasha. “It is endangered because the number of speakers is small. The pressure of assimilation and educational facilities for the language are practically nonexistent,” he said. The challenge in front of the community is huge. “Gadia Lohar have to pay attention to their educational and economic development, and at the same time they have to preserve their culture and language,” he said. Reena and Sankhla are both currently working on the indigenous and endangered languages project, on a contract basis.

Kiran Singh Sankhla aspired to become a lawyer while growing up. She studied even “in odd hours, in the light of lamp post.” But Sankhla could not fulfil her dream—she ended up completing a bachelor’s in arts through a correspondence course from the University of Delhi. Rishi Kochhar for The Caravan

Both of them have been trying to assert their identity and will be voting in the 2020 Delhi assembly elections. Sankhla said that while casting her vote elections, she would think about which party can potentially provide a proper settlement to the Gadia Lohars. The other important issue for both Reena and Sankhla is education. According to the HLRN survey, residents in almost 84 percent of the surveyed settlements possessed voter-identification cards. I asked Reena if she thinks other members of her community, too, will be voting in the upcoming elections. “Casting our vote is a matter of pride in our community. It makes us feel that we are citizens of India—we, too, exist,” Reena said.

In 2018, both of them and some other youth from the community formed the Gadia Lohar Sangharsh Samiti. The purpose of the samiti was to demand basic necessities such as electricity, water and toilets for their community. The samiti visits Gadia Lohars in settlements across Delhi to make their community aware of their rights. In September 2018, the group had mobilised more than five hundred members of the community and led a protest march from Delhi’s Mandi House to Sansad Bhavan. ​“We are trying, but it is difficult to get what we want,” Sankhla said. “No one is listening. But we will continue with our fight.”