Long oppressed and discriminated against, the Vantagia community still faces challenges and UP CM, Yogi Adityanath, has promised them forthcoming changes
Even after 70 years of independence, they were deprived of their voting rights, ration cards, health services, benefits of government schemes, banking services etc. Used by Britishers for laying railway tracks, members of Vantagia community remained inaccessible to the mainland and without any identity since Independence. They were being treated as ‘untouchables’ and their voices were quelled whenever they demanded their legitimate rights for being citizens of India.
The Vantagia community in Uttar Pradesh got the freedom at last when five of their villages were declared Revenue Villages by the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been fighting to restore their rights for the past over a decade.
Like every year, Yogi Adityanath visited Tilkonia, a village of the Vantagia community located in the dense forest of Gorakhpur, on October 19 to celebrate Diwali with them. About 11 years ago, the Saffron Monk had adopted Tilkonia, the Vantagia community village which was the most backward area in his parliamentary constituency of Gorakhpur.
He had vowed to develop Tilkonia with his own funds. “When I had opened a school in the village about eight years ago, an FIR was lodged by the District Forest Officer (DFO) claiming that the school land belonged to the Forest Department and was being encroached upon,” Yogi recalled. Now about 300 students are studying in the same school set up by him.
Comprising members of Scheduled Castes/Tribes and backward castes, Vantagia community was employed by the then British government for laying Railway tracks in late 18th century. Since laying railway track was a major project involving a huge investment, the British government had started the ‘begaari pratha’. Instead of paying wages, they gave forest land on lease to these families to earn their livelihood.
Ironically, they were deliberately allotted lands for farming in dense forest which had little access to the mainland so that those doing the ‘begaari’ (work without wages) for British government never raise their heads
“Our forefathers had been fighting for their status and legal rights since 1920. The British government never kept any record of lands allotted to our ancestors. As a result, when India got independence, we became citizens without any identity. The forest department would treat us encroachers and subsequent governments refused to include our villages in their revenue records. For the past 70 years, we have been living in no-man’s land without citizenship,” rued Ram Ganesh Nishad, Chief of Tilkonia village of Vantagia community.
Due to lack of irrigation facility and continuous harassment by the Forest department, majority Vantagia community members, including women, got involved in making hooch to earn their livelihood. “Since the area falls under dense forest, it was the easiest trade to earn some money for running the family without being caught,” pointed Shambhu.
Except for Yogi Adityanath, not a single minister or official ever visited this village, which was cut off from Gorakhpur. Members of Vantagia community in Tilkonia recalled that initially, Yogi Adityanath had faced many impediments in making attempts to develop the village.
Since the village was not on the map of revenue records, he was not allowed to bring any government schemes to the village. Then BJP MP had sent many letters and reminders to then Mulayam, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav governments for declaring five Vantagia villages within his parliamentary constituency (Gorakhpur) but none of them showed any interest.
“These governments represented Dalits and backwards but they had no time for Vantagias who were almost ostracized from the society for the past seven decades,” fumed Ram Bhual, a village elder.
Yogi Adityanath had been promising the Vantagia community members that whenever BJP government comes to power, it will not only include these five villages under revenue records but ensure their voting rights, development and benefits of all government welfare schemes.
“After he became the Chief Minister we thought that like any other politician, Yogi Adityanath will also forget his promise. We also had serious doubts about him visiting our village this Diwali, a ritual he has been doing for the past 11 years. Our children had threatened not to celebrate Diwali and go on hunger strike if he did not come to celebrate the festival with us,” said Shiv Rani.
But despite his busy schedule, the Chief Minister did not forget his promise and visited Tilkonia on Diwali. Knowing his penchant for cleanliness, the village was properly broomed and decked up with diyas.
Yogi Adityanath distributed sweets, school bags and gifts to children and celebrated Diwali with members of Vantagia community much to their joy. On the occasion, he announced to declare five Vantagia villages in Gorakhpur as Revenue Villages.
“Despite representing Dalits and backwards, no previous governments ever paid any attention to miseries of Vantagia villages. After these five villages, my government will include 18 more Vantagia villages of neighbouring Maharajganj into revenue records,” he announced.
“Now these villages will have 18 hours of power supply and benefits of all government schemes,” the Chief Minister promised to remind community members to use their franchise in 2019 Lok Sabha polls as he has already ordered for the inclusion of their names into the electoral rolls.
The Chief Minister has directed the health department to open a primary health centre. He also directed to issue ration cards and launch other government welfare schemes in these villages. On the occasion, the Union minister of state for finance Shiv Pratap Shukla said that soon the village will have a branch of State Bank of India.
“Though the country got independence 70 years ago but Vantagia community tasted the freedom for the first time thanks to sustained efforts by Yogi Adityanathji,” said the Union minister.
“We hope that the Chief Minister’s announcement would put an end to our miseries we having been facing for almost a century,” hoped Shiv Kali.
“Today we can proudly say that we are also citizens of India,” reacted Ram Ganesh Nishad.
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