x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Saving the children of India's snake charmers

A crackdown on the trade has forced entire families onto the streets to beg, but now a non-profit organisation established to help keep the children of former snake charmers in school offers hope.

Manju Devi, 15, dropped out of school in the village of Naraiana last year to support her mother, who is ill, and two younger brothers. She works on a construction site now, earning 125 rupees (Dh8) a day, carrying bricks.
Manju Devi, 15, dropped out of school in the village of Naraiana last year to support her mother, who is ill, and two younger brothers. She works on a construction site now, earning 125 rupees (Dh8) a day, carrying bricks.

SAMALKHA, HARYANA // Over the last decade, India's wildlife protection acts have cracked down on snake charmers performing without permits, making it nearly impossible for most to ply their trade.

Many snake charmers, who tend to be illiterate, now travel with their families to the nearest city with no hope of earning money charming snakes legally but to beg.

They congregate at busy intersections or at railway stations asking for handouts. Then they return home to their villages for two weeks for a break, said Rajkumar Bohat, the president of Nai Duniya, a non-profit organisation working to keep the children of snake charmers in school.

Last year, Mr Bohat started working with the snake charmers' community to see how many of the teenagers were attending high school.

"For hundreds of years, they have taught their children the art of performing with snakes but when they started starving because of the ban, instead of going out to perform, they used the same travelling routes to beg," said Mr Bohat. "Because of emphasis of learning the trade, they have never given schooling a serious thought."

Mr Bohat hopes to break the cycle of poverty through education. He hopes to keep children from being sent off to the cities to beg, or work on construction sites.

Manju Devi, 15, dropped out of school in the village of Naraiana last year to support her mother, who is ill, and two younger brothers. Eight years ago, her father, a snake charmer succumbed to a snake bite. "I could not keep my mind in school," she said. "I didn't want to beg, I wanted to work to feed my family."

She works on a construction site now, earning 125 rupees (Dh8) a day, carrying bricks.

Mr Bohat was unable to convince Manju to go back to school.

In the village of Naraiana, of 311 children, 60, including Manju, are still active beggars or child labourers. Kusum Devi, 10, and her brother are children of a snake charmer who have stayed in school.

Every day Kusum wakes at 4am, sweeps the courtyard, feeds and washes the buffaloes, rolls the dough and makes bread for the family. She then walks for an hour through grassy fields along with friends from her village, before reaching school. Kusum and other snake charmers' children are often chided for not having polished shoes, clean nails or combed hair.

They are made to sit at the back of the classrooms, or kicked out of class at the slightest hint of trouble.

"When things like that happen, they are reluctant to return. It is very hard to keep them in school," said Mr Bohat.

"The prejudices they face from the communities around them seem almost insurmountable."

Mr Bohat recruited the only girl from the snake charmers' community attending high school to help with outreach. The girl, then 16, agreed to be a mentor to the other children. As a result, the numbers of children from the snake charmers' community going to school increased dramatically from almost nil to 123 last year.

One evening in January, as the girl walked home from a class, a group of men belonging to the Gujjar or uppermost caste of the region, who had continually harassed and taunted her, kidnapped her and drove away in a jeep.

A month and a half later, police found the girl locked in a hotel room in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

"This sort of harassment of the women and girls from the [snake charmers and other] low-caste communities is routine," said Mr Bohat. "With her, we advised her to keep her head down and keep studying.

"These men took umbrage to her, a low-caste girl, studying. They wanted to teach her a lesson because they imagined she was stepping up to their levels. After that parents in the snake charmers' community started associating the freedom of education with this."

The four men were arrested in Rajasthan and brought back to Haryana. They spent a few days in jail, and were then released after police-brokered reconciliation efforts proved successful between the two communities.

Mr Bohat has managed to keep all the children he enrolled in school with 16 of them poised to graduate from high school in two years' time. But he still worries that the snake charming community can "expect repercussions ... for being a lower caste and for sending their children to school with everyone else".

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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