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The cultural changes that have taken place among lambada communities living in close proximity with the caste-stratified Hindu village society have resulted in all-round deterioration in their social and livelihood levels. The shift in the egalitarian community from the practice of bride price to dowry, and the absence of infrastructure and welfare schemes, has resulted in large-scale trafficking of the girl child.


For the evolution of social formation, transforming society from one stage to another is a natural phenomenon, where the cultural and material changes happen side by side. If there is an imbalance between material and cultural changes, it leads to a crisis in society. Our study on lambada girl child trafficking in south Telengana draws the conclusion that the imbalance between material and cultural changes created a gulf in lambada society. The lambada community has been undergoing a massive cultural change in Andhra Pradesh. The adivasis’ mode of thinking about the forest universe, their social and cultural practices and work culture, which transforms their universe into a living space, emerges from egalitarian values and practices. The notion of self-reliance is central to this social life; the forest their main source of livelihood. The lambada community has come out of this mode of thinking and embodied caste-Hindu practices and ethos in their day-to-day life today. However, the costs of the new practices have thrown them into a crisis. The shift from bride price to dowry has transformed the girl child into a felt burden; lambadas give up this girl child for just for a sari valued at Rs 200. The lambadas are one of the larges adivasi communities in Andhra Pradesh. The term lambada might have been derived from the Sanskrit ‘lavan’ meaning salt. Ancestors of the lambadas were traders of salt. They were basically a nomadic community till recent times. There are still some groups of lambadas of Medak distric who continue their nomadic existence. Generally, they are scattered around the old forts across the country. Colonial accounts underline the fact that the lambadas were originally from wester Rajputana, and that they spread throughout India in order to supply grain and salt on caravans to the army as well as the general populace. There are also any number of mythological stories among them, revealing this movement to different parts of India and their ancestral link with the rajputs. It is recounted that they played an important role in deciding the victory and defeat of rulers. They even rendered great services to the British in the Karnataka wars. The advent of modern means of transportation dislocated the lambadas from their traditional occupation. For some time, they were involved in cattle breeding, later they settled in ‘banjar’ lands (non-’patta’ government lands). As their ‘thandas’ (settlements) are close to villages, they came under the influence of village society, which is caste-stratified, within a short time. All village practices begun having corresponding resonances in the ‘thanda’ society.

From Bride Price to Dowry

The issue of dowry has been central to the problem of relinquishment of the girl child in the perception of the lambada themselves. Out of 9,223 total surveyed women, 2,501 women said dowry was the main reason for relinquishment of girl children. Dowry is not part of lambada culture. It has come from mainstream Hindu society as a part of the package deal of modernity. The rapid transition to a money economy was signified by expansion o chit funds, availability of credit, and production for sale. In a money economy, dowry is an important source of capital, and the only models the lambadas had were the upper castes in the villages. Excessive dowry is a symptom of the marginalisation of the lambadas, and particularly of the lambada women. As the southern Telengana lambada thandas are located in plain areas and near villages they could not protect their cultural values from the onslaught of Hinduism. During the past 10 years, they have given up their traditional marriage systems. This phenomenon is not marked in the forest agency lambada thandas where they maintain their closed life and egalitarian values. In the lambada traditional marriage, the bride’sparents do not pay dowry. Rather, it is the bridegroom’s parents who pay ‘karar’ (bride price). The wedding expenses are also shared more or less equally. Mudavath Champli (Champli is a 30-year old woman who was married when she was 15 years old) of Bodagutta thanda of Balanagar (Mahboobnagar district) said that she was paid Rs 116 and offered two bullocks as bride price at her marriage. Today bridegrooms are demanding a dowry of Rs 50,000-60,000 for her daughter. Fearing the future, Champli gave up her one-month old sixth girl child for Rs 200. How fast dowry rampages through the lambada community can be understood by some responses to our survey. Nearly a third of our respondents said that dowry had come in the past five years. Over 59 per cent reported it as a process over the past 10 years. A minuscule 0.3 per cent reported it as being 15 years old. The sudden entry of dowry into the lives of the lambadas has been, in historical terms nothing short of a catastrophe. Within a short period of 10 years, dowry has spread far and wide within the community. The community has had no time to adjust. Where a doctor or engineer can fetch Rs 3-4 lakh, a ‘jeetagadu’ (farmhand) can fetch Rs 20,000-50,000. We have heard of a senior police officer who offered Rs 1 crore for his daughter. Of the 8,262 women who responded to the queries on the amount of dowry, half said it was between Rs 20,000 and Rs 50,000. Most of the rest said that it was between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh, and 1.42 per cent reported dowries of more than Rs 1 lakh. This is comparably higher than dowries, say, among similar economic status scheduled castes. The articles accompanying the cash dowry were also burdensome. An average expenditure of Rs 5,638 was reported for buying clothes, Rs 7,260 for gold, Rs 4,683 for household goods and vessels, and Rs 7,477 for extra purchases. Of the respondents, 3,609 reported the demand of a cycle and 268, the demand of a motorcycle. For those who have more than one daughter, the burden is especially heavy. The advent of the first educated lambada groom (hence employable) heralded dowry. Perhaps, the bride’s parents looked to a life of comfort for their daughter, and were willing to pay for this. The impact of modernity has not come with safeguards. Education and non-hereditary occupations, rightly seen as liberating forces, have been made available to a very few, creating wide disparities within the community. Coupled with the impact of Hindu customs, such as dowry and marriage customs, a crisis has been manufactured where the weakest, as always, bear the brunt. The radical change of dress pattern of the lambadas accompanies the dowry system. Their traditional attire is very colourful and it is the dress that distinguishes them from non-adivasi society. Men ordinarily wear the dhothi and the pagdi (turban). The women wear ‘ghaghra’ or ‘petia’ (skirt) of coarse cotton cloth, rich in embroidery, and hung from the waist in ample folds. The ‘kanchali’ (bodice) is also elaborately embroidered and is open at the back, where it is tied with coloured ribbons. In the thandas located near villages, where there is greater interaction with larger society, women are gradually giving up their traditional dress and imitating village womenfolk. This is a recent phenomenon. Among 9,223 surveyed families, 58 per cent women are wearing the traditional dress, and 40 per cent are wearing saris. Among 3,923 sari-wearing women, 52 per cent started wearing it five years back, 30 per cent between five and 10 years ago, and 6 per cent between 10 and 15 years ago. The change in dress pattern also hints that dowry is oldest among sari-wearing families. We asked Salibai of Osmankunta thanda (Nalgonda district) how dowry has come among lambadas; without hesitation, she replied “sado bandhin katnam ayoo (dowry has come with the sari)”.

Patterns of Worship

The lambadas used to worship a number of female deities on various occasions – Tulja, Seethala, Kankali, Meramma and Hingla Bhavani. Apart from the goddesses, they also worship ancestral gods. During the past 10 years there has been a sudden change in the spiritual terrain, and Hindu male gods are replacing all the traditional goddesses. Guguloth Bhadru of Bodagutta thanda (Mahboobnagar) says, “Guvariya koraar Devalthalena pujja Karelag guvarar devathalena choddedhine (Now the lambadas are worshipping village gods, and forgetting their own gods”). Wherever we went, we found photographs of Hindu gods hanging on the walls of homes. Among the total surveyed families, 95 per cent are worshipping family gods, 70 per cent are worshipping ancestral gods, and 62 per cent are worshipping Hindu gods. Worshipping Hindu gods is more prevalent in the thandas nearer the roads or villages. In Chinnelligadda thanda, two kilometers from Balanagar town, all the lambadas worship Hindu gods. On almost all auspicious occasions, the priest has today become a compulsory adjunct. In the traditional system there was no place for the middleman (priest). Visiting holy places has also become an annual affair. The introduction of democratic participative politics at the village level in India has not reached lambada thandas. Rather, it has thrown them into the clutches of dominant castes of the villages. Though the thandas have a large number of voters they are linked to village panchayats. Even where the lambadas are elected as village presidents, they have no independent role. Nerlapally gram panchayat of Balanagarmandal has 14 thandas. The total voters of the panchayat are 1,400 out of which 900 are lambadas. As the lambadas are in the majority, they have held the village president post for the past 20 years; however, the actual controllers are the local reddys. Mudavath Rupla was thrice elected as president with the backing of Krishna Reddy of Goded village and Venkat Reddy of Nerlapally. Rupla was virtually the servant (jeethagada) of Krishna Reddy. Even after he was elected president, Rupla was compelled to do manual work in Krishna Reddy’s house whenever he went to him with cases. P Wachiya, who was president for the past six years was also one of the jeethagadus of Babu Dora of Nerlapally. He could not act independently, being totally under latter’s control. As a result, all development works remain confined to the main village; they do not reach the thanda. Thandas largely remain untouched by panchayat schemes. Roughly two-thirds of our respondents (5,824/9,223) reported that gram panchayat funds and schemes do not reach the thandas. Where earlier the thanda lambadas spok with one voice, now different factions exist, mirroring those in the main village. The quarrels that erupt during the elections continue to fester, preventing any active and united work. The interaction of lambadas with the village society has also weakened the communal bonds of the thanda. Communal life in the thandas I one of the significant social institutions, sometimes transcending the barrier of kinship and blood ties. It worked as a kind of monitor of activities in the thanda; if any untoward development took place in any family, everyone would respond and solve it unitedly. This bond being disturbed, and there is no force, that can control thanda activities. Acting individually has become the norm. Jairam Naik of Jairam thanda (Ranga Reddy district expressed his deep sense of sorrow over the unhealthy developments taking place in the thandas. He says the earlier thanda naik used to look after everything in the thanda, and police its social activities. Linking the thandas with the village panchayats has weakened the internal cohesion. Earlier, all disputes would be settled in the thanda panchayat; now they have shifted to the village and echo factional differences there. Among the surveyed families, 28 per cent settle disputes at the police station, 65 per cent at the gram panchayat level, 71 per cent with the naik or the thanda head, 7 per cent at the dor and patel lavel. These percentages reveal how the naik and the thanda panchayats are losing their hold over the thanda.

Dislocation of Traditional


The dislocation of the traditional occupation (salt trading) has thrown the lambadas into despair. After losing their monopoly over salt trading, they were for some time involved in cattle breeding and later in cultivating banjar lands (non-patta public lands). As these lands are not fertile, there was little change in their economic position. Most of the holdings are marginal holdings. On the one hand, they lost their traditional occupation, and on the other, they were not allowed to take up any other occupation, since birth (and caste) decide occupation in the village society. The only work that remained for the lambadas was to take up agricultural labour as well as road and building construction in urban centres. Our survey reveals that 87 per cent of the population in the four surveyed mandals migrate for work outside their district. Most lambadas go to Pune, Mumbai, and Hyderabad for work leaving behind women and children to fend for themselves. Some women who have mothers-in-law care for the young also leave with their husbands. A few women told u matter-of-factly that they often did not cook for two days in a row during the summer months, when they could not even get Rs 5 as daily wages. Their migratory work has not led to any prosperity either. Conditions of work at or near Mumbai are horrifying, they talked of working at continuously damp places, where they had to put down one tarpaulin on the ground before sleeping and one above them to protect themselves from the rain. There are a number of cases of people who have died at workplaces. Probably no other community needs to resort to such high levels of migration as the lambadas. Of the total, 11 per cent had work only for three months, 51 per cent had work up to six months, and 29 per cent had work up to 9 months 68 per cent reported their wages as between Rs 15-25 and only 22 per cent earned over Rs 25 a day. Around 2 per cent earned wages below Rs 15 a day. No wonder then that the incidence of bonded labour is particularly high. Five out of every 100 households reported a bonded labourer in their family, mostly children. Migration for work must be seen as a distress phenomenon, tempered by the lambada history of migration. The state, which was expected to bridge the gap created by new changes and market forces, has evaded its task. In 1977, the government of India notified the lambadas of Telangana as scheduled tribes; earlier they were considered as denotified tribes However, there are no schemes that address the problems of livelihood of the lambadas, except reservation in education and employment. All schemes are confined to agency tribes, and as the south Telangana Lambadas are scattered in plain areas they remained untouched by these schemes. According to our survey, every third family among the respondents live in huts, 2 per cent had electricity in their houses, and three out of four thandas had no electricity. Inaccessibility of the public banking system is obvious when we see that 91 per cent reported borrowing from the ‘sahukar’, and 43 per cent reported borrowing from cooperative banks, not from commercial banks. Only 3 per cent reported borrowing money from institutions like modified area development agency (MADA) or district rural development agency (DRDA). Access to welfare programmes is abysmal. Leaving out Mahboobnagar, where several thandas account for 1,832 development of women and children in rural areas (DWACRA) members, a pitiful 7 per cent in the other three mandals surveyed reported contact with DWACRA scheme. Other schemes also fared no better. Out of the 9,223surveyed families 1.65 per cent benefited from training of rural youth for self-employment (TRYSEM), 2.2 per cent benefited from girl child protection schemes,7.6 per cent benefited from DRDA, 10.62per cent benefited from housing, 3.5 per cent benefited from old-age pensions and 0.15 per cent availed widow pension schemes. Access to education and health facilities was no better. Everywhere we went we found women suffering from acute gynaecological problems. Many lambada women had undergone hysterectomy, caused by chronic vaginal infections, lack of treatment and flaring up of these infections during the time of tubectomy. Free tubectomy is inevitably followed by the expensive hysterectomy. Fearing this, they stop going for tubectomy. The consequent large families in a ‘modern’ society has found them in yet another crisis. Of the 210 surveyed thandas only 60 thandas reported access to schools. This does not mean that there was a school I the thanda itself. It could also mean that the children were sent to the nearest school. We noticed a peculiar feature in some mandals, particularly Balanagar, where there were 48 schools funded by the district primary education programme (DPEP) but not a single teacher. We visited at least 18 of these schools at some time of the school day, but there was no teacher. The teachers stay in Hyderabad or the nearest big town and attend school irregularly. From June to Dassehra, the teachers do not come regularly. Since the children are not studying when the family migrates during Dassehra, they take the children with them. If the children were studying, the parents would have left them behind with their elders After Dassehra, the teachers have a good excuse to blame the lambadas, saying there is no one to teach, and that the lambadas do not want to educate their children. The absence of public infrastructural and welfare schemes has created a space for adoption agencies in the thandas. The desperate position of the lambadas is exploited by the agencies, the demand of babies created at a global level added to it. Around 45 respondents said that they gave away their girl babies to adoption agencies. Another 100 have reported that they knew others who gave away their babies. This is of course highly underreported. The natural birth rate is 952 female per 1,000 male births. We found in our survey that there are 831 female births per 1,000 male births. That is, 1,988 female babies are likely missing of the total sample of 9,223. This indicates relinquishment of a very high order. Families giving away their girl babies report greater poverty and more number of girls in the families.

[This article is based on ‘The Lambadas: A Community Besieged’ by Gita Ramaswamy and Bhangya Bhukya, commissioned by UNICEF, Hyderabad, and the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and released in December 2001.] Also This Article was published in Economic and Political Weekly April 20, 2002.