If the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be meaningful, the knowledge of people in the world’s most marginalised communities must be included and new understandings generated. To that end, we have seen encouraging signs in planning and policy circles in India, following an IDS-led research collaboration with some of the country’s most disadvantaged people.
For generations, the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, or DNTs, have been among India’s most stigmatised communities. Yet there has been lingering resistance to tackle their ‘exclusion’. That perception is now starting to shift, thanks to dedicated efforts to win recognition of the DNTs as marginalised and to feed their views into government planning on the SDGs.
Those efforts are being spearheaded by one of IDS’ participatory research partners, Praxis, as part of an ongoing research collaboration begun in 2016 to undertake participatory research processes with participants in highly inequitable and extremely unaccountable contexts. The work is supported by several UN agencies, with funding from the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme.
IDS Research Fellows Joanna Howard and Jackie Shaw co-directed the research programme with former IDS Researcher Erika Lopez Franco, in collaboration with five local partners in India, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, building on the long-running IDS-led Participate Initiative. Shifting perceptions from the ground upIndia’s DNT communities are diverse – including forest dwellers, fishers, street performers and traditional sex workers – and have been stigmatised since 1871 when colonial government designated 192 ethnic communities as ‘criminal tribes’.
The lack of collective identity among them has partly undermined attempts to influence governance.With the Indian government poised to launch its national SDG Index in late December 2019, Praxis was invited to facilitate a dialogue with the DNTs to ensure the process was more inclusive of communities’ voices. By collating DNT views about progress on the SDGs generated during the research process, and channelling them, via a civil society intermediary, into the official planning pipeline, Praxis is helping to shift thinking about how the DNTs are perceived. There are also signs of policy shifts in terms of asking the Anthropological Survey of India to conduct a survey of all DNT communities. Earlier, Praxis ran a two-day Ground Level Panel (GLP) with representatives from eight DNTs and an expert panel and influential state and civic actors to debate the research.
The GLP was linked to a national campaign to raise awareness of the DNTs’ plight. It began by exploring everyday difficulties experienced by the participants in accessing health care, education and the police, which generated collective identification to increase leverage. The group deliberated on research evidence from the wider study in 50 locations in eight states using household surveys, focus group discussions and digital story-telling to produce a set of policy recommendations.Visual impactsJackie Shaw supported members of the DNT Campaign and Praxis researchers by contributing to and accompanying their research and communications processes, as well as helping them develop their use of visual methods.
During the 14-month research and learning process, five digital stories were produced on the intersecting inequalities that DNTs face. Praxis and IDS took the videos to national and global policy spaces. During the GLP a further video was made with Jackie’s help, on the DNT’s policy demands. Praxis presented this at a side-event at the High Level Political Forum in July 2017 in New York, at a session facilitated by UNICEF, where it brought the issues to life. Jackie also directed a film, Building Sustainable Inclusion, that communicated lessons on navigating towards accountability, from partners in all five countries, which was showcased at an event organised by the British Academy.