Stunning photos reveal rare insight to the changing lives of India's remote tribal communities

Posted On: 
8th August 2017

A series of intimate pictures taken by award-winning photographer, Ronny Sen, for international development charity WaterAid, reveal the changing lives of some of India’s remote tribal communities.

Sen visited Baiga and Gond tribes in the highland district of Dindori in central India, as part of WaterAid’s summer campaign, The Water Fight, which aims to bring access to clean water and decent toilets for every child, globally.

The photos, taken on the lush-green eastern flank of Madhya Pradesh, document how the arrival of infrastructure such as roads and schools, as well as technology like televisions and mobile phones are slowly changing traditional tribal customs. They also reveal how access to basic amenities like clean water and decent toilets are helping tribal communities adapt to a new way of life.

For generations these ancient tribes lived almost entirely self-sufficiently among the region’s resource-rich forests. However, the forest laws introduced in the early 1980s have changed their way of life.

Today, the Baiga and Gond tribes live in small villages on the edge of the forest belt, dependent on subsistence farming to scrape together a living.

The arrival of modern amenities along with a major road connecting tribal villages to the city of Dindori has seen a cultural shift among communities. Younger generations are rejecting ancient tribal customs and traditions.

Traditionally Baiga girls, aged between 10 and 12, are tattooed in a ceremony called ‘Godna’ conducted in the middle of the forest. Patterns are drawn in to the skin using bamboo sticks and the tattoos are etched on to the skin with the powder from Niger seeds. Now, with the influence of education and popular television shows, girls no longer want to adorn themselves in the tribal art worn by their mothers for centuries.

Badri Bai, pictured with her 15-year-old daughter, Anita, said:

“I have ‘Godna’ on most of my body as I never went to school. I got it done on Anita’s forehead but she has refused to get it done on the rest of her body.

“The traditions are getting lost. These girls have started going to school and are choosing not to get their bodies tattooed.”

However, despite modern influences, many within the Baiga community are still living without clean water, decent sanitation and hygiene. Women and girls spend up to two hours collecting dirty water from open wells or springs. Open defecation is rife due to a lack of water and education despite the ongoing construction of toilets under the Indian government’s ‘Clean India’ campaign. Water-related illnesses such as diarrhoea and vomiting are prevalent, with many children missing vital hours at school as a result.

WaterAid India is working in the Dindori district with local partner, the National Institute of Women Child & Youth Development (NIWCYD) to empower communities to realise their rights to clean water, sanitation and hygiene; providing technical advice, training and support to local communities. As a result, in Padhariya village - a predominantly Gond community – where piped water has now been installed, people are spending less time collecting water and children are spending more time in schools.

Prem, 35, lives with his wife and three children in Padhariya village, says:

“Piped water has given a lot of time to the women in the community. Now we can at least spend time with our children. I am happy that with this piped water supply, my kids have extra time to devote to studies.

“A lot of our troubles have been sorted due to the toilets, they have given us safety. Before people used to go out in the nearby fields. They faced issues such as being bitten by dogs and snakes too.

“Most importantly, it was a problem for girls. There are some bad people in society. If they see a girl defecating in the open, they would pass shaming comments. Going out in the night was a major challenge.”

Photographer, Ronny Sen, said:

“It was incredible to visit these remote tribal communities with WaterAid and witness, first hand, how their lives are slowly changing. For the Baiga tribes, this is the first generation of children going to school. Access to television and local markets are also having an impact. Traditional customs such as the ‘Godna’ tattoo – so distinctive among the Baiga women – is getting lost as girls decide that they don’t want it.

“However the lack of clean water and decent sanitation is holding communities back as they spend hours collecting water from dirty streams or are unable to go to school due to diarrhoea and vomiting. Where children do have access to piped water – like in the predominantly Gond village, Padhariya – it is transformative, with children spending less time on daily chores and more time in the classrooms. 

Chief Executive of WaterAid India, VK Madhavan said:

“These photos not only provide a rare insight in to the changing lives of some of India’s most vulnerable tribal groups, they also highlight the transformative effect that clean water, decent toilets and hygiene can have on people’s lives. However, as the pictures taken from the Baiga communities reveal, there is still a long way to go.

 “As per the recent definition of basic services* of the WHO and UNICEF, 157 million people in India are still living without basic access to water while 734 million are living without access to sanitation. Providing access to clean water or decent toilets without a corresponding investment in efforts to change attitudes and behaviours will not change our reality. WaterAid’s global campaign - The Water Fight - aims to make clean water and decent toilets normal for every child because all children, whether they are living in India or elsewhere across the globe, deserve the chance to be healthy, happy and to reach their full potential.

Across the world, 1 in 10 children don’t have basic access to clean water and 1 in 3 don’t have a decent toilet. The Water Fight is a global campaign to bring access to clean water and decent toilets to every child, globally. It’s a fight against the inequalities that hold children back from the healthy childhood they deserve, the education they need, and the chance to turn their dreams into reality.

To see the full photo gallery click here