MUMBAI, India – Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, on Tuesday sought the “smell of the sheep” as he met with pastoral personnel from an area in the greater Mumbai region known as a home for India’s marginalized Tribal people.

The Raigad District is located around 110 miles away from Mumbai and is home to several Scheduled Tribes – including the Mahadev, Koli, Katkari and Thakur – which are India’s indigenous people. Like members of the Scheduled Castes, the former Untouchables in the Hindu social system, “Tribals” have traditionally suffered discrimination in Indian society.

Some of the tribes are outside mainstream Indian society, keeping to the same primitive lifestyle they have led for generations.

“According to the 1991 census, Raigad district has 223,000 Tribals. This comprises 11 percent of the total population of Raigad,” said Father Calistus Fernandes.

Fernandes is the director of the Jankalyan Center for Community Organization (CCO), which works to end the marginalization of the Tribal people.

“Today, the face of Raigad is undergoing a rapid change due to the setting up of numerous industries and globalization. A large section of this tribal community still lives in dehumanizing conditions. Lack of basic amenities like health, water, shelter and education, malnutrition, illiteracy, superstition, exploitation (especially of women), unemployment, deforestation, and other equally serious factors, has threatened the lifestyle and the very existence of these Tribals,” the priest told Crux.

Gracias praised the work of the pastoral workers in the district.

“I am happy that the evangelical work of building God’s Kingdom is seen witnessing values like justice, fellowship, and forgiveness which are highlighted in the work,” Gracias told the approximately 55 priests and religious serving in the Raigad mission.

The cardinal emphasized that church personnel were not social workers, but “bearing witness of a Church for the poor.”

Gracias noted that while the Church is not involved in direct evangelization, they still must promote the “values of Gospel” letting them “permeate into their lives and community.”

The Church is involved in education, healthcare, and social welfare in the Raigad district, and the archdiocese is working to bring socio-economic empowerment to the Tribal people.

Gracias also spoke of the recently announced plan of the archdiocese to undertake a program of “twinning” parishes with the various areas of the Raigad mission.

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He said Tribals and other marginalized communities in Raigad cannot be kept as periphery; they must be brought into the mainstream.

The cardinal emphasized the importance of the care for women and children, and encouraged the priests and religious serving in the Raigad mission to have ecological programs, create awareness of human rights, and organize and promote legal protection for those suffering discrimination.

Fernandes told Crux some of the work the Jankalyan Center is doing in Raigad.

He said it was committed “to serve the people, especially the marginalised and the oppressed, with a preferential option for the Tribals, to promote abundance of life based on life values and communal harmony through fellowship, aiming at the integral development of people by enabling them to commit themselves towards becoming self-realized, with a strong belief in their potential to become aware of their unjust and oppressive situation and change it through their personal and collective action.”

“In this effort, the Church-based CCOs cooperate and network with like-minded individuals and non-governmental organizations to be more effective,” the priest added.

Fernandes said the organization works for the “integral growth” of the community, so they learn to care for one another.

“It is also working to empower women, so they are able to make their own decisions in matters concerning family, society and politics, and stand against any injustice done to them.”

Another area of concern is healthcare, which can be awful in the Tribal community for a variety of reasons, including superstition and lack of access to modern facilities.

Fernandes said the Jankalyan Center helps people make use of herbal medicines available in their surroundings and facilitates the use of government hospitals and medical schemes for their benefit.

In addition, the priest said the center helped raise awareness of basic human rights, as well as the government programs and benefits available to Tribal people in India.

“To spearhead the objectives, the activities and areas of work are strategized. Women are empowered by providing income generation programs to bring economic independence,” he said.

“Youth are conscientized by encouraging them to actively participate in community issues by holding periodical meetings, seminars, workshops and training programs for awareness building, leadership and perspective development,” he said.