Noida: Ram Gopal Nath began focusing on his studies at the age of eight when he sensed a decline in snake charming, the traditional occupation of his family. In this, he was unlike the other kids of saperas (snake charmers), who accompanied their fathers to the jungle to learn to catch and remove snake's venom.

"I could see the change around me," Nath, now 29, said. "People's interest to watch a snake sway to the tune of a pungi [a musical instrument] had been waning with the arrival of new forms of entertainment."

The promulgation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, which proscribes the keeping of wild animals, hastened the decline of snake charming, particularly in urban areas. "Saperas were being caught for carrying snakes in the cities, which restricted our business to the rural areas," Nath said.

Nath lost his father a few years after he decided to focus on studies, forcing him to start earning his livelihood and support his family of five while continuing his education. He completed his schooling and enrolled in a local college in the Bachelor of Arts programme.

After graduation, he tried to enrol in the Bachelor of Education (B. Ed) course, which is mandatory for the job of school teacher, but the fee of Rs 1 lakh (about $1,250 today) dissuaded him.

He is not the only one. Over 30 members of the community in his village couldn't continue their studies, and have gone back to their traditional occupation of snake charming, while supplementing their income with manual labour, two members of the community told IndiaSpend.

"I was disheartened and wondered why our community, despite being socially and economically backward, is not considered for affirmative action by the government--similar to the country's historically disadvantaged socio-economic groups such as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST)," Nath said.

As many as 28 communities of the DNT, Nomadic Tribes (NT) and Semi Nomadic Tribes (SNT) in Uttar Pradesh are not listed in any of the SC, ST or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) categories, according to the 2018 National Commission for Denotified Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) report.

DNT communities, such as the saperas, have asked for inclusion in the SC or ST categories, but their demand has been stymied due to the absence of data from a caste census since 1931.

The Niti Ayog and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have tasked the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct an ethnographic survey of 269 DNT, NT, and SNT across the country that have not yet been included in any of the three categories—SC, ST and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC), said an official of the Development and Welfare Board for Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities (DWBDNC) on September 5, 2022, on the condition of anonymity.

He said the ASI would recommend categories for particular communities based on the findings of the survey, and the Ayog, in turn, will forward the recommendations to individual states where the communities live. It would be upto the state governments whether or to what extent they accept the recommendations.

"The state governments would weigh several factors such as the caste composition of the state before taking any decision regarding the recommendations…It's always difficult to add another group to the reserved categories without upsetting the existing communities."

The official continued by saying that a country-wide caste census would reveal the true condition of the communities and facilitate policy formulation, including reservation at the national level. However, he underlined that the DWBDNC has not recommended a caste census, saying that it is up to the central government.

Demotivated because of lack of opportunities

Those who practice snake charming belong to the Denotified Nomadic Tribes (DNT). The community turned towards education during the early years of this century to equip themselves with professional skills and compensate for a decline in their traditional profession, several community members say.

However, the new generation of saperas has grown sceptical about the benefits of being educated when their community is not officially recognised as socially backward.

"Sapera parents stop sending their children to school beyond class VIII as they know they won't be able to compete with the general category students in the job market," says Raghuvir Nath, 50, who lives in the same village as Ram Gopal Nath.

Punya Nath with his wife Khun Khun Devi and their son at their house in Sapera Basti.

"Reservation is a sensitive issue and depends upon various factors. We, therefore, have taken an alternative route of improving the socio-economic conditions of the DNTs through targeted schemes," the DWBDNC official said.

"The central government has allocated Rs 200 crore for the Scheme for Economic Empowerment of DNT's (SEED), which entails monetary help of up to Rs 120,000 for the coaching of DNT students planning to give competitive examinations such as the Union Public Service Commission'S Civil Services and the Joint Entrance Examination. It also includes assistance of up to Rs 130,000 to build a house for those DNT members who don't own a land and house."

He added that one of the main issues is a lack of documentation which reduces their chances of availing these schemes, and that the DWBDNC is taking the help of the community leaders to identify potential beneficiaries and liaising with states district and block officials to ease the process of documentation.

Delayed census means incorrect population estimates

"The census--conducted by the Centre--could have provided crucial details about the communities' socio-economic conditions, which would have helped the administration assign an appropriate category to them," said ex-deputy secretary of the NCDNT, B.K. Lodhi.

"A lot of the DNT communities suffer untouchability as well, which is an essential condition for their inclusion into the SC category. However, a lack of socio-economic data of the communities has kept them in the non-reserved General category, hampering their social upliftment."

The Uttar Pradesh government recognises the saperas in only three of its 75 districts, based on the community's pre-Independence population estimation, according to Ramendra Kumar, the additional statistical officer at the SC and ST Research and Training Institute in Uttar Pradesh. Thus, only the saperas of Mathura, Saharanpur and Allahabad are eligible for caste certificates, which is an essential requirement to claim state benefits approved for DNT communities.

However, the community claims it is present in at least 20 districts, citing an internal survey conducted by the All India Nomadic Sapera Vikas Federation, an Uttar Pradesh-based non-profit organisation.

Another reason for the incorrect estimation of their numbers is that sections of the sapera community deliberately misidentify their caste, for fear of being caught by the police on the suspicion of being a criminal, a remnant of the pre-Independence Criminal Tribes Act.

"The DNT communities carried the scars of their past when they were branded 'born criminals' by the British, under the Criminal Tribes Act," Lodhi pointed out. "An official government document of 1961 mentions that the communities hid their identities during state government surveys that were aimed at providing welfare schemes to them."

State government officials say the community's itinerant lifestyle also prevented their correct estimation. "They used to keep moving from one district to another, which made it difficult for the surveyors to identify their residency," said Abdul Wahid, Additional Statistical Officer, SC and ST Research and Training Institute, Uttar Pradesh.

64% of DNTs cannot get reservation

As high as 64% of DNTs and 35% of NT communities are not included in any of the three categories that facilitate reservation in education, political representation and government jobs in India.

Sapera community members congregate at their village, Mati, to discuss community issues.

India's Constitution-maker Bhim Rao Ambedkar classed "criminal caste" nomadic groups along with the untouchables and the tribals, outside the four caste-based hierarchical system, says Pradeep Ramavath, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati. Ambedkar acknowledged the definition of depressed classes--the previous term for the SC communities--as "impure" "on the basis of the status of untouchability and other historical stigmas that they have undergone, Ramavath added.

Ambedkar put the untouchables under the SC and the tribals in the ST categories. However, he opined not to include the nomadic groups into these categories "as he felt that since the communities were not settled in one place, they could be misrepresented by other groups if given representation through reservation".

Rama Shanker Singh, Academic Fellow at Ambedkar University, points out that nomads weren't concerned about their non-inclusion in the SC/ST lists in the early decades of the country's Independence as they were then not dependent on the state for livelihood. However, changes in environmental laws, societal tastes and technologies over the last few decades have rendered their traditional professions increasingly irrelevant, forcing them to settle down and look for alternate professions.

"The nomads' primary demand from the government is for a new category like SC/ST," says Singh. "However, if that is not possible, they would prefer to be included in any of the three reserved categories."

Meanwhile, the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) is conducting an ethnographic survey of 255 DNT, nomadic and semi nomadic communities, including saperas, across the country. R. Subramanium, Secretary to the Ministry of Social Justice, was quoted by the Times of India as saying that the survey would help the government find out where to place the communities among the three categories.

"269 nomadic tribes have no reservation," Subramanium told a Parliamentary panel in April while discussing the ASI survey. "Where will we place them, whether among OBCs or SCs or STs? ... a big survey is on to give an opinion. It is progressing well."

Former NCDNSNT chairperson Balkrishna Renke underlined that the socio-economic condition of the DNTs is even lower than that of the SC and STs, necessitating that the community's share of reservation be ring-fenced within the three reserved categories. "DNTs should be sub-categorised within the larger SC/ST/SEBC categories so that a certain share in the larger reservation percentage is guaranteed to them."

Update: This story was updated on September 6, 2022, with comment from an official from the Development and Welfare Board for Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities.

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