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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015

Some Major Issues related to Adivasis

Monday 23 February 2015, by C.H. Hanumantha Rao

1. Major Issues

The socio-economic condition of the Adivasis as the most marginalised section of our society has been extensively documented. I do not propose to describe their condition again. I would rather like to straightaway raise three major issues for policy-action and further research: First, the restoration, to the extent possible, and protection of the existing land and other natural resource base of the Adivasis; second, the prospects of raising agricultural productivity which is going to be their major source of sustenance for quite some time to come; and third, the issues of governance in tribal areas, including development adminis-tration in general, and the Adivasis’ own political participation and their collective action towards making governance work for their betterment.

2. Land Base

The process of alienation of land, traditionally held by Adivasis for cultivation, to the migrant farmers and money-lenders because of high indebtedness or other fraudulent practices, which started in the colonial period, continues unabated to this day. It is estimated that in the last two to three decades alone nearly half of their land under cultivation has been alienated in different parts of the country. Such alienation has been quite high in the undivided State of Andhra Pradesh: According to the Land Committee headed by Koneru Ranga Rao, a Minister, in 2004, as much as half the land held by the tribals had been alienated to the non-tribal population and “if it is not checked with strong executive action, very soon the tribals may not have lands at all”. The Committee recommended restoring lands to the tribals by the reopening and re-examining of orders in favour of the non-tribals and the review of a large number of cases of illegal occupation by the non-tribals. Thus the threat of erosion of the land base of the Adivasis in the country looms large calling for the requisite political will to protect their major source of living.

Despite the continuing alienation of land, the remaining land base of tribals appears slightly better than the average for all the social groups in the country. According to the Report of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities in India (May, 2014), the area owned by the Scheduled Tribes per rural household in 2003 was 0.77 hectares when compared to the all-India average of 0.73 hectares per rural household. The Report notes, however, that the alienation of tribal lands may not be fully reflected in the records. Besides, the quality of land under cultivation by the tribals is poorer than the average for the country because of degradation and smaller proportion of area irrigated.

There were high hopes from the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, implemented since 2008. But its implementation by the States has been tardy. Only about half of the claims of individual ownership rights and very few rights on community forest resources have been accepted. Altogether, the impact of this measure on improving the land base of the tribals has been minimal.

Conservation of natural resources like forests is critical for the protection of the livelihoods of the Adivasis because of their greater dependence on these resources when compared to other social groups. There is a threat of their displacement on account of indiscriminate exploitation of minerals—abundant in the tribal areas—as well as location of various projects in the tribal belt in the post-liberalisation era. Certain measures initiated by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government like the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 sought to provide safeguards such as getting the consent of the affected people as a pre-requisite for undertaking such projects and liberal compensation to those affected. But the ordinance brought by the present government seeks to dilute or do away with these safeguards. This issue has already evoked a fierce debate in the country and the outcome is eagerly awaited, especially by those interested in the well-being of the marginalised sections like the Adivasis.

3. Agricultural Productivity

The dependence of STs on agriculture as a major source of livelihood in 2009-10 is as high as 70 per cent—about 37 per cent of them as self-employed in agriculture and another 33 per cent as casual labour within agriculture. Because of their shrinking land base and low agricultural productivity, their dependence on casual labour within agriculture has been increasing and is next only to the SCs’. Their out-migration and dependence on non- agriculture as casual labour, though low at present, has been increasing. For example, their participation in the MGNREGS, in terms of the number of days worked, was highest among all social groups in 2009-10.

It has been estimated that the value of agricultural output per hectare in the central tribal districts of the country in 2007 was less than one-third of the national average. Across the districts in Chhattisgarh in 2004-05, one finds an inverse relationship between the proportion of tribal population and yield per acre of paddy and pulses. In Odisha too, one finds a similar inverse relationship between the yield rate of foodgrains and per cent of ST population across districts in 2005-06. In the tribal areas of the country, the proportion of area irrigated and the quantity of fertilisers used per acre are quite low when compared to the average for the country, despite the coexistence of tribal agriculture with that practised in the same areas by the non-tribal migrants who realise much higher yields by investing in minor irrigation and practising input-intensive agriculture.

This shows the weaker resource position of the Adivasi farmers and their inadequate access to public extension services and institutional sources of credit in an otherwise exploitative environment. My own field visits to several tribal areas in the country, including Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh in the late seventies and to Paderu in Andhra Pradesh in the early nineties (this visit was kindly arranged by the late S.R. Sankaran) clearly brought home the willingness of the tribal farmers to use irrigation and yield-increasing modern inputs when access to them is ensured by public agencies.

But we do not know how productivity in tribal agriculture has been changing over a period of time in different parts of the country and the factors contributing to the observed changes. An intensive investigation into these aspects is essential for devising appropriate strategies for raising productivity. We do know, however, that in general water conservation through watershed development, minor irrigation and the use of high-yielding technology including fertilisers are the promising sources for tapping the existing high potential for raising productivity in tribal agriculture. Because of unsustainable use of chemical inputs in certain areas of the Green Revolution, it would be tempting to romanticise the low-input agriculture and advocate organic farming for tribal areas. The products of organic farming have a price advantage but not the yield advantage—essential for achieving food security. Organic farming is profitable under a highly developed marketing framework for meeting the demand from the affluent sections of consumers. Nobel Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug’s view that the Green Revolution through the use of sustainable but input-intensive and yield-increasing technology is indispensable for food security cannot be overlooked.

The ongoing research study on agriculture in tribal areas in seven States of the country, sponsored by the ICSSR and coordinated by the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, promises to throw new light on the critical issues bearing on the growth of productivity in tribal agriculture. Indeed, the importance of this subject emphasises the need for an officially constituted high-level expert body at the national level for making a focused investigation in different parts of the country and recommending measures to restore and protect the existing land base of the Adiviasis and to raise agricultural productivity.

4. Participatory Governance

Posting committed, competent and honest officials in the tribal areas is a necessary condition for efficient and responsive administration. This can be supplemented by the participation of well-trained tribal youth through their induction at different levels including in services like agricultural extension, supply of inputs, institutional credit and marketing etc. This would make the administration sensitive to the local needs and fill up the large vacuum that exists in governance in the remote tribal areas and thus help to bring the people closer to the administration by bridging the communication gap. While in the Planning Commission, my extensive visit to Bastar in 1982 had convinced me that the prevailing vacuum in administration and the communication gap was largely responsible for whatever encouragement that the extremists got for their activities in this area.

Effective community action is a well-known trait of the tribal communities. This latent force can be harnessed to build up pressures from the tribal population for redressing their grievances, among other things, through their effective participation in elected Panchayats. Unfortu-nately, however, because of the way our demo-cratic institutions are functioning, the needs of small minority groups like the tribals are not met through the effective ventilation of their grievances. According to Prof R. Radhakrishna, in the North-Eastern States where the tribal population is in a majority and their leaders are in power, the socio-economic condition of the tribal population is much better than that of their counterparts in the rest of the country. In most of the remaining States, the tribal population is a small minority at the State, district and even block levels. This accounts for their low political clout, so much so that even the Left parties are not quite visible in mobilising the tribal population around their pressing demands.

A silver-lining is the existence of quite a few committed NGOs without political motives of their own. Such agencies could be encouraged and supported from the highest policy level to take up the demands of the tribal population and mobilise them for effective collective action. The feeling of alienation is bred when there is a sense of neglect and discrimination; and, worse, when there is no hope of redressal through democratic and peaceful means. This feeling creates a fertile ground for extremist activities with tacit support from the aggrieved population.

[This is the text of the author’s Inaugural Address at the National Seminar on ‘Labour Market and Issues Related to Adivasis’ at NIRD&PR, Hyderabad, January 22-23, 2015.]

The author is an Honorary Professor, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.