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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

Tribal Areas in Ferment

Saturday 10 July 2010, by Syed Shahabuddin

Tribals are, on the whole, the poorest section of the Indian people, socially and educationally the most deprived, economically the most back-ward and the most exploited, whose community land has been taken away on one pretext or the other, whose forests, even their minor products, have been placed out of bounds for them, whose non-renewable mineral resources have been handed over to outsiders for profitable extraction in the name of national development, who have been suffering injustice and repression at the hands of the civil administration—personified by the police, the forest guard and the revenue staff on one hand, and by money-lenders and the non-tribal shopkeepers on the other. Indeed the tribals have not tasted independence or freedom; they do not know what the rule of law is or what social justice means. Not one of the promises made to them under the Constitution, whether Article 14 or Article 46, has been fulfilled; they suffer from hunger, malnutrition, disease and lack of basic facilities. According to Prof Arjun Sen Gupta, their average daily per capita expenditure is of the order of Rs 10, 50 per cent lower than the average for 75 per cent of SCs/STs/Muslims/non-Muslim OBCs.

No doubt the Constitution grants them many privileges; they have proportional reservation in legislatures and in public employment since the dawn of independence but they are conspicuous by their absence 60 years later among the policy-makers or the decision-makers; their habitat have no schools or dispensaries and the special allocations made by the Planning Commission for their uplift and development have been used for the benefit of the outsiders, for providing the predators deeper access, for those who are licensed, to exploit and extract mineral resources.

Tribals form 8.2 per cent of the national population. Leaving aside the tribal States in the border areas some micro States and UTs, they form a substantial share of the population in eleven major States as shown in the following chart, each with more than 10 per cent of the State population and above one per cent of the national population of the tribals.

Serial State State Tribal Population as % of State Population % of National Tribal Population
1. Chhattisgarh 31.8 1.81
2. Jharkhand 26.3 8.4
3. Orissa 22.2 9.7
4. M.P. 20.3 14.5
5. Gujarat 14.8 8.9
6. Rajasthan 12.6 8.4
7. Assam 12.04 1.9
8. Maharashtra 8.9 10.2
9. A.P. 6.6 6.0
10. Karnataka 6.6 4.1
11. West Bengal 5.5 5.2
Total 79.1

Nowhere do they enjoy any political power, even in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and MP where they form more than 20 per cent of the State population, simply because they are too widely dispersed in the states just as they are in the country as a whole. That is why State governments and establishments do not care for them and the State administration runs the machinery of repression in unchecked violation of the principles and precepts of the Constitution and development policies, framed by the Central Government and the Planning Commission, in day-to-day dealings with the tribal people in their habitats. Their languages are dying as they are not taught even in few the primary schools that exist in their areas. That explains why the tribals have negligible representation in the artistic, cultural or literary fields. The local administration is almost entirely run by the non-tribals who treat them with contempt and disdain and have no sympathy or compassion for them as fellow citizens. Indeed the tribal areas are looked upon as hunting grounds or green pastures for the largely non-tribal administrative staff and their political masters. For the tribals democracy has become farcical and since it is shorn of respect for human rights, it has turned phoney.

Throughout history with successive invasions, the indigenous or tribal people, now called Adivasis or Vanvasis or constitutionally termed as Scheduled Tribes (STs), have been steadily pushed back from their native land, deeper and deeper into the forests and impenetrable and inhospitable hills, when the invaders came across natural barriers in form of rivers and mountains. With modern facilities the ‘invaders’ can now penetrate deeper to fulfill their material lust. So the historical game of preying upon the tribals, tribal areas and their resources, renewable or non-renewable, goes on, to their increasing impoverishment and the enrichment of the administrative and the political class and their corporate supporters. Unfortunately, the local MLA and MPs, elected by them, do not protest, as they share the profits made by the predators and plunderers. No government protects their legitimate interests; no government meets their minimum needs as human beings. No govern-ment defends their rights as equal citizens.

The rising global demand for ores and minerals has accentuated the lust and accelerated the pace of invasion and exploitation of the tribal areas. It has taken a legal form with forcible acquisition of land by the government for the corporate sector, followed by MoUs, all entered into behind the back of the owners. If the people protest, the police use their batons and bullets to silence them and their sympathisers. So the will of the state must run. So the DMs stage darbars to forge ‘consent’ of the landholders to its acquisition, and their forced displacement to ‘strategic hamlets’. The police enter into their villages, burn their huts, rape the women and destroy their standing crops and arrest them for minor infractions of forest laws and imprison them for years. The MoUs are state secrets, their contents cannot be divulged, so that no one knows who benefit for how long and to what extent. Certainly the tribals do not. The promises of training, education, employment and rehabili-tation in modern villages, made orally, remain dreams.

UNFORTUNATELY, until the Maoists appeared on the tribal scene and challenged the adminis-tration and created a shudder in several States, the civil society remained a silent spectator. So did the political parties, including tribal parties whose leaders also made money. Hence Parliament and the Assemblies, the guardians of the people, slept. The media paid no attention. No doubt the Maoists slowly filled the vacuum of leadership. They stood on the side of the tribals. Their motives are immaterial; they must indeed be political, not just humanitarian. But it is not that the tribals have turned Maoist overnight; they do not understand what Maoism means or that its objective is to overthrow the state through protracted warfare. But the tribals, who have suffered for ages and would have gone on suffering deception, plunder, exploitation and displacement, profoundly welcomed the Maoists as their protectors and saviours. Hence the Indian state in turn must crush them; it launched the so-called Operation Green Hunt to hunt and exterminate the Maoists and terrorise the tribals into submission. Like in any war, the object of the operation is to regain dominance over the areas held by the tribals and protected by the Maoists, whatever the collateral damage, as Maoists cannot be differentiated from the tribals. The government operation really intends to make the tribal areas safe for the corporate sector, which has now foreign capital at its back with latest technology, to accentuate the pace of extraction and to ship out the cheaply obtained minerals and ores as expeditiously as possible. Once the tribal areas have been pacified they shall be rapidly denuded of their economic wealth. The scars will remain and the people will face the consequences, because the promises will not be kept and the tribals will continue to wallow in their age-old poverty and deprivation, without a future.

It is not that wise men, sitting in and operating from Lutyen’s Delhi, do not know what is happening in the tribal areas. They fully realise the democracy deficit and development deficit. Some of them may even feel sympathy and compassion for the tribals and wish to transform their life. From the days of Nehru they have formulated many policies and launched many programme which have made little impact on the tribal areas. To meet the information deficit, they brought in a number of experts whose reports have suggested many steps in accordance with the principles of the Constitution or the objectives of national planning. Apart from being given reservation in legislatures and services, the tribals have a National Commission to look into their grievances. To finance their uplift and welfare, Special Component Plans built into every Five Year Plan. Parliament has enacted a law for prevention of atrocities and amended the laws relating to forest management, administrative rules have been revised but management has been left in the same hands. Lately, a law has been enacted to protect the rights of the traditional dwellers in the forests. The state has established the National and State Human Rights Commissions which sometimes do look at the happenings in the tribal areas. Realising the special problems faced by the tribals, the state established tribal districts and regions, gave them a separate regime under Schedule 6 of the Constitution. To extend the national goal of decentralisation of power to the tribal areas it introduced the Panchayati Raj system. It has carried out land reform and even changed the land acquisition law to make any government acquisition subject to the consent of the owner and payment of market value. In addition, the state has funded hundreds of NGOs who are supposed to work among the tribal for their benefit.

But all these measures, constitutional, legal, institutional and administrative have not produced any real change or even made a dent. The question is: why have they all failed? The answer is that, all said and done, the Central and more so the State governments are not prepared to treat the tribals as equal citizens and empower them and trust them to administer themselves and their land. The tribals on the border had strategic advantages and therefore they were looked after and even micro- and mini-States were created to give them real power. But together they cover only about 10 per cent of the total tribal population of the country and the rest of the suffering tribals live in darkness and poverty and backwardness, as they have always done, in the heart of major States, of which they form a part, and where they live without anyone asking them and securing their consent.

WHAT is the answer? The only answer is real empowerment, through grant of Statehood to the tribal areas, wherever they form a majority, as the core districts alongwith the adjoining districts with high tribal concentration (say, 30 per cent plus), give them autonomy on par with the other states of the Union. Side by side, the Constitution should empower the tribal States to create autonomous districts, empower the tribal districts to create autonomous tribal blocks and tribal panchayats. This will alone put an end to subjugation of tribals, now locked in the non-tribal States.

Give them the opportunity to run their own tribal villages, blocks, districts and States, give them power, they will be happy and prosper. They may not participate in the All India Services and all tribal officers in Administrative and Police Services in non-tribal States should be posted there on deputation. The States shall have the expertise and authority to negotiate the development deals for due benefit of their people from their natural resources and determine their priorities. Let them supervise their projects; they shall fulfill the promises. Let them have financial assistance and technical advice and let them have the power to bar non-tribal officers as they normally collaborate with the exploiters. Let the tribal States bar the entry of outsiders who bring no special skills but who only compete with the locals and transfer their savings to their native States. Let the tribals run their own banks to put an end to the mahajans. Let them reorganise the legal and judicial system to the extent possible in accordance with their own tradition without violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

The tribal states are not going to secede from the Union; they cannot run away with their land and minerals. They shall only be committed to the development of their areas and their people and stagger the utilisation of their natural resources so that it brings them equality and prosperity and leaves some resources for the future.

To translate the Directive Principles of State Policy which mandate the state to protect the weaker sections (who is weaker than the tribals?) the tribal States have to be established and the Panchayat Raj, invigorated with the gram sabhas, alone having the power to give consent to commercial exploitation of natural resources. The tribals will not be deceived or short-changed and plundered any longer!

The tribals are in revolt and the revolt is likely to spread to cover all tribal areas where they have substantial population with or without the Maoists. The Indian state must realise that this revolt cannot be crushed by arms. The revolt shall continue so long as economic plunder on promissory notes continues. Today the only remedy is devolution of real power whose roots lie in Statehood, because under the Constitution, States share power with the Centre, which appoints the Governors in consultation with the States but the Governors cannot direct or run the administration which works under the elected Executive.

To begin with, the Central Government should cancel the Operation Green Hunt, declare a ceasefire and invite the Maoists to follow suit and then make a policy announcement for the formation of Tribal States and establish a National Commission to delimit Bastar—the ancient Dandakaranya, which has been divided into six or seven districts in Chhattisgarh, Gondwana in Madhya Pradesh, the tribal areas in Western Orissa and Bhilistan at the tri-junction of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. These Tribal States shall not be micro States but comparable to Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. To deal with the tribals who remain locked within non-tribal States, their rights must be protected through the formation of tribal regions, districts, blocks and intro-duction of a Universal Code for the Protection of Minorities, in accordance with international norms. This will also protect small tribes within the tribal states if the big or majority tribes tend to ignore the former and the non-tribals and deny them due rights and the benefits of develop-ment.

The Adivasis are the original inhabitants of the subcontinent! They have been at the receiving end for thousands of year. The time has come for them to stand up in dignity as equal citizens and take charge of their land and its natural resources and develop their economy, society and culture, administered by their own cadres who will have inbuilt affinity and sympathy with their people.

The tribal problem is, in a sense, part of the larger national problem which can be resolved only through systematic decentralisation of power and devolution of development resources right down to the lowest levels of administration. So that each level plans and executes its develop-ment, so that, in the long run, India which is the Union of States shall become the Union of Autonomous States, which are the Unions of Autonomous Districts, which are the Unions of Autonomous Blocks, which are the Union of Autonomous Panchayats, in order to realise Gandhi’s dream of Swaraj.

The author, a former member of the IFS, served as the Indian ambassador in several countries; he is also an erstwhile MP. Currently he is the President, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat.

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