Myth And Reality

Empowering Tribals

Bharat Dogra

It is now widely realised that discontent rooted in large-scale distress has spread over a wide area of central India. It is also acknowledged that this distress and discontent as well as the violent movements resulting from these pose a very serious threat to democracy and security in India. Despite this there appears to be no sincere and significant effort to take back policies which have caused large scale disruption and displacement among tribal communities. In places where thousands of tribals have been uprooted and many more are threatened, where several of them have also become the victims of worst atrocities, can merely improving schools, hospitals and panchayat bhawans or ensuring better implementation of some existing welfare schemes be adequate to tackle large-scale discontent and its real causes?

What is needed is that highly distorted policies which caused this distress and created huge uncertainties should be changed. For instance, natural forests have been integral to the tribal way of life, meeting their basic needs and supporting their livelihood. But some distorted policies amounted to an assult on these natural forests.

For example the document of India's fifth five-year plan (1974) said clearly, "The primary object of the plan is to initiate measures for increasing production of industrial wood and other forest products by a change over from conservation-oriented forestry to a dynamic programme of production forestry, aiming at clear felling and creating large-scale man-made forests with the help of institutional financing." A little later (1976) the National Commission on Agriculture went to the extent to saying, "Production of industrial wood will have to be the raison d'etre for the existence of forests."

When such policies were implemented these created great distress among communities living close to forests.

Equally ill-advised policies relating to wild-life protection added to this distress. Ashish Kothari writes, "A considerable part of the influence on Indian wild life policies and programs comes from the West. The American-European model which in the late 19th and early 20th century was being applied in the colonial tracts of Africa was also imported into India, the essential feature of this was the 'closure' of natural habitats to human populations... It was completely lost on Indian conservationists and administrators that such a model was unsuitable to situations where there is considerable human settlements inside these areas, and a strong dependence on their natural resources." The displacement and/or loss of livelihood caused by distorted wild life protection policies has greatly increased discontent among tribal and related communities in several areas.

Mining and industrial projects in tribal areas have led to the displacement and marginalisation of tribal communities on a massive scale. Thus the original inhabitants of resource-rich areas have become increasingly marginalised.

An example of a rich natural resource district which has witnessed the concentration of several huge projects is Koraput district of Orissa (India). In a study of this district Prof Vinod Vyasalu has noted, "Koraput has at least 10 million tonnes of very large deposits of high grade bauxite, over 60 million tonnes at Panchapatmali alone; enough for several centuries at current rates of consumption. It has 225 million tonnes of limestone of the best cement grade quality and also sizeable deposits of mica, tin and other metals. Yet as things stand today Koraput is a rich district whose many natural resources are being needlessly extracted by outsiders for their own benefit at great cost to the local, largely tribal populations.... None of these large units have had any positive impact on the local people of Koraput district in the sense of building and strengthening economic linkages. They tend largely to be islands of privileges catering to the external India and foreign markets. Rarely are efforts even made to train the local people in the required skills, in this case, for example, aluminium technology for downstream operations. All the skilled workers come from elsewhere. No effort is even made to set up downstream units to convert aluminium into other products such as utensils, even though non-ferrous traditional skill is locally available. Rather, the market sucks out the natural resources of the district giving nothing in return to the local poor."

This highly disruptive and alienating impact of big projects is actually accepted by official documents. The 29th Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (India) devoted special attention to the impact of large scale industrial projects on villagers particularly tribal communities, "It is said that about 10 to 15 out of 100 tribals in our country have already been displaced by now for one reason or the other. If this process continues and the paradigm of development remains unchanged, the pace of displacement will become still faster...

"The pace of change in the tribal areas has been very fast because of the rich natural resource endowment which they possess. One enterprise after another is being established, one dam after another is being constructed basically in a bid for optimal utilisation of these resources. Investment of billions of rupees is being made. But no attention, however, is being paid to the impact of these projects on the tribal people. No one seems to have even time to pause and think as to how many people have been rendered homeless by these establishments, the question of ensuring a respectable position for them in the new economic system remains a far cry. The biggest anomaly is that the basic right of the tribal people to maintain their identity as a community and to adopt the system according to their will is nowhere in sight. There is no mention in any law whatsoever about the right of the community over the natural resources including land, its dependence on them and their intimate relationship which together form the base of any social system."

A partial but nevertheless important effort to remedy the situation was made in the form of a movement to improve the autonomy and decentralisation of tribal areas. This was a peaceful and democratic movement. To demand separate decentralisation law for tribal areas, Bharat Jan Andolan (BJA) (Indian People's Movement), a movement of weaker sections with special concern for tribal rights, formed a National Front for Tribal Autonomy (NFTA). NFTA campaigned relentlessly for new laws, including a prolonged fast by thirty leading activists in Delhi. On December 24, 1996 the President of India finally put his signature on this new legislation on extension of panchayat laws to scheduled areas (PESA) in modified from.

Referring to these changes as historical and epoch-making Dr B D Sharma, chairperson of BJA said that he had waited for this for a long time. Dr B D Sharma was earlier the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Govt. of India, and his official reports had played a leading role in drawing attention to the most urgent problem of tribals.

One of the most important features of the new legislation, according to Dr Sharma, was the empowerment of the entire tribal community as distinguished from the village councils which consist of only a few elected members. The word 'village' was to be defined in a functional way as per the prevailing position of managing local affairs in scheduled areas. This village community was to be given substantial power on matters affecting its present and future well-being including (1) significant rights of ownership over minor forest produce. (2) better rights over water management. (3) right to prevent land-alienation among tribals. (4) right over functioning of local markets. (5) rights to oversee the government development expenditure in the area. It has also been provided that the village community and the village council will be consulted regarding the decision to acquire any land for development projects or for any mining activity.

Some provisions of the new legislation are open to more liberal interpretation, in which case the rights of tribals can increase further, particularly in relation to forests. As Dr Sharma said, "If someone is given rights to eggs, then this person automatically gets rights to look after the health and well being of the hen. So if the tribal gets rights to minor forest produce, then he automatically gets rights to look after the well-being of forests."

A limitation of this legislation is that it is applicable only to those areas which are legally regarded as scheduled areas. A significant number of tribals living outside the scheduled areas are not covered by this legislation.

Despite these limitations, there is no doubt that the changes initiated by this legislation can be quite significant. These can help millions of tribals to protect their livelihood and way of life from such threats as land-alienation, displacement and environmental ruin.

Unfortunately the implementation of this important legislation of PESA was delayed for too long and it was interpreted in a very narrow way. The rules, when formulated at all after a long time and several delays, did not reflect the true potential spirit of the law.

A similar violation of the spirit of other protective laws has been experienced by tribal communities, including glaring neglect of constitutional provisions. This seriously erodes the faith of people in democratic and constitutional processes particularly at a time when motivated cadres are constantly alluring them towards a path of violence. The government should realise (and act accordingly) that merely token gestures will not be adequate in such conditions. Unjust and distorted policies have to be changed, and justice brought to all victims of repression and violent assault.

Vol. 46, No. 32, Feb 16 - 22, 2014