The government's draft tribal policy is insensitive to most matters concerning tribals
As condescending as ever
The Union ministry of tribal affairs has come out with a draft policy on tribals. The document is actually a restatement of the Indian state's long-held condescension towards tribals. It is replete with condescending terms such as "primitive tribes". While the adjective 'primitive' has been used to describe tribals in many official documents, one expects a ministry that deals with tribal affairs to be a little more sensitive. And this is not all: the people of the Northeast find very little mention in the draft; tribal women -- the worst sufferers of the present development process -- have also been given short shrift.
The draft notes that, "The policy seeks to bring Scheduled Tribes into the mainstream ... without disturbing their distinct culture." This seems quite promising, but by the end of the document the policy-makers have betrayed their real intent: the draft concludes by stating that assimilation of tribals is its main objective. 'Assimilation' implies a community merging with another by abandoning its past, while 'integration' means that a community retains its identity even while it becomes a part of another community. One hopes that our policy-makers have not forgotten this distinction.
Experience and studies show that tribal impoverishment is a result of appropriation of their resources by the "mainstream". Tribals are around 40 per cent of those displaced in the name of national development. Does the draft recognise this? It does state that displacement "amounts to violation of the fifth schedule" and should be "minimized". But then it does not say how this can be done. There are some guidelines on resettlement, but hardly any of them have been accepted in the Rehabilitation Policy advertised by the government of India in February 2004. In an outrageously condescending statement, the draft says, "Tribals suffer from diseases, malnutrition and are vulnerable to displacement" -- as though displacement is a disease and the State has no responsibility for it.
The worst insult comes in the section on shifting cultivation. Most tribals in the Northeast live on such cultivation. The draft acknowledges this and then adds, "tribals involved in shifting cultivation do not seem to have any emotional attachment to the land as an asset or property needing care." The policy-makers do not seem to have heard of ethnic conflicts around land in the Northeast. For the people of the region, their land means livelihood; their culture and identity is built upon it. So, to say that tribals in the Northeast have no emotional attachment to land is an outright insult to them.
The solutions suggested to problems of tribals are a rehash of earlier programmes. Tribals are to be included in Sarba Shikshya Abhijyan. But why have they been excluded till now? There are laws preventing tribal land alienation but the policy stops at saying that it should be prevented. The draft policy is nothing but old wine in new bottles.
Walter Fernandes is Director of the North East Studies and Research Centre, Guwahati
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