As condescending as ever

The government's draft tribal policy is insensitive to most matters concerning tribals

By Walter Fernandes
Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

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.
Where is the Northeast? Displacement is a major threat in the sixth schedule areas of the Northeast. 48 massive dams have been planned for this region in the next ten years. Most tribes depend here depend on common property resources. The Constitution's sixth schedule recognises control of tribal communities over such resources. But the State still manages to wrest away tribal communities' land through the Northeast Land Acquisition Act, 1894 -- which recognises individual ownership. At least 15 lakh tribal families have been evicted in the Northeast. According to reports, elephants were used to trample upon and destroy 25,000 tribal houses in Assam. The draft ignores all these.

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.
What about tribal wisdom? The draft also says nothing substantive on protecting tribal knowledge systems, an issue particularly important for the Northeast since it is one of the 25 mega-biodiversity zones of the world and also among its 18 biodiversity hotspots. The document just mentions in passing that the policy "will aim at making legal and institutional arrangements to protect their intellectual property rights." One wonders how? The Patents Act and the Biodiversity Act do not protect such knowledge, even though the ministry for tribal affairs was in existence when the government enacted 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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