India is home to about 700 tribal groups with a population of 104 million, as per 2011 census. These indigenous people constitute the second largest tribal population in the world after Africa. As industries encroached upon their lands, many communities were displaced and some continued to wage a struggle to either protect their homes or demand a fair compensation.
By taking away forest lands for industries and plantation forestry instead of preserving natural species that provide livelihood to these people, the government was depriving them of the basic means of livelihood.
The battle for Niyamgiri may be won by Odisha’s Dongria Kondhs and the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh may have become the first indigenous people to get habitat rights in India after a century-long struggle, but these developments don’t dwarf the challenge that lies in promotion and protection of indigenous people’s rights.
Recognising their rights to forest areas and forest management practices is critical to understand their struggle for survival. Loss of forest cover, mining and the expansion of hybrid crops remain direct threats to food security of these people who count on forest resources and wild food. There’s a need for scientific discourse on the impact of climate change on species that grow in the wild and are used by indigenous people living close to forests.
As legal loopholes, poor enforcement of existing safeguards, bureaucratic apathy and corporate neglect of human rights try to further isolate these indigenous people and muffle their voices, it is time we had a look at the encouraging and disturbing developments that took place over the last few years.