Have India's tribal leaders failed their people?

India has the largest tribal population in the world. But they are also the most marginalised section of society. What is it in India's political system that prevents the tribal voice from being heard?

Published: Thursday 31 July 2003

Have India's tribal leaders failed their people?

-- (Credit: Arvind Yadav / CSE)India has the largest tribal population in the world. Tribals number 8.6 per cent of its total population. They are also among the country's most marginalised. Why has India's political democracy not given its tribals their due? What is in India's political system that prevents the tribal voice from being heard? Or have tribal representatives in the high echelons of India's politicaldom failed their constituencies? What exactly is wrong?

For one, the post-independence Indian state treats tribals with the same condescension as its colonial predecessors. The ethnographer-colonial official saw the tribal as the Noble Savage in urgent need of benign protection and development. Experts on tribal affairs say the Constituent Assembly -- set up to frame independent India's constitution -- didn't question the validity of tribal areas being marked out as excluded areas under colonial rule. This was the colonial legacy of "special development package" for tribals. Overall, there was agreement in the Constituent Assembly that special measures were required for so-called backward tribes. These included reservation of seats in Parliament and state legislatures, educational institutions and services. In the current Lok Sabha, 41 out of 543 elected seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Over the years the Indian state has been steadfast in its belief that its development agenda would "improve" the conditions of India's tribals (see time line: Take and not give). Ironically, tribal leaders have become willing partakers of this agenda.

Secondly, tribal leaders have also become prisoners to that great bane of Indian democracy -- identity politics. They find it convenient to mobilise their communities for electoral gains. Once they find a place in the political system, their cultural bond with their community is soon overtaken by an increasing misrecognition of what tribals want. It becomes a trite repetition of the state's so-called development agenda. Says Babulal Marandi former chief minister of Jharkhand and himself a tribal, "Tribals say no to developmental activities because they haven't seen the fruits of development. Maximum displacement happened only when tribals spurned jobs and employment. That's why non-tribals got all the jobs. "Mansukhbhai Vasava, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament (MP) from Bharuch in Gujarat adds, "I want tribal areas to be as developed as cities."

Tribal leaders have very little significance in mainstream political parties. Says Arvind Netam, a prominent tribal leader of the Congress party, "Tribal leaders within political parties depend entirely on non-tribal leaders. There are no tribal heavyweights in the higher echelons of the parties to influence, say, the distribution of tickets to promote a promising young tribal politician."Of the record many tribal leaders will tell you that it is impossible to represent tribal interests within the fold of political parties. "India's electoral system is all about getting funds for the parties. The money for the elections come from the corporations, the interests of whom run contrary to tribals," explains a prominent tribal leader. Most tribal leaders also acknowledge that political survival depends on non-tribals. "The non-tribals are more regular voters in my constituency. I can't protect tribal interests when they run counter to non-tribal interests," says a Jharkhand leader.

In recent times, the BJP, which calls the tribals vanvasi (forest dwellers) instead of adivasi (aboriginal dweller), is agressively subverting tribal culture by bringing tribals into the so-called Hindu mainstream. The country is eagerly awaiting the report of the Bhuria commission -- the second commission since independence (after the Dhebbar Commission of 1960)to comprehensively review administration in tribal areas. Critics of the Bhuria commission point out that the commission is composed of either leaders associated with the BJP or retired bureaucrats. So it is not above suspicion.

The issues
The area where tribals live are rich in forests and mineral resources. And laws of the Indian state have made the tribals encroachers in their own land. The Forest Conservation Act (FCA)of 1980 brought forest into the concurrent list from the state list. This meant that non-forest use of forestland had to be approved by the Union government. This has been implemented without due settlement of tribal rights. FCA put an end to shifting cultivation on government forest. In several parts of India, lands that had been under shifting cultivation for generations had been wrongly notified as forestland during colonial rule. These communities did not know settled agriculture. FCA made it almost impossible for these communities to gain title rights over this land.

In 1990, joint forest management was introduced to involve communities in forests. But the forest department controls the forest protection committees in villages. The government forest conservation policy ignores the fact that forests managed solely by tribals in Orissa and the Northeast are in far better shape than those managed by the state.

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