Veteran anthropologist B K ROY BURMAN in conversation with SOPAN JOSHI

-- You talk about a paradigm shift in tribal affairs. What do you mean?
At the time of India's independence, tribal people in central India were seen as backward, superstitious, naive and poor. Even well meaning people concentrated on relief and improving their physical conditions.

After 1947, the so-called mainstream had a more intensive contact with the tribal society. It was found that some tribal societies were sceptical of the relief/welfare measures. The focus shifted to development, protection and participation. There was an assimilative approach to 'mainstream' the 'backward'. There was an effort to modify the development package for the tribals. It was decided to allocate some additional funds for their development. The officials began to use what was to be additional fund as the main fund for development. In the 1970s came up the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP). A special bureaucratic machinery was created for the purpose. However, tribal people were not to determine their own development priorities. I had insisted the Integrated Tribal Development Plan (ITDP) should provide for an elected body that should have an administrative and decision-making role. ITDP had no tribal advisory body. Technocrats controlled it. The siphoning of resources in tribal areas was facilitated by the infrastructure developed under the TSP.

What have been the key failures of the Indian state's handling of tribal affairs?
One of the concerns in drafting the Fifth Schedule, I think, was to safeguard tribals from the feudal forces. But then it led to strengthening of the bureaucracy. For almost 40 years now, bureaucrats have controlled tribal affairs in Fifth Schedule areas.

While the Sixth Schedule is a better instrument of autonomy, the Fifth Schedule is more of a paternalistic tool of protection. In all these years, the Centre has invoked the Fifth Schedule only once. And all this talk of the state's governor having the power to set aside any law in a Fifth Schedule area is wrong. The governor's powers in this matter are not discretionary. The governor has to act on the advice of the state's council of ministers. Which means that it is the state government that has the power, not the governor. As for the Tribes Advisory Council, it is a consultative body, not a truly advisory body.

How do you evaluate the performance of the tribal leadership?
The tribal leadership can be divided into a few broad categories:

Those holding prominent positions in political parties. They represent interests of the emerging middle class -- jobs, promotions and representation in elections, for example. They show interest in trade licences and are not very vocal about issues of land alienation, land survey and settlement.

Leaders of the tribal middle class. They are connected to the global indigenous people's network. They have an international presence, but limited influence in the country. They are a little more vocal about issues of land, water and forest, but are hardly involved in any sustained movement.

The grassroots leaders. They know the issues better than anybody, but they don't educate the people that the present legal system is a legacy of the colonial era. Belief in 'direct action' has limited their reach. Some have become militant, and don't appreciate the need to create a broad-based platform.

The traditional leaders. They still have influence on their communities. But there are examples where their authority is derived more from the state than the people. Take the case of the Wilkinson's rules in Sighbhum district of Jharkhand. Many tribal outfits want to revive these, not recognising that the rules did not give true self-governance. In Kolhan the authority of the Manki-Munda (traditional heads) is not derived from the people. Rather, it is tied up with the State apparatus. In other areas the position of Mundas, in particular, is different.

How do political parties treat tribal leaders?
The tribal leaders are projected symbolically and strategically in political parties. But when it comes to financial support, these leaders depend on industrialists.

How do you see the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) tribal agenda?
The BJP looks at tribals as the backwaters of Hindu society. On their part, the tribals face a contradiction: there is the temptation to get into the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu society, but also the desire to maintain their beliefs. Other political parties also view tribals somewhat similarly, as people who need to be uplifted. No party works on creating structural changes for tribal institutions. There is only tokenism by placing a tribal leader at the top of an institution.

Is forest conservation possible without the violation of tribals' right?
I have seen the recent forest data from the Northeast state by state. More than 90 per cent of forests there (except in Assam and Tripura) are with the communities. These are much healthier than government forests. Forest officials are trained in commercial exploitation of forests, not in real scientific management. And as for tribals destroying the forest, I am of the opinion that it happens only when their livelihood is taken away.

A lot of politicians talk about amending the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). Is it a solution?
FCA isn't the problem, and amending it would not solve anything. I would take a close look at the forest management systems before rushing to amend FCA. If India is to de-colonise itself, it has to review all the forest notifications. But who will review these? One side won't accept the other side's review. Moreover, the issue needs a multi-disciplinary approach. In such a scenario, perhaps it is better to have a a series of reviews and then a review of those reviews.

Education in tribal areas has several peculiar problems. How is it possible to deal with this?
I think non-tribals need to be educated about the tribals first, made more aware of tribal history and their position in the present world.

What is your critique of the Bhuria Committee report that led to the Panchayati Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA)?
First of all, we need to look at the 73rd and the 74th Amendments to the Indian constitution. The 73rd Amendment says the state "may" do this or that, instead of the state "shall". This is one of the reasons for Panchayati Raj not functioning effectively in most states. As for the Bhuria committee report, its functioning raised several questions. It was driven by bureaucrats who have been at the helm of tribal affairs. How do you expect them to be critical of their own work? As such, the committee met only two or three times. Similarly, the drafting of PESA was based on inadequate interaction with tribal representatives and other parties. The bill presented to Parliament didn't reflect the criticisms of the committee's report. And when Parliament passed PESA, there was no discussion on it.

Do you reject PESA altogether as an instrument of self-governance?
It does provide some sectoral benefits to the tribal people. But it has several contradictions. PESA lays such a lot of importance on gram sabha (village assembly), yet the forest protection committees set up under Joint Forest Management, appointed by the forest department, run parallel to the gram sabha.

My experience of tribal societies they don't function as separate villages in several matters. Several villages and hamlets of a tribe in a region decide on important things as a collective. By placing all the emphasis on the gram sabha, PESA can actually play a divisive role in some tribal communities, interfering with the traditional systems of self-management.

What is your critique of the Second Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission (Bhuria Commission)?
The commission is oblivious to the role of tribals in the human situation and is continuing with the approach to uplift them. The language of the questionnaires they have sent to the state governments and voluntary agencies for feedback is very bureaucratic and, in some cases, based on invalid assumptions.

What is a good way to reorganise the governance of Scheduled Areas?
It is high time to move away from the paternalistic Fifth Schedule (applicable to Central India) to the Sixth Schedule (applicable to only the Northeast), which offers better prospects of self-rule. When it was adopted, several areas were predominantly tribal. Over the past 50 years, there has been large-scale migration of tribal people out of these areas, while non-tribals have settled in. I have argued for long that areas in the Fifth Schedule that have tribal concentrations should be brought into the Sixth Schedule. Areas where tribals are a minority should be considered 'ancestral domains' where tribals enjoy certain privileges. There is already the example of Bodoland, where Bodos are a minority. The concept of ancestral domain, with diverse nuances, is gaining currency across the world. The ecology and resources of such areas would be protected, regardless of who rules.

You have witnessed tribal affairs closely for the past five decades. How has the government's conduct of tribal affairs changed in India?
One clear change is the marginalisation of academics and specialists. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was vigorous interaction between the bureaucrats, politicians and academics. My interaction with administrators and decision-makers made me aware. It was a very healthy give and take. Now, I find that bureaucrats have taken over tribal affairs in India. Their perspective is limited and they don't feel the need to consult specialists. I also find that too many amateurs have entered the arena. The training of non-governmental organisations on tribal issues is poor. Consequently, most are quite ill-informed.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Scroll To Top