'Maps of resource-rich, poverty stricken tribal India overlap'

Ethnic conflicts have dogged India since independence. The problem has attracted a lot of scholarship. Amarjyoti Borah talks to two eminent academics who have looked at the problem. Ram Dayal Munda, currently chief advisor, Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, puts the problem of tribal people in the country in perspective

By Amarjyoti Borah
Published: Thursday 31 May 2007

Down to EarthWhich areas in India are most prone to ethnic conflict?
These days unrest begins in Nepal, and proceeds down along forest lines to Kerala; from north Maharashtra it spreads to the east coast. Maps of forest-laden India, poverty-stricken India, illiterate India, and natural resource-rich India overlap. These areas are also coterminous with tribal India, a realm prone to ethnic conflicts.

What are the main reasons for the unrest?
Rural deprivation breeds unrest.Illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and insecurity are reasons that are interrelated. People rebel because their survival is threatened.

But a lot of violence is committed by educated young men who have options.
Most, actually, don't have options. People are lured into extremist groups for paltry sums, sometimes as low as Rs 1,500. Such violence will definitely come down, once the economic condition of people improves.

Today tribal lands are encroached by non-tribals. There is also violence for small jobs, which adds 'fuel to fire'.

Why can't the tribal leadership across India organise tribals into a more powerful force, like the dalit leadership?
I don't think the dalits are doing any better. But they do have more political knowledge. Besides, they are more in number and have better access to the 'system'.

Why are tribal leaders not visible in national politics?
It takes time for tribal people to become aware of politics, their political awareness is quite low. They have to come out to towns from rural areas.

Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have had tribal chief ministers who have done very little for tribal welfare.

They are not tribal states.

But they had tribal chief ministers.

It is the assembly which takes decisions, not the chief minister.

Is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, against the indigenous people of the northeast?
Yes, and it is very unfortunate that the common people are at the receiving end of an act specifically designed to curb insurgency in the area.

Does the Indian economy have any role in adding fire to ethnic conflicts?
Yes. Unfortunately equal attention has not been paid to rural development. This year's budget stresses that. This realisation should have come much earlier.

Do transnational companies complicate matters?
Yes. Most mega developmental projects such as dams and express highways are taking place in tribal belts displacing many people. This can cause major conflicts.

Your views on the Narmada Bachao Aandolan (nba).

It's almost a failure and this is because people were mobilised far too late--after work on the dam started.

Its leadership doesn't have any tribals as well.

Awareness among tribal people is very low except in the northeast and Jharkhand. The leadership should have geared people up for a long-drawn battle. This, unfortunately, did not happen. Also a lot of people opted for the dam a lot of money was used to 'buy' supporters.

How would you compare nba with the agitation which succeeded in getting the 'Koel Karo' dam in Jharkhand scrapped in 2004?
In Koel Karo, people were aware of ground realities, they set conditions for resettlement.The government couldn't resettle two villages, which made the people more suspicious and they hardened their agitation.

What can civil society groups learn from the two movements?
Civil society involvement was minimal in both the cases. Civil society actually wanted the dams. In both the cases, nobody except activists, was concerned.

Should protest be non-violent?
The state misuses power. It's better to use other means and not non-violence.

Your views on reservation in employment and in educational institutes.

Reservation can only have a limited impact. The government should give extra attention to children from weaker sections. After all, the purpose of reservation is to bring about an improvement in lives of the weaker section of people, and not a reduction in work quality.

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