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India has reneged on all its promises to adivasis

At 84 million, India has the largest number of indigenous people. Why are the adivasis still so marginalised, asks Mari Marcel Thekaekara. Why are they displaced from their lands and forests, and reduced to migrant labour?

Did you know that India boasts the largest indigenous population in the world? This is not a common quiz question so it’s a fact hardly anyone knows. But our 8% adivasi population works out to 84.15 million people, according to the 2001 census.

Another fact that we don’t go around broadcasting is that our adivasi areas are at the bottom of every poverty index in the country. Adivasis remain amongst our poorest, most deprived people because the billions that are sanctioned for their welfare continue to be siphoned off by corrupt politicians or bureaucrats.

Anthropologists and activists have often been accused of romanticising tribals -- their way of life, their “symbiotic relationship” with nature, their sense of community, their world vision.  

Like indigenous people all over the world, adivasis share a unique worldview. They are largely an egalitarian people who for thousands of years have kept intact their culture of sharing, community living, generosity of spirit, veneration for the earth and all it provides. This attitude to life rendered them particularly vulnerable to marauding invaders who exploited their collective trusting, generous spirit.

It’s difficult to define an adivasi. Or to highlight the injustices meted out to them as a people. Unlike dalits, injustices against adivasis are less easy to pinpoint as they constitute a diverse group with hundreds of different clans, tribes, languages and customs scattered all over the country. 

Bureaucrats and officials often maintain that no amount of aid can ever lift adivasis out of their abject poverty. “It is their own fault that they are so indebted and poor,” government officials complain. Meanwhile, the local non-tribal population views them as lazy and good-for-nothing. At a meeting in Germany, my husband Stan had just delivered a talk on adivasi values and way of life, and how much we all have to learn from them. A German member of the audience stood up and said: “You are speaking nonsense. I have been a missionary in adivasi areas and they know nothing other than to eat, hunt, and procreate.” A tea planter in the Nilgiris once asked us: “Is it true that these adivasis have sub-normal intelligence?” And a former chief secretary was convinced that a group of adivasis who met her to present a memorandum were not adivasis because “they wore blue jeans and sneakers,” and when she visited their village she found they were eating rice and sambar “just like us”, not tubers and dried meat. The media mostly portrays adivasis as exotic creatures dancing with feathers in their hair, or wearing colourful, ethnic clothes. Indira Gandhi danced with them in adivasi villages. The cameras loved the footage. But no one ever took them seriously.

India’s adivasis are on the verge of being wiped out. Not physically, but their way of life and their culture which is thousands of years old and has fascinated anthropologists for over a hundred years.

But anthropologists tend to focus more on their socio-cultural norms and practices which appear so exotic, different and alien from the dominant culture and therefore so interesting. Very little has been written about the adivasi economy, the general attitude being that they are so poor what can they possibly contribute to economic thinking?

In this period of economic meltdown on the one hand, and the reality of climate change on the other, we must look to lesser-known economies like those of the adivasis for sustainable solutions. Now more than ever before in history we need to study this way of life, as it is the nomads and hunter-gatherers who held the key to a sustainable lifestyle.

At the risk of oversimplifying, and cutting through all the hype about their symbiotic relationship with nature, I would say there are two guiding principles to the adivasi way of life. They were the only people who did not hoard and accumulate. And they venerated the earth, considered it sacred and not a mere resource to be exploited.

History teaches children that the greatest civilisations on earth were those of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Pyramids and temples are extolled as marvels of architecture. In India, we are proud of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. We can boast about Susrutha performing surgery while most people still ran around in skins! But what we don’t spell out is the fact that all these wealthy, progressive civilisations were based on slavery and exploitation of human labour. The greater glory of civilisation somehow exonerates the darker underbelly of these societies.

Indigenous people were the only ones in history who believed in complete equality. Their societies did not hoard. Wealth was distributed equitably. The spoils of the hunt were shared with those who stayed at home. People worked together rather than in competition. It was a society without greed.

People who understood adivasis recognised their values and culture as infinitely superior to the non-adivasis who proposed to “civilise” the savages. Verrier Elwin wrote about them and became an advisor to the government on tribal affairs. Pandit Nehru, as the first prime minister, was lyrical about governance for adivasis in his Tribal Panchsheel. His solemn promise to adivasi communities was that:

  • People should develop along the lines of their own genius, and the State should avoid imposition but encourage their own local traditions and culture.
  • Tribal rights in land and forests should be respected.
  • The State should work through and not in rivalry with their own social and cultural institutions.
  • The government should judge results by the quality of human character that is evolved. 

Yet, if we look at history, we have reneged on all our promises. Everywhere, the government and unscrupulous, exploitative non-tribal neighbours have tricked, cheated and ousted adivasis off their homesteads; marginalised them on land that was once theirs.

To expect the average bureaucrat to understand the Nehruvian Tribal Panchsheel is being unrealistically optimistic. For the government to be capable of “judging results by the quality of human character that is evolved” presupposes that the officials designated to tribal regions have the “soul” to appreciate tribal values. The non-acquisitive, inherently trusting, community-based approach to life of the tribal is dismissed as being unambitious, stupid, jungli or downright lazy by the average non-tribal. Yet it is universally acknowledged, even by people who denigrate them, that adivasis are truthful, honest and sincere, not  shrewd.

Exploiters reign supreme in most tribal areas. For centuries, traders and moneylenders have sucked the blood of the adivasi people unfettered by law enforcers of any kind. Twenty-five years ago, Stan talked of traders exchanging linseed worth Rs 200 per kg for a year’s supply of salt worth Rs 5. The tribals reasoned that they’d got the linseed free from the forest; they never ever considered the cost of collecting it. They thought of the trader who exchanged it for a year’s supply of salt as being generous and kind, even as the trader laughed all the way to the bank. A number of books, notably Paraja, and films have been made on the extortion and exploitation rampant in India’s tribal belts.  

Sixty years after Nehru exhorted our policymakers to treat adivasis with special care, state governments are perpetrating a new kind of injustice, depriving adivasis of the little they have managed to hold onto. In Orissa, in the Narmada region, in West Bengal, in Chhattisgarh, in unnamed pockets all over the country, adivasis are being pushed off their lands in the name of development and progress, ostensibly for the general good. Chhattisgarh abounds in horror stories. The devastating effect of the Salwa Judum has been written about extensively. Yet, they continues to wreak havoc on the local adivasis, cutting at the very core of their culture and turning a peaceable, gentle people into armed, marauding murderers who spill the blood of their own clanspeople.  

A brief understanding of history is necessary here. Adivasis were culturally distinct from dominant, mainstream populations. They protected their identity fiercely, with taboos on marriage with outsiders. In pre-colonial history, adivasis enjoyed self-rule and fought anyone who threatened their freedom. Local rulers respected this, and the adivasis were seen as an independent, distinct people. They were part of the unknown frontier even after the British subjugated the smaller states, one by one. The areas they dominated were perceived as unknown territory, dangerous even. The adivasis fought the British tenaciously, though their role in India’s independence remains largely unrecognised.

Life changed drastically for adivasi communities with the British Permanent Land Settlement in 1793 and the establishment of the ‘zamindari’ system that conferred control over vast territories, including adivasi homelands, on designated feudal lords for the purpose of collecting revenue. Relationships with the surrounding dominant communities and the rulers changed forever.

But even the British Crown’s dominions in India were forced to accede independence to adivasis politically. The agency (tribal) areas, where the agent governed in the name of the Crown, left the local self-governing institutions untouched. It also recognised tribal supremacy in the excluded areas (northeast) where representatives of the Crown were figureheads and tribal chieftains ruled their people.  

The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 proclaimed the supremacy of the sovereign. It introduced the concept of total colonisation of any territory in the name of ‘public interest’, a precedent followed even today, forcing on local populations an outside definition of the notion of ‘common good’. This is particularly evident in adivasi regions. The colonial concept of rex nullius (that which has not been conferred by the sovereign belongs to the sovereign) and terra nullius (land that belongs to no one) bulldozed traditional political and social entities, spelling the death knell for traditional forms of self-governance. 

In the name of development

Over 10 million adivasis have been displaced to make way for development projects such as dams, mining, industries, roads, protected areas, etc. Though most of the dams (over 3,000) are located in adivasi areas, only 19.9% (1980-81) of adivasi landholdings are irrigated, compared to 45.9% of holdings of the general population. India produces as many as 52 principal minerals. Of these, 45 major minerals (coal, iron ore, magnetite, manganese, bauxite, graphite, limestone, dolomite, uranium, etc) are found in adivasi areas, contributing around 56% of the national total mineral earnings in terms of value. Of the 4,175 working mines reported by the Indian Bureau of Mines in 1991-92, approximately 3,500 can be assumed to be in adivasi areas. Income to the government from forests rose from Rs 5.6 million in 1869-70 to more than Rs 13 billion in the 1970s. The bulk of the nation’s productive wealth lies in the adivasi territories. This was the reason adivasis were not allowed to form their own states. Instead, their land was parcelled out to the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

Promises made to adivasis before Independence were broken by dominant community politicians. Most Indian states were formed primarily on the basis of language groups. But for the adivasis all principles were ignored. Adivasi territories were divided and distributed, ignoring the validity of applying the same principle of language in the formation of states. Jharkhand was divided between Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. After several decades of struggle, the Bihar part of Jharkhand is now a separate state. The Gond region has been divided amongst Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, the Bhil region has been divided between Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

In the northeast, the Nagas are divided into Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Further administrative sub-divisions within states, into districts, talukas and panchayats have been organised in such a way that tribal concentrations are broken up, marginalising them further both physically and politically.

India, the new nation-state that proudly proclaimed its hard-won freedom from the colonial raj, promptly embarked on a process of colonising its own adivasi population. Adivasis have been driven out, marginalised and deprived of dignity in the process of ‘national development’.

The supposed development of adivasi areas brought in waves of aggressive, exploitative non-tribal immigrants in search of opportunities and employment. They usurped jobs ostensibly meant for adivasis. They impoverished the local tribal population, introduced hard liquor, sexually exploited adivasi women, and cheated the naïve, non-materialistic adivasis. In the rich mineral belt of Jharkhand, the adivasi population has dropped from around 60% in 1911 to 27.67% in 1991. Large numbers of adivasis have been forced to eke out a living in cities and urban centres. According to a rough estimate, there are over 40,000 tribal domestic working women in Delhi alone! In some places, development-induced migration of adivasis to other adivasi areas has led to fierce conflicts, as between the Santhali and the Bodo in Assam.

India’s total forest cover is reportedly 765.21 thousand sq km. Of this, 71% is in adivasi areas. The logical conclusion would be that only adivasis have succeeded in preserving forests. Of this, 416.52 and 223.30 thousand sq km are categorised as ‘reserved’ and ‘protected’ forests respectively. About 23% of these have been declared wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, a move that alone has displaced around half-a-million adivasis. By the process of colonisation of forests, that began formally with the Forest Act of 1864 and finally the Indian Forest Act of 1927, the rights of adivasis were reduced to mere privileges conferred by the State.

Adivasis won certain concessions because of their persistent battles against the British. The Forest Policy of 1952, the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 cut back more and more privileges in the post-colonial period. Traditional forest rights were slowly forbidden or usurped.

From the Forest Bill of 1980 to 2005, we have come a long way.

The 2005 Forest Bill, together with the Common Minimum Programme of the Congress Party, promises new hope for adivasis, though this is still only on paper. At the very least it forms the basis for adivasis to fight for their rights, with declared policy on their side. But in order for adivasi communities to come into their own, in order for the spirit of the law to succeed, we need a taskforce comprising experts on adivasi culture and traditions. People who believe in adivasis, work in adivasi areas and can ensure that adivasis are involved in their own governance and can take control of their own destinies. They should be people who respect and truly appreciate the depth, wisdom and superior values of adivasi culture.

This may be dismissed as romantic nonsense by a lot of people. But for those who know the real adivasi world -- more so as we watch India’s descent into crass commercialism where progress is defined by vulgar materialism and values, and culture is sacrificed on the high altar of economic growth regardless of the consequences to the earth or its people -- hope lies in a return to community, to a reverence for the earth and to old sustainable ways.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2008