Recently, I was attending a program at the MRA campus at Panchgani in Maharashtra. Here, away from the din and noise of Pune, the nearest large city, around 93 young indigenous tribal youth from different parts of India were huddled together for a week. 67 men and 26 women from 19 different states and from 55 tribal communities were participating in this program. Having lived and worked with indigenous tribal communities for nearly 3 decades, I was overjoyed to see these young people being trained in leadership, in development and having engaging discussions among themselves trying to discover their lost selves and their identities.
Having fun together Learning together
Though constituting a little more than 8% of the Nation’s population, these indigenous tribals today are neither fully understood nor have they got their entitled due. They continue to struggle to cope with the pressures of modernity while rapidly losing out on their tribal identity. Article 366 (25) of the Constitution of India refers to Scheduled Tribes as those communities, who are scheduled in accordance with Article 342 of the Constitution. The essential characteristics, first laid down by the Lokur Committee, for a community to be identified as Scheduled Tribes are – a) indications of primitive traits; b) distinctive culture; c) shyness of contact with the community at large; d) geographical isolation; and e) economic backwardness. Tribal communities live, in various ecological and Geo-climatic conditions ranging from plains and forests to hills and inaccessible areas. Tribal groups around the country are at different stages of social, economic and educational development. Out of a total of 705 communities, the government of India has classified 75 of them as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). These PVTGs are tribals still using pre-agriculture level of technology; are having a stagnant or declining population; have extremely low levels of literacy; and have a subsistence level of economy. There are 10.43 crore indigenous tribals living in India as per the 2011 census. They vary in strength in different states from a few hundred to several lakhs. 14.7% of the tribal population of India live in the state of Madhya Pradesh whereas 2.5% of them live in Meghalaya. Broadly the STs inhabit two distinct geographical areas – Central India and the North-Eastern Area. More than half of the Scheduled Tribe population is concentrated in Central India, i.e., Madhya Pradesh (14.69%), Chhattisgarh (7.5%), Jharkhand (8.29%), Andhra Pradesh (5.7%), Maharashtra (10.08%), Orissa (9.2%), Gujarat (8.55%) and Rajasthan (8.86%). The other distinct area is the North East (Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). The most numerically high are the Gonds (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh)—about 4 million, the Bhils (Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh)—about 4 million, and Santhals (Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal)—more than 3 million. The smallest tribal community is the Andamanese with the strength of only 19.
With the objective to give focused attention to the social and economic development of these indigenous communities, the government of India set up an exclusive Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the year 1999 and has planned to spend around INR 5300 crores in this financial year for the same. While millions of rupees are being spent by Government, NGOS and Corporates under their CSR programs across the country, one finds it difficult to explain why the development of these indigenous communities has not been to the levels expected.
To understand this, we need to appreciate that programs are currently designed by non-tribal people who seem to be deciding on what tribal development should be. It is unfortunate that many of these ‘experts’ are designing and delivering programs that many a time seems to be disconnected from the ground realities. Having made many similar mistakes working with and for the tribals, I can now appreciate the need and importance of engaging with the people before even considering what and how one should be undertaking any development interventions. Across India today, the tribals are at a cross road and are neither able to move away from their dependence on traditional economies nor are they able to integrate with the demands of the market. They are wrestling with change – both at the individual level and at the community level and are neither able to let go off the past nor are they able to embrace the present. Programs that are thrust on them are forcing them to accept lifestyles that are unsustainable socially, economically and culturally. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, they are left vulnerable to the forces that continue to exploit them and are living a life of merely coping with the poverty that surrounds them.
How does one then engage and work in such situations? Even if one is genuinely concerned for their welfare and is willing to bring in enormous resources, can such a person be able to truly appreciate and articulate what the indigenous communities of India are going thru on a day to day basis. How would one be able to understand and capture the width and depth of traditional tribal wisdom into such programs even if one wants to?
Personally, I feel that this can happen only when the leadership to drive the development of these indigenous tribals come from within their own communities. Educated tribal youth with an understanding of the problems that they are currently facing and the challenges that forced integration with the mainstream economy is causing, would be best placed to be part of the solution framework. Gaining legitimacy to solve their problems is not easy to negotiate, either with Government or with the NGOs working with them. These youths need additional skills and a new assertiveness. They need have their human and social capital built before they can become a credible force to contend with.
And this program was doing exactly that. Quietly, a powerful force that will revolutionize the very concept of tribal development in the years to come was being unleashed. This program conceived and wholly sponsored by Tata Steel as part of its CSR activities is possibly a first of its kind. These youths were getting trained in issues related to their culture; the challenges and opportunities that mainstream economy brings in its wake; and the leadership and soft skills that one needs to find solution frameworks for them. Breaking into small groups, they were learning from each other issues that the tribal groups faced locally – whether it was managing local resources, hijacking of reservation by other powerful forces, disappearing traditional systems and practices, health care issues, education opportunities or the problems of forest dwelling tribes. Whether it was the problem of building huge dams or industrialization or the improper forcible resettlement and rehabilitation that many communities were subjected to – everything was spoken about and analyzed. It was joy to watch young minds think this reality through despite the strong emotions that the issues emanated.
Building social capital…
The true impact of this program will be felt, possibly a decade later…when hopefully a cohort of nearly a 1000 young people across the country will be trained and a network built. A network of like-minded, compassionate, aware and empowered tribal leaders who with determined optimism will not just be mere spectators or sit on the sidelines, but be willing participants of development that they themselves conceive and implement. Moving from traditional economy to the current mixed economy takes time, patience, sustained efforts and knowledge and skills. Finding the balance between holding onto the good of one’s tradition and culture with the best of what today’s reality can bring needs leadership that is mature, pragmatic and positive. It will be a new generation of such tribal leaders that can hope to nurture and build communities to move from one level of skill sets to the next to create a future that is just, humane, equitable and fair. And silently with no fanfare this paradigm shift is being ushered in by a program that is both futuristic while at the same time realistic. In the years to come, we will surely see a generation of young people with the ability to negotiate with the government, local NGOs and other development partners willing to engage and work with them. These young men and women will now be able to communicate to their people that development can be with dignity and without taking away their traditional position. And possibly, these young men and women will also have lessons for rest of humanity to learn from and usher in the sustainable development that all of us are looking for.