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A few months ago, the Chhattisgarh government made an announcement that it will now provide 35 kg rice at the doorstep of each tribal family. A thousand kms away, the Karnataka government was grappling with solving the issue of land that the tribals from Diddadahalli had occupied and were claiming as their rightful due. Around the same time, we had Prime Minister Modi announce just after the UP state elections that he would like to see a ‘new India’ arise where the poor and marginalized had access to opportunities and not mere Government doles. While each of these give conflicting signals, one is sad that despite 70 years of independence, the country is still grappling with how to strategize and undertake development of indigenous tribals who constitute a little more than 8% of the nation’s population.
Article 366 (25) of the Constitution of India refers to Scheduled Tribes (STs) as those communities, who are scheduled in accordance with Article 342 of the Constitution. STs are mainly the indigenous population in India that the Government of India identifies as socially and economically backward and in need of special protection from social injustice and exploitation. The tribals are identified by the Govt. based on a community’s primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness with the public at large, geographical isolation and social and economic backwardness. Tribal communities live in about 15% of the country’s areas in various ecological and geo-climatic conditions ranging from plains to forests, hills and inaccessible areas. There are 705 ethnic groups notified as Scheduled Tribes (ST) in India who live across 30 states and union territories. Tribal groups are at different stages of social, economic and educational development. While some tribal communities have adopted a mainstream way of life at one end of the spectrum, there are 75 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), at the other, who are characterized by a pre-agriculture level of technology, a stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy and a subsistence level of economy
The central government created the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the year 1999 to give focused attention to the social and economic development of these indigenous communities and has planned to spend close to INR 5300 crores in the current fiscal year on tribal development. 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’ and bureaucrats are designing and delivering programs that many a time seems to be disconnected from the ground realities. 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 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. To make matters worse, most tribal areas are also rich in natural resources and they suffer the collateral damage created by large irrigation projects and extractive industries.
Interventions to develop the indigenous communities needs to begin with an understanding of the tribals themselves. One needs to appreciate that these are communities who have traditionally lived in communes under the leadership of Chieftains and have operated in the traditional economy. Moving from a hunter-gatherer situation to a mixed economy is culturally jarring and can have shocking consequences if not handled sensitively. The state’s planning and executing machinery has little time, patience or competence to understand the dynamics and power structures in the tribal areas and little appreciation of attitudinal and behavioral dimensions. This results in shoddy implementation of schemes and does not provide enough space for meaningful participation of the people. What is further disturbing is that all these schemes are not dynamic or responsive, and seem to be ‘urban solutions’ to ‘tribal problems’. Precious little consideration is given to the skills, knowledge and practices that could help in addressing tribal issues through grassroots perspectives. Seven decades of rapid acculturation and shoddy integration into the mainstream culture has left these communities in confusion. Forest conservation laws that they can neither understand nor find relevance in, has left them at a crossroad with neither a coping mechanism nor an alternate lifestyle. Economic and social demands of mainstream culture and life is forcing them to abandon their traditional methods which kept things simple and sustainable and adopt more expensive, government and NGO driven coping strategies which are neither culturally appropriate nor contextually relevant. These indigenous tribals can neither go back to the past nor have they successfully integrated with the present. The skills that they traditionally had no longer meet the demands of modern existence. All that exists is an insensitive and patronizing system that talks of their development bereft of the dignity that they deserve.