Earlier this year, two communities – Parivara and Talawara were added to the list of Scheduled Tribes. These communities numbering close to 11 lakh has further resulted in marginalizing the shrinking numbers of forest dwelling indigenous communites. Devoid of economic or political clout, these indigenous tribes are likely to get further marginalized. Karnataka state is also seeing growing demands for inclusion of the powerful Kuruba community alongwith with several other caste groups. This is a warning bell for the indigenous tribal communities and this article of mine reflects these concerns. The kannada version of the same is published in today’s Praja Vani and you can read the same here:
The English version of the article is here:
What does being a tribal mean?
Some of the best years of my life are the twenty five years I spent living among the indigenous forest based tribals in Mysuru district. This is the time when I understood what it was to live one with nature, in the present, and with no worry about the future or any regrets of the past. I learnt some of life’s most valuable lessons from these wonderful people and there were several times that I had wished that I was born as a Adivasi. While this may sound romantic, this is the best that I could hope for, considering that the Indian constitution had clear guidelines on who qualified to be a Scheduled tribe (ST).
The days I spent with the tribals were days of joy, days of sharing pain, sharing successes, sharing narratives that brought out the inner strength and resilience that is so deeply embedded in these forest dwelling communities. To watch them talk about their identity and culture helped me understand that tribal identity is much more than what we see on the outside and is something deeper – what one can call ‘Adivasiyat’ (girijanatva) – something which is difficult to describe and one can only feel it. One needs to live amongst them and absorb and soak it into your very existence. It is not just about the song or the dance, the language, food or the dress that is easily identifiable, but something that is soulful and divine. This intrinsic tribal value manifests as love and respect for the land (Jameen), water (Jal) and the forests (Jangal). Their beliefs and practices reflect a deeply seated humanism that is an intrinsic part of their lives. Unfortunately, what it means to be a ST today is a certificate that the Tahsildar issues and the accompanying entitlements that the state bestows on a person.
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 dialect and 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. Broadly the STs inhabit two distinct geographical areas – Central and North Eastern India. 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.
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 fully 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. 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 more than INR 6000 crores in this financial year.
It is amidst this scenario that one must see the recent trend of several other communities being included into the list of STs and the several agitations that such inclusion has sparked off in Karnataka. In 1961, STs in Karnataka numbered 1.92 lakhs and constituted a meagre 0.81 % of the total population. By the early 90s, 49 different anthropological groups including the Naikda caste were listed as STs and two of them – Jenukuruba and Koragas were classified as PVTGs. Soliga, Bettakuruba, Paniya, Panjariya, Kudiya, Malekudiya, Yerava, Iruliga, Hasalaru, Gowdalu and others were classified as forest dwelling tribes. By 2011, the population grew to 42.49 lakhs and they constituted 6.95% of the State’s population. The increasing numbers were not just because of the growth of the population of the indigenous communities but was because of adding other caste groups like Nayakas considered as synonymous with the word Naikda in the year 1994.
This decision of the then government led to opening the flood gates and time and again different caste groups have been demanding their inclusion into the list of STs. The recent addition of Parivara and Talawara earlier this year added another 11 lakhs to the population of STs. Considering the clout, political and economic power of these communities, it will only result in further marginalising the forest dwelling tribes who are already struggling to compete for scarce resources of the state.
Agitations to include Kodavas (1.6 lakhs) and Kurubas (more than 50 lakhs) and other castes like Madiwala, Besta, Golla and Gangamata to the list of STs will only result in furthering this marginalization. Most governments till date have seen the process of classifying caste groups as STs not because of their social or economic marginalization alone. What drives the decision making is neither evidence nor constitutional guidelines, but political exigency and potential vote banks. If this trend continues, the population of STs in the state will climb close to 1.3 crores (close to 21% of the state’s population).
While Karnataka brought in the SCSP TSP Act in 2013 to ensure that mandatory budgetary allocations are made towards the welfare of SC & STs, it is no secret that this will be cornered by the majoritarian interests and creamy layers within the ST group leaving very little for the more deserving. As it is, one cannot find a single elected official from amongst the forest based tribals and only recently could a Siddi get into the upper house of Karnataka’s legislature through the nomination route. The Govt is obligated to take care of all citizens, but is expected to protect the weak and the marginalized first. It cannot make them weaker in the name of protecting the strong and politically powerful. One pragmatic option would be to consider sub-reservations and special privileges for the indigenous forest dwelling communities. The Government can also consider inclusion of all the forest-based tribes under the PVTG list. It can also reserve at least 50% of jobs in forestry related departments and in all Government Institutions located in tribal areas adjoining forests and national parks. That could at least ensure some amount of equity and dignity to forest dwelling tribes.
What society truly needs today is not a race to be called a ST, but a true appreciation of the spirit of ‘Tribalism’ (girijanatva) and an earnest attempt to learn from and imitate the sustainable lifestyle that flows from it.