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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Adivasis threatened with the spectre of losing their identity and exstence | Arun Srivastava

Saturday 19 November 2022


by Arun Srivastava

The Supreme Court’s February 13, 2019, the keeper of the Constitutional conscience and justice had directed state governments to evict nearly one million Adivasis and other forest communities. This order not only impended their autonomy, liberty and dignity it also trampled Adivasis of their rights to life and health. It is undoubtedly the worst nature of infringement of the right to life of an already vulnerable community, which is disparaged by the civilized people as the animals.

What a paradox, Adivasis who become victims of Land alienation, lost right on their own land and forests, have been the creators of the modern India. It is irony that the impulse of developments and growth displaced them without offering proper rehabilitation. The compulsion of becoming a rich and civilised state marginalises them and turns them homeless in their homeland. Shocking indeed the Modi government did not enact a law to restore their right as it has been doing in other cases where its own interest or the interest of the lawmakers are endangered.

Since the Adivasi areas are the reservoir of the mineral resources, the government ought to have come out with a comprehensive blue pint for the rehabilitation of the adivasis. But this has not been paid importance. A number of steel companies, industrial projects and power projects have come up in these areas. Extraction of mineral resources and the construction of dams are the common features.

According to a study of 2011, hundreds of millions tribals have been displaced in India due to ‘development’ projects since independence. The process of displacement has increased their vulnerability to exploitation, pushing them to poverty and serious psychological trauma. They have to suffer worst nature of health problem.Ironically while the governments have been allowing the non-tribal industrialists and vested interest to plunder the forests, the Union government has denied them the basic right on the forests, which symbolises the Adivasi culture and way of life.

Most striking has been the fact that the socio-economic condition of Adivasis whether they live in Odisha or Chhatisgarh are deplorable. The distance between the two states does not matter. The mechanism of their exploitation is uniform in all the states including Jharkhand.

It is indeed shocking that Tribals who worship forests are blamed of denuding the jungles, but who really are plundering and destroying it are classified as protectors and caretakers. Since Adivasis are not allowed access to forests, one is tempted to ask where had the forests gone which existed barely a decade back. There is no denying the wood smugglers enjoying the patronage of the politicians have destroyed the forests. Massive areas of forest lands are being diverted to mining, dams, industries, roads or other ‘developmental activities’.

In the absence of natural resources and traditional systems of subsistence, tribal communities end up facing the brunt of the growing global markets. This leads to the loss of homes, cultures and livelihoods, and pushes the communities further into situations of poverty and poor health.

However, India’s claim to being the 4th largest economy is dulled by its low rank "around 127 of 177 countries" in the Human Development Index. The 53rd round of the National Sample Survey recently reported that the percentage of India’s rural poor increased from 35 percent in 1991 to 38.5 in 1997. While there is consensus regarding India’s poor performance in social and economic development indices, many, particularly those who work among the poor, are opposed to the government’s aggressive push to industrialize, while agriculture "the largest rural employer" is neglected.

In recent years, West Bengal has seen huge ant land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram while social activists have repeatedly been raising the issue of displacement of tribals due to mining and other activities in central India.

Eleven years ago, on 2 January 2006, a group of Adivasi farmers in Odisha had protested against the land acquisition for TATA steel plant and became victim of one of the most gruesome violence on Adivasis by the state. Total 13 people were killed on the spot and 4 more succumbed to injuries after police open fired on the Adivasi protesters. After their killings, even their dead bodies were mutilated by chopping off private organs of both men and women. No compensation was paid, neither any adequate rehabilitation package was given leaving many Adivasis homeless. Earlier who expected empolyment opportunities for their youths also were left hopeless even after ten years. Displaced, victimised and exploited the helpless Adivasis population are still seeking for justice.

The land that is now being illegally acquired by TATA was initially proposed for one interpreted/independent Steel plant of capacity of 3 million tonnes per annum, two more steel plants of 1-1.3 million tonnes per annum, two Pig Iron Plants, one Hot Strip Mill and other ancillary Industries at the site. Ministry of Environment and Forest gave lease to TATA, while the land was acquired for the (public) steel plant. The land acquisition order came in 1992 and meagre compensation (₹37,000 per acre) was paid to the people. The promise of rehabilitation at Tata colony Gobarghati, Sansahilo colony, was offered with 10 dismil to each family.

After the new acquisition, Government and company offered 1 lakh and 4 lakhs respectively for the total sum of 5 lakh, of which, interestingly, previous compensation amount 37,000 was deducted. While the proposal was opposed by the people, which also led to the killing of Adivasis, people were finally forced to leave the area while Adivasis were protesting. People finally left their land by 2009-10.

Over the period Tata Steel became synonymous with Indian industrialisation, ethical capitalism and social philanthropy. The company introduced fair labour practices. Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata, the son of RD Tata who became chairman in 1938 and ran the Tata Group for half a century, was credited with having infused Tata Steel with a “people first” approach that produced a competitive edge,

Whether motivated by worries of acquisition or the opportunity for unprecedented profits, Indian firms determined to seize the moment increasingly began to cast aside human and environmental concerns in their pursuit of bigger plants and more mines. Conflict between mining and steel companies and local communities was escalating into deadly violence, and Tata Steel proved to be no exception to this trend.

For decades, Jamshedpur has been held up as a shining example of urban planning in India, a model island amidst a sea of urban dysfunctionality. Located in the heart of Jharkhand on the Chotanagpur plateau, it has been ranked the seventh cleanest and richest city in India, according to government surveys. In a 2008 interview with Tehelka, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram cited Jamshedpur as a towering example of successful urbanisation, economic development and mining: “Today the quality of life in Jamshedpur is better than in any other city in India. It has twenty-four hours water supply, electric supply, it has education for all its residents and it has cleaner air than any other city.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more concerned of the miseries and plight of the adivasis than the tribals’ own leaders like Raja Jaipal Singh or Dishom Guru Shibu Soren. The reason is not at all surreptitious. While Singh fought for the rights and identity of the adivasis, Soren at the age of 18 formed JMM along with Marxist leader A K Roy and took forward the movement spearheaded by the great Tribal heroes like Birsa Munda to protect land, water and forests.

Modi’s worry centred on significance of their votes. Unless he wins over the trust of the Adivasis, he cannot dream of having his party’s government in the tribal dominated states. His compulsion to build his image and base among the tribals could be envisioned from his move to have Draupadi Murmu as the President of the Republic. But in sharp contrast to Modi’s concern the motivation for Jaipal Singh and Soren was to liberate the aidvasis from the exploitation of dikus, money lenders and corporate sector.

The political narrative of Independent India will remain imperfect without description of the exploitation of the tribals. Undeniably in the past adivasis were displaced from their lands. It was not forceful displacement. In most of the cases the tribal lands were acquired by the Union government for setting up the public undertakings. Of course the major private player was Tata.

Before Modi came to occupy the office of the prime minister, the earlier government maintained the façade of displacement with some amount of human touch. But during eight year rule the operation grabbing land has acquired the character of an institution notwithstanding Modi does not feel tired of praising them for conserving the forests, and emphasising; "It’s the priority of our government to ensure that tribals get their right. No one has right to snatch away their lands".It is during his rule almost all the capitalists and big business houses have penetrated in the Adivasi domain and have launched the scheme to grab tribal land.

In India, 705 ethnic groups are recognised as Scheduled Tribes. They are usually referred to as Adivasis, which literally means Indigenous Peoples. With an estimated population of 104 million, they comprise 8.6% of the total population. Their forced allocation has taken place mostly in Madhya Pradesh, which has maximum number of tribals.

Modi has mastered the art of speaking non stop lies. George Orwell has described this as doublethink: “Every message from the extremely repressive leadership reverses the truth. Officials repeat ‘war is peace’ and ‘freedom is slavery’. The Ministry of Truth spreads lies. The Ministry of Love tortures lovers.” While he goes on reiterating that no one can snatch tribals’ land, just the opposition is happening. During his regime, the tribals of at least two states, Jharkhand and Odisha have witnessed brutal state attack. It is really shocking that Modi does not feel hesitant in pursuing the “pro corporate” laws. His three farm laws would have devastated the economy of the tribals.

The Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch [National Forum for Adivasi Rights] says: “Adivasis of the country would be the worst victim of the situation” and has demanded that Modi’s government “refrain from repressive measures” against protestors and repeal the laws. For Adivasi farmers protesting in Maharashtra, the farm laws are inextricably tied up with the failure of the government to recognise and respect their rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

Usually the Adivasi farmers own small plots. Once it is grabbed they turn pauper as they have no alternative mode of employment. If the grabbing of the kand goes on it would shatter the concepts of Adivasis’ self-determination, livelihoods and food security. Being small these ploys do not sufficient produce which could be marketed effectively. Obviously the market economy is an alien concept for them. Due to grabbing of their land a sizeable number of adivasis have to eke out their livelihood by working as landless labourers

Calling for Adivasi, women and Dalit farmers to be consulted and for the FRA to be taken into account, the veteran journalist, P Sainath asked: “Why weren’t there any consultations with farmers, why was there no discussion in Parliament, why no joint meeting of the political parties, why was it not brought to the parliamentary Standing Committee? …The farm laws were brought by consulting the corporates.”

Obtaining consent of the Adivasi communities is the basic criteria for legally acquiring their land. But reports by Amnesty International and for the Ministry of Tribal Affairs show how consent is often forged, and intimidation and other coercive tactics are used to bypass the law. It was the AI objecting to the Modi government’s machination to help the corporate sector to grab adivasi land, that turned Modi and his government to victimise the AI.

True enough Modi is auctioning India’s coalfields and opening mining up to private companies. The adivasis who dissent are branded “anti-national” and are charged with sedition or arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

On 9 February, 2017, 26 MPs, cutting across parties barring the BJP, had written a letter to the Prime Minister to restore the Special Component Plan (SCP) and Tribal Sub Plan (TSP). The current budget had discontinued SCP and TSP and replaced it with allocations for welfare for Scheduled Castes (SC)and Scheduled Tribes (ST). The MPs in the letter state that this shift is “not just a ‘name change’ but a paradigm shift which will have a grave impact on the SCs and STs in this country."

Sitaram Yechury, CPM, said, “Rights have been given but there is no plan to back those rights.” He underlined that there is a need to build a broad based movement to fight against the anti-Dalit policies of the present regime. NITI Aayog had sent a letter to state Governments to dilute the SCP/TSP laws.

It is really irony that the people who contributed their work power and land for the development and prosperity of India are ’partners’ in India’s growth, in the words of Modi are denied of their rights and are homeless in their own home. One of the examples of Modi’s lies is his claim that tribals are now partners in the country’s development and benefitting from various welfare schemes launched by the BJP-led government. The PM also announced that henceforth Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, the birth anniversary of revered tribal icon Birsa Munda, will be celebrated like Gandhi Jayanti, Sardar Patel Jayanti and Ambedkar Jayanti. He did not explain the modus operandi, how these freebies would help and empower them.

Nevertheless Modi ought to realise that adivasis do not need charity what they really need is dignity. Modi ought to know that forest laws need to be flexible enough to accommodate and invite collective participations of local stakeholders within an overarching, supportive state setup.

Modi government amended FRA rule in 2012. It was hailed as a radical law. But his government could not explain the rational of amending to the adivasis. If the Modi government had really meant the adivasis to prosper then it should have amended the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 to suit each other.

According to the Forest Rights Act and PESA (Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the gram sabhas are empowered to conserve, protect, manage and utilise the forests and forest produce. But the reality is the adivasis are not supposed to enter into forests. The Forest Act, 1927 gives the forest officers power to arrest those violating the terms of the Act without warrant. The draft also has a shocking provision that states that those raising voice against the Act could also be punished harshly. This would lead to harassment of adivasis and social activists. While the traditional rights of the adivasis are being taken away in the name of protecting and conserving the forests, the government is simultaneously planning a new programme called ’productive forests’.

Contrary to the prime minister’s claims, it is not the Congress, but his own party which has tried every scheme to attack Adivasi rights over natural resources. On April 29, 2019 while addressing an election rally in Jharkhand’s Lohardaga Lok Sabha constituency, Modi claimed that as long as the BJP was in power, no one could seize Adivasis’ land. Incidentally during its stay in power, just before JMM of Hemant Soren replaced it, the BJP leaders used every tactics to change the nature of the state, where according to the constitution and other laws Adivasis have special rights over resources.

The BJP government was never a well-wisher of the adivasis is evident from its introducing the new domicile policy in April 2016 which in a tacit design tried to confer the right of citizenship rights to the non tribals. It stated that those who have been living in the state and have acquired immovable assets in the last 30 years would be considered local residents of the state. This was a clear departure from the past. This policy could not be made a law as the adivasis rose in protest.

In December 1946, at the Constituent Assembly debates, the leader of Adivasi Mahasabha, Jaipal Singh Munda, openly proclaimed himself as a proud Jungli (forest dweller). Munda argued in the assembly that backwardness is not necessarily an attribute of ‘tribalness’; instead, it is a resultant factor of the centuries of exploitation that have been thrust upon them by non-aboriginals. Even Dalit leader Dr B.R. Ambedkar critiqued the caste system as being primarily responsible for manufacturing the pathetic conditions of primitive tribes and criminal tribes in India.

A state-wise comparison of anti-tribal violence is crucial to understanding the scale and causes for this violence. In every state, tribals are oppressed in different ways. In Madhya Pradesh, the prostitution rings exploit the tribals while in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, counter-insurgency operations against Maoists regularly victimize the tribals living there. Figure 2 shows that anti-tribal violence is concentrated in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Most of the tribes are concentrated in these states. However, the reason for such violence differs from state to state. In general, tribals are situated at the margins of society; thus, any kind of systemic violence they face arises from the everyday socio-economic processes of Indian society.

The conviction rate for offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against adivasis was 22.8 per cent between 2009 and 2018, even when such cases rose by 575.33 per cent in that period. There have been incidents where victims have become hostile, and in some cases of sexual violence, victims have been forced to retract the case due to external pressure. Such incidents prove how the Indian State and society are complicit in the violence against tribals. This also causes adivasis also start losing faith in the justice mechanism.

The United Nations [UN] Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review 2016 describes India’s position on the recognition of the indigenous population as paradoxical in terms of policy and practice. Though India voted in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007, it continues to deny the concept of ‘indigenous population’, and claims that all Indians are indigenous. This paradoxical positioning of India on this matter on international platforms shows how the discriminatory nature of anti-tribal violence is subsumed by defining all Indians as indigenous.

In the past few decades, it has been noticed that RSS has been engaged in the task of Hinduizing the tribals in central and north-eastern India. They have successfully opened schools and welfare centers such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the Sewa Bharati, and the Ekal Vidyalaya that proclaim to work for the upliftment and development of the tribals. But the naked fact is these groups working in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh have created rift between the Christian tribals and Hindu tribals from the early 1990s itself.

The Madhya Pradesh forest department recently bulldozed several dwellings of the Bhil and Barela Adivasi communities in the Khandwa district. The eviction has rendered more than 40 families, who have been living there since 1963, homeless. Officials destroyed their fields and crops, thereby cutting off their source of food and livelihood.

The implementation of the FRA, however, remains abysmal. The FRA mandates a transparent monitoring system for disputes or claims over forest land. In the present case, the forest officials reportedly carried out the eviction without prior warning, leaving community members without shelter. This is more concerning during the pandemic.

The Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy group (CFR-LA) in a 2016 citizen’s report identified Madhya Pradesh as a “laggard” state in its implementation of Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights, which the report cites as the most important set of rights. CFR rights are one of 14 rights recognized under the FRA, which allow communities “to use, manage and govern forests within the traditional boundaries of villages.”

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