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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

Social Justice in India: An Adivasi Perspective

Saturday 18 May 2019

by Nayakara Veeresha

February 20 is observed every year since 2009 by the United Nations as the “World Day of Social Justice (WDSJ)”. The purpose is to take stock of the plight of injustice across the globe and to push for tenable solutions in mitigating the same. It recognises the need to alleviate the levels of poverty, social exclusion, of reducing unemployment, addressing gender inequality, promoting effective participation in decision-making and access to opportunities and justice for all. Set in this context, it is pertinent to look into the aspects of justice in general and social justice in particular in the Indian scenario. The Preamble of the Constitution of India promulgated Justice broadly in terms social, economic and political aspects.

In A Theory of Jusitce John Rawls identifies two “principles of justice”: the first is, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”; the second, “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”. To what extent our democracy has ensured justice to the historically socio-economic and politically alienated communities in particular and to its citizens in general needs to be understood. Here, an attempt has been made to explore the nuances of social justice with specific reference to the Adivasis (STs).

Adivasis, the first/original inhabitants, officially classified as the ‘Scheduled Tribes’, constitute 8.6 per cent of the total population as per the Census of India, 2011. They are the most vulnerable sections of the society with 47.4 per cent living below the poverty line and 41 per cent of them still illiterate. Half of the females are illiterate. Apart from North-Eastern States, adivasis are mostly concentrated in Central India. Adivasis of Central India are caught in the civil war engineered by what is popularly known as ‘Naxalism’ or ‘Maoism’ or ‘Left-Wing Extremism’ perceived as the ‘biggest internal security threat that the country has ever faced’ by none other than our former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The statement may have its own merit at least from the dimensions of security aspects.

However, in the process actually sidelined or ignored are the issues of the adivasis’ political rights, especially land rights, right to self-govern as mandated in the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution supplemented by the legislations of the ‘Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas, PESA), 1996’ and the ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’. It is also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Indian state has followed the reductionist approach to divert the attention of the nation from the structural issues pertaining to the insurrection. Those are alienation of land from the adivasis to non-adivasis through deeply entrenched social structures such as jaati (caste), functioning of modern institutions of governance in Scheduled Areas (SAs), the role of the state in reproducing the inequalities through the exclusionary education system, employment sectors, disempowerment of youth, injustices via state development policies, rampant human rights violations and sexual exploitation of local adivasis by the security agencies.

Unfortunately, these issues do not find space in the sanitised discourse of an imported binary model of insurgency-counterinsurgency from the United States of America. The insurrection resulted in the gradual decline of the adivasi population, especially in the seven districts of the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh State, that is, the central location of insurrection. The adivasi population in the State in 2001 was 31.8 per cent; it has come down to 30.6 in 2011. Historically, the development process in India, particularly since Independence, has excluded the adivasis and they have benefited from the fruits of development.

The socio-economic status gives a dismal picture of the tale of adivasi lives. As many as 60.3 per cent of the people are still dependent upon well and hand pump for the source of drinking water. Among this, 33.6 per cent of adivasis do not have access near the premises. 45.6 percent do not have electricity and 68.6 percentage of HHs do not have bathing facility within the premises. As many as 77.3 per cent of adivasis do not have drainage connectivity. The prevalence of anaemia in adivasi women is 68.5 per cent. Among all the social groups, in spite of high worker population ratio which is 452 per 1000 persons, the adivasis’ income levels are very low.

Adivasis are exclusively dependent upon the agriculture sector and minor forest produces (MFPs) for their economic sustenance; they have suffered a lot due to the demonetisation. Attenuating further the financial instability of adivasis the Union Government has reduced the minimum support price of 10 MFPs. This has been a huge setback for the economic livelihood of the adivasis and other forest-based communities. Most importantly, chironjee pods with seed rate has come down to Rs 60 from Rs 100, Rs 100 from Rs 230 for rangini lac, Rs 150 from Rs 320 for kusumi lac, Rs 18 from Rs 21 for karanj seed and Rs 20 from Rs 22 for mahuwa seeds. The government argues that it has taken this decision to augment the loss incurred by the State governments and holds this as a rationalisation step.

The October-November time period is the peak season for the collection of lac. Demonetisation and reduction of prices of MFPs have come exactly during this period considerably decreasing the income of adivasis. A decade back the former Vice-President of India, Hamid Ansari, said that “for the 85 million Scheduled Tribes in India, the struggle to retain their identities and seek empowerment through our Constituional framework has not yielded commensurate outcomes” and described the plight of adivasis as “unpalatable”. The indigenous communities all over the world are experiencing various forms of alienation. Among these, alienation of rights over land, forest and other natural resources is the most serious one. The evolution of the ‘modern nation-sate’ has usurped territorial autonomy and traditional rights of the indigenous peoples.

It is manifested in the cultural appropriation, taking away community rights over natural resources, land alienation, development-induced development and traditional governing institutions of adivasis in the mainstream society. All the progressive laws of the Constitution meant for the protection of adivasi rights have not been implemented by the Union and State governments in letter and spirit. The ineffective implementation is quite evident in the insurrection areas. The State governments are comfortably neglecting the constitutional obligations towards the well-being of the adivasis. The systematic exclusion of adivasi rights by the Indian state has given rise to a situation best described as alienated citizenship. It means that the rights of adivasis as citizens of India are alienated by the institutions of governance. The socio-economic and political alienation of adivasis has produced discontent towards the current governance system and legitimacy crises of the state in India.

Systemic ‘alienation’

The social exclusionary practices of the State and Union governments towards the adivasi communities bring forth the concept of alienated citizenship in India. The alienation is the undercurrent in the formulation of public policies, related institutional arrangements producing structural inequalities and violence, defective implementation of the existing programmes/schemes, inadequate budgetary allocations for the social welfare and, most importantly, weak state and administrative capacity that are unable to deal sternly with the injustices and discriminatory practices. Going back to the Rawls principles of justice, what we can see in India is that in spite of progressive constitutional provisions there is a constant denial of the rights of the historically marginalised sections of the people.

Right to justice in all forms of life is indispen-sable to build a just society. The practices of structural violence embedded in institutions of governance require inward looking by the Indian state to draw inputs for the inclusive policies. The question is whether the Indian state lends its ears to the self-judgmental approach in order to strengthen the local democracy through FRA and PESA in the Scheduled Areas to deliver the developmental outcomes. The functional experience of ‘modern nation-state’ shows that the Indian state is weak when it comes to resolving its own structural constraints and institutional deficits to restore the order. In the context of persuading the power of neo-liberal policies through capital, the state’s role needs a radical transformation from an unjust to an ethical entity as envisioned by Hegel. Without social justice political democracy can’t sustain.


Government of India (2013), Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India 2013, New Delhi: Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

The author is a Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru. He can be contacted at e-mail: veeresha[ and nayakaraveeresha[at]

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