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  Opinion   Columnists  27 Sep 2021  Mohan Guruswamy | Why governance fails in India’s tribal areas

Mohan Guruswamy | Why governance fails in India’s tribal areas

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Sep 28, 2021, 1:25 am IST
Updated : Sep 28, 2021, 1:25 am IST

A Cabinet Committee on Tribal Affairs was meant to constantly review the policy


The Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 of the Constitution of India in 1950 provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas. In 1999 the Government of India even issued a draft National Policy on Tribals to address the development needs of tribal people. Special emphasis was laid on education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights.

The first NDA government even established a tribal affairs ministry. The draft was meant to be circulated between MPs, MLAs and civil society
groups. A Cabinet Committee on Tribal Affairs was meant to constantly review the policy. Little has happened since.

Even though the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, real tribal issues relating to their culture,
way of life and aspirations were not addressed. Not to be left behind, the UPA government drafted the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005 but did not act upon it due to pressure mounted by self-styled wildlife activists and the wildlife tourism lobby.

Even before Independence, on December 16, 1946, welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, the legendary adivasi leader, Jaipal Singh Munda, stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly. Jaipal Singh, after a childhood herding cattle, was educated at St. Paul’s School, Ranchi, and at St. John’s College, Oxford University, where he studied economics. He was an Oxford Blue in hockey and played for India in the Olympics. He entered the ICS but resigned a year later, in 1935. Jaipal Singh told the Constituent Assembly: “As a jungli, as an adivasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated, it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers -- most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned -- it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness… The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of Independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”

The resolution, to Jaipal Singh, was simply a modern restatement of his own people’s point of view. In adivasi society, there was no discrimination by caste and gender. Thus “you cannot teach democracy to the tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them”. The adivasis paid dearly for taking Jawaharlal Nehru at his word.

There are some 573 communities recognised by the government as Scheduled Tribes and therefore eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures and schools. The biggest tribal group, the Gonds, number about 7.4 million; followed by the Santhals with about 4.2 million. Central India is home to the country’s largest tribes, and, taken as a whole, roughly 75 per cent of the total tribal population live there.

Tribal people account for 8.2 per cent of India’s population. They are spread over all of India’s states and Union territories. Even so, they can be broadly classified into three groupings. The first grouping consists of populations who predate the Indo-Aryan migrations. These are termed by many anthropologists as the Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people. The Central Indian adivasis belong to this grouping. The other two major groupings are the Caucasoid and Sino-Tibetan or Mongoloid tribal people of the north and northeast regions who migrated at later periods.

The other two broad tribal groupings have fared better in the post-Independence period. In Odisha, over 72 per cent of all adivasis live well below the poverty line. At the national level, 45.86 per cent of adivasis live below the poverty line. Incidentally, the official Indian poverty line is a nothing more than a starvation line, which means that almost half of

India’s original inhabitants go to bed every night starving. Several anthropometric studies have revealed that successive generations of adivasis are actually becoming smaller, unlike all other people in India who benefit from better and increasingly state-subsidised nutritious diets.

There are 332 tribal majority tehsils in India, of which 110 are in the Northeast and the rest in Central India. These areas lend themselves for the implementation of the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution that provided for self-governance in specified tribal majority areas.

But there are several paradoxes that must also be dealt with first. The most important of these is to provide good government in the worst of law and order environments. A better civil administration structure must come up in place of the one present. This means the best officers drawn from across the country. Perhaps it is time to constitute a new All India Service, similar to the former Indian Frontier Administrative Service. The IFAS was an eclectic group of officers drawn from various arms of the government to administer the tribal districts of the Northeast. Unfortunately, it was merged into the IAS.

All tribal majority areas must be consolidated into administrative divisions whose authority must be vested with democratically chosen leadership. This body could be called the Adivasi Maha-panchayat and must function as a largely autonomous institution. All laws passed by the state legislatures must be ratified to the satisfaction of the Maha-panchayat. Instead of the state capital-controlled government, the instruments of public administration dealing with education, health, irrigation, roads and land records must be handed over to the local government structures. The police must also be made answerable to local elected officials and not be a law unto themselves. The lament of the adivasi about their role in their government is well known. It is the subject of many a folk song.

“And the Gods were greatly troubled/ in their heavenly courts and councils/ Sat no Gods of Gonds among them./ Gods of other nations sat there/ Eighteen threshing-floors of Brahmins/ Sixteen scores of Telinganas/ But no Gods of Gonds appeared there/ From the Glens of Seven Mountains/ From the twelve hills of the valleys.”

Tags: government of india, nda government, scheduled tribes, constituent assembly