People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 14, 2004

Say No To NDA’s Tribal Policy, AIDWA Asks Govt


On November 3, the minister for tribal affairs P R Kyndiah assured a delegation of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) of sympathetic consideration of its demand to review the national tribal policy that the previous NDA government had adopted and to frame a policy that would reflect the needs and aspirations of tribal communities. The delegation consisting of Brinda Karat, Archana Prasad, Premila Pandhe and Manjeet Rathee pointed out that the NDA’s tribal policy was made public only two days before the last general elections and was “adopted” without any discussions in parliament. It was unfortunate that, instead of framing a new policy, the UPA government has called for discussions on this flawed framework. 

The minister agreed with the delegation on some of the issues raised. These included the dubious formulation in the policy regarding the tribals’ “assimilation” --- a code word for the RSS understanding of undermining tribal identity. The minister said he believed in “integration, not assimilation.”


The AIDWA team also pointed out that there is a multiplicity of authority as far as tribal rights are concerned since the environment and forests ministry has pursued policies that are inimical to tribal advance. An example given by the delegation was the GO issued in May 2002 by the ministry, which ordered the tribals’ eviction from forests in the name of environment protection. The delegation demanded that the tribal affairs ministry should take this issue up and get the circular withdrawn. The minister said this matter would have to go to the cabinet. The minister also agreed to an AIDWA request that the detailed memorandum given to him by the organisation should be included in the ongoing discussions and AIDWA representatives called in meetings proposed in this regard. 


The text of the memorandum, given to the minister, is being published below.


IT has come to our notice that the draft national policy for tribals, 2004, is under the process of finalisation by the ministry of tribal affairs. We believe that the tribal policy of the NDA is not in the interests of tribal communities. The policy was never discussed in parliament; on the contrary, it was issued just two days before the announcement of the general elections of 2004. The framework itself is flawed and needs to be replaced by a more comprehensive policy.


During its tenure the NDA government had formed the ministry of tribal affairs in 1999. However, many issues crucial for the rights of tribals were put under the jurisdiction of the ministry of environment and forests and this multiplicity has proved to be a barrier in the formulation of a comprehensive and holistic approach to issues concerning tribal communities. Further, a tribal policy must address the intensified problems faced by tribal communities as a result of neo-liberal policies and the overall assault on the livelihood of the tribal people, especially after the repeated attempts to privatise the natural resources on which they are dependent. A tribal policy must also fulfil the objectives of ensuring that tribal areas and tribal people get access to basic amenities, rights on natural resources and democratic rights.


However, the draft policy wants to hand over the entire responsibility to NGOs.  It states that its main aim is to “bring the schedule tribes into the mainstream of society through a multi-pronged approach for their all-round development without disturbing their distinct culture.” In order to fulfil this, the policy makes the time tested promises of providing schools, three tier health system and some PDS facilities for the forest villages. However, the policy does not reassert the state’s commitment to providing these facilities. On the contrary, it lays stress on development in a “participatory way” which is building partnerships with NGOs and voluntary agencies. It states that “some well established NGOs are eager to take part in the development of schedule tribes in general and primitive tribal groups in particular.” Who are these well established groups? Going by the funding policy of the previous government, they consist in the main of RSS affiliates while others working in the field have been ignored. The policy seeks to “enlist and encourage NGOs in tribal development activities” and these efforts are to concentrate on their role in the opening of “schools, hostels, vocational training centres, promotion of awareness programmes and capacity building.” Surely, the UPA government will not commit itself to accept this framework which in fact is nothing but shirking state responsibility for the minimum tasks required to be fulfilled for tribal development.


The policy contains formulations on primitive tribes and cultural identities which are dangerously self-contradictory and unclear and which can be interpreted to mean denial of constitutional rights to primitive tribes in the name of assimilation to the mainstream and to give rights to non-tribals in the name of encouraging tribal “interaction with outsiders.” Indeed it is the same terminology used by the British in their “civilising mission” of the colonial period. This entire section termed “Assimilation” is reflective of the dubious designs of the Sangh Parivar.


Shockingly, the policy does not mention any issues connected with housing, employment, reservations, and food security [the extension of the PDS system is only mentioned in the case of forest villages], and drinking water [only mentioned as an aside in the health section]. Some telling omissions in the present draft policy include the following.


TRIBAL WOMEN: It does not address the problems of tribal women who are rendered totally invisible in the policy with not even a cursory mention and also bonded and wage labour in tribal areas. The crucial issue for tribal women is that of access to forests, land, work and equal wages.


It is essential to have a tribal woman centred tribal policy since it is tribal women who do the most work for family survival. Tribal women are the most vulnerable targets of exploitation by forest guards, non-tribal landlords, moneylenders and traders. The tribal policy must unambiguously protect and defend tribal women’s rights to minor forest produce. The policy must make a commitment for work guarantees and equal wages. At the same time, the central policy on self-help groups completely omits the special needs of tribal women. Indeed they are invisible in the SHG policies of banks and other financial institutions. Special efforts to help tribal women access official schemes including of self-help groups must form part of the policy.


Tribal women have also been the worst affected by the collapse of the public distribution system. As a first step, the entire tribal area should be eligible for Antodaya benefits. The lives of tribal women are blighted by the enormous amount of time spent for collection of water, lack of supplies of drinking water and reliance on natural water sources which have become depleted, polluted or dried up. As an urgent task the tribal policy has to make a commitment for supplies of drinking water in tribal areas. Even the meager amount of land distributed to tribals in most states do not include joint pattas for tribal women. This must be ensured.


EMPLOYMENT AND RESERVATIONS: The current debate on the reservation in jobs and universities for tribal people remains unaddressed in this tribal policy. In the wake of the disinvestment of the public sector, the government needs to make its strategy clear with respect to addressing the needs of the educated tribal youth. It also needs to show how it will fill the backlog with respect to vacant reserved positions in government. The National Commission for Schedule Castes and Tribes has shown that there is a backlog to the tune of 65-70 per cent in all categories of employment. Further, the government also needs to reiterate its commitment towards making special provisions to ensure employment and minimum wages to all tribal people in the remote rural areas. Further though, there are lots of references to “skill upgradation of the staff” and “vocational training and polytechnics for tribal” but there is no commitment to expand credit facilities for the self-employment of tribal people. It also needs to make a clearer commitment to implement food for work programmes, in areas which are facing starvation and endemic hunger. We feel that chronic “malnutrition and undernutrition” are not simply problems of health, but symptomatic of the grave economic and livelihood crisis in tribal life and have to be addressed as such.


FOREST RIGHTS, CONSERVATION AND OWNERSHIP OF PRODUCE: The policy has to squarely address crucial issues of forest rights, conservation and the question of ownership of produce. At present these crucial issues come under the environment ministry. The retrograde circular of 2000, which gives license for eviction of tribals in the name of forest conservation, has serious implications and must be withdrawn. Thousands of tribal families have already been evicted in states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh. In contrast the governments of West Bengal and Tripura have ensured protection of tribal rights to forests where they have always lived. The government will have to take a pro-tribal view on this serious issue and ensure that tribals presently living within forest areas should be protected.


It is strange that the issue of forest rights, ownership and marketing of produce is subsumed in the section on “forest villages.” Does the government agree with the view that only tribals living in “forest villages” are eligible for these rights and not all tribals and marginalised people in general? This logic explains its lack of focus on the rampant exploitation of the forest produce collectors; it is silent on government responsibility to provide marketing and credit facilities to enhance income generation and skills among tribals; to protect tribals from rapacious moneylenders and traders. Rather the section of the policy on indigenous knowledge is so vague that it can even facilitate the penetration of corporate capital in resource rich tribal areas. In the context of the declared policy of the environment ministry under the previous regime to allow business corporations access to the rich mineral resources in tribal areas in the name of tribal development, the ambiguity on this issue is ominous. It needs to be noted that in the Samta vs Andhra Pradesh government case, the Supreme Court has unequivocally stated that no such exploitation of natural resources in tribal areas can be used without the express permission of the tribal communities. The form of consultation needs to be concretised. The tribal policy must be clear on protection of this legal right of the tribals.


DISPLACEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT: Though the section on displacement and resettlement is a welcome step in the policy, its linkages with the proposed National Rehabilitation Policy are unclear. Even while it makes the oft repeated claims about providing land, compensation and basic amenities it makes no assurances about employment and the guarantee of employment of tribal labour in the development and industrial projects in their own areas. Further, it also does not state that they should have the first right over the benefits of any projects that deprive them of rights over their own natural resources. In addition to this the policy also needs to make a positive statement on the involvement of tribal representatives in clearing of large projects in their areas and the formulation of the rehabilitation plan of that area.


LAND REFORM AND OWNERSHIP: The policy proposes rationalising the land tenure system in tribal areas so that land is given to the tiller in areas where tribals are tilling land. But there are at least four areas where clarification is required: (1) The policy needs clarification because the shifting cultivation areas it mentions are in forested areas (and are often termed as encroached lands) that are owned by the state. But the policy does not mention how it is going to solve the conflict between this policy and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. Clearly the forest departments notification of May 2002 mentioned earlier are in direct contradiction with this policy. (2) The policy mentions land distribution without reference to which land is to be distributed. If the right of peoples over common land is to be protected and not converted into private property, then clearly the land has to be through implementation of land ceiling laws, takeover of surplus land and distribution to landless communities including tribals. In the absence of a clearly defined policy land reform will remain a mere intention. The government of India seems to be more interested in creating land tenures by providing for the creation of private property rights in commons rather than controlling the accumulation of property by a few landowners. (3) The other aspect is that of land alienation that is greatly increasing because of increased exploitation, causing poverty of tribal communities in most parts of India. The tribal policy must commit governments to prevent land alienation, restoration of tribal land to non-tribals. We say this not because these terms are not mentioned in the document, but because the flaws and problems in their implementation are not taken into account while reiterating the government’s commitment to prevent land alienation. (4) Further, the problem of land grabbing by prominent persons and benami land transactions is not addressed in the section on land alienation.


One of the main problems with land alienation is the problem of debt. Even though laws and policies ban money lending in the area, often conditions of distress force the tribals to sell their land. The policy does not take this factor into account and does not even attempt at acknowledging the problem of the hold of the trader over tribal society and economy.


The creation of land rights over marginal lands as proposed in the policy will not solve the problem of tribal livelihood and shifting cultivation. The low productivity of these lands will not allow sustainable and secure employment and has to be combined with non-farm employment that requires better market access, technology inputs and credit facilities. Indeed the improvement of infrastructure is the key to development of tribal areas but this is totally ignored in the policy.


BASIC NEEDS AND INFRASTRUCTURE IN TRIBAL AREAS: The need for economic as well as social infrastructures in tribal areas does not form part of the tribal policy. Roads, transport must be developed. The false understanding that such essential rights would destroy the “natural habitation” of tribal communities is entirely misplaced. At the same time, the crucial issues are provision of housing, drinking water, PDS, electrification, and rural infrastructure. There is a serious flaw in the perspective of the document that mentions these basic amenities only in the section on “forest villages” and “displacement and rehabilitation.” Even worse is the fact that need for roads and transport is only addressed as a measure to end “their geographical isolation.” Does this government also believe that the lack of roads and transportation is only a social and cultural problem which is preventing the “assimilation” of tribal people into the mainstream? The commitment of the state to provide basic amenities to all tribal people needs to be reiterated.


HEALTH: Tribal communities are worst hit by so many diseases related to poor sanitation facilities. Tribal deaths due to cerebral malaria are one of the worst and most concealed aspects of callous policies towards tribal communities. While the government makes a token commitment to expanding allopathic health care, clearly its preference is for ayurvedic and tribal medicine. This is not surprising in the context of the NDA’s commitment to “revive India’s ancient culture.” The policy of validating indigenous knowledge and medicinal practices is not in itself bad, but it is harmful when this policy replaces the commitment to provide access to essential medicines to tribal people. The issue of providing the necessary facilities to all PHCs (primary health centers) in tribal areas and providing access to essential medicines needs to be integrated into the policy in a more central manner. Further, the commitment towards the expansion of child care facilities and ICDS and Anganwadi networks in tribal areas should also be emphasised. Strategies also need to be formulated to lower the IMR of these areas.


EDUCATION: Significantly, the policy focuses its attention on “education” for tribals. This would be welcome had the policy not been geared to the communal and Hindutva agenda of the previous government. The right of tribal children to formal education has been denied. Instead of a commitment to strengthen the infrastructure and network for primary and secondary schools, in the name of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan there is a proliferation of non-formal education institutions leading in turn to increased drop-out rates from the formal school system. In some cases formal schools have been replaced by “education guarantee scheme” schools and Shiksha Karmi schools, increasing the gap between tribals and others. The inclusion of tribal people in the SSA scheme is hardly likely to lead to the improvement in the formal education system and reduce the disparities between the formal education in tribal and non-tribal areas. This can only be done by strengthening the network of primary schools in these areas and ensuring that the teachers are given enough incentive to stay there. The prevention of high drop-out rates and the education of the girl child are not included in the section on “formal education.”


Of great concern has been the policy of the previous government to hand over the informal education institutions to NGOs, through which RSS affiliated organisations have had access to government funds and tribal areas to spread communal propaganda in the name of education. This is also part of the general scheme for privatisation of education. With the absence of a network of government schools, tribals have no choice or alternative to attending such schools. 


INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE: An important feature of the draft national policy is its focus on turning to tribal indigenous knowledge as an alternative to the current systems, especially in the field of health. This can only be in addition to a proper primary health care system, not a substitute for it. There is also a reference to the granting of intellectual property rights to tribals for their knowledge and curtailing corporate rights in these natural habitats. However, there are certain problems in this connection primarily the refusal of the government to protect India’s patent laws against the conditions of the WTO and the World Bank. In addition, experience in the Kani case has shown that the monetary benefits that were to have accrued to the people as a result of granting them intellectual property rights did not reach them. Instead, there was a commodification of their knowledge and resources and these became more susceptible to corporate exploitation. The practical difficulties of fixing the ownership of these resources also make the issue of intellectual property rights complicated. There is a conflict over whether a particular tribe owns the diversity over its local region, or whether these resources should be considered national resources. Experience has shown that the documentation of traditional knowledge has almost always led to its appropriation by MNCs and funding agencies. In the current phase of liberalisation this is even more likely because most national and regional level S&T institutions are working towards meeting the demands of the export market rather than developing local knowledge systems to benefit local people. If tribal indigenous knowledge has to be protected, the IPR regime has to be reviewed and necessary amendments made as suggested by many specialists in the area, including the national working group on patent laws, who should be consulted before any policy steps on this are taken.


POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: The policy rhetorically states the need for greater autonomy to tribal institutions but how this is to be done is omitted. For example, it makes a mention of the need for special mechanism to address tribal problems, but refuses to acknowledge the fact that such development agencies have existed in fifth schedule areas since 1978. But why have they not worked? Without a review of the working of existing agencies it is pointless to talk of “special mechanisms.”


In fact the institutions, which can actually help, give tribals democratic right and autonomy such as through the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas Act) 1996 does not find a mention in the document! Does this mean that the government is not committed to its implementation? Even though the policy deals with the problem of forest villages, it does not make the promise of converting them into revenue villages: a longstanding demand. Similarly, it speaks of strengthening tribal councils, but does not mention the need for inclusion of one-third reservation for women. At the same time, it wants to increase the power of the state through enhancing powers to the governor. This is a dangerous suggestion and can erode the entire basis for the autonomous working of the schedule. There is no mention of even implementing the legislative changes for autonomy in the sixth schedule as proposed by the national review committee on the constitution, and organisations like AIDWA.


Given the serious gaps and wrong direction of the present draft, particularly in relation to the assurances given for tribal rights in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA, it would be necessary to scrap the proposed policy and to draft another policy which would reflect these commitments as also the points made in this memorandum to you. We hope you will give some consideration to this memorandum.