People's Democracy

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


No. 24

June 13, 2010

Towards the National Convention on Tribal Rights

Brinda Karat


On June 12 and 13, around 230 delegates from States across the country will participate in a National Convention on Tribal Rights to share their experiences of resistance and struggle and to work out a plan for future actions on the urgent issues and demands of tribal communities. The convention will also discuss the steps required for expansion and consolidation of organised work among tribal communities. On the agenda of the convention is the formation of an Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch — a national platform for tribal rights — which should help to build a coordinated and effective nationwide movement and intervention in defence of and for the advancement of the rights of tribal citizens of India.


The concerns of tribal communities for justice surely do hold an equally importance place for other organised anti-capitalist, anti-landlord movements like those of the kisans and the trade unions. Further, in most spheres such as employment, health, education, and in basic socio-economic indicators, tribal citizens among students, women and youth share the lowest rung of the hierarchy with the SCs. This convention will also include delegates from the major organisations representing these different sections which will provide an opportunity to understand the multi-dimensional character of the present offensive faced by tribal citizens.


The policies of the UPA government led by the Congress party, and an intensification of the policies followed by the earlier NDA government as far as forcible land evictions, takeover of tribal land for corporates in violation of constitutional provisions, its policies leading to further food insecurity and widespread malnutrition among adivasi communities, make a mockery of its claims of inclusive growth. The convention is slated to discuss the importance of intensifying the struggles against the present central government and its policies.


No movement for justice can hope to advance if it does not address in specific terms the oppressions and exploitations of different social groups in our country, be they the scheduled castes, the scheduled Tribes, women who suffer particular discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender or those like the minority Muslim community who suffer discrimination on the basis of their religion.


Tribal communities face both social and economic discrimination and exploitation. The large majority of tribals belong to the exploited classes and thus form a most important contingent, in class terms, in the struggle for revolutionary social change.




As many as 70 per cent of the tribal people are small and marginal farmers owning small plots of land with very low levels of productivity. Over 30 per cent of the tribals are landless. It is estimated that between 15-20 per cent of tribals are without even homestead land and houses. Ironically, the most deprived in our society, the tribals, live on the most sought after mineral-rich land and are the victims of predatory policies intensified under both the NDA and the UPA regimes, which give license to corporate houses to grab the land, to evict the tribals while giving them meagre or no compensation.


The issue of land rights, of land reforms, of the struggle against displacement, of the struggle against land alienation will no doubt be a central issue in the convention. Since 2002, 4 million hectares of forestland has been diverted for projects for SEZs, mining, irrigation, dams etc, displacing lakhs of tribal and other poor families. In this period many important and militant struggles for land led by Left led organisations of the tribals have taken place such as those in Vishakha and Pollavaram in Andhra Pradesh, in Sundargarh, Jejpur and Jagjitsighnagar in Orissa, in Ranchi, Kundahit and Dumka in Jharkhand, in Thane, Nanded and Nasik in Maharashtra, in Satna and Shadol in Madhya Pradesh. Many participants in these struggles will attend the convention and the delegates will have an opportunity to hear first hand accounts of the struggles. Experience shows that it is not a blanket opposition to all projects in tribal areas. The position taken depends upon the displacement and environmental damage which it would cause and the negative impact it may have on tribal livelihoods. The procedures and processes of consent of gram sabhas in the Fifth Schedule areas or compact tribal areas are also crucial and no clearances can be given without such consent. In some areas alternative sites have been suggested. There are also cases where alternative irrigation projects and dams have been suggested which would have been less displacing but have been refused by the Governments concerned leading to intensified struggles. At the same time, the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the unwarranted interventions of the forest department in several states to sabotage the process of giving pattas to adivasis on forest land is a matter of deep concern. Official statistics point to an alarming number of claimants to land which have been rejected. As per the information on the Ministry of Tribal Affairs website, till March 31, 2010, more than 27.44 lakh claims have been filed but only one-fourth, 7.82 lakh titles have been distributed.



The acute crisis in agriculture in tribal compact areas with little or no irrigation as well as the massive displacement taking place in tribal areas and the relentless process of land alienation even in areas protected under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, is forcing tribals to join the ranks of the rural and urban proletariat and as workers in the unorganised sector.


For example, a large number of tribal men and women are joining the construction industry. Trade unions of construction workers, organised by the CITU with a large membership of tribals, can play an important role in organising tribals in rural areas because of the close links with the tribals living in tribal compact areas.


Large numbers of tribals are also employed as coal workers or in iron ore mines, quarries though mostly as contract or casual workers with very few rights, as brick kiln workers and so on, and women are migrating to become domestic workers in cities. Thus there is a growing potential for tribals workers to join the common trade unions of workers provided there is sensitivity to their specific social and economic position. It has been seen in States like Andhra Pradesh where the Girijan Sangham has made specific attempts, how tribal anganwadi workers have taken the lead in organising other less organised sections of the rural poor tribals. These inspiring examples of the leading role of tribal employees and working class members to organise the less organised can show the way for others.




The aggressive spread of capitalist relations in the agrarian sector and its impact on tribal communities has its reflection on not only the economic and social sphere but on the cultural frameworks within which tribal communities live and work. The languages and cultures of tribal people are under severe attack. Capitalist values and consumerism have their own impact even on marriage practices in tribal communities with hitherto unheard of practices like dowry demands making an appearance. Dominant casteist Hindutva cultures are also sought to be imposed. 


The National Convention is being held at a time of twin assaults on tribal cultures and identities. On the one hand are those forces who seek to divide tribals in the name of religion led by fundamentalists. Many of these are front organisations working under the aegis of the RSS.  We have seen the dreadful face of these forces in the violence for example in Kandhamal in Orissa where divisions and rifts created by RSS organisations in the name of ethnic and caste identities among communities equally poor led to terrible consequences of loss of lives, livelihoods and fraternal relations. On the other hand are certain NGOs funded by imperialist forces and other political forces who are promoting different variants of identity politics. In doing so they seek to fragment and separate the identity of tribal communities from their proletarian character, isolating them from the joint struggles of workers and peasants. These trends do great damage to the democratic requirement to protect tribal cultures languages and identities, while building unity in the struggles of all working people for justice and for the defence and advancement of the rights of tribal peoples.


In this context the convention will have the opportunity to hear the experience of the delegates from many states, particularly of those from the states where there are Left led governments. Although Jharkhand is a Fifth Schedule area with a large population of Santhals, the Santhals of Jharkhand do not have the same rights as their counterparts across the border in West Bengal, where the Left Front government has set up as many as 1500 schools with the Ol Chiki language (spoken by Santhals) as the medium of instruction to ensure that the right of education in one’s own language is ensured to tribal communities. In Jharkhand there are not even one third of such schools. Similiarly, in Tripura, it is the Left Front Government which has recognised and developed Kok Borok as the language of instruction demanding its inclusion in the eighth schedule of the constitution.




In this period, in many states, tribal communities have become victim to the violent activities of Maoists whose savage and indiscriminate violence against all those who dare oppose them has victimised tribals many of whom have been brutally killed for opposing the Maoists. In some states like Chhattisgarh the state has unleashed repression in tribal areas in the name of fighting Maoists. We strongly condemn such repression. Innocent tribals are caught between the Maoist and official repression in this state, leading to the condemnable displacement and terrible suffering of thousands of tribal families, particularly tribal women who have also been brutally assaulted by security forces in several instances, including sexual assault.


The claim of the Maoists that they represent the interests of tribals will no doubt be challenged by the experiences of many of the delegations. In Orissa, when the loved and respected trade union leader of the iron ore mine workers Comrade Thomas Munda was brutally killed by Maoists, the question is who benefited except the management and labour contractors of the mines who wanted to retrench the workers but were prevented from doing so by the courageous leadership provided by Thomas Munda. 3000 adivasis were displaced by Maoist violence in this area of Sundargarh for six months. Their land was taken over by the Maoists. These families have now gone back to their village determined to till their own land and face the Maoists. In Jharkhand in a similar deal between Maoists and industrialists, large amounts of land have been forcibly taken over by a well known steel company in the East Singhhum area of Jharkhand where the Maoist presence is strong. Similarly, in the Latehar district also, a well known company had forcibly taken over land under the benign patronage of the Maoists. Among the delegations will be that of West Bengal, many of the delegates from the worst affected areas, where to be a CPI(M) supporter is to court death and violence. They have seen the brutal killing of their comrades in the Jangal Mahal areas.Yet these comrades live through these high levels of tension on a daily basis unwavering in their commitment to fighting the mindless violence of the Maoists in West Bengal and their reactionary aim to eliminate CPI(M) cadre and to help the anti-Left forces destabilise the government. The Maoists masquerading in the name of Left politics have to be fought at the political and ideological level while at the same time we demand firm administrative measures against their activities.




In the North-East, policies of successive governments leading to underdevelopment and grave disparities have fanned ethnic violence of one tribe against the other as in Assam. Extremist forces have targeted innocent people causing great insecurity to the lives of common people. In this context is the inspiring example of Tripura under the Left Front government and Left led movements, which have through pro-people, pro-tribal policies and struggles been able to politically isolate extremist forces who sought to disrupt unity between tribal and non-tribal citizens, and have built a strong democratic movement for justice.




The major issues are certainly those of land rights and livelihood, jobs and ensuring that thousands of vacancies in government ST reserved posts are filled. At the same time the impact of neo-liberal policies in tribal compact areas is seen in the official statistics that show that in all major social sector areas, the status of tribal communities is way below the national average in terms of education, access to health facilities, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, roads, infrastructure. The specific experiences of tribal women, students and youth and the impact of current economic polices on them will no doubt form an important part of the charter of demands that the convention is expected to discuss and finalise.


While the hard work and labour of tribals contributes considerably to the country’s GDP, it is tribals who are the most deprived of the fruits of the current growth rates that India boasts of.


This is reflected in the central government budgetary allocations. Although in monetary terms the allocations are higher, in terms of the percentage of allocations for the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) which it is mandated must be in proportion to the tribal population, the allocations are far less. The proportion of total plan outlay of the central government earmarked for STs has in fact decreased from 4.77 percent in 2007-08 (budget estimate) to 4.45 percent in 2008-09 (BE). The allocation for the TSP as a percentage of the annual plan expenditure in 2010-2011 should be around Rs 23, 311 crore, but it is less than half of that.




In contrast, Left led governments have tried to implement pro-tribal policies. To give a few examples: In West Bengal, tribals constitute 5.5 per cent of the population but they constitute 19 per cent of the beneficiaries of land distribution. As far as the prices for minor forest produce are concerned, West Bengal has the highest rates. For example, in case of tendu leaves, whereas 100 rupees are paid here for collection of 5000 leaves, in comparison to 80 rupees in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. It is only in West Bengal that 1.75 lakh senior tribal citizens are being given 750 rupees a month as old age pensions. The process of certification has been simplified and being conducted through open enquiries.


With a tribal population of around 30 percent Tripura under the Left front Government has set an example  not only the best among NE states, but has a high ranking in the whole country with the central government also noting in several reports its record in ensuring that the benefits of existing schemes reach the tribal communities. Tripura has the best record in implementation of the Sixth Schedule, the guarantee of regular elections, the strengthening of democratic structures through the formation of elected village committees. Tripura has the best record in implementation of the Forest Rights Act and granting of pattas to the tribal beneficiaries.


In Kerala, where there is a 1.26 percent of tribal population, the LDF government has taken a major step in distribution of homestead land to the tribal people. Thousands of families have been given such land. Importantly, the government did not allow police to intervene in the just land struggle of the tribals and 3000 families could occupy land. The LDF government withdrew false cases which had been registered by the previous Congress government against the tribals. Many other important schemes like old age pension, widow pensions and other social security measures have been taken by the government for the tribal people.


Just as the earlier Ranchi convention in 2002 had given a big fillip to the organisation and struggles of the adivasi people, this national convention will no doubt prove to be an important milestone in taking forward the struggle for the defence of the rights of tribal communities.