Tribes at the altar of democracy

Tribals account for less than 10% of the population and have accounted for over 40% of all project displacement in India since Independence


The court has also cautioned against govt and businesses being complicit in human rights violations. Examples abound in Chhattisgarh’s iron-ore rich south, and coal-rich north. Photo: Reuters
The court has also cautioned against govt and businesses being complicit in human rights violations. Examples abound in Chhattisgarh’s iron-ore rich south, and coal-rich north. Photo: Reuters

Perhaps the ongoing fracas in the US with the Sioux tribe in North Dakota protesting an oil pipeline within polluting distance of their homeland and traditionally sacred spaces, will, in the spirit of globalization, give tribal folk in India some reflected recognition.

Perhaps we will learn to not call our tribal folks ‘Naxals’ or ‘Maoists’ or ‘primitive’ when they defend their constitutional, and very human, rights.

Last week, nearly to the day the North Dakota protests flared up, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the National Tribal Carnival 2016, a government-sponsored jamboree in New Delhi. Tribals heard from Modi about how in tune they were with nature, how much they conserved nature.

“Nobody should have the right in this country to snatch the land of Adivasis,” Modi declared in Hindi. “Nobody should have the opportunity… And to ensure it, the government supports the strictest application of law and we are doing so…” The Twitter handle @narendramodi reinforced it: “Tribal communities must get their rights. No one has the right to snatch the land of tribal communities.”

He then mentioned Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and praised his initiative to aggregate funds for the development of tribals. It was a remarkable, and ironical, acknowledgment as Singh’s administration has in the past decade been accused of several violent acts against tribals, some under the guise of combating insurgency. Even the Supreme Court has censured Chhattisgarh.

The court has also cautioned against government and businesses being complicit in human rights violations. Examples abound in Chhattisgarh’s iron-ore rich south, and coal-rich north. Examples also abound in Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, among other states, which have harassed, attacked, displaced without consent, provided scant rehabilitation—and continue to strong-arm tribal communities for mineral and project development, bypassing or attempting to bypass a community’s denial to projects.

Modi followed up with a palliative. “We have to save our forests, we have to save the land of our tribal communities, we have to also protect whatever economic means they posses, so we wish to with modern techniques strengthen the process of underground mining. So that the jungle remains as it is, lives remain as they are. We ought to dig deep for minerals like coal, et cetera, so difficulty doesn’t accrue to lives and livelihoods. The government of India is determined to pursue this direction of applying modern techniques.”

Politicians—prime ministers—routinely say whatever they wish to please a particular audience. The virus is party-agnostic. But this was ironic by any standard: artful, eco-friendly mining.

The central government buried a May 2014 report by a “high-level committee on socio-economic, health and educational status of tribal communities of India”, submitted to the ministry of tribal affairs. The report made several fine suggestions about healthcare, education, development, empowerment, and—as I have written earlier—resolution of the root causes of conflict in tribal areas.

Perhaps it’s on account of observations, as in the chapter titled Land Alienation, Displacement and Enforced Migration which pointed out several weaknesses in the 2013 land law—the community-consent parameters of which the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government aggressively attempted to circumvent last year with ordinances, and failed.

“The definition of ‘public purpose’ in the new law is very wide and will only lead to greater acquisition and displacement in scheduled areas,” the report stated. “The exercise of ‘eminent domain’ and definition of ‘public purpose’ should be severely limited.”

The report added: “Government agencies acquiring land with the ultimate purpose to transfer it to private companies for stated public purpose, should be kept outside the ambit of the new law, as the public-private partnership mode of acquiring land is simply a backdoor method…” Exactly what Modi’s government attempted to do, and his senior ministers have since encouraged states to do.

Tribals account for less than 10% of the population—though they are more than 100 million in absolute numbers—and have accounted for over 40% of all project displacement in India since Independence. Three-fourths are estimated as not being rehabilitated; many have gone from being marginalized to being impoverished. “We have to sacrifice ourselves for our country,” a tribal gentleman in Jharkhand, personally scarred by mining, told me not long ago. “This is democracy.”

Tribals know the truth. And it hurts.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Thursdays.

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