Tribal unrest is not a new phenomenon in India. It dates back to the colonial period, if not earlier. However, it has acquired a violent dimension in the last few years. With Maoists fishing in troubled waters, an economic and social problem has become difficult to solve.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasized the complicated nature of the problem while addressing a conference of chief ministers and state ministers of tribal affairs on Wednesday. He said there has been a systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economy.
He is right, though not in the usual sense of understanding this problem. It would be a lie to say that efforts have not been made on this front. Since Independence, mind-boggling amounts of money, time and administrative effort have been expended on tribals. The question is, why do they continue to live in squalor and misery?
Part of the problem lies in the nature of these efforts. Governments have tried to keep tribals localized in the places where they live. As a result, the fruits of economic growth have not reached them and are least likely to do so. Spending money on hospitals, shoddy schools, colleges that function as useless degree mills and “welfare” has actually kept them in poverty. Education of the kind that gets jobs in a modern economy is far from our tribal areas, may they be in Chhattisgarh or West Bengal.
Now, there are added complications such as land acquisition for industrial purposes. Had the strategy to integrate tribals in the mainstream been carried out thoughtfully, the results would have been better. Because tribal areas have been nearly stationary, economically and socially, attempts to acquire land have served as a spark for Maoists to make advances in these areas without any trouble.
The going will be tough now. Eliminating the Maoists from the scene has to be the first step. But even here, there is lack of clarity. One day there are plans to launch an operation to hunt them down, the next day, they are invited for “talks”. The big worry, however, is that even if Maoists are taken out of the equation, the government may, once again, begin pursuing worthless ideas of tribal “welfare” that created the problem in the first place.
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