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Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint (Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint)
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
(Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint)

Inclusion and exclusion myths in India

India’s more remote regions—home to underprivileged citizens of tribal origin—are badly served by its governments

It is an open secret that India’s more remote regions—more often than not, home to underprivileged citizens of tribal origin—are badly served by its governments. Essential services, be it healthcare or primary education, are virtually dispensed with.

This inability to end exclusion, to use a currently fashionable word, has come about after nearly half-a-century of interventionist strategies by the government. These have varied from a regional approach, for example specially designating some backward areas populated with such citizens as tribal blocks, or a community-centric one by specifically allocating a part of plan funds, the so-called tribal sub-plan. These are in addition to a slew of programmes and schemes specially designed to help these citizens.

The results have been uneven. Consider one variable—poverty—and that tells the story very well: By 2004-05, rural poverty in the country had fallen to 26%; in tribal communities it was a whopping 36 percentage points ahead at 62%. In other social indicators—healthcare or school education, among others—tribal communities fare poorly compared with other citizens.

This has not deterred the Union government from searching and refining more interventionist approaches. Late last week, it appointed a high-level committee (HLC) led by professor Virginius Xaxa—a member of the National Advisory Council—to prepare a report on the socioeconomic, health and educational status of tribal communities of India. It is interesting to note the wording of the terms of reference of the committee. Among other issues, the HLC has been asked to ascertain in which states, regions, districts and blocks do the tribal communities of India mostly live? The committee has also been asked to look at the employment patterns, economic activity, income level and the level of socioeconomic development of these communities.

There are basic questions about the efficacy of such strategies. The one reason why they have not worked is because any interventionist strategy assumes a link between the goal to deliver services and the ability to do so. That is a questionable link especially in this case. For any scheme or plan to be effective, some level of administrative overlap between officials who deliver these services and those who monitor them is essential. That is one reason for the relative success of developmental efforts in reducing infant mortality; the better off examples of public distribution system; and cases of primary education.

This overlap is virtually non-existent in tribal regions. Two, randomly picked, examples come to mind. These are the recently formed Sukma district in Chhattisgarh and not far away, Koraput in Odisha. Both display similar features—high tribal population, geographic isolation (a bit less in Koraput), prevalence of ultra-Left violence and “special" emphasis on poverty reduction. And in both, efforts at helping tribal citizens out of poverty have not worked. This is in spite of the fact that in Koraput, as part of the special area development project in the districts of Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi, the state government had devoted extra administrative resources. Both districts remain among the poorest districts of the country.

For inclusiveness to work, very different questions need to be raised and answered. For example, interventionist strategies have silently assumed that tribal citizens are not rational and are not capable of guarding their interests. This has prevented them from using the meagre resources they command—from land to the produce growing on their land—for their benefit. Archaic laws to prevent “alienation" of tribal resources continue to hold sway even in the age of Internet. This, perversely, leads to corruption and ends up hurting them more. For example, in Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh, The MP Protection of Scheduled Tribes (Interest in Trees) Act, 1956-57 ensured that no tribal could cut trees on his land and sell them without bureaucratic permissions of the kind that can defeat anyone. There is plenty of evidence about the havoc such laws caused in MP and Chhattisgarh. For starters, dismantling such laws carefully may actually do more good than creating more bureaucratic layers to help tribal citizens.

Other, indirect, options too may be fruitful. For one, what is required to ensure that citizens in such districts can make use of the maximum economic opportunities in a growing economy? Two, does geographic isolation breed poverty? These questions are relevant as a majority of tribal communities are located in remote and often isolated regions. There is a good chance that if these two problems are sorted out, economic growth may reduce poverty on its own.

Interventionist strategies have certain logic: they make sense when combined with efforts at linking isolated and poverty stricken communities with the economic mainstream. They are formidable political tools for electoral gain but won’t do much beyond that. The appointment of the HLC comes at a time when elections are in sight. That is reason enough to doubt the cause for its appointment.

How can poverty in India’s tribal communities be ended? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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