Recently, the Union minister for tribal affairs, Kishore Chandra Deo, wrote to governors of various states urging the cancellation of mining concessions that were granted in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The Act makes it mandatory to obtain permission from gram sabhas of local tribal communities in cases where tribal habitat is directed towards non-customary uses.

The minister is well-known for his activist stance in protecting the economic rights of tribals and this episode may well further strengthen such favourable public impression. Such active involvement of the government in upholding tribal rights, however, should not divert attention from the possibility that poor economic policymaking could be the real reason behind tribal distress.

The broader focus should be on the fact that the property rights of tribals are trampled with ease by big business interests—often in close nexus with the political establishment—primarily because the ownership of tribal resources is vaguely defined. Precious resources such as coal are completely controlled by the government, often under the cloak of “national resources" that are claimed to be too important to be left to the private sector. It should then be of no surprise that crony business groups, with better lobbying powers, trump the economic rights of the tribals.

A humane alternative to the current state of affairs is to recognize the property rights of tribals and allow businesses to access tribal resources only through the market, rather than through political force. Such an arrangement will improve the economic status of tribal communities and achieve better economic efficiency by directing scarce resources towards their most urgent economic ends.

Going forward, it is possible that gram sabhas will be given further powers to dictate tribal affairs. But it is very important to realize that such empowerment of gram sabhas may not be synonymous with empowering individual property rights over tribal habitats. The reason is that a gram sabha itself, by colluding with crony business interests, could turn into a small political hub that tramples on individual private property rights within the tribal community. The solution, then, lies not in decentralized political control of resources, but in genuine decentralization in the form of private ownership in a free market.

What can be done to secure tribal property rights? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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