New Delhi: The National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has drafted a set of recommendations on protecting the livelihoods, cultural identity and habitats of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), including the Jarawa indigenous people of the Andaman islands.

The recommendations include giving all such groups the status of Scheduled Tribes (STs), access to legal rights under Forest Rights Act (FRA), social audits of development programmes for them and a special census to ascertain their numbers.

The draft has been prepared by NAC’s working group on development challenges specific to particularly vulnerable tribal groups and has been posted on the council’s website for comments.

According to data from the ministry of tribal affairs, the nodal body for implementing schemes related to such communities, there are 75 recognized PVTGs, formerly known as “primitive tribal groups", in the country spread across 14 states and one Union territory. The 2001 census shows their population is 2.77 million.

They reside in remote habitats and are vulnerable, owing to erosion of traditional occupations. According to the council, communities at risk of dying include the Shompens, Jarawas and Sentinelese of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; the Bondos of Orissa; the Cholanaickans of Kerala; the Abujhmarias of Chhattisgarh; and the Birhors of Jharkhand.

“The PVTGs are in need of special and undivided attention on priority for their protection and development in view of their fragile living conditions emerging out of their prevailing socio-economic backwardness, vulnerability and diminishing numbers," NAC said in its draft recommendations.

Admitting that conventional approaches have led to “disappointing results", especially in reducing poverty and vulnerability of the group, NAC suggested a rights-based approach should be taken for their empowerment and non-discrimination. The council made a special reference to laws such as Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and FRA.

NAC also suggested a habitat approach to develop livelihood strategies, including allotment of productive land, earmarking forest enclosures, free rations during lean and rainy seasons and insurance against natural calamities.

“Efforts should be made to ensure all such tribal groups (which are not in the list of STs) who fulfil the criteria of being declared as the PVTGs, should be also declared as STs," NAC recommended. It also called for a single-window approach instead of multiple agencies to govern developmental programmes for the group.

The council also recommended a special census to capture comprehensive data on the groups better and to identify those that are declining.

“These are very important recommendations. There has been a demand from PVTGs for recognition of customary rights over their habitats and steps must be taken to ensure that," said Tushar Dash, a researcher with Vasundhara, an Orissa-based not-for-profit organization that works on issues related to tribal rights.

“Inaccessibility is an important factor that limits their access to both government and social services," he said, adding that the groups have also been threatened by the diversion of land.

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