Home >Opinion >Views >Enlarge the Panchsheel approach to Tribal upliftment

Globalization and industrialization have uprooted villages, disrupted ancient cultures and forced Tribals to give up their traditional occupations. Many have become migrant wage workers in unorganized-sector units, living one meal at a time. Unbridled interaction between tribes and the general population has resulted in indigenous cultures being suppressed. Yet, a largely ameliorative approach of isolation amounts to the promotion of primitivism. The marginalization of Tribals can be traced back to the British Raj, when the state had a free hand in controlling estates and forest resources. However, it continued in Independent India as mass tribal land acquisitions in the name of ‘developmental projects’. The difficulties that Tribals face have failed to become part of the public discourse. Jawaharlal Nehru had advocated ‘Panchsheel’ for Tribal development to address issues of Tribal justice.

Panchsheel advocates non-imposition by encouraging self-governance. It affirms that the forest and land rights of Tribals must be protected. Further, it encourages inclusion of Tribals in administration and development. It also mandates that schemes and administrative policies meant for Tribal beneficiaries should not be cumbersome. Lastly, it requires that progress criteria for Tribals be based on life-quality indices, with an aim to strike a balance between isolationism and their assimilation. This is based on a dual approach of integration and development.

The Indian Constitution entails provisions for the administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Schedule Tribes (STs) under Part-10. Tribal advisory councils are mandatorily constituted to inculcate local self-governance, the cornerstone of democracy. Articles 330 & 332 of the Constitution reserve seats for STs in Scheduled areas, thus granting them representation to safeguard their rights and interests. This applies both at the national and grassroots level. Additionally, welfare departments have been instituted in states with considerable Tribal populations to work for the furtherance of their rights. The 89th Amendment introduced the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes that derives its power from Article 338A, which is handled by panellists from Tribal communities. It is relevant to mention that the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act of 1995, or PESA, confers upon village gram sabhas the powers of development and dispute resolution (as per traditional customs), as also the ownership and management of natural resources under local Tribal communities.

Government panels and commissions have also put forth various recommendations. The Kaka Kalelkar Commission of 1953 was the first to suggest the recognition of STs as an exclusive group of no certain religion. Further, the Elwin panel of 1959, United Nations Debar Commission of 1960, Lokur Committee of 1965 and Shilu Ao panel of 1966 focused largely on tribal development, governance mechanisms and welfare systems. It was the Bhuria Committee Report of 1991 that paved the way for PESA’s enactment, which, with its objective of democratic decentralization, further fortified Tribal interests. The Bandhopadhyay and Mungekar Committee was constituted to examine governance issues in Scheduled areas affected by extremism. Finally, in 2014, the Xaxa panel was constituted to look extensively into Tribal livelihood, employment, health, migration and legal matters. It noted that PESA and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, even though significant initiatives, are slow to absorb evolving circumstances.

The Supreme Court in Samatha vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1997) held that the granting of a mining lease in a Scheduled area by a state amounts to a transfer of land to a ‘non-Tribal’ in violation of the Fifth Schedule. Again, in 2013, the court in Orissa Mining Corporation vs. Ministry of Environment and Forests held that forest dwellers and STs have a right under the FRA to be consulted before their ancient homelands are converted to commercial lands. The judiciary can thus be seen as the torch bearer of Tribal rights in its role as Panchsheel-enforcer.

The renewed Stand Up India scheme, 2021, launched by Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), seeks to provide STs loans ranging from 10 lakh to 1 crore to set up enterprises. It opens up opportunities for development while preserving their space and independence. The Union Budget for 2021-22 reduced the margin-money requirement for loans from 25% to 15% and allowed credit for agriculture-allied activities. A recent proposal to build 750 Eklavya Model Residential Schools in Tribal-majority areas to inculcate heritage-based education, while also imparting vocational-skill training, is another manifestation of a dual-approach policy.

Nearly three-quarters of a century after independence, several policies and constitutional safeguards, fortified by statutes and judicial pronouncements, are now in place. But the situation, unfortunately, is far from ideal. India has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes Tribal rights over land and natural resources. This ratification would assert India’s choice to assimilate Tribals while respecting their social and cultural autonomy. The potential of a pragmatic action plan in consonance with Panchsheel is yet to be fulfilled. The crevice between policy and performance seems to widen over time, while inclusion without intrusion remains a challenge to be addressed.

Trisha Shreyashi is a legal draughts woman

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