Picture Courtesy: IndiaSpend

All Political Parties Have Treated Adivasis As Disposable People  

In the 1990s, when sociologist Abhay Xaxa, Phd, was a secondary school student, he was booked by a forest guard under the colonial-era Indian Forest Act, 1927 for collecting firewood from a forest in his native district of Jashpur, then in united Madhya Pradesh, now part of Chhattisgarh.

Xaxa, who was collecting the firewood to prepare the day’s meal at his school hostel, was eventually released on bail.

But experiences such as these have deeply shaped his scholarship and advocacy on policies towards tribals, or Adivasis, and his work as the co-convenor of the Tribal Intellectual Collective and the National Coalition for Adivasi Justice.

Both bodies coordinate various networks of Adivasi organisations across India to analyse policy challenges in areas with Adivasi populations, lobby for Adivasi rights and dialogue with governments and political parties.

In an interview with IndiaSpend, Xaxa, 36, who holds a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, assesses the recently-released manifestos of the major political parties in terms of commitments made to over 100 million tribals, who inhabit 30 states.

At the outset, how would you broadly assess some of the Lok Sabha election manifestos of the major parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress and parties like the All India Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) as to how they view the challenges facing Adivasis and forest-dwellers, and how they will tackle these?

It would be fair to say that all ruling parties have treated Adivasis very inhumanly and as disposable people. Today, the indigenous population of the country is experiencing economic vulnerability, social exclusion and cultural genocide on an unprecedented scale. But compared to previous years, Adivasis are becoming more politically aware and pragmatic, and are ready to punish any political formation which compromises with their basic rights, especially over resources. This was evident from the poor electoral performance of the BJP in the last round of assembly elections in December 2018 in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

When it comes to manifesto commitments to Adivasis, unfortunately there is very little awareness created by candidates or political parties among Adivasi voters. Therefore there remains a huge gap between what Adivasis need and aspire for, what is promised to them, and what actually gets delivered.

Coming to the quality of manifestos by various political parties on Adivasi and forest dweller issues, the proposals range from good to bad, and then a few bizarre and unbelievable promises. For example, even while there have been hundreds of Adivasi and forest dwellers agitating against forced eviction, displacement and forest and land alienation in the name of development projects, the BJP manifesto promises speedy environmental and forest clearances for projects, as they have done in the past five years in government. They claim this has increased the forest cover by 9,000 sq km. How can both be possible? We are living in an age where being naïve about Adivasi issues is either accepted as normal, or perhaps we Adivasis are considered stupid and unable to grasp such contradictions.

For these reasons, I always tend to take manifestos with a pinch of salt. But I rate the CPI(M) manifesto as the best, because it comprehensively covers the issues of rights over natural resources, and also clearly articulates issues of land rights. But then we must remember that the party is not contesting in most tribal areas. The CPI(M) is probably followed by the manifesto of the Congress, for raising issues of forest rights and Gram Sabha powers. I would also commend the Trinamool Congress for taking the effort to translate their manifesto in Santhali. I would say the BJP’s manifesto is the most problematic for statements such as the one above on speedy clearances, which directly affect tribals. Further, most of the commitments towards Adivasis which the BJP promised in 2014 have disappeared in their 2019 document.

In its 2014 manifesto, a key promise by the BJP was to end tribal land alienation. How has it performed on this count?

Looking at the track record of the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government at the Centre as well as that of BJP governments in states like Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, tribal land alienation has increased manifold in the past years. The reason behind this is of course several mining and infrastructure projects were given a go-ahead while bypassing the important provisions and safeguards of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Implementing these safeguards would have ensured that Adivasis and forest dwellers have a say in what kind of development takes place in their areas. Adivasis are being evicted or facing eviction from their land in the name of irrigation projects, statue-building, the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, Special Economic Zones, mining projects, afforestation programmes, and tiger and elephant conservation projects. Very few evictions taking place in Adivasi areas are reported in the media in a systematic manner, and so the scale of the crisis remains unknown to the public.

The BJP government also directly facilitated tribal land alienation by diluting several legal protections in the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (the LARR Act), the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, 1949 (protective legislations in Jharkhand), to take away the land rights of Adivasis. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s amendments to the LARR Act and numerous government orders have tried to systematically dilute the role of the gram sabhas, and undermined Adivasi rights to free and informed consent. This led to an accelerated diversion of forest and Adivasi lands for projects as witnessed in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. This is both illegal and morally unconscionable. As a result there is strong discontent among the Adivasi public, which as I said, showed in the election results in the recent assembly elections.

In the din of election campaigns, we might lose sight of the fact that the Supreme Court recently ordered the eviction of 1.8 million claimants under the FRA. It has put the order on hold until July, but the spectre of large-scale displacement still looms large over Adivasi citizens. How do party manifestos address this?

Absolutely true. The Supreme Court judgment regarding FRA and the eviction of millions of Adivasis from their traditional land is going to be the Waterloo moment for the Modi government, because of the sheer callousness with which they have handled the issue. When the hearings were entering a crucial stage this year, the government did not present the ground realities to the judges, which led to that eviction order. Similarly, its manifesto does not even mention this critical issue.

According to recent media reports, the issue of forest rights is going to be influential in more than 130 parliamentary seats and I believe we will see the very real resentment of Adivasi communities in the form of voting patterns. Which may be why some of the opposition parties have included the issue of ‘resource justice’ in their manifestos, and are openly trying to capitalise on the discontent with the anti-people policies of the NDA government. The CPI(M) manifesto does this. The Congress manifesto also speaks of the importance of implementing FRA in letter and spirit, and commits to stopping the evictions.

On the issue of forests and forest-dwellers, the manifesto of the Trinamool Congress says, ‘We need to enact (a) new Forest Law where Rights of Tribal People and Forest Dwellers need to be protected and restored.’ How significant is this?

This is indeed a welcome step into the right direction for ensuring the rights of the Adivasi population. Though the FRA was specifically designed to statutorily formalise the unrecognised customary rights of Adivasis, and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs), the NDA government has proposed draconian amendments to the Indian Forest Act (a colonial-era law from 1927) as recently as March, when its term was coming to an end. These amendments hark back to colonial policies. Some of these proposals include giving forest officials the power to shoot without any liability; allowing forest officials to reduce or withdraw Adivasis rights and to forcefully relocate them against their will; hand over forests arbitrarily to private companies for afforestation, etc. The amendments are being proposed in a secret manner, without any consultation with stakeholders such as forest-dwellers, who will be directly hit by these proposals.

On a separate note, it is also commendable that the Trinamool Congress is the only party in the country which has published its election manifesto in the Santhali language as well, to make Adivasis aware about their electoral commitment. I would like to see other political parties follow this example and make real commitments towards ensuring that the issues of the most marginalised are articulated and resolved through collective processes.

The lack of quality education, which is culturally sensitive and accessible, is another issue which impacts Adivasi communities deeply. How do you see the government’s performance, and the 2019 manifestos on this count?

When it comes to the issue of quality education for the Adivasis, there are several issues which need urgent attention, but unfortunately all governments are guilty of neglect. These include the issue of tribal languages as a medium to be included in the schooling system, pedagogical issues, improving the educational infrastructure, quality of teaching, educational entitlements, ensuring inclusion, and linking education with gainful employment. The BJP in its 2014 manifesto had even promised an extensive educational network in tribal areas under the “Vanbandhu” scheme, but surprisingly this promise has disappeared from their manifesto for 2019. Any kind of transformative change in Adivasi communities can only happen when there is a special focus on public education systems in tribal areas.

If you see the performance of educational schemes related to Adivasis, it is a sad story that several scholarship schemes are starved of funds or simply shut down. Tribal universities in Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh and in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were announced as game-changers in tribal research, but if you look at their situation, they are being run in abysmal conditions.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had started the Post-Matric Scholarship in 1945 to uplift and empower the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Yet, even while seeking to appropriate his legacy, analysis on government policies and spending for STs and SCs by my colleagues and me at NCDHR [National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights] shows that the NDA has deliberately withheld Rs 2,871 crore of the post-matric scholarship funds meant for Adivasis over the first three years of its government. Consequently, lakhs of Adivasis, who depend on scholarships and bursaries have been denied the financial support which is rightfully theirs.

The recent order of the ministry of human resource development to implement the 13-point roster in appointing teachers in higher education institutions has led to widespread protests since it is completely discriminatory towards the Adivasi youth who are grossly under-represented in university faculty. This order violates the principle of social justice and is a clear step to shut out educated Adivasis from any opportunity of getting dignified employment, and shaping academia and scholarship in this country.

Health is another critical challenge facing Adivasis. A recent report demonstrated their poor health status--which stems from their systematic socio-economic marginalisation--with 40% of tribals living below the poverty line and a paucity of public health infrastructure in their areas. Have party manifestos followed up on the report’s recommendations?

I am saddened that tribal health has remained a neglected aspect in all election manifestos. Very few people will be aware that last year, this comprehensive health report was released by a dedicated team of experts constituted jointly by the ministry of health & family welfare and the ministry of tribal affairs, under the leadership of Dr Abhay Bang. But nobody seems to be even aware of such a crucial report, and the government barely discussed it. There needs to be a special National Tribal Health Policy which should work as a guiding principle for any kind of health interventions in the Adivasi areas. I also want to point out that Adivasi access to biodiversity and natural resources supports their livelihoods, incomes and food security. So when you displace Adivasis or cut them off from access to these resources in the name of development, you also hit them on health grounds.

What are some of the other issues you would have liked to see included in the manifestos, or parties to raise in the coming weeks of campaigning?

An important issue is the dramatic decline in Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) expenditure: Under the NDA government, the TSP expenditure dropped from Rs 32,387 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 20,000 crore in 2015-16 and to Rs 24,005 crore in 2016-17. Even though it increased to Rs 31,920 crore in 2017-18, what the NDA has done is added non-targeted (generic/administrative) expenditure (such as grants towards infrastructure maintenance, farm loan waivers, Good Governance Fund, Sports Authority of India allocations etc.) as TSP specifically to inflate figures, our analysis showed. This has also been highlighted by Comptroller and Auditor General of India reports. If this generic/non-targeted expenditure is excluded, what emerges is that only Rs 15,643 crore were allocated for the welfare of STs. Therefore, compared to UPA’s interim budget (2014-15), the NDA has slashed funds for Adivasi welfare by almost 52%!

(Choudhury is an independent journalist and researcher, working on issues of indigenous and rural communities, land and forest rights and resource justice.)

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