By Arunima Singh:
Recently, I came across an article on Firstpost, which provided a good example of everything that’s wrong with our current idea of development, and our mindsets. The argument put forth in the article, that tribals have no particular claim over the land they inhabit, says so much about the pattern we see worldwide, wherein institutions, governments, and capitalists work together to exhaust the resources that originally belonged to tribal communities. What do the tribal communities get in return? Promises of rehabilitation and compensation that are never properly fulfilled. But what they lose though is everything: their home, food, culture and lifestyle. And I cannot imagine a world where it’s ethical, and even appreciable for people to do that to each other.
Let me just say it loud and clear. Yes, they need special legislation – unlike what the article suggests – and yes, their lifestyle and resources need to be taken into account when we discuss their rights. They may not be tigers we put in reserves, but they are our equals, and as equals, none of us gets to displace the other from his or her home. But sadly, it’s happening in India.
Not only is the government actively working towards taking away the resources of the tribals, but it is doing so with an acute disregard for the rights given to the tribal communities by the Forest Rights Act. In fact, as this article shows, the attempt is to bypass the FRA altogether.
Somehow in all of this, there is also a sense of self-righteousness on the part of the government; as if they are doing a favour to the people. And there is a general apathy towards the issue among most of the citizens. They seem not even to consider the needs of an indigenous community. To them, they are just ‘backward’ communities that need ‘development’, and what better than to uproot them out of their lives and homes. Many of us seem to be gripped by an idea of superiority, the same kind of complex which the British were suffering from when they decided hunting-gathering communities and tribals needed to be tamed and civilised.
Let me present my argument in a different manner. Cities like Varanasi have been existing for the longest time now, and the town, the houses, and other structures have been built and rebuilt time and again. Today, it’s a haphazard setting of extremely congested lanes with even narrower and poorly laid (and maintained) roads. It’s close to impossible to develop these cities too much without demolishing the existing structures, the narrow lanes, the unwieldy houses, and the crumbling roads. But can any government consider breaking down and rebuilding this city? Do we see politicians yelling out slogans in support of this form of development and rehabilitation for those involved? Would the people of Varanasi ever agree to give up their homes just like that?
No, they wouldn’t. And it’s not just a matter of taking away their homes and spaces, but also, the reputation of such government-sponsored rehabilitation plans.
This problem only gets a lot worse, because many tribes still live in harmony with nature, subsisting on it for their daily existence. They are not accustomed to the urban lifestyle. To take all this away from them is in a way robbing them of their identity.
There have been protests against the government’s policies in many tribal areas, and the government has been using force (the police, law, administration) to suppress the voices of these protestors. There is a huge issue with reporting on such protests and problems from the field. The government machinery actively works to keep these issues out of the press and people’s minds.
This constant struggle between the bad governance of decades by various parties and the tribals who are either left ignored or have their resources exploited by one industrialist or another is perhaps one of the greatest reasons behind the emergence and constant growth of Maoism in many Indian states. The Naxal Belt is only expanding, and the way our governments have dealt with it so far only seems to be making it worse.
Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, which monitors the repression against indigenous groups battling to protect the primary sources on which they depend for sustenance, said, “Industrialised societies subject tribal peoples to genocidal violence, slavery and racism so they can steal their lands, resources, and labour in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’. Since the dawn of the Age of ‘Discovery’, tribal peoples have been the innocent victims of an aggressive colonisation of their land. By portraying them as backward and primitive, the invaders have justified a systematic and cruel annihilation, which continues to this day.”
The statement is just as true in the case of tribes in India. Their land, forests, and lifestyle are stolen from them in the name of ‘progress and development’, for the ‘greater good.’ But who gets to decide what that is?
If we are willing to take away their way of life and leave them with nothing but wastelands after mining, and faulty rehabilitation plans after most other projects, how are we any different from our colonial masters? We are also willing to make and manipulate laws, cook up explanations, and use force if needed to drive these people out of their homes and take away their resources.
We urgently need to reevaluate how we view development and the fact that it can mean many different things for different sections of people across the world.