By Parth Sharma:
Tribals or adivasis to most of us are ‘primitive’ ‘Neanderthal savages’ living in a forest, devoid of any civilization, progress or development. Some find them exotic, some fascinating, some disgusting. Rarely do we care to see them on the news but we all have an opinion like we always do.
However, with 104 million in number, they form about 8.6% of India’s population. With over 500 endogamous tribes (better known as “Scheduled Tribes”), they all have their unique cultures, traditions, and rituals; among which, some like matriarchy, unity among clans and brotherhood seem to be way too profane for the ‘modern’ world. But there is one cause that unites them all—their continuous economic and social marginalization even after 70 years of independence.
Although the constitution has a plethora of measures to help them gain, sustain and protect the dignity and honor of a lifestyle, they’ve still been patronized, exploited, and ignored by all and sundry since the 1800s.
Social indicators reveal the dismal conditions of the tribals which are even worse than Dalits. A literacy rate of just 23.8% and with 49.5% of the population living under the official poverty line. Most of them are also oblivious to the workings of the Indian democracy but unknown to the methods and procedures of the courts they still show absolute clarity in their understanding of right and wrong. They can not only distinguish between the devil and the angel but can also show a strict resolve to fight the devil with all their might. Some recent unfolding of events show us how:
Southeastern Coal Fields Limited or SECL, a subsidiary of India’s public sector coal mining giant, Coal India Limited (CIL), wanted to mine the forests of Chhattisgarh. But under the Forest Rights Act (2006) were obligated to obtain the consent of the indigenous communities before mining their land; which is what halted their winning streak.
The people of five villages—Pelma, Jarridih, Sakta, Urba and Maduadumar, gathered in each of their Gram Sabhas on March 16 and royally booed and shooed the company officials. Much as they also did in October 2014, February 2015 and June 2015.
Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation of Odisha (IDCO) was denied by the people of Kamanda Gram Sabha on March 23rd when around 400 people unanimously decided against the acquisition of their private land for Rungta Mines. The people disowned the resolution of Feb 13th, 2009 as the district administration and Rungta Company had allegedly turned the situation to their favour by bringing in 100 people from outside to get a two-third majority over the 30 people present of the village.
It all happened when the Himachal Pradesh govt. turning a blind eye to the Forest Rights Act (2006), gave the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd (HPPCL), a state-owned body, the rights to build the Kashang Integrated Hydro Electric Project in the Kinnaur district. The people of Lippu Gram Sabha, a consortium of 200 odd families, then stood up and fought this project – a harbinger of ecological disaster and an annihilator of livelihood. Standing firm since 2009 to fight against the govt. it was on May 4th, 2016 that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recognized that these people should have a say in the matter because it’s their property.
The badass Dongarias, a sub-section of the Kondh community, inhabiting hills of Odisha had already denied the mighty UK-based Vedanta from touching the bauxite-rich Niyamgiri Hills (a sacred hill to the Kondhs) in July-August 2013. All the 12 Gram Sabhas of the area had out-rightly rejected the project proposal and forced the Ministry of Environment to withdraw the permission for mining. Don’t mistake the power of the Govt. of Odisha and the influence of Vedanta which went to the extent of incarceration and killing of tribals by armed forces to get their consent—but couldn’t taste anything but dust.
And as they say, old habits die hard. The govt. which claims to be the ‘champion of tribals’ went to the Supreme Court through the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) to reconvene the Gram Sabhas for a vote. Their petition was sadly not entertained.
To totally sideline the political disenfranchisement, land grabbing, and destruction of their natural habitat by the all-powerful capitalists with the kind cooperation of the state would be a mistake as of now. But the over-the-top functioning of democracy in areas with the progressive use of FRA, 2006 and constitutional guarantees of Panchayats (Extension to Schedule Areas), PESA, should be surely recognized. David winning against Goliath in real life must be lauded, with the courage of ‘primitive’ tribals and their love for their habitat honored.
And, for now, we can definitely say…“The times, they are a changing!”