India has the largest population of tribal people in the world, approximately 104.54 million. However, they are amongst the most marginalised groups in society even after more than 70 years of independence. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 indicates that 45.9% of scheduled tribe members are in the lowest wealth bracket. It is worth noting that 92% of Adivasis live in rural areas and face numerous problems like loss of control over natural resources, lack of education, displacement and rehabilitation, lack of health and nutrition, gender issues, erosion of identity and many more.
Dayamani Barla, a tribal journalist from Jharkhand, provides a beautiful perspective from a tribal viewpoint that “for us tribals, the forest is sacrosanct. It is where we are born and nurtured, and our culture and identity is shaped. The tribal is connected to the forest with an umbilical cord”. Even the National Advisory Council of India has observed that particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) are losing customary habitats and livelihood resources because of the lack of recognition of their rights. It is leading to, as NAC observed, “hunger/starvation, malnutrition and ill health and erosion of traditional occupations, which is threatening their very survival and some of them are even on the verge of extinction”.
In addition to these existing problems, an Expert Group Report to Planning Commission assessed that the extremist affected tribal areas suffer from the deficient development and unaddressed grievances of the people. Moreover, the report argues that “the scale, intensity and approach of security operations cause considerable collateral damage leading to greater alienation of common people” especially in Naxal affected districts. The Mungekar Committee Report, submitted in 2012, states that “a knee-jerk sort of response with police action cannot be the right approach to tackle a complex problem arising out of socio-economic exclusion and the control of outsiders over natural resources”. The Bhuria Commission Report has observed that lakhs of tribal families have been categorised as “encroachers” on their own land without considering their hold over the land for many generations. It needs to be acknowledged that the forest land is the primary source of livelihood for them and taking away their lands arbitrarily goes against the spirit of Article 21 of the Constitution of India which provide right to life and liberty of citizen, as has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of India. These above-cited reports are an indication of the some of the problems faced by the tribal inhabitants of India. They have shown just the tip of the iceberg; the prevalent problems and issues runs deeper than we can imagine.
Some of the below-mentioned suggestions can help to deal with discrimination against tribal communities and in providing them with the rights they truly deserve.
Soni Sori, a tribal activist, has been awarded Front Line Defenders Award of 2018 for her immense struggle to bring justice for Adivasi people in Chhattisgarh. Representing the tribal voice, she speaks of the plight of tribal communities, saying “we belong to jungles and when we go there, we are being killed. Even when we sleep, we are picked up from our homes in the night, killed and then declared as a part of Naxal movement. We are not free. We don’t feel any Aazadi even today”. The suspicious attitude of the police towards tribal people disconnects them from the administration. Moreover, people belonging to tribal backgrounds are seen as backward by society due to their customary habits and beliefs. In such a context, there is a need to bring positive changes at the societal, regional, and national level towards tribal communities as they deserve special priorities for their welfare and upliftment. Besides institutional measures, attitudinal change in society as well as among the police is needed to bring discrimination-free environment and further integration of the tribal community in the mainstream.
According to prominent tribal leader Shibu Soren, the basic issues of the tribals since Independence have remained the same till now- water, forests, and land. There is a need to introspect upon the efforts made by the Indian government for the tribal areas of our country. The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes argued that officers and staff are generally reluctant to get posted in tribal areas on account of their lack of housing, and medical and educational facilities, in addition to rampant political interference. The Mungekar Committee has recommended the formulation of a Tribal Administrative Service under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to select enthusiastic and committed officers for the development of tribal areas. If this recommendation is implemented, it can transform the lives of the tribal people of India.
On the issue of displacement, former Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda remarked that the government needs to understand the ground reality and should not displace tribal people from their lands without winning their trust and convincing them. However, the government also needs to respect their decision to say no to the developmental projects at the cost of their displacement and plight. Inclusive development of India cannot take place without the contribution of inhabitants of tribal areas. In fact, tribal communities have a vital legacy of knowledge about traditional medicinal system. Their traditional wisdom and practical knowledge of the usage of herbal medicines can become a source of livelihood for tribal groups if the government supports them. The production of indigenous medicines can also assist the Indian economy to prosper in harmony with tribal communities and further mainstreaming of the tribal communities.
Due to an overburdened judiciary, numerous cases are pending in courts all over the country, often defying the dictum that “justice delayed is justice denied”. In this context, an ADR mechanism can prove to be effective as it uses a neutral third party to communicate, discuss, and resolve the differences in a time-bound manner. It is cost-effective, efficient, and mutually beneficial for both the parties involved in a dispute. Moreover, as a large number of the tribal communities have remained out of the ambit of the mainstream Indian justice delivery system, statutory recognition can be given to tribal courts. It will enable tribal communities to codify their customs and would be included under the tribal courts’ institutional framework.
Prof. Achyuta Samanta, founder of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneswar, has been running a fully residential tribal institute without charging a fee from the students. He argues that besides inadequate enabling infrastructure, other things like language, food, clothing, and healthcare also become a barrier for tribal students to avail education. It is worth noting that tribal people live in an entirely different atmosphere in comparison to the urban areas. Therefore, there is a need to design the school curriculum which not only acknowledges but also appreciates tribal culture and traditions. There is a need to devise a mechanism which can be of interest to tribal students so that they can relate to the curriculum, which in turn can increase their prospects of employment and life in mainstream society.
There are many factors responsible for the poor health of inhabitants of tribal areas ranging from insanitary conditions, ignorance, lack of health education to the poor access to healthcare facilities. The health workforce in India’s tribal areas is inadequate, demotivated, ill-equipped, and without leadership. Health personnel consider a posting in tribal areas as a punishment. Therefore, there is a need to make postings in tribal areas more lucrative by using monetary and non-monetary incentives. Traditional healers can be sensitised as well as trained to “deliver simple interventions like ORS for diarrhoea and anti-malarials as well as to refer patients to the Primary Health Centres in a timely manner”. Moreover, interested school graduates (both boys and girls) can be trained as community health workers, which can resolve the complaints regarding insensitive, dismissive and discriminatory behaviour by non-tribal health care personnel.
As India is aspiring to become a developed country, it needs to rethink and redefine its definition of development to incorporate the discourse of inclusive development. This necessarily includes the welfare of marginalised tribal society as well. Tribal discontent is widening the trust deficit between the tribal communities and the government. Therefore, genuine demands and issues need to be taken in account while framing and implementing policies for the tribal areas of India. Additionally, tribal communities need to be empowered socially, educationally, and financially, so that they can make their own path to make a better, smiling India.