Adivasis constitute about 8.6% of the total, Indian population (2011 census); and 12% of the rural population. There are more than 705 Adivasi groups spread across the country. However, they are largely concentrated in the northeastern parts of the country.
Different nomenclature is used for them. They are known as indigenous, vanvaasi, aborigines, adam jaati, and many more to name a few.
In this light, the Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC) at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), the GenDev Centre for research and innovation and the Delhi Post News, organised a joint talk on ‘adivasi women: issues of forest, land and livelihood’, with retired professor Indra Munshi.
Munshi used to teach at the University of Mumbai. She raised her concerns on the exclusion of adivasi communities from the mainstream.
Prof Munshi highlighted the 200-year-old history of Adivasis, including when the forest department was set up and the forest policy was introduced.
Many Adivasis have lived in isolated places and practised shifting cultivation in forests. They collected other necessities of life like timber, firewood, grasses, small animals, vegetables, nuts, fruits, weeds and bamboo roots, to survive.
Adivasi women have suffered the most. Their responsibilities include collecting everything from the forest to run their households and hence, she called the forest an adivasi woman’s “maternal household”.
Forests are spaces where they have outings, to spend time in the open and enjoy themselves. The rapid commercialisation of forests, as well as land during the colonial period, gave birth to new regimes in the form of money lenders, landlords, shopkeepers, and government officials.
Many Adivasi communities said that their women were treated as property by the dominant groups. Prof Munshi argued that gender inequality did exist in most Adivasi communities in the spheres of rituals, decision-making and hunting, but women enjoyed relatively equal freedom in major areas of their life, as compared to their non-adivasi counterparts.
This freedom was seen in their body language as well. But, this has certainly changed with their dispossession and incorporation into a colonial sort of capitalism. Hence, they became subjected to the worst forms of patriarchy.
Forced migration and displacement, as well as the more aggressive spread of Hindutva in adivasi areas, have taken the community and especially, the freedom of the women away. They are forced to become “good, modest Hindu women”.
Overall, the neoliberal economic policy and rapid privatisation have opened these rich natural areas to corporates for industry work. Capitalism is depleting natural resources via construction and mining. According to David Harvey, “These are the two aggressive activities of capitalism.”
The costs of capitalism include an environmental and a human cost. The human cost includes the migration of entire families or seasonal migration of men and women to cities. Their jobs in the cities include working on construction sites, especially in brick kilns, in manufacturing areas, where they are paid less than the men.
They live in makeshift shelters. These shelters are characterised by not only a lack of water, fuel, and sanitation facilities, but also, there is minimal space. They have to manage their children, cook for the family and do other domestic chores, in a limited space.
The worst part is that they also face sexual harassment, sometimes, from their contractors and supervisors. Still, they back their families with their incomes since sales from forest produce have declined. Moreover, in the absence of cooperatives, they are even exploited by the traders.
The miseries inflicted upon adivasi women by the pandemic has intensified their already poor standard of living. For instance, people in Odisha used to sell a bunch of leaf for ₹20 before lockdown, whereas after lockdown, the same came down to ₹5.
Hence, they are being forced to sell their produce at very low prices. Similarly, Adivasis from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka also faced the same situation. Women have been restricted from accessing the wildlife sanctuaries, in fear of them potentially spreading the virus.
Even the basic necessities of life, such as vegetables and fruits, were snatched from them because of the implementation of various rules regarding movement in the forests, by the forest department. This even led to hindrances in Adivasis political activists organising protests, as the reserves are being guarded.
In Maharashtra, few parcels of land, in which agricultural products were sown, was bought by the government to generate revenue. This adversely affected the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes as they were given a commission to look after these lands earlier.
These nomadic tribes are not only deprived of health facilities but are also denied privacy and even a place to call their home. Despite having identity cards, they are not provided with basic necessities and humane facilities. This has led to some nomadic women resorting to begging.
Prof Munshi concluded her lecture by talking about three points which we should focus on:
The lecture was followed by remarks from professor Virginius Xaxa. Prof Xaxa said that colonial history has adversely impacted the tribals, including their forest policies. This has continued in the post-independence era as well.
Though there has been a shift of forest rights in colonial India, it was worse in the post-independence period.
For instance, the forest policy of 1952, mandated that 33% of the land be covered with forests, but due to a shortage of land, the government started encroaching upon the land of the tribals.
Some organisations (such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) ideas are being transmitted to the society, leading to women being subjugated and dominated.
He emphasized that there is a need to identify the relationship between non-tribal population, state and the political economy.
Talking about the history of the tribal people, prof Xaxa says that during the colonial period, tribal people were perceived as practicing a distinct, unknown religion. But, during the post-colonial period, the tribal people fell into the residual category and were considered as Hindus.
Moving forward to the contemporary period, not only are tribal people educated, they are spread across different parts of the country. They have also formed student associations.
But the development of tribal people, especially in the fifth schedule areas, has not taken place because of dispossession and displacement, which has ravaged their life.
He stated that the political economy won’t help unless tribal people have a say in the process of their development.
Even the affirmative action programs have not worked very well as can be understood from the high levels of poverty in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh, where other socio-economic indicators are even worse.
Eastern India, home to industries and more integrated with the rest of India, is much worse. Thus, more political and economic integration will have adverse impacts.
Talking about northeast India, he stated that there are large parcels of lands controlled by the tribal people, still, despite the presence of non-tribal states.
The minorities are very strong in the northeast and thus, rank high on social indicators, as evident in the data, where northeastern states’ averages are above the Indian average.