Sacrificial lambs

Published : Jun 17, 2011 00:00 IST

Tribal girls carryingv home firewood at Vakapalle village in the Agency Area in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh. A file photograph. - K.R. DEEPAK

Tribal girls carryingv home firewood at Vakapalle village in the Agency Area in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh. A file photograph. - K.R. DEEPAK

Tribal people constitute close to 50 per cent of the population that has been displaced because of "developmental" activities.

IF you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country, Jawaharlal Nehru has been quoted as telling the village residents to be displaced by the Hirakud dam in 1948. And so it has been for the past 64 years. People, mostly impoverished tribes, have been suffering because of governments taking little or no measure to alleviate the suffering caused by various development projects.

The indigenous people, or Scheduled Tribes, constitute roughly 8 per cent of India's total population, numbering over 84.3 million people, according to Census 2001. Over 15 per cent of this section has been displaced or relocated by development projects; over 75 per cent of those displaced remain without proper rehabilitation. Until the 1980s, the governments did not even recognise displacement as a problem. It was considered a necessary evil that had to be tolerated for the sake of development.

According to a report titled Interface between Displacement, Rehabilitation and Governance in India: A critique, published by Prof. Muzaffar Assadi from the Department of Studies in Political Science, Mysore University, the failure of governance and governments to understand the nuances of displacement has brought about this situation. The first official admission that displacement was a problem and needed to be tackled at the policy level came in the Tenth Five Year Plan document, which stated: Displacement or forced/voluntary eviction [of tribal people] from their land and from their natural habitats and their subsequent rehabilitation has been a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

According to a Planning Commission report prepared by the Steering Committee on Empowering the Scheduled Tribes for the Tenth Five Year Plan, 2001, tribal people have borne the brunt of all displacements. They constitute 75 per cent of the people displaced because of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks: the number is 4.5 lakh. Mining activity, according to this report, has displaced 13.3 lakh tribal people, who constitute 52.2 per cent of the total population displaced. Dams, which have caused the largest displacements in India, have uprooted 63.2 lakh tribal people, who constitute 38.5 per cent of the total population displaced. Other development activities have uprooted 1.3 lakh tribal people, constituting 25 per cent of the total population displaced. These figures, incidentally, cover the period from 1951 to 1990 only and have been gathered by the Ministry of Rural Development. Displacement after this period has not even been accounted for in official reports.

An unofficial study, prepared by Dr Walter Fernandes, Director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, Assam, who is considered an authority on this issue, pegs this figure at around 60 million for the period from 1947 to 2004, involving 25 million hectares of land, which includes seven million hectares of forest land and six million hectares of other common property resources. His report says that while tribal people constitute over 8 per cent of the population, they are 40 per cent of the total number displaced/affected by projects.

Various reports have substantiated that over 75 per cent of those displaced remain without proper rehabilitation. Those who owned and tilled their own land, or eked out a living from forests and other natural resources, have been reduced to being landless workers, doing odd jobs for a living and leading lives of penury. This aspect has been brought out in many case studies, including the one published by Prof. Assadi.

In a study by Ram Babu Mallavarapu, who is a research scholar at the Centre For Regional Studies, University of Hyderabad, the plight of tribal people displaced in West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh because of the Kovvada Reservoir has been highlighted. He says Konda Reddis living in Reddigudem village and Nayakapods living in Lakshmipuram village have not been properly rehabilitated despite sincere attempts by various concerned citizens and civil rights organisations. Residents of Reddigudem got a meagre rehabilitation package. Those in Lakshmipuram were totally ignored by officials as it did not qualify to be considered as a submerged village. The author says tribal people in the area have been forced to do rag-picking and daily wage work. He has also detailed how agencies such as the S.C. and S.T. Commissions failed to make any effective intervention. And the government, both at the Centre and in the State, could not care less.

Displacement due to land acquisition for development projects in India: The problems with the existing legislation and policy, a report by Kelly A. Dhru, a trustee at Research Foundation for Governance in India, points out that the lack of political will to address issues concerning displacement has been the hallmark of India's policy framework since Independence. He has detailed with painstaking effort how the authorities have adopted an ad hoc approach to the problem. Non-recognition of indigenous rights has compounded the problem.

The Planning Commission admitted in 2001 that 21.3 million have been displaced during 1951-90, of whom 8.54 million [40 per cent] are tribal [people]. Yet, there is no comprehensive land acquisition or rehabilitation and resettlement policy. According to Assadi, the problem of displacement and inadequate rehabilitation has further marginalised the tribal people, giving rise to problems such as naxalite violence and pauperisation.

Another Planning Commission report titled Development challenges in extremist-affected areas, prepared by an expert group set up in 2006 and submitted a couple of years ago, substantiates Assadi's contention. This report, which was prepared by a 16-member group, attributes the unrest in tribal areas to land-related issues, displacement and land alienation. According to this report, the tribal people have remained backward in aspects of human development such as education, health and nutrition. The report says that apart from socio-economic deprivation, there has been a steady erosion of traditional tribal rights and their command over resources. And the contradiction between state power and tribal communities has manifested itself in open conflict in many areas. The report categorically concludes that the development paradigm pursued since Independence has aggravated the discontent among marginalised sections of society, as it has remained insensitive to the needs and concerns of the affected people. It categorically states that the development paradigm followed by the government so far has ended up destroying the social organisation of tribal people, their cultural identity and resource base. It has also generated multiple conflicts, undermining the communal solidarity of tribal people, which has cumulatively made them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

It was only in the mid-1990s that the government decided to formulate a tribal-friendly policy through the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996. But governance deficit has made it ineffective in dealing with the widespread discontent brewing in tribal areas. Dr N.C. Saxena, former bureaucrat and an expert on issues related to rural development and tribal affairs and at present a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) led by Sonia Gandhi, says that no sincere effort has been made by the government to solve the tribal people's problems such as land alienation/displacement. Reports submitted by various committees keep gathering dust in the Rural Development/Tribal Affairs Ministry. There is a tendency to treat tribal people as lesser human beings and sidetrack issues related to them. There has never been an effective Tribal Affairs Minister, they have all been ineffective, good only for doling out funds to fake NGOs, he told Frontline.

His own reports on the condition of tribal people and suggestions to improve their lot have been gathering dust in government offices for many years. He says that it is unfortunate that issues related to tribal people have always been on the back burner as they don't have strong political representation. The Tribal Affairs Ministers have always been light-weight politicians who would never take an initiative. No tribal leader worth his name ever raises relevant issues at legislative fora.

Sanjay Basu Mallik, national convener of the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, agrees. Mallik, who has been actively working with tribal people, chiefly in Jharkhand, and has been associated with many tribal movements since the 1980s, says the crux of the problem is that governments always treat tribal people as sacrificial lambs who can be dispensed with in the pursuit of development activities.

The government did not even realise that displacement from land was a problem for tribal people. It considered it as inevitable and thought just by paying cash compensation the problem could be taken care of. When people erupted in protests in the late 1970s and 1980s, they were aggressively crushed, but this only gave rise to many more movements, forcing the government to eventually realise that depriving people of their land was a problem, he said.

It is a measure of the government's sincerity that it continues to follow the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894 in dealing with such a situation. The rehabilitation and resettlement policy has been hanging fire since 2002. A national tribal policy has been in the making since 2006 and amendments to the Land Acquisition Act have remained embroiled in controversies.

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