Beyond the last frontier

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

SPECIAL rights, guarantees and privileges promised by the Constitution mean little to the nearly 40 lakh tribal people of Andhra Pradesh's Visakhapatnam district. Systematically marginalised over the years, many of them do not even exist on government records and have been alienated from their land and forests, which form the very basis of their existence. There seems to be no end to the tribal people's 300-year-old struggle for their rights, which has been decimated by the State government's development process.

The lives of members of the 40 tribes who live in the heights of the Eastern Ghats in Visakhapatnam district revolve around the fertile land and lush forests in the region. The tribal people have been meeting most of their needs themselves - by taking up farming (permanent and shifting cultivation) and selling minor forest produce.

But the Forest Department, in its effort to increase the forest cover (the National Forest Policy aims to bring 33.33 per cent of the total land area of the country under forests), is driving the tribal people out of the jungles. Moreover, their land has also been appropriated by the government or private companies for mining, industrial and tourism activities. The invasion of big industries and mining activities has depleted groundwater levels and affected soil quality. Investigation by Frontline shows that the tribal people of Visakhapatnam district seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of development, retreat and marginalisation. If recent moves of the State and Central governments that amount to denying their constitutional rights are any indication, the tribal people seem to have no way out.

The lives of the tribal communities are best understood in the context of the sociological process of their enslavement, their inter-dependence and a local economy that is based on cooperation. Any incursion of outsiders into their habitat engenders competition, and the tribal people withdraw into areas where they can continue to have command over resources and have numerical superiority. Such retreats have been a feature of tribal life over the last three centuries.

But with the dramatic reduction in forest cover in the last hundred years, they have no place to go; the strategic retreat has turned into enslavement and concentration. According to some estimates, over 46 per cent of tribal land in Andhra Pradesh has come under the control of non-tribal people. With their population rising from 30 million at the time of Independence to over 70 million now, the tribal people have receded into the reserve forests.

With the rise in the country's population and the opening up of tribal areas with the laying of roads, especially for mining operations, non-tribal encroachment of tribal lands happened in a big way. This process is well described by Professor Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf in his study Tribes of India: Struggle for Survival (Oxford University Press, 1994). "The tribals have reached the `last frontier'," he says.

Jhum, or shifting, cultivation is the tribal people's way of adapting to living in the hills. The area cultivated is shifted after each crop. But with the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, trying to increase the area under forest cover, the land available to the tribal people for jhum shrank dramatically. They became victims of scientific forestry.

The second major source of livelihood for the tribal people is collection of forest produce (minor or non-timber or small timber and firewood) for their own use and for sale at shandies. Wage employment in government schemes in forestry, road building, mining and so on is another source of income. According to the National Sample Survey (44th round based on 1988-89 data), while 62 per cent of the tribal communities across the country live within 1 to 5 km of forests, in the northern coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh the figure is over 95 per cent. Direct wage employment in the State was available for no more than 12 days per annum per household.

With the increase in the tribal population and with large-scale alienation of tribal land to non-tribal people, there is pressure on land. Forest land of over 1.5 million hectares was occupied by tribal communities across the central tribal belt. In this context, it is argued, there is an urgent need to revise the National Forest Policy and the laws to bring them in tune with the universally accepted scientific principle of land capability classification (LCC), which scientifically classifies land based on its slope, texture, quality, water absorbing and retaining capacity and so on. The ad hoc prescription in the National Forest Policy that a third of the country's land be brought under forests has no scientific basis. The question to be asked is not "how much area should be kept under forests", but "what land should be kept under forests". According to principles of LCC, land above 65 slope should be under forests. According to Samata executive director Ravi Rebbapragada, the Forest Conservation Act should be amended to be in consonance with this.

The tribal people have been alienated from their land by the development policies pursued by the Andhra Pradesh and Orissa governments since the 1950s (the impact of development policies pursued by the two State governments is felt by all the tribal people in the area, cutting across the border). The tribal people are not against development per se; their anger seems to be that not only are they not benefiting from the development projects, but they are being penalised by it. Land alienation, displacement and land degradation seem to be happening consistently since the 1950s.

The 1950s saw the large-scale displacement of tribal people from their homes with the construction of multipurpose projects on the Sileru, the Machkund, the Balimela and the Duduma rivers. In the 1960s, the laying of the Dandakaranya-Bolangir-Kirbur railway line again uprooted tribal people from their homes.

The 1970s saw more irrigation and hydroelectric projects coming up, once again forcing tribal people out of their homes and land. There was a total shift in the government intervention in the 1980s, with the initiation of several public sector industrial projects such as aluminium, paper, pulp and wood-based units.

In the 1990s, the marginalisation of the tribal people, their alienation from their land and the plundering of their resources became complete when the government ushered in policies of liberalisation, allowing multinational companies into the resource-rich tribal areas to set up projects ranging from power generation to mining.

The tribal people live on a wealth of resources, which have been the basis of conflict in the area. In the Ananthagiri mandal of Visakhapatnam district, for instance, the government granted mining leases on over 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of tribal land to individuals and private companies; the government had not given the tribal people land ownership rights and had, in fact, taken away from them several parcels.

The development of tourism too played a role in alienating the tribal people from their lands. For example, areas of tourism interest, such as the Borra caves, were taken over by the government, thereby reducing the tribal people settled in the area to mere contract workers. Similarly, many of the government's moves have thwarted the functioning of gram panchayats, killing grassroots democracy.

THE mining leases granted to the private companies militated against all laws and principles governing the protection of tribal people. They violated, for instance, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. When the tribal people protested they were suppressed, arrested, illegally held or evicted from their homes. The companies began to mine the area without the mandated environment impact assessment; without putting in place any relief, rehabilitation and disaster management plans; and with scant regard for the tribal people's means of livelihood.

The environmental devastation that mining has caused in the area includes diversion of rivers to the mining sites; contamination of streams owing to storage of the dug out wastes on the topsoil; and the increased alkalinity of the reservoirs that supply water to the plains as it is the catchment area of major rivers such as the Sarada, the Varaha, the Sileru and the Machkund. The leasing of the Gosthani river bed to a mining company for sinking 400 borewells, it was estimated, would deprive over a lakh people of drinking water, apart from depleting the water-table.

Ironically, while shifting cultivation and the tribal people are held responsible for the depletion of forest resources, ignored is the fact that the harm caused by the mining companies is devastating and, worse, irreversible (which is not the case with jhum cultivation). Thus, the tribal people were reduced to mute spectators when their resources and livelihood systems were being destroyed. They faced food insecurity; loss of common property resources; destruction of social systems; loss of religious and cultural identity; and the reduction of rich farm land to wastelands with rock blasting leaving deep holes on or badly disturbing the topsoil.

But what is the Central government doing to address the issue? The previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's insensitivity became clear from the draft policy on tribal people that its Ministry of Tribal Affairs brought out early this year. The draft mentions that "assimilation", in which a community merges with another by abandoning its past, and not "integration", in which a community retains its identity even while becoming part of another, is its main objective. The draft says: "Tribals involved in shifting cultivation do not seem to have any emotional attachment to the land as an asset or property needing care." On the contrary, for the tribal people, their land means livelihood; their culture, identity and life is built around their lands. The solutions suggested to their problems appear a rehash of the earlier programmes. The tribal people, for instance, are to be included in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan without addressing the basic problems of language, infrastructure, standards and needs.

But now, with a change of government at the Centre, the tribal people of Visakhapatnam hope their travails will be addressed with sensitivity.

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, when he was the Leader of the Opposition in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, had spoken eloquently about the travails of the tribes (the note was sent to the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission). He said: "The Constitution of India guarantees special provisions to the tribes, but unfortunately the Government of Andhra Pradesh has totally ignored the welfare of the tribes. The Government of Andhra Pradesh has violated Article 21 of the Constitution of India. This is solely due to bad governance and lack of proper understanding of the provisions and functioning of the Indian Constitution. The failure of the government is a violation of Articles 14, 21, 46 and 51(A) of the Constitution of India."

Now that Rajasekhara Reddy is Chief Minister, will he be sensitive to the problems of the tribal people?

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