A `primitive' perspective

Print edition : November 05, 2004

A national assembly of indigenous people rejects the draft National Policy on Tribals on the grounds that it violates their rights and shows lack of respect for their unique culture.

"I wish that you would issue instructions to your translation committee that the translation of Scheduled Tribes should be Adivasi (meaning original inhabitants or indigenous peoples). The word Adivasi has grace... . Why is this old abusive epithet of Banjati (forest dwellers) being used in regard to them.... In my opinion, it should be Adivasi.... I cannot understand why you wish to give us another name."

- Jaipal Singh, a member of the Constituent Assembly, addressing President Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

LITTLE appears to have changed for the tribal people. Just in September, a national assembly of indigenous people held in New Delhi rejected the draft National Policy on Tribals, released early this year, saying that "mainstreaming and assimilating" them violated their rights and that it showed a complete lack of respect for their "unique culture". It said: "What is considered `primitive' by the enlightened is not a state of backwardness and tribal knowledge-systems need not conform to `mainstream' development notions."

Tribal people of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh perform a traditional dance.-

According to the Declaration put out by the tribal people, the language of the draft policy was offensive, with derogatory definitions and descriptions. The Declaration charged the draft with not recognising, protecting or promoting tribal, indigenous and Adivasi customary laws, practices and governance systems. It stated: "The draft shows a lack of consistency and clear recognition of rights to ancestral lands, territories and natural resources." It also expressed disappointment at the silence on the adverse impact of policies of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation and structural adjustments on the tribal communities.

The anger and disappointment of the indigenous people are justified. Nowhere, not even in the Constitution, is there a satisfactory definition for the term "tribe". The Draft National Policy merely lists the characteristics considered by the President to notify a "Scheduled Tribe": Primitive traits, distinctive culture, shyness with the public at large, geographical isolation, and social and economic backwardness.

The Government of India identifies all S.T.s as primitive races. The Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission, in its 1961 report, stated that "Scheduled Tribes" are known as indigenous peoples under international law. Yet, the draft policy prefers to call them `primitive'.

According to the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, the use of "insensitive" and "derogative" terms such as "Primitive Tribal Groups" in the draft policy is antithetical to the universally recognised principles of dignity for and equality of all human beings. If indeed the draft policy wants to halt the "stigmatisation" of the `Primitive Tribes', it must use the term "indigenous and tribal peoples," consistent with India's obligation as a signatory to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 107. Further, the characteristics to recognise and identify the S.T.s should be those given under ILO Convention Nos. 107 and 169, and not the ones given in a 1950 notification.

The official attitude, the Declaration argues, is one of viewing tribal people as primitive and attempting to reorient their way of living. This is far from reality. For example, the Jarawas, living in the jungles of south and middle Andamans, are one of six tribes on the islands to shun the modern way of life. Anthropologists have found that they maintain a lifestyle totally in harmony with their environment. In fact, researchers have concluded that this aboriginal tribe is more than content in its hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But by official definition, the Jarawas, clubbed with 698 other S.T.s, are `primitive'. Similar is the fate of 75 other tribes who constitute 2.5 million people and representing 0.3 per cent of the country's population. According to the 1991 Census, the S.T.s constitute 8.1 per cent of the population but remain on the lowest rung of society in all respects.

EVER since the S.T.s were `notified' in 1950, they have been seen as those who live in a pre-agricultural, backward economy, with low literacy rates, and whose populations are stagnant or declining. For these reasons, governments have, for the last five decades, launched schemes to bring these tribes into the mainstream of development. Yet, the tribes are still on the margins. The attempts at development have left them worse off socially, economically and environmentally. Yet, the draft national policy harps on infrastructure and human-capital investment schemes, which have not improved the lot of the tribal people. This approach assumes that the tribal people have severe limitations, especially intellectual and of financial capital. Thus, for instance, the draft policy wants to strengthen the allopathic system of medicine in the tribal areas, even while acknowledging that these people have a well-developed system of medicine based on herbs and other natural products. The draft policy fails to detail ways of preserving the tribal knowledge-system and benefit-sharing in the event of knowledge transfer.

Contrary to Jawaharlal Nehru's argument that there is no point in trying to make the tribal people "a second-rate copy of ourselves" the draft policy attempts to do just that. In fact, Nehru had gone a step further to say that the "tribal [people] should be helped to grow according to their genius and tradition". But the Tenth Plan describes the problems of the vulnerable tribal communities thus: "A decline in their sustenance base and the resultant food insecurity, malnutrition and ill-health force them to live in the most fragile living conditions and some of them are even under the threat of getting extinct. Prominent examples in this context are the Bay-Islanders such as the Great Andamanese, Shompens, Jarawas and Sentinelese of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Even some of the mainland groups, such as the Bondos of Orissa, Cholanaickans of Kerala, the Abujhmarias of Chhattisgarh and the Birhors of Jharkhand are dwindling."

Most disturbing, the Declaration argues, is the draft policy advocating assimilation of the vulnerable communities among indigenous and tribal peoples - the "Primitive Tribal Groups". The ILO Convention (No.169) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries and the developments in international law since 1957 emphasise the need to move away from the idea of assimilation as it violates the cultural and social rights of the groups.

Another failing of the draft is that it does not refer to the denotified tribes. The British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) to group certain tribes for their "criminal tendencies". In 1952, the government officially "denotified" the stigmatised ones, but enacted the Habitual Offender's Act, which is not very different from the Criminal Tribes Act. Both the Criminal Tribes Act and the Habital Offender's Act negate the universally proclaimed principles that "all human beings are born free and equal". Several tribes in different parts of the country are booked under this Act without the understanding that the destruction of their livelihood systems by the state and the non-tribal people is responsible for the petty crimes committed by the tribal people.

The Five-Year Plans have also failed to rehabilitate the "Denotified Tribes". A sum of Rs.3.5 crores was allotted in the first Plan to resettle ex-criminal tribes and train them in the ways of settled community life, Rs.2.94 crores in the second Plan, Rs.4 crores in the third, and Rs.4.5 crores in the fourth. But no specific programme was included in the Plans. In the Third Plan, the Planning Commission even said: "In view of the small results achieved thus far in rehabilitating denotified tribes, it is considered that their needs should be studied in each area at close range and suitable programmes should be formulated, keeping in view the long-term and complex nature of the problems." Both the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission on the Review of the Working of the Constitution made specific recommendations on the Denotified Tribes/Communities and Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes/Communities some two years ago. But nothing has happened on that front.

Crucial to understanding the plight of the tribal people is their continuously shrinking economic base. Said R. Ravi, executive director of Samata, a Visakhapatnam-based non-governmental organisation that has been fighting for tribal rights for the last two decades: "While the British favoured the isolation of tribal people to maximise revenue, post-Colonial policies have tampered with their traditional rights and ownership over forests to do just the same." With tribal people constituting 55 per cent of all those displaced by mega-projects, they are also seen as barriers to the process of development. Thus, the draft policy considers displacement inevitable, mentioning, as if reluctantly, that displacement of tribal people from their land amounts to a violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.

The various development schemes suggested in the draft policy are sure to alienate the tribal people from their roots - the forests. The institutional mechanism - of imparting education, extending health services, and development interventions - is structured to distance the primitive tribes from their traditional knowledge and culture. Reports indicate that tribal children do not attend schools. This clearly points to the fact that the education imparted is irrelevant to their way of life. Yet, the state wants them to go to school under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan programme, which is certain to keep away from the tribal children their rich traditional knowledge and the experience of their elders.

Soon after the tribal, indigenous and Adivasi people rejected the draft policy, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs issued a statement that the views expressed and suggestions made on the Draft National Policy would be considered.

It is crucial is that the policy planners understand the lives, culture and socio-economic reality of the tribal people, as also their unique strengths, if they really want to help them.

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