Tribes Of Neverland

The National Tribal Policy ‘draft’ is reason enough to celebrate. But what it lacks is the voice of the adivasi who it claims to protect, says SMITA JACOB
India’s first attempt at a comprehensive policy for Scheduled Tribes
Special fast track courts in scheduled areas to deal with land alienation
Innovative measures to encourage development, eg. school text books
Removed derogatory words like ‘primitive’ to address tribes
THERE ARE nearly 500 tribes in India constituting 140 million of us – 80 million Scheduled Tribes on the census record, and 60 million off the record, called the ‘denotified and nomadic tribes’ who have never been counted by India’s census. And yet, since independence, there hasn’t been a single comprehensive policy to cater to their basic needs of survival. Until now. Five years, two elections and many promises later, the National Tribal Policy (NTP), first proposed in 2004 by the NDA government, might finally see the light of day. Five years ago, the first draft was met with much opposition from civil society for adopting an assimilationist approach. It was criticised for trying to include tribal people with mainstream population, thus violating their rights and diluting their distinctiveness. It was also frowned upon for being a stand-alone document, not factoring in other applicable laws like the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act or the Land Acquisition Act and instead loosely speaking about measures like land rights, without any actual commitment.
In 2006, soon after the UPA government came to power, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs drafted a fresh policy. The draft handled the ‘assimilation’ issues that were diluting their unique identity and, instead, used an approach of ‘integration’. For example in Northeast India, over a 100 tribal ethnic minorities are dependent on shifting cultivation. Half of Meghalaya’s populat i o n , the Khasi tribes in particular, practice this method of farming for survival. While the 2004 draft coerced them to give up this ‘primitive’ method, pointing out that the tribes ‘do not seem to have any emotional attachment to land as an asset’, the current draft approaches this issue realistically by acknowledging that it is the only possible farming practice in interior areas that, in fact, promotes collective ownership of natural resources. While the 2004 draft makes vague suggestions like ‘encouraging qualified tribal doctors to serve tribal areas,’ the new draft proposes integrating indigenous and modern medicine for the tribal population. Such changes make the 2006 draft realistically address contemporary tribal issues such as evictions from forests, indebtedness and conflict and unrest, that were earlier never addressed. Yet, the drawback it suffers from the most is the lack of any action points or a timebound strategy to act upon.
The draft was placed before the union cabinet on May 31, 2007 for approval, following which it was referred to a group of ministers (GoM). In the recent Parliament session, Tushar Chaudhary, the Union Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, confirmed that the GoM has now forwarded the final draft to the cabinet for approval. A speedy approval now depends on the political commitment of the new UPA government, which apparently scheduled the approval of the NTP as a priority in its postvictory promises.
What then is the significance of a National Tribal Policy in the Indian context? Since independence, the major policy initiatives with regards to tribes have been Nehru’s outlined Panchsheel (a fivepointer guideline to develop a tribal policy) and constitutional provisions protecting Scheduled Tribes (STs). Various laws and schemes regarding different aspects of STs were formulated, each ambiguous and contradicting the other. This has deepened the sense of exclusion and alienation of adivasis in India, which has been manifesting itself in the form of tribal unrest. The emergence of Naxalism in Chhattisgarh and, more recently, in Lalgarh, has been capitalising on this very same tribal discontent. Previous UPA government Tribal Affairs Minister PR Kyndiah observed, “It is a paradox that the poor tribals are living in areas which are rich in minerals, forest resources and other natural bounties. The solution lies in giving rights to the ST communities over natural and financial resources, addressing economic deprivation.”
Only 20 days given to adivasi organisations to respond to the policy.
No clear implementing agencies, timelines and operational strategies
No right to self-determination as per UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples
No redressal for STs in non-scheduled areas and denotified tribes
But what has been the space for STs themselves in the process of creating this landmark policy? Adivasi organisations and activists across the country were given 20 days (21 July – 10 August 2006) to provide comments and feedback on the draft policy. VK Srivastav, Professor, University of Delhi, explains why the draft may not give confidence to the tribal people: “The dynamic reality of tribal living is missing in the draft. It lacks the ‘tribal voice’. Throughout the text runs the ‘we-they’ distinction — what ‘we’ think tribes should be given.” To counter this essential shortcoming, a series of national and regional consultations with adivasi organisations and community groups should be sought before its approval.
In the wide range of current political debates in India, lies a core question: Who is a ‘Scheduled Tribe’? With the many ambiguities regarding the nature of the term, any comprehensive policy on the STs should have had an authoritative clarification on this term. However, the NTP merely points out the outdated and derogatory nature of criteria used for scheduling tribes so far — “primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact and backwardness”. The policy needs to outline new criteria from the perspective of deprivation and exclusion.
The choice to retain or rebuild their cultural and political identities should be theirs
IN THE transient state of globalisation, the adivasis in the country are faced with new aspirations and problems and so the choice to retain or rebuild their cultural and political identities should be left to them. Sharad Joshi, former member of the Rajya Sabha and leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, observes: “A National Tribal Policy should be based on the principle of freedom for every tribal society to opt for either the old lifestyle or to go for the modern life, or choose access to both lifestyles.” India, along with 143 member-state nations of the UN, adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples in September 2007. Article 3 of the Declaration states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to selfdetermination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” And yet, the NTP is far from proposing the right to self-determination to help tribal communities choose their path of development as their fundamental right.
While the policy is a remarkable attempt to capture a holistic view of the contemporary tribal situation in the country, the extreme delay in approving the policy, its inability to fix concrete goals, and the lack of a participatory approach render it inadequate. For the UPA government to live up to its promise of empowering the ‘aam aadmi’, the voice of India’s tribes must be heard loud and clear before it is tabled to reflect a truly national policy.
Jacob works on tribal issues at The National Centre for Advocacy Studies