Hills show way forward for tribals

S A Aiyar

So you think that Indian tribals are utterly downtrodden, oppressed and bypassed by national economic development? You think activists are right to view Maoist insurgency as a tribal blessing and the only way forward for such an oppressed group?

Think again. No less than 17.1% of tribals own colour TVs, 46.6% have bicycles, 20% have two-wheelers, 12.5% have life insurance and 8.5% have refrigerators. That is below the national average of course, but nothing like the stark deprivation painted by activists.

These startling figures come from Caste in a Different Mould by Rajesh Shukla, Sunil Jain and Preeti Kakkar. The book draws on major household surveys by the National Council on Applied Economic Research, especially one in 2004-05. Its main finding is that caste matters much less than people think, while education and location matter much more.

That is good news. The OBCs (other backward castes) show no sign of suffering from discrimination — their income and durables ownership shares are roughly in line with population share. The share of dalits and tribals is below the national average, but not nearly as far below as activists and Maoists would have you believe.

India's average annual household income in 2004-05 was Rs 65,041. Upper caste households averaged Rs 86,690, higher than the national average but not dramatically so. Tribals averaged Rs 40,753, lower than the national average but not dramatically so.

Cynics will say this is too good to be true. Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta expresses surprise in an introductory chapter that inequality seems so low. Tribals account for 8% of the population and 5.2% of national income. This inequality is strikingly modest.

In the US, the bottom quintile (bottom 20%) of the population gets only 3% of the national income. In India, the bottom quintile gets twice as much. Tribals and dalits account for 24.8% of the population and as much as 17% of national income, clear evidence that some are well off.

One-third of tribals are in the lowest quintile, but as many as 4% of them are well off and in the top quintile. Differences between tribals are as great as all-India differences. Hence block benefits for all tribals (such as job reservation) are not warranted.

Tribal households in hill states average an annual income of Rs 72,052, well above the national average. In other states, tribal income rises in line with state incomes. Tribals average Rs 30,939 per year in low-income states, Rs 44,533 in middle-income states, and Rs 53,176 in high-income states.

Laws on reservation (and most analyses) make no distinction between tribals in different areas. That is a terrible mistake. Tribals in hill states are privileged, not deprived. The tribal north-eastern states have the benefit of low population, high literacy (boosted initially by Christian missionary schools), and extensive road networks built for defence purposes in these border areas. The north-east also benefits from huge infusions of Central money and substantial income from smuggling. Violent clashes are common in the north-east too, but these are not Maoist: they relate to secession (Nagaland) or inter-tribal tensions (Manipur and the Bodo territories).

Hill tribals constitute a creamy layer, absolutely non-comparable with illiterate tribals in the central Indian jungles. Missionaries worked in the central jungles too, but the number of tribals there was infinitely larger, so the impact on literacy was correspondingly small.

Tribals in low-income states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh earn slightly less than half the national average. This is a pity, but hardly represents a hopeless state of deprivation justifying violent insurrection. Like me, most readers will be astonished that tribals are not worse off in even the most inhospitable locations. Tribals in these locations can double their incomes by migrating to higher income states, and even more (to Rs 85,023 per year) by migrating to big cities.

Illiterate upper castes earn 1.4 times as much as illiterate tribals. This suggests a modest degree of discrimination. But a graduate tribal earns 3.7 times as much as an illiterate one. Among upper castes, graduates earn 4.2 times as much as illiterates. Clearly education provides a way forward for everybody.

This suggests the foundation of a proactive strategy to combat the socio-economic appeal of Maoism in tribal areas. First, roads and other infrastructure are needed to improve economic possibilities and migration opportunities. Second, education is needed to create skills and lift potential incomes.

The combined effect of infrastructure and education can lift tribals above the national average, as has been achieved in the hill states. The task will be much harder in the central Indian jungles. But it can be done. And it will benefit tribals far more than the supposed blessings of Maoist rule.