In seven central Indian states, the increase in the number of tribals who have moved from cultivation to agri labour is 52%.
Over 70% of India’s tribal population lives in a 2,000-km long swathe of forested land that cuts across the heart of India, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west, through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra , Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to Odisha in the east. Usually, their lives are below the radar of national attention. But upcoming assembly elections in three major tribal states – MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – and the build up to the 2014 general elections, has raised the question: how are the tribals faring in these states?
Some indication of the changes taking place in tribal lives in the seven central Indian states can be observed in recently released Census 2011 data on scheduled tribes. A comparison with 2001 shows that there’s a seismic shift in the kind of work done by the tribals of these seven states. Abandoning cultivation, over 5.6 million tribals joined the ranks of agricultural labourers in the decade, while another 1.6 million shifted to non-agricultural work.
This shift is much more dramatic than the change seen at the national level. The number of agricultural labourers increased by 35% between 2001 and 2011 at the national level but among the tribals of these states, the spike was a mind boggling 52%. As a result, 48% of all tribal workers are now agricultural labourers, compared to 38% a decade ago. At the national level, 30% of the workers are agri labourers, slightly up from 27% a decade ago.
In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the number of tribal cultivators declined by over 15% in the past decade while the number of tribal agricultural labourers went up by 41% and 63% respectively. Surprisingly, despite being a highly industrialized state, the tribal employment in non-agricultural jobs increased by only 12% in Gujarat.
Among the seven tribal states, Rajasthan showed the biggest rise in tribal agricultural labourers – by over 128% in a decade, while Odisha had the lowest increase – 33%.
“Dispossession from land and commercialisation of agriculture are the two main reasons behind this shift,” says Archana Prasad, an associate professor at Delhi’s Jamia Milia University who has studied tribal communities over the years. Dispossession may happen because of industrial projects or when land is leased out for contract farming, she explains.
Many tribals migrate for short durations for specific types of agricultural work like sugar cane or cotton harvesting. A 2012 study of migration patterns across 20 states done by Delhi-based think tank Center for Women’s Development Studies had shown that tribal women make up the biggest chunk of short term migrants or circulatory migrants. It also found that they migrated as family units to do agricultural labour, brick kiln work or construction work.
Dayabhai Jadav, a social activist from Modasa in Gujarat’s Aravalli district, says that tribals are forced to leave their lands and seek other work because they can’t afford to buy fertilizers and seeds, and also because often their lands are degraded, with no irrigation. “Rich farmers send contractors who give advances to poor tribal families, and then escort them to big farmers’ lands for farming. Usually the tribal family gets paid one-fifth or one-fourth of the share for their labour,” Jadav says.
Recent studies show that real wages of agricultural labourers have either declined marginally or stayed stagnant over the past decade, says Prasad. Coupled with the highly vulnerable nature of the tribals, especially the migrants, this points towards their sharply deteriorating economic status.
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