Recently, we were witness to a noisy spat between economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Some commentators linked this to a Congress-versus-BJP fight over development models. Sen, the advocate of investment in education, health and nutrition as necessary for economic growth, was presumed to speak for the Congress. Bhagwati, the proponent of growthfirst model, was seen to be batting for the BJP. Indeed, Bhagwati has cited Gujarat as a model state with allround prosperity for citizens. But if growth-first schemes were to have a trickledown effect on the living standards of all Indians, why are our scheduled tribes left so far behind in the great growth story?
Right of Growth Reserved
. Through his polemic and dogged pursuit of big business, he has convinced some that Gujarat is an engine of growth. Then, what explains the poor human development indicators of Gujarat’s tribals? According to India’s Human Development Report, 2011, “Gujarat, one of the industrial and advanced states, has performed very badly with respect to adult women’s malnutrition among the socially marginalised groups.” Tribal women, whose body mass index (BMI) was less than 18.5, comprised 61% in Gujarat compared to 46.6% nationally. The under-five mortality rate (U5MR), a key measure of healthcare and nutrition, was 115 per 1,000 among tribals, compared to the state’s average of 60. About 84% tribals in rural Gujarat have no access to latrines and, thus, defecate openly. Only 15% have access to treated drinking water. Surely, tribals cannot have much to say about the “Modi model”.
Like Modi, Like Chouhan
Next door to Gujarat is Madhya Pradesh, led by another BJP chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Chouhan lacks Modi’s polemical flair, but has also been talked up as a “model” reformer. Madhya Pradesh is home to the largest number of tribals in the country: with 20% of its population, or 15 million people, belong to the scheduled tribes. Madhya Pradesh, like Gujarat, has one of the highest growth rates among the states. But what is the condition of its tribals? They continue to be deprived of basic facilities such as sanitation, drinking water, education and crucial healthcare services. This has led to a high rate of malnutrition, mortality and economic misery.
Government numbers show that in Madhya Pradesh, about 91% of the tribal population defecates in the open. This number is even higher in the five districts where the tribal population is in a majority: nearly 96%.
Only 5% of the tribal population has access to treated drinking water. The U5MR among tribals is 140 per 1,000; the national average is 95. Tribal infants aged 0-5 are likely to be underweight: 71% already are. The national average is 42%. Half the tribal women in the state have BMI less than 18.5 and are undernourished. At a little more than 33%, Madhya Pradesh also has India’s highest conviction rate in cases related to crimes against tribals. Clearly, the blessings of growth have not trickled down to where tribals and other marginalised communities are.
Alot of this disparity in living standards is also attributable to the Chouhan regime’s ineptitude in managing Centre’s schemes at the local level. Recently, there have been reports of funds for post-matriculation scholarship for tribal schoolchildren being siphoned off. To stop such acts, it might be better to move to a cash transfer scheme. Madhya Pradesh’s tribals, like their cousins in Gujarat, have no reason to be enamoured of the Chouhan model of growth.
The Discovery of Tribals
Throughout his life, Jawaharlal Nehru was keenly interested in tribal affairs. He travelled extensively in their areas and prompted special categorisation and special measures for them to be written into the Constitution. After Independence, he personally appointed the great British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who had taken on Indian citizenship, to be the adviser for tribal affairs.
Nehru’s outlook on tribals formed the basis of the policies drawn up in independent India. The UPA government has advocated empowerment for tribals. It introduced the Forest Rights Act in 2006 for tribals and other forest dwellers. The Act grants legal recognition by giving them right of land, minor forest produce, community resources and so on.
Around 1.3 million land title claims have been settled with 4.9 million acres distributed to tribal communities under the Act. The UPA also gave the community the right to harvest and sell bamboo under Community Forest Rights, empowering gram sabhas and curbing thespread of Naxalism in the medium term.
Progress that is not inclusive of all citizens is a growth myth. Models that invest in every person, no matter what her position or income, will succeed. Not the mythical oones peddled by Modi or Chouhan.
The writer is former minister for tribal affairs and a Lok Sabha MP. Co-authored with Anurodh Lalit Jain