The absence of state accountability is at the core of issues facing tribal communities
The Report of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, under the chairmanship of sociologist Virginius Xaxa, was circulated last week. The 431-page report details the situation of tribal communities: Scheduled Tribes, de-notified tribes and particularly vulnerable tribal communities. Taking on board the findings and demands of social movements, NGOs, researchers and bureaucrats, the report consolidates what we already know about the situation of tribal communities in this country. Without detracting from its significance as an archive, it is important to revisit some basic questions at this moment that have been brought to the fore yet again.
Sixty per cent of the forest area in the country is in tribal area. Fifty-one of the 58 districts with forest cover greater than 67 per cent are tribal districts. Three States — Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — account for 70 per cent of India’s coal reserves, 80 per cent of its high-grade iron ore, 60 per cent of its bauxite and almost 100 per cent of its chromite reserves. Forty per cent of those displaced by dams are tribal peoples. A look at violent conflict, whether in Schedule V States or in Schedule VI States, shows that “the state is involved in all of these conflicts in some way or another.” Not surprisingly, the areas where these wars are being waged (with the state as party) are tribal areas with rich mineral reserves. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act guarantees impunity to state perpetrators of extrajudicial murder and assault, and there are a large number of peaceful mass movements against the appropriation of tribal homelands by the state and by corporations.
While there is a generally discernible occupational shift in tribal communities, the committee observes, the focus of national state agencies on mainstream categorisations of agricultural labourers, cultivators and the omnibus category of non-farm workers masks the finer details of tribal work-worlds and therefore obstructs an understanding of shifts therein. The need for tribal communities to have continued and uninterrupted access to forests for livelihoods and the responsibility of the state in securing these livelihoods, ensuring their viability, and providing an account of their diversity; creating enabling conditions for the dignity of work and sustainability; and plans for protecting and removing both conflict and livelihood degradation caused by the repressive presence of the forest bureaucracy in tribal areas are issues that merit greater attention.
The absence of state accountability and responsibility are at the core of the problem.
Governance of tribal areas
The question of autonomy in scheduled areas has been set out in Schedules V and VI of the Constitution. In Schedule V areas, the Tribes Advisory Council — a body with elected and community representatives from Scheduled Tribes — will advise the governor on matters of administration and governance in scheduled areas. Extensive review has shown that although governors are vested with enormous powers with respect to Schedule V areas, they have been found uniformly tardy in the matter of submission of reports and in respecting the constitutional guarantee of autonomy to tribal areas — leading the High Level Committee to recommend the setting up of a cell “in order for the Governor to properly carry out the duties of the post vis-à-vis protection of the tribes” (emphasis added) with a whisper that this cell should not just turn into another bureaucratic institution with little interest in tribal affairs. The deliberations of the Tribes Advisory Councils have been found to be tokenistic, and the councils themselves filled with bureaucrats and ministers instead of representatives of tribal communities with effective voice. Even with the Autonomous Councils in the Schedule VI States, which have a more robust formal autonomy, the committee finds that “there is a huge discrepancy between the formal rules guaranteeing autonomy and the informal workings of autonomy on the ground.”
As a remedy, the committee recommends that Governors’ Cells be set up in all Schedule V States to assist the Governor, although details about the functioning of such cells set up in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are not yet known.
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What might be the modalities for an ad hoc “cell” to show a constitutional authority the right path to ‘good governance’?
Data reproduced in the report from the years 1981-82 showed a drop out rate of 91.65 per cent before completion of tenth standard, with a participation in higher education of 1.62 per cent among the Scheduled Tribes. While flagship programmes and policies have been introduced with laudable objectives, the committee observes that inadequate infrastructure, poor teaching and learning materials, lack of focus on teacher education, and the impact of armed conflict on teacher absenteeism and school functioning, and practices of discrimination and stigmatisation in schools have affected tribal children most adversely. Added to this is the rampant and routinised corruption in government schooling system, an issue that has not been addressed, but one that has an immediate and disastrous effect on the child’s and teachers’ well-being. All of these together hold tribal children in a chokehold, pushing them back into ghettoised suboptimal learning possibilities and grinding poverty.
Where does the solution lie? Might common schools be an answer? Should schooling continue in the “separate and unequal” mode? And most importantly, the state and adult citizens hold the responsibility for protecting the rights of all children in trust. It is no longer a question of quibbling over numbers — of schools, teachers, dropouts, enrolment, etc. If the outcome is that tribal children do not get a decent education, the state is responsible both for the absence of due diligence and for direct derogation of fundamental rights of children. On another level, the question is not merely one of the exposure of tribal children to the world outside; more critical is the need to promote an understanding of diverse tribal life-worlds in all children through a restructuring of education.
Tribal land alienation and dispossession are at the crux of the crisis tribal communities face across the country — acquisition of land by the state using the principle of ‘eminent domain’; manipulation of records and incorrect interpretation of law; encroachment of tribal land by non-tribal people and immigrants; creation of national parks; and armed conflict resulting in forced migration and eviction from homelands. There are questions related to the routinisation of arbitrary arrest, illegal detention and torture in custody of tribal people living in conflict areas. There are no figures publicly available on the demographic profile of prisoner/detainee populations in Schedule V areas. The important guarantee under Article 21 of the Constitution — right to life and personal liberty — is in a state of perpetual suspension in tribal areas. If one were to go by the data and observations put forth by the High Level Committee, once more we learn that the state is waging war at every level against tribal communities across States. Added to this is criminal neglect and violent corruption that has systematically obstructed the delivery of public goods and services. There is a proliferation of reports — of bureaucratic writing generally —as an end in itself.
What are we to do with this information? The government set up a committee that found the state complicit both directly as perpetrator and through the absence of due diligence in genocidal neglect of tribal peoples.
Where do we go from here?
(Kalpana Kannabiran is professor and director at the Council for Social Development, Hyderabad).