Development and Tribal Rights: Moving Towards an Inclusive Approach
Updated: Feb 2
According to the 2011 census, there are 104 million tribal people, constituting 8.6% of the population and 573 communities, as scheduled tribes. There exists a further distinction within the tribal community, a geo-social one. There are two regions that are inhabited by tribal people, the north-eastern states, bordering Burma and China, and the tribes of peninsular India, located on the central-eastern tribal belt, from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the East, intersecting the poorest states of the country, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.
What is the linkage between forests, mining, and tribes? The nexus dates back to historic times when tribes like the Gonds, had kingdoms and palaces in Kawardha. They were known for their valiance and their fights against the upper caste kingdoms. It was only during the colonial rule in India that the idea of Adivasi independence emerged, because the land of these tribes, the forests they inhabited were being taken away from them. Forests to these tribes were emblematic of home, but for the establishment, forests are often just large untapped natural resource reservoirs. It is at this point that industrial societies confronted Adivasi societies (Srivatsava and Echanove, 2017).
Furthermore, there is also latent friction between forest rights groups, industries, and tribes.
It was during the colonial period in India that the sanctity of forests was violated and exploited for resources, revenues, and trade. There was a transition from forests being habitats for sustenance, to becoming state-owned resource pools used for commercial, agricultural, and developmental needs.
While the narrative has been established, it can very well be substantiated by the legal evolution of the Forest Rights Act. There has always existed a symbiotic relationship between the tribes and the forest, one that was threatened in 1865, 1894, and 1927 Forest Acts. These acts inherently deterred indigenous and tribal communities, from accessing and utilizing the resources of the forest. Additionally, there was the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which impacted the tribes by prohibiting capturing, killing, poisoning, or trapping wild animals and regulating the trade in products derived from wildlife. The 1988 National Forest Policy, which was an afforestation
drive backed with people’s support, which aimed at reducing pressure on the existing forests and also subsequently resulted in the mushrooming of forest rights activism.
Then, there were the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA), which was crucial, because it preserved the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, resources, customary mode, and dispute resolutions. PESA supposedly wished to reduce alienation in tribal areas, as they would have better control over the utilization of public resources. The SC/ST Protection of Atrocities Act 1989, also focuses on providing safety to scheduled castes and tribes, from offenses and also providing Special Courts for the trials of such cases. It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tribal Panchsheel policy, that was a stride ahead in tribal and indigenous policymaking in the post-Independence era.
It was only in 2006, that the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act favored the indigenous tribes in their rights over the forest land, that used to be their home. The Forest Rights Act, legally recognizes the rights of traditional communities, living in forested areas for a considerable time. The Act aims to alleviate those who have been at the mercy of draconian laws and as a consequence of that, have not had access to their fundamental legal rights. There is an attempt to democratize and recognize the tribal identity, by bringing to notice forests, that were under strict state control and which had been for all this time, immune to public discourse. The Act calls on local self-governance to play an increased role, within tribal communities and forest dwellers. The Act aims to uphold the sanctity of traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights, associated with the biodiversity of forest land. There are provisions in the Act to improve developmental facilities of the villages, in and around these forest areas. The last and the most important aspect of this act is the promotion of vulnerable groups, wanting to alleviate their poverty.
Having mentioned this, one could assume that the Forest Act is a wide stride in the ambit of tribal rights, however, much like most other legislation around tribal rights, there are caveats. These caveats bridge the gap, between the actual and apparent. It is apparent from the aspects of the Act that there is a redirected focus on tribes in India but who can actually access these provisions is determined by the two stages which acknowledge a citizen as a forest dweller. The caveat being, only “forest dwellers” can access these rights.
So, what constitutes a forest dweller? A person should inhabit the forest land and also be dependent on the forest, its land, and resources for their livelihood. This constitutes stage 1.
It’s in stage 2, that most tribes succumb to Section 2(o) stipulates that the conditions of stage 1 need to be true for 75 years. Section 2(c), makes it mandatory for a person to be a documented scheduled tribe. Section 4 (1) needs the person to reside only where they are scheduled to on the documents (Rai, 2020).
If and only if, all these factors are verified can a person access the benefits of the Forest Rights Act, under which there are, land rights, rights of usage and protection, and conservation rights? Attempting to understand the implications these rights have under the act, under land rights, Section 4(3) established 31st December 2005, as the benchmark to judge when and if the land has been cultivated. Section 3(1)(a) and Section 4(6), give tribals who have cultivated land but no papers to show for it, access to only 4 hectares of claimable land. Section 3(1) (f) and 3 (1)(g) establish that in case this land is unlawfully taken up by the forest department or the forest revenue department, it can be reclaimed, only on the basis of providing a legitimate patta or papers and section 4(4) protects inheritance with regard to that land (Rai, 2020).
The very Act that claims to acknowledge and give due importance to tribes in India, is also allegedly dense and complex enough, to not be accessible by these very tribes. There are certain sections within the Act that negates the claim to benefit tribes. Section 6(6) of the Act trusts the district-level committee with all final decisions. Section 6(2) mentions if at the taluka level, a person believes, the claims of the forest dwellers to be untrue, a three-tier committee is put in place and the claimant will potentially be denied his right. Subsequently, the same applies even at the district level under Section 6(4) (Rai, 2020).
So why is there a debate over the access of tribes to forests? Ever since 1774 (East India Company), commercial coal mining has been prominent in the eastern belt of the country. There were an estimated 91 mining companies during the 1891 census and 725 coal mines in the 1942 census. It was the economic policy of 1991, that encouraged privatization. This marked a sharp shift in policy, from public to private (Narasimham and Subbarao, 2018). This was enabled, through the Mines and Mineral Regulation and Development Act which was amended in 1994 and 1999 to factor in private players. Based on the 2011 census, scheduled tribes constitute 55.16% of the total displaced population in India. Development-based
involuntary displacement, infringed upon the human rights of these scheduled tribes (Narasimham and Subbarao, 2018). The government's demarcation of on-shore and off-shore minerals coupled with the Mineral Concession Rules 1960 and provision for reconnaissance permit, prospecting license, and mining leases, makes the tribes and forest dwellers, at a higher risk of displacement on account of mining and commercial activities.
There are numerous ways in which, mining adversely impacts the lives of these tribes- The impact of commercial mining has compromised their physical environment, on account of the soil and land degradation and pollution of water and air. Land acquisition continues to be one of the most adverse impacts of commercial mining in India. Some instances of such displacement are the 15,000 people displaced due to the Piparwar Coal Project, in North Karanpura valley and the 6,000 people who have been displaced, due to the Rajmahal Coal Mining project of ECL (Narasimham and Subbarao, 2018). While the government does not have a concrete sanction in place, for the rehabilitation of the displaced, it is often, in the case of private mining companies, the onus of rehabilitation, falls in the hands of the private company. This aids the discrepancies in the rehabilitation mechanism. In some cases, families are expected to give up their land in exchange for jobs in the company, some are relocated to new houses, some are given a one-time arbitrary amount as compensation and the rest are just victims of crony capitalism, land mafia, or other corrupt practices within the system.
There are also anthropological concerns such as, loss of land, heritage, and their home, which results in migration, which inevitably symbolizes a loss of religious and cultural identity and destruction of their social system.
When it comes to tribal and indigenous communities, they are highly misunderstood. They are marginalized, not only on account of their demography but also for reasons such as their livelihood, culture, or lack of urbanization. These communities, but rather simply, lack representation (Narasimham and Subbarao, 2018).
There is a notion, one that is fuelled by ideas of reservation, which have no correlation, to the realities of these communities. The minuscule representation has no bearing on the plight of these communities on a regular basis.
In order to substantiate the above-mentioned issues, we can look at the Tribal village of Karampot, Jharkhand, known as a prominent coal-bearing region. Located forty-five miles from the capital of Ranchi. Their CCL1 under CIL2 runs the Pandu Project, Karampot is located less than a mile from this (Noy, 2019). The village in the last two decades has changed, there now is a large overburden dump towering over the village, open pits, and coal depot yards. Tribals by nature are said to be rather egalitarian, which is why, they closely associate with the ideals of community, solidarity, labor exchange, and camaraderie. What is a distinct change in this village, is the disintegrating sense of community, which is a consequence of mining and dispossession. Contrary to popular ideas, mining often results in fragmented impoverishment, which results in social differentiation. The village of Karampot now has a distinction, concrete fancy houses with boundaries gates and motorized vehicles parked and mud houses. This has happened, due to the choice exercised by some tribes, in opting for compensation, in exchange for their landholding. They have been relocated to new areas with provisions for jobs in the collieries as workers or assistants. With the scope of permanent well-paying jobs and a new house, the choice to give up their land seems logical, however, for many more villagers their land, identity, and culture could not be adequately compensated for with the poorly implemented and extremely subjective compensation process. Some of these villagers resort to selling coal that they can get their hands on illicitly from coal depots (Nov, 2020).
For these villagers, there is no compensation, as they technically still reside in their old landholdings. Even though their mud houses have developed cracks on account of the blasting for mining, their soil is infertile for agriculture and their water and air contaminated, due to mining, they still have no rehabilitation or redressal.
There are numerous such stories, that never make it to the public eye. Be it the lack of representation or just neglect in policy formulation, scheduled tribes are not just a quota or a label, they are human beings, that should be given proper access to rights and life.
Mines are geological hotspots that are specified to be islands of prosperity, but ironically, have become islands of poverty.
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2. Banerjee, S. (2018). Supreme Court fines illegal miners in Odisha, direct funds to be used for tribal benefit in mining districts. Down to Earth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/mining/supreme-court-fines-illegal-miners-in-odisha-directs-fund-to-be-used-for-tribal-benefit-in-mining-districts-58388
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About the author: A journalism graduate and currently in the final year of Masters in public policy at JGU, Muskan Mascharak is engaged in work pertaining to sustainable development, education, social responsibility, and their regulatory frameworks.
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