Caring for half-literate adivasis

Tavleen Singh says the following, in her Indian Express column. Her impatience for reforms notwithstanding, the ‘half-literate adivasis/villagers’ appears to be in particularly bad taste.

…we now have a situation in the Niyamgiri hills in which half-literate Adivasis have been allowed to lay claim to bauxite reserves that are in hills they do not own. They have been allowed to do this on the specious grounds that they believe the Niyamgiri hills are their god. With Rahul Gandhi and a small army of bleeding-heart busybodies on their side, they have been voting in village referendums to ban mining altogether in the Niyamgiri hills. This has been hailed as a victory for democracy without anyone noticing the precedent that is now set.


Tomorrow villagers in Bihar and Jharkhand can refuse coal to be mined on similar grounds and how long is it before gas and oil are forced to remain in the ground or the oceans simply because some bunch of semi-literate villagers decide that mining offends their gods?

Earlier in the column, Tavleen refers to the benefits of reforms having accrued to dalits and then moves on smoothly to talking about adivasis, as if there is no difference in the context – even on paper. Dalits often occupy the same spaces as we do and their participation in economic development is an obvious win-win. Adivasis, as we should know, are different. The communities Tavleen talks of – the ones opposing big miners – are not those who live in our midst. They occupy their small space in remote, often inaccessible pockets and live in an eco-system they nurture on their own. This is not to romanticise the conditions in which adivasis live – they too should have access to quality public services. But is the cost of providing these basic services going to be the displacement of adivasis from their lands? I am not sure.

Of course, there is an important debate to be had over the substance of Tavleen’s arguments. Should Gram Panchayats get a free hand on deciding if there should be mining on their lands? I think they should not be the sole arbiter – corruption aside, minerals are a national resource, and if accompanied by a just rehabilitation and resettlement package, mining should be relatively easy. But again, the track record of most of the miners in the area is nothing to write home about, and inspire no confidence.

In both the mining and the land acquisition bill, Gram Panchayats are going to be given significant powers to decide on mining in their areas. This need not be a debate between big development and small development – industry should operate, as long as the right compensation is figured out and the process followed is free and fair.

In any case, “half-literate adivasis” is unlikely to be a winning argument…


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