The state is reclaiming power over tribal communities

Indigenous tribes constitute about 8% of India’s population–about 100 million people. Two superbly progressive pieces of legislation—the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996)—established a framework for local self-governance in demarcated (or “scheduled”) areas. The FRA clarified further that these communities had the sole right to sell proceeds from forests.

This has been the subject of an ongoing tussle between Maharashtra’s Forest Department and the Union ministry of tribal affairs. A recent Business Standard report covered this episode, illustrating how the tribal affairs ministry agreed to hand over control of forest management to the state’s forest department, after having initially insisted that tribal communities had exclusive rights over trade in forest produce. This is yet another instance that highlights how the implementation of PESA and FRA have been fraught with challenges–many of them genuine and yet many others a consequence of bureaucratic and political inertia, incompetence and malice.

As a columnist in The Hindu wrote last year, the process of documenting tribal claims is not an easy one, involving democratically constituted gram sabhas (village assemblies) as per the provisions of the 73rd constitutional amendment on panchayati raj and PESA. This is compounded by the ongoing power struggle between the bureaucracy and tribal communities–one that the latter is likely to lose unless there is robust political intervention on their behalf. One of the manifestations of this has been a limited interpretation of the acts, with governments recognising only individual property and not community ownership of land. This is sometimes attributed to a lack of evidence on the ground for the stated joint ownership. But that is mostly an excuse. From physical land surveys to mobile apps that harness satellite technology, there are solutions easily available to the tribal departments if they wanted to recognise and register community land.

Not recognising common property resources that tribes collectively manage and live off is not only economic injustice, but also breaks the (in many senses, highly evolved) traditional order of tribal societies. The assault on tribal lifestyles and livelihoods has been incessant–and is not tied to the ideology of any particular political party in power. It is no secret that states with a large proportion of tribals would like to be free from central regulations that restrict them from exploiting the resource-rich catchments that lie within their territory. But the union government has also been doing its bit.

Last year, the Hindustan Times reported how the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had changed the law to throw open up to 40% of the country’s (ostensibly only degraded) forests to private sector management. First of all, ‘degraded’ forests are not as expendable as the MoEF makes them out to be. A former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, argues that, “Even the most degraded natural forests have 50-100 species of trees per hectare. For their end products, industries would hardly plant one or two species.” Allowing the private sector to use these lands for monoculture could have a ruinous impact on the ecosystem. Further, as reported in the same column, those guidelines also stated that tribal communities could access forest produce in only 10-15% of the land proposed to be leased out to private players. If implemented, this would be in contravention of the FRA that (as mentioned above) recognised tribal communities as the owners and managers of their forests.

Finally, here are my thoughts on these instances of the state reclaiming its powers over tribal communities, and their lands:

  • The government has largely struggled to make local governance work in tribal areas. When funds are allocated for local bodies in tribal areas, they are often not accompanied by the requisite hand-holding and capacity building to utilise funds and execute projects. This has been the case even in states like Kerala that are considerably ahead of others when it comes to local governance. Without better infrastructure such as roads and markets, these communities will continue to struggle to make good use of their forest resources.
  • While the eventual outcome (for the moment) in Maharashtra is disheartening, it is encouraging that the ministry of tribal affairs seems to have campaigned quite hard to protect the rights of tribal communities. Irrespective of the current decision, it leaves behind a paper trail that can be used by officials and activists in future. This is yet another reminder that the ‘state’ is not a monolith, and understanding that enables us to work much better with the state.
  • As mentioned above, political support is key; and in this instance, the dice was loaded heavily against tribal communities. With that in mind, we must lament the fact that while the minister for tribal affairs is a member of the union cabinet, he, just like the minister of panchayati raj, and drinking water and sanitation (other departments that are mandated to address issues critical to social welfare), is a relative political lightweight. What are the chances they will win a political tussle with heavyweight cabinet colleagues like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar?

Governance in tribal areas suffers from many of the same problems that panchayati raj suffers from, and then some. There is an understandable degree of natural friction between the “development” priorities of the state and the “development” priorities of tribal communities, with a third perspective of the “development” priorities of civil society that is working to improve tribal welfare. Between these competing priorities, the state remains the behemoth, with an ability to invoke its power of eminent domain – part of which it had ceded through PESA and FRA. If the state today is seen to be reclaiming those powers, one must be very vigilant and hold it to account on what it does next.

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This is my latest livemint column

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