Adivasis: The world’s largest group of Indigenous People
The world’s largest group of Indigenous People
It is time to undo injustice committed to real stakeholders of country’s natural wealth, including forests.
The word Adivasi in all Indian languages means the first inhabitants, the indigenous people, and the Constitution of India denotes them as the Scheduled Tribes. According to the 2011 population census, Adivasis constitutes a total population size of 104 million (10.4 crore), constituting 8.6 per cent of the Indian population, making them the world’s largest population of Indigenous People. They are found in multiple tribes and are wildly regarded as the historical custodians of India’s forests that cover about 20 percent of the country’s terrestrial area.
The Supreme Court of India has affirmed that the Adivasis are ‘the original inhabitants’ of India vide its order of 5 January 2011. Scholars of ancient Indian history, such as Prof RS Sharma, argue that the Adivasis are the descendants of the Indus Valley Civilisation who have been forced to move into forest as the incoming Aryan groups spread across the plains.
In observing the International Indigenous Peoples Day on 9 August 2012, the then Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar told the Lok Sabha, “The indigenous people, whom we refer to as Tribals in the country, are an invaluable and integral part of our country’s rich cultural heritage”. Various indigenous people organisations have been observing the day in the country since its inception in 1994.
Fear of the politicians
A section of the ruling elite and the Hindutva militia dread the political power that the term Indigenous People evokes. Recognising the Adivasis as the Indigenous People, they fear, would erode the base of their militant politics of exclusive claims on the nation. The Hindutva therefore has composed a new term, Vanavasi, meaning forest inhabitants, to represent the Adivasis, in a desperate effort to erase the term itself.
The ancient scriptures call the Adivasis as Nishada, Rakshasa etc and treated them as defeated people, just as the West sought to treat us all as savages.
A section of the Indian bureaucracy belligerently fights the term Indigenous People, on their own, without a political mandate, indeed against the state policy. An illustrative example was the position the Indian delegation took on the phrase Indigenous People at the eleventh meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD), held in Hyderabad in 2012, where I had been a delegate.
In the lone company of Canada, the Indian bureaucrat, who spoke, opposed the move by the rest of the world community to change the CBD terminology of Indigenous and Local Communities to Indigenous People and Local Communities, as proposed by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People and to be in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).
This was despite India having had endorsed the UNDRIP. However, it was interesting that in the subsequent meeting of the CBD Expert Group on Biodiversity for Poverty Eradication, where I was an expert member, the Indian government representative, a senior bureaucrat and co-chair of the Expert Group, upon criticism of the Indian government position, explained that the Hyderabad COP position was not really that of the government of India but the unfortunate position taken by the particular delegate from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) who spoke on that occasion.
India did not press the objection to the term Indigenous People when the issue was re-opened for discussion at the next COP of CBD. Interestingly, the Ministry of Tribal Welfare, in an RTI reply to Kollam-based lawyer Rajendran Uliyakkovil had dissociated itself from the Hyderabad position taken by MOEF, clearly indicating that it was not a government of India position (but the position of a small section within).
While the dominant populations all over the world begin to show graceful repentance to Indigenous People for the atrocities committed on them, it is unacceptable that certain bureaucrats play mischievous games to perpetuate their hegemonic interests.
The Indian Parliament had, in an unprecedented move, recognised in a law, namely the Forest Rights Act 2006, the ‘historical injustice’ committed to the Scheduled Tribes of India. But the Hindutva militia and a large segment of the ruling elite refuse to relent on their political postures.
Exclusion and marginalisation
The People of India Project of the Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI) has identified 635 Scheduled Tribe communities spread across the country, out of a total of 4635 communities of various kinds. They are also repositories of a tremendous linguistic diversity, having 447 recorded lan--
guages. These languages belong to the various linguistic streams and are rich in environmental vocabulary.
Even as the level of their poverty increases, the 1994 ANSI study notes a decline in their traditional occupations such as hunting and gathering, trapping, pastoral and shifting cultivation. There has been a notable increase in occupation such as horticulture, terrace cultivation, animal husbandry, sericulture, etc.
However, the mainstay of Adivasi population is depended on non-timber forest produce (NTFP) and their economic condition remains severely constrained. The 11th Five Year Plan has reported that 47.3 per cent of the Schedule Tribe population lives below the poverty line set by the standard of Rs. 356 per month per capita consumption expenditure. The Schedule Tribes, population constituted 15 per cent of the total poor in India during 2004-05, which was about double their population ratio according to the 2001 census.
The Adivasi life style is largely in harmony with the principles of nature and the harvests they make from nature are always within the regeneration capacity of the natural resource base. The biodiversity utilisation practiced by the tribal population has been known to be sustainable.
The Adivasi way of life and survival have been threatened by the British colonial regime since the time they began to take over the forests as a source of commercial income for the imperial government. That was about the 1860s. This colonial project was marked by ‘savage assault’ on the forest on the one hand and subjugation and disenfranchisement of the Adivasi population, on the other.
India’s forests thereafter became the sites of intense conflict between the Adivasis and the colonial forces. GRC Williams in his Memoir of Dehra Doon provides the graphic details of the ruthless colonial wars on the Adivasi population of the Dehradun area in the 19th century, from the viewpoint of the British occupying forces.
Similar battles have taken place in most other tribal heartland of the country – Kuki Invasion, Halba Rebellion, Khurda Rebellion, Bhil Revolt, Gond Rebellion and Santhal Rebellion, are some of these. There were over hundred such wars between the Adivasis and the colonial regime, most of these being rather side-lined in the mainstream narrative of history.
The Adivasi communities through their traditional practices and customary rules have managed the forest in a sustainable way in their benign self-interest. Once the Adivasis lost the control of the forest, the progressive destruction of the forests set in.
The Constitution of India provides special provisions (Schedule V and VI areas, reservations in legislative bodies and government jobs) for the Schedule Tribes as a form of partial historical compensation, though thwarted by the bureaucracy in implementation.
However, the loss of control over forest that the Adivasis have suffered has not been restored until the Forest Right Act was enacted in 2006 to partially address this. The well-meaning legislation passed by the Parliament has been largely defeated by the forest bureaucracy.
It is high time that the forest departments across the country, with their colonial legacy of a century and half, are dissolved and the forests are handed back to the Adivasis for sustainable management.
The over 120000 forest staff and about 3000 persons of the elite Indian Forest Service, presiding over the destitution of the Adivasis, are already a huge burden on the tax payers and can be safely sent back home.
And those who manoeuvre to rob the Adivasis of their Indigenous People title should be exposed and ostracised in the best national interest.
A typical face of Adivasi represents age-old tradition.
Hindutva forces are rephrasing the term Adivasi.