Adi­va­sis: The world’s largest group of Indige­nous Peo­ple

The world’s largest group of Indige­nous Peo­ple

Alive - - Contents - By Dr S Faizi

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.

Colo­nial on­slaught

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.

Restor­ing rights

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.

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