Comment on Draft National Policy for Tribals

A Draft National Policy for tribals is indeed overdue. But it would be a huge mistake if the Central Government seeks to “assimilate” and “mainstream” ST communities. This is a clear contradiction: you cannot assimilate groups (in this case a larger group is seeking to ?bring STs into the mainstream? without destroying their distinct culture.

The reason is simple: there are huge differences between tribal groups within a region as much as in different regions, not merely in their demeanour and attitudes but also in their culture, traditions and religion.

The tribes of Central and Western India are completely different from tribal communities in the North East, where there is better education and other facilities and indeed, where tribal political elites have been in power for nearly 50 years as in the case of the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills, which became Meghalaya in 1972. One could remark that the so-called primitiveness of the tribes is more in the Fifth Schedule states where education, political awareness and empowerment as well as health facilities are extremely poor and income levels at the bottom. The “mainstreaming” of these groups, where their lands have been taken over by plains settlers and others, has not really helped them very much. Indeed, it has devastated their culture, their environment and their social standing as well as economic status. There have become politically influentially in real terms only in the past few years with the formation of states such as Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. Others have benefited at their expense.

Thus, a national policy for tribals can make general observations for the main, which would include “feel good factors” such as better education, non-interference in their essential lifestyles, improved health facilities and infrastructure without rpt without destroying the ecosystems upon which they depend. However, it should develop specific Policy framework for those of the Sixth Schedule and the Fifth Schedule. At the moment, the Draft Policy is confusing and unclear in its basic approach for it lumps all these groups together. As a start therefore, the National Policy must divide the “tribal groups” into the Fifth and Sixth Schedule communities and make specific recommendations for each group. The work of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (Consultation Paper on Empowering and Strengthening of Panchayat Raj Institutions/Autonomous District Councils/Traditional tribal governing institutions in North East India) would be helpful in this exercise.

Overall, the Draft Paper should avoid nomenclature which is I cliched and which “tribal” groups would find offensive and which are also not politically correct. Phrases and words such as “mainstream”, primitive” and others of a similar lexicon should be abjured because they give the impression that government regards such groups as outside the pale of civilized society. It raises questions about the so-called “mainstream” of other parts of India. What is this “mainstream”? what language does it speak, what faith does it espouse, what history does it hold, what is its politics? To regard groups as “outside the mainstream” is, in my view, quite incorrect. Those who see themselves in the supposed “mainstream” may regard themselves as “better” than others: this is a wrong approach, which should be rejected forthwith.

It should be noted that many “tribals” are as “advanced and developed” as the so-called “mainstream”; they find such definitions offensive as also descriptions of them as PTG (Primitive Tribal Groups — this is how others see them and not as they see themselves).

One is not aware where the phrase Nehruvian Panscheel evolved from. (page one of Draft) The two forewords by Pandit Nehru to Verrier Elwin’s book, A Philosophy for NEFA (Directorate of Research, Government of Areunachal Pradesh) of 1957 ammd 1958 clarify that he believed in “five fundamental principles”. Points two and three are quite specific while the others are not: 2. tribals rights in land and forests should be respected (Fifth and Sixth Schedule) and 3. In Nehru’s words not of the Draft Policy) “We should try to train and build up a team of their own people to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside, will, no doubt, be needed, especially in the beginn ing.SPAN style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> But we should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory.? The fact is that in most of the North-eastern states such as Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh where tribals are a majority, it is the tribal officers and specialists who are running the administration. The number of ?outsiders? is a bare handful.

Specific comments:

Formal Education:

The data relating to formal education is not correct as far as the North East is concerned where states such as Mizoram has the second highest literacy in the country, after Kerala. A survey of the statistics of the North Eastern Council would be relevant here. What the Draft Policy has done and inappropriately is lumped all the information on education etc. together for all tribals. This is not a scientific approach to the problem. The draft policy must make it clear where the anomalies in backwardness lie ? in the Fifth Schedule areas in particular. The North-eastern tribal states are above the national average except in a few areas. The overall rate is brought down by the CHJH states (Chattisgarh and Jharkhand as well as Gujarat).

The program of schools and hostels to be opened in areas where no facilities exist (see Formal education section) is laudable ? what will Government do in insurgency prone areas and disturbed areas where instability affects all sectors of activity.

Where will the funds come for mid-day meals ? Centre of States when the latter are heavily indebted and raise no resources of their own (90 percent grant and 10 percent local resources) and they cannot even pay their employees on time.

Sixth point on teachers from distant places: the policy must take cognizance of a reality that many teachers drawn their salaries without teaching and open put in replacements who get a percentage of the salary paid to the ?main? teacher.

Instead of Pedagogy, the Policy should speak of Education. There is no need for such Latin words when a simple English equivalent exists.

Point seven and eight on curriculum and co-curriculum should be combined while last point on vocational education should include processed foods, floriculture, bamboo and cane processing/development, pisciculture and piggeries ? headings under these last five heads not only have potential but also are doing well.

Traditional Wisdom:

It must be clarified that there will be no transfer of knowledge to non-tribal areas without ensuring that the repository of such knowledge and skills, especially in herbal medicines, is protected by law, the patent convention and they get a return on their knowledge. Otherwise this should not be permitted. There have been cases of foreign as well as Indian corporate (includes those associated with people in Government) seeking to extract such information from hill herbal practioners for a price. This should be stopped. Therefore Point Three of Heath section on patents should be placed her e and emphasized.


AIDS is not a venereal disease as the 6th line of the first paragraph in this segment suggests. The phrase Primitive Tribal Groups must be exorcised from and banned from government lexicon. It is offensive and insulting. Surely there can be other phrases to describe such groups: such as Economically Backward or Disadvantaged Groups among Tribes. The British coined such phrases as ?criminal tribes?, which has devastated the image and condition of such groups; it is time, 57 years after independence, that we did away with such phrases.

It is inappropriate to combine such vastly different sciences as ayurveda and siddha with tribal herbal systems. Let the latter remain as is, but with improved facilities such as OPDs, research, places for growing their medicinal plants and making their potions etc. as well as herbal centers in each district where they can practice. At the moment, they are completely disadvantaged esp. in the NER where they reach communities untouched by government systems but get a pitrtance for their work and have no place, barring their poor homes, from where they can see patients and practice. It would be far better for government to support these systems by strengthening and recognizing the practioners, not weakening them, which would happen in the proposed synthesis as the other forms of medicine are far better organized, with stronger lobbies and funds at their disposal.

Displacement and Resettlement:

The issue of displacement must be reviewed in the context of the Sixth Schedule for the NER. The Sixth Schedule gives extremely wide ranging rights to tribal communities under the District Council system. The fourth paragraph of the Draft Policy talks about when it becomes ?absolutely necessary? ? ?in the larger interest? ? this is too sweeping a statement. Who decides what is in the ?larger interest? : a few politicians and bureaucrats. This must be specified without any obfuscation and must involve the people who are directly affected so that they have a say in their own future, instead of letting their lives be controlled by others who have little stake in how they live or indeed where they live.

How are the displaced to be provided ?a better standard of living? (para four). This should be clarified.

Forest Villages:

The proposal to convert forest villages into revenue villages appears well-iontentioned but likely to lead to more problems. These are the issues, which should be discussed with local leaders and representatives of affected communities.

At no point during this section of the Draft Policy, does the policy say anything about improving forest cover, improving forest-based ecosystems etc. The emphasis is on building roads (which is a clear sign for felling and official nexus with contractors) and legitimizing the illegal. What should be developed is a compromise, which takes care of local concerns and also the regeneration of forests, not their destruction.

Also it is unclear what is meant by ?integrated area development programs should be taken up in and around forest areas?. New settlers have encroached heavily into a National Park such as Kaziranga and the Nambhor Reserve Forest in Assam, destroying habitat for wildlife and the natural balance. Why is the Draft Policy silent on these issues? It must make clear that such violations will not be tolerated and that government will back resourceful officers who fight such depredations.

Shifting Cultivation:

Again a broad brush sweep paints all tribals at the same level of development and agricultural production. There may be some groups, which are not committed to the land, but as the paper itself says ? most tribals only have land as their only possession and despite the complex pattern of land tenure, this is what they see, naturally, as their birthright.

So, if there is anything to be done, it is along the lines of modified land tenure acts which will allow investment and a return on the lands for the owners as well as moving farmers to settled agriculture. Much research has already been conducted in this field.

Land Alienation:

Anti-alienation laws already exist and must be tightened to plug loopholes, which allow non-tribals to hold lands as non-owing ?sleeping partners?. But lands belonging to non-tribals, which is hereditary, must also be protected. You cannot have laws, which favour groups, which are already a majority (tribals in Meghalaya and Mizoram for example) to the detriment on non-tribals, who also have been there for decades.

All land records and holdings must be computerized and be accessible through the Internet to the public. The Freedom of Information Act guarantees this and is a basic right of every citizen.

The traditional systems of governance such as the dorbars, Dolois, Nokmas in Meghalaya and village gaoburas in Arunachal and Nagaland apart from similar systems among the Nagas (different tribes have different systems) and other groups should become the third tier of governance in tribal areas. Women and non-tribals should also be accommodated, the latter where their populations are substantial. This is applicable here and in this section under the heading Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas.

Intellectual Property Rights:

The Draft appears unaware of the ongoing work of the Law Research Institute under the auspices of the Guwahati High Court, Guwahati, which is working on codification of tribal laws.


Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas:

A fourth point should be added: Traditional forms of democratic governance among the tribes, especially after involving women and ensuring representation to other ethnic groups, should be involved and strengthened as the third-tier of governance. (see recommendations of NCRWC, Consultation Paper on the North East).

Administration of the Policy should clearly say that recognized and respected non-government groups should also be involved in policy formulation and review of implementation of the objectives.

Participatory Approach:

Last paragraph must be changed to involve recognized NGOs and VAs in all aspects of policy formulation, prioritization of strategies, fixing of goals and monitoring/review mechanisms across state and sectors to ensure transparency and proper implantation of policies and projects.

The segment on Assimilation to be dropped and replaced with a more visionary approach, deleting such offensive language as ?primitive traits? and including wording that speaks of the need to preserve and protect forest habitat and ecosystems on which many of their traditions are rooted.

Indeed, the ?primitive traits? may be more visible in the so-called ?mainstream.?

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