The National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre has suppressed the report of the High-Level Committee on the Status of Tribals. The report presents a scathing analysis of how development activities and strategies in India have increased the socio-economic gulf between tribals and rest of the citizens of India and left the former worse off on many counts. The committee, headed by Professor Virginius Xaxa, has recommended several radical changes to the laws and regulations to prevent further land alienation of tribals and to give them greater control over their resources.
Several of the report's recommendations go against some of the changes the government is undertaking or contemplating to push for faster and easier industrialisation. The report, a comprehensive review of the socio-economic status of the 700-odd tribal communities of the country, has been kept under wraps since May 2014 when it was submitted to the government.
The high-level panel carried out a detailed analysis of the poor socio-economic status of the tribals in India, and noted, "Tribes are among the poorest and most marginalised sections of Indian society. Although numerically only about 8.6 per cent, they disproportionately represent the people living below the poverty line, are illiterate and suffer from extremely poor physical health."
Business Standard reviewed the report, running into more than 400 pages, which records how on parameters assessing income levels, education health and other development indices the condition of tribals has either worsened or improved at such low rates that the gulf between them and the rest of Indians has only grown as the country has developed. The authors recorded, "As a part of the nation-building process, tribal areas have witnessed large-scale development of industry, mining, infrastructure projects such as roads and railways, hydraulic projects such as dams and irrigation. These have been followed by processes of urbanisation as well. The overall impact of these on tribes has been often loss of livelihood, massive displacement and involuntary migration."
The report says that about 40 per cent of all people displaced in India due to development activity have been tribals (pegged at 24 million), even though they constitute less than 10 per cent of the total population. Only 21.16 per cent of these have been resettled (though most have not been rehabilitated). In a scathing comment on the development path successive governments have followed in tribal areas, the authors say, "What the State is actually pursuing in tribal areas - apart from North-East India - is assimilation rather than integration, contrary to what is claimed. A policy of integration would provide space for protections and safeguards for their distinct identity, as enshrined in the Constitution. However, these provisions are precisely what are under threat of erosion through the process of cultural domination and more importantly, the prevailing development paradigm."
The authors have also criticised the State-led development strategy, recording how protests against land alienation are met with large scale criminal charges against tribals. "Laws and rules that provide protection to tribes are being routinely manipulated and subverted to accommodate corporate interests. Tribal protests are being met with violence by the State's paramilitary forces and the private security staff of corporations involved," they say.
Besides Xaxa, the other authors of the report were K K Misra, Abhay Bang, Joseph Bara, Sunila Basant, Usha Ramanathan and Hrusikesh Panda, serving secretary of the tribal affairs ministry. They summarise in the report, "Tribal communities face disregard for their values and culture, breach of protective legislations, serious material and social deprivation, and aggressive resource alienation."
The panel recommends radical changes to the laws, regulations and rules to protect tribal communities from land alienation and to ensure their rights over resources are handed back and protected.
It has mooted that no tribal land should be alienated without the consent of the tribal gram sabha (village council). It has also recommended that mining in their land should be carried out by tribals themselves as has been done in some cases in Andhra Pradesh, through tribal cooperatives.
The authors noted, "It is essential that the whole process of displacement should be democratic and rights of tribal communities to say 'no' to acquisition of their land and to access and manage forests and other common property resources (CPRs), be recognised."
Asking for strict implementation of the new land law, Forest Rights Act and the strengthening of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, the committee has noted how the regulations under these have been flouted by central and state agencies, including the highest echelons of the government, such as the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure (in the previous United Progressive Alliance government). It has warned against diluting the provisions of the laws that require prior informed consent of the tribals. This runs contrary to the concerted push in the NDA government to do away with the need for consent of gram sabhas while acquiring forest lands and internal discussions on dilution of the new land acquisition law.
The committee while recommending greater, stronger and strict implementation of the Forest Rights Act has noted that rights of tribals over many of their common property resources outside the forest areas are not yet recognised. "Forest rights have been covered under the Forest Rights Act, but other CPRs such as government land and panchayat land has not been covered by any legislation. This needs to be rectified."
Contrary to the thinking in the current government, the panel has recommended that even government's acquisition of tribal land should be done with their prior consent. It has also warned that government acquisition of tribal land in order to hand over control to private entities through PPP mode works to only circumvent the laws and the spirit behind them. It has asked this be done away with.
The committee has recommended that the new land law should be amended to ensure that any exploitation of natural resources in Scheduled Areas also be carried out with the consent of the Gram Sabha. It has advised other changes to the law to give tribal communities greater resettlement and rehabilitation rights, controls and oversight over the entire mechanism of displacement.
It lists out a series of other changes to laws and regulations governing land and natural resources, such as the Coal Bearing Act, firming up the actual control of tribal communities over their resources through primary level democratic bodies and to plug loopholes and administrative backdoor routes that exploit tribals.
The high-level panel has asked for a radical change in the overall legal constitutional regime as well for tribal welfare. It has said, "Laws and policies enacted by the Parliament and state legislatures should not be automatically applied in the Fifth Schedule areas."
Powerful tribal councils
It has asked that the "Applicability (of laws on scheduled areas) should be made contingent on the discretion of the governor, who would determine its non-applicability or applicability or modifications/amendments on the advice of the Tribes Advisory Council and issue a Statement of Objectives and Reasons for any decision."
It has advised that in case this change in the legal structures is not tenable "the governor should be mandated to examine the implications of legislations and policies (particularly, though not exclusively, those pertaining to issues such as forests, land acquisition, conservation, mines and minerals, health and education) passed by Parliament or state legislatures on tribal welfare. The governor must also take the advice of the Tribes Advisory Council on the same."
In parallel, it has advised an overhauled structure and powers of the Tribes Advisory Councils to give them more teeth and make them work for welfare of these communities.
It has also noted that there are many areas where scheduled tribes form sizeable populations but the regions are not designated as scheduled areas in states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa. It has recommended that these immediately be classified as Scheduled Areas. It has also asked that backdoor routes - such as declaring regions as urban areas - to remove some regions from Scheduled Areas should be done away with.
The report also lays out an overhauled, expansive and detailed framework for providing better education, health and opportunities to tribal communities across the country.