Interview with Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj Minister
As a liberal Indian, I find it hard to understand why people from Northeast India who have been hosted by cosmopolitan cities all over India for several decades – we even had H T Sangliana being elected an MP from Bangalore North in the 14th Lok Sabha – suddenly turning their backs on these cities, just on the strength of a rumour...
Well, as you know the government has banned mass SMSes, so clearly somebody is playing some mischief. But you’re right, I fail to understand the cause behind this exodus of north-east people from cities where they’ve lived and worked for years and have friends and family. It is in these cities, that celebrate diversity and are cosmopolitan in their outlook, where people from the Northeast have felt comfortable for years – Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai. It is hard to understand…
Is it a problem of amalgamation and integration? But these are existential problems for all Indians who opt to leave the place where they were born and settle elsewhere…
Bangalore and Pune have always been different from the rest of the country because students come to these cities from all over India. They are also IT capitals. What is mystifying is that the people from the Northeast are not coming to these cities to occupy or encroach upon land, although if they want to buy a flat they are free to and many do that also. It is not as if any entitlement of the local people is being taken away. They are not threats to the locals. And this was what was reflected in the debate in Parliament as well, where as you know, cutting across party lines, MPs appealed to people to not panic.
But these are days of instant communication via YouTube and SMSes. I believe there were some YouTube clips which created this kind of panic. There are both advantages and disadvantages of technology. Some MPs demanded that SMSes be banned. But the feeling that a mere SMS can force people to run away, that is a very sobering thought.
Take Chennai for example. It was the theatre of the Dravidian movement, then the Sri Lanka problem. But people from other places, who came there to work, never felt they had to leave the state or the country. So, I don’t know the answer. It is quite a puzzle.
We are also seeing a conflagration in Assam. What is happening there?
The issue is quite complicated. It started with an increase in migration. In 1978, Golap Borbora’s election recorded the inexplicable rise in the number of a particular community. This gave rise to the All Assam Students’ Union which converted itself into the Assam Gana Parishad, a political party. The United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) became a breakaway group. The Rajiv Gandhi government signed an accord after Assam did not participate in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections. But outlawed outfits continued to get training from across the border.
Ultimately, it comes down to land. So, land being occupied and taken over is the central issue.
How serious is the problem of occupation of land?
This is the central problem, not just in Assam, but in the entire North East. The original purpose of the Sixth Schedule was to provide autonomy to the predominantly tribal areas of north-east India. It stated that due to the administrative system followed by the British, the tribal areas of Assam were isolated from other parts of the country. Therefore, most of these areas remained severely under-developed. There was a need for a system of administration that would allow the tribal areas to become developed while protecting them from exploitation by the people in the plain areas and preserving their distinct social customs. The Bardoloi Committee drafted a Schedule to the Constitution, detailing the administrative mechanism for these areas.
The Sixth Schedule designates 10 tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura as autonomous districts. It stipulates that these areas should be administered through a system of district and regional councils, which have legislative powers on a range of subjects such as allotment of land, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce.
So, while district councils do have laws to protect land rights, there have been many representations that there is no security of law as state governments can overturn any law, especially relating to owning and leasing land. So, people living in these areas want Central guarantees. I am studying all these representations.
The basic problem is the Ministry of Tribal Affairs was created relatively recently. Until then, it was the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) which was handling all issues relating to tribals. Then a Ministry of Social Welfare was created and only recently, we have a Tribal Affairs Minister. So, if areas have to be under autonomous councils, it is the MHA which has to do it.
This is not the only problem. Every state has its own law about who is a tribal. In Assam, for instance, a Bodo from the plains is not a Scheduled Tribe, but a Bodo from the hills is. With Karbis, it is the other way round. This is ridiculous. How can you have a community classified as tribal or not on the basis of the topography it comes from? So, this too, has to be aligned.
Meghalaya, for instance, has a hereditary system of kingship. It is called Syiem. These kings are debarred from contesting local body elections although the local community regards them as their leader. Why is it so? There is no clear answer.
Then, there are issues related to lifestyles. All over the North East, the lifestyle of leaders is completely different from that of the ruled. The ruled feel alienated from the system, as a result. They have no stakes. I believe the lives of those who make a living from the forest need to be improved. For this, I am drafting a Bill to enable forest dwellers to negotiate a better price for non-timber forest produce.
These people feel nobody bothers about them. They have no clout at the centre.
There’s another thing. There is a distinct difference between the areas under the Fifth Schedule of the constitution – like the tribal areas in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, etc – and the Sixth Schedule areas. Whether it is educational facilities or employment or communications, the Fifth Schedule areas are much better off. This has to be set right.
Communications in the Sixth Schedule areas is very bad. A Railway line to Manipur has been under work for years now. It is yet to be completed. The result is fuel, cooking gas, edible commodities, etc, has to travel via road. If there is a disruption, people living in Manipur have no way of getting these commodities.
Similarly, there is just one airstrip in Mizoram and none at all anywhere near Arunachal Pradesh. More often than not, weather conditions make it impossible for flights to land or take off. There is no night landing facility. The Meghalaya-Guwahati road should take just two hours to traverse. But, it is so crowded it can take up to five hours.
When people from the Northeast live elsewhere in India and they see the absence of facilities in their own areas, there is a sense of bitterness and alienation. This is deepened when there is a physical threat. It is incumbent on the rest of India to put tribal people at ease, make their life comfortable and understand the cultural difference. Sensitivity is the answer.
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