Despite the progress made in the past two decades, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is systematically withdrawing from the progress India has made in better integrating Adivasis socially, economically and politically. Since 2014, it has reoriented the state to withdraw from its core responsibilities: that of uplifting and empowering Adivasis.
Even though the ruling dispensation and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Vanvasi
Kalyan Ashram have claimed to uphold Adivasi rights, they have spearheaded numerous anti-Adivasi policies. Since the NDA came to power, alienation of tribal land has increased significantly. This alienation has been facilitated by systematically diluting the statutory
protections that guarantee rights to Adivasis. Adivasi lands have been subjected to ‘developmental terrorism’ by diverting them to large corporations for projects such as mining.
For example, the UPA government had formed the high-level Xaxa Committee to study the situation. Its report brought out the nuances of the situation in a well-studied manner. However later, the NDA government chose not to act on the Xaxa Committee
Furthermore, amendments to the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Act and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDRA) by the BJP government at the Centre
and numerous state governments have allowed private companies to acquire Adivasi and forest land without the free and informed consent of Gram Sabhas. This has led to an accelerated diversion of forest and Adivasi lands for commercial projects as witnessed
in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Equally shockingly, the NDA has removed the provision of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement of Adivasis from the MMDRA Act. The 2015 MMDRA Amendment Act also allowed for exceptions to some mining licences to be given prior to obtaining clearances mandated by the FRA. This has led to the wholesale marginalization of Scheduled Tribes.
Similarly, in 2017, Prime Minister Modi announced that all kinds of individual and collective claims under the Forest Rights Act would be settled within two months. The bitter reality is that only 20-25 per cent of claims have been actually settled till date.
Adivasi communities are being systematically denied their traditional rights using legal loopholes, with many such cases in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, where the state governments have routinely watered down the provisions of the
FRA to divert forest land for mining purposes. The period between 2014 and 2018 shows the slowest execution of the FRA since its inception. According to reports of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, government authorities have rejected more than 43 per cent claims filed by forest dwellers across India.
Further, some states have illegally diluted Community Forest Resource rights by handing
over CFR rights to the Joint Forest Management Committee or the Forest Revenue Department.
These amendments have directly contributed to undermining Adivasi aspirations for greater autonomy and agency over determining their own lives. Exacerbating this, by establishing
the National Tribal Advisory Council under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister in 2015, the NDA has blatantly and illegally usurped the powers of the Governors, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Tribal Advisory Councils in the states. This has not only destroyed federal and democratic principles, but also led to the accelerated diversion of forest and Adivasi land for myopic commercial projects.
Adding salt to injury, the NDA’s proposed amendments to the Indian Forest Act included ‘giving forest officials the power to shoot Adivasis without any liability, allowing forest officials to withdraw Adivasi rights without cause and to forcefully relocate them against their will’.
The amendments were both illegal and morally unconscionable and completely negated the idea of democratic governance of forests. Although this bill was withdrawn after widespread protests and pressure, the intention of this government has been to centralize power, not decentralize it. This impulse contravenes any kind of autonomy to the Adivasis and
OTFDs, which further makes their integration into mainstream India that much more difficult.
Similarly in 2017, the NDA’s National Tiger Conservation Authority issued an order barring recognition of forest rights in tiger reserves, affecting lakhs of Adivasi and OTFDs.
Subsequently, the NDA stopped intervening in the Supreme Court, where the Forest Rights Act was being challenged. This is despite the fact that it is the government’s duty to uphold Adivasi rights and work towards their welfare. The NDA government at the Centre did not
send any counsel for four hearings when petitioners were seeking to evict millions of Adivasis. Consequently, on 13 February 2019, a Supreme Court order threatened to evict more than one million Adivasis and other forest dwellers. This was based on the
fallacious understanding that Adivasis and OTFDs threaten the very ecosystem they inhabit. This glaring deficit in understanding ground realities ignores the fact that these communities are central to protecting and preserving fragile ecosystems that are under threat from indiscriminate deforestation, poaching and myopic commercial ventures.
Exacerbating the situation, the NDA enacted the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (Management and Planning Authority) Act (CAMPA) purportedly to promote ‘afforestation’. There was widespread objection from Adivasi rights groups because they rightly felt that CAMPA subjugated Adivasis and sabotaged their rights. Not only does CAMPA create an ecological imbalance by promoting monoculture afforestation which destroys the rich
variety of flora and fauna, but also adversely affects the livelihoods and food security of Adivasis and OTFDs which form a vital source of nutritional security. Furthermore, Gram Sabhas have no voice in the management of the compensatory funds that any commercial
venture has to deposit for any development on Adivasi/forest land. CAMPA directly violates the democratic structure of forest governance laid down in the FRA—under Section 3(1)(i) and Section (5) which mandate that Gram Sabhas control and manage all aspects of forest management, including financial resources—by usurping fiscal powers meant for Gram Sabhas for itself and the forest officialdom.
The NDA has also overseen the systematic dilution of all those policies that were designed to uplift and empower Adivasis. For example, the Tribal Sub-Plan or TSP (renamed Scheduled Tribe Component) expenditure dropped from Rs 32,387 crore (2014–15) to Rs 20,000 crore (2015–16) and then increased to Rs 24,005 crore (2016–17). Even though it subsequently further increased to Rs 31,920 crore (2017–18), the NDA has added non targeted generic/administrative expenditure (such as grants towards infrastructure maintenance, farm loan waivers, Good Governance Fund, Sports Authority of India, etc.,) as Adivasi welfare to inflate figures. If these are excluded, the NDA has slashed funds for Adivasi welfare by almost 52 per cent (compared to 2014–1538).
The apathy of the government is also reflected in the manner in which the roster system in universities was diluted. The government waited one year before bringing in an ordinance just before the 2019 general elections to address this issue. Dr Ambedkar had started the Post-Matric Scholarship in 1945 to uplift and empower the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Yet the Modi government withheld Rs 2871 crore of the scholarship from 2014–16. Consequently, lakhs of Adivasis have been denied financial support.
Excerpt from Being Adivasi: Existence, Entitlements, Exclusion (Penguin India) edited by Abhay Xaxa and G. N. Devy, the seventh volume in the Rethinking India series.
Being Adivasi is a collection of essays addressing the persistent problems faced by Adivasis and Denotified communities, from questions of their distinct identity, land alienation, indebtedness, and displacement from ancestral lands. It also presents the views of the Adivasis and the Denotified Communities on the process of development and its clash with their rights.
You can buy the book here.