Daya Varma and Vinod Mubayi


All Indians were Adivasis living in jungles at some time in history; approximately 7 percent still do.  Should not the government take appropriate steps to rehabilitate them before proceeding to exploit the mineral wealth of the forests, which should be treated as national property?



Homo sapiens came into existence some 150,000 years ago. For most of this long period, all of humanity existed as Adivasis of one variety or another. With the discovery of religion, the advent of civilization, coming into being of nation states and numerous conquests and colonization, our existence as Adivasis has dwindled at a rate greater than that caused by any natural disaster. Now Adivasis are reduced to less than seven and one-half percent of India. Still it is a large number amounting to several millions of people and the Indian state must deal with the issue of Adivasis. But what is the solution? 


Adivasis have been living in the forests of India for ever. India has seen many types of movements but none specifically for the wellbeing of Adivasis. Even Gandhi, who brought practically every issue of concern in India to the foreground, most notably that of ‘untouchables,’ had no plans for Adivasis.  Untouchability is illegal but is still there. What about Adivasis?


Those who have abandoned their ancestry, be they litterateurs, social activists or just communists  at various stage of affiliation, no more wish to become Adivasis. But should all those who are still Adivasis remain Adivasis forever? Should they remain the human equivalent of the dwindling Bengal Tigers? Or should they become an integral part of the society with modern education, jobs and homes? I think they deserve the same privileges, which are available to other ex-Adivasis.


I proceed with the assumption that forests, like rivers and mountains, are not the private property of any group of individuals no matter how long they have drawn their meager livelihood from them. I understand that all land belonged to the state until the British Raj introduced private property in land through its tenancy acts and so on. From that standpoint, the wealth of forests is not the sole property of Adivasis; it is national wealth and must be appropriated for national good including the good of Adivasis. Adivasis are entitled to all the privileges open and accessible to any one else but they cannot by themselves determine the fate of India’s forests. If proper steps are taken, I am sure they too would rather have access to modern amenities. 


However, we cannot make history as we please under self-selected circumstances. Our task is to suggest to the government of India workable and appropriate measures that should be taken to address the question of Adivasis in the best interest of Adivasis and the people of India at the same time. Let me first dwell on what is not appropriate although there is a good chance that the government may find it the most expedient.


The land (or the forest) where Adivasis live should not be acquired by paying monetary compensation to the residents of that area. Experience of indigenous peoples of Australia, Canada, the Americas and certain areas in Bangladesh and India clearly shows that Adivasis cannot, in general, put the compensation money to useful long-term rehabilitation and productive life. I once visited an area in the Mirzapur district of UP which was once the home of indigenous people and their land was acquired by Birlas by paying compensation to start a cement factory.  People quickly spent their money, mainly on alcohol and became permanently dislocated. This is not much different from what happened to the aboriginal population in Australia and elsewhere.


Nor should the people be forcefully displaced, which is the likely outcome of a successful Green Hunt operation. Progressive opinion must not assume that the Maoists seek the wellbeing of Adivasis contrary to many press reports that Adivasis think of Maoists as their friends and government as their enemies. Maoists have their own agenda and Adivasis are the current vehicle of that. Maoists are a transient phenomenon while Adivasis were there long before the advent of the Maoists and will be there long after the Maoists are gone.


India has many social scientists, economists and experts. In general the Indian civil society and particularly political activists spend most of their energy in telling the government what it should not do rather than agitating for what it should.  But there are people who can assist the government, in areas in which most of the Ministers are clearly incompetent. In principle the scheme of dealing with Adivasis needs to be a long-term planning of meaningful rehabilitation keeping their level of social and political consciousness in mind. 


In the meantime, government should abstain from acquisition of the forest land for corporate development based on extractive projects. Eventually the resources embedded in these forests must be used for the development of India. Clearly, complex mining projects are not in the domain of artisans and handicrafts experts. They can only be carried out by large enterprises, state or privately owned, which possess the requisite technology. But they cannot and must not be done in the way such projects have been implemented in the past, with little attention paid to transparency, deleterious environmental impact, or democratic practice.  

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