The tribal population in India, though a numerically small minority, represents an enormous diversity of groups. They vary among themselves in respect of language and linguistic traits, ecological settings in which they live, physical features, size of the population, the extent of acculturation, dominant modes of making a livelihood, level of development and social stratification. They are also spread over the length and breadth of the country though their geographical distribution is far from uniform. A majority of the Scheduled Tribe population is concentrated in the eastern, central and western belt covering the nine States of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. About 12 per cent inhabit the Northeastern region, about five per cent in the Southern region and about three per cent in the Northern States.
Groups and communities identified and enumerated as tribes during British rule came to be re-classified as Scheduled Tribes after the Constitution was adopted in 1950. The Constitution, as per Article 342, provided for the listing of these groups in the Schedule so that certain administrative and political concessions could be extended to them. Thus, a distinction was drawn in the form of tribe as a social and cultural entity and tribe as a politico-administrative category.
The Constitution did not define the criteria for recognition of Scheduled Tribes and hence the Lokur Committee was set up to look into this issue. The Committee recommended five criteria for identification, namely, (1) primitive traits (2) distinct culture, (3) geographical isolation, (4) shyness of contact with the community at large and (5) backwardness.
The tribal population, scattered across the country, is differently placed with respect to the politico-administrative structures existing in the country. Where they are a numerical minority, they are a part of the general administrative structure of the country, although certain rights have accrued to Scheduled Tribes across the country through reservations in educational institutions and government employment. However, where they are numerically dominant, two distinct administrative arrangements have been provided for them in the Constitution in the form of the Fifth and Sixth Schedules. The Sixth Schedule areas are some of the areas which were ‘excluded’ until the Government of India Act, 1935 in the erstwhile Assam and other tribal-dominant areas which became separate States. These areas have been given special provisions under Part XXI of the Constitution. The extension of such provisions to newer areas has been the result of political mobilization and social movements. Similarly, there are States where the provisions of the Fifth Schedule are in force. The Fifth Schedule is aimed at providing protections to the tribal population through separate laws for Scheduled Areas, including a special role for the Governor and the institution of Tribes Advisory Council. The provisions of the Fifth Schedule have seen further legal and administrative reinforcement in the form of Provisions of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.
Despite these special provisions, tribes are among the poorest and most marginalized 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. To illustrate, 45.7 per cent of the population as a whole was below the poverty line in 1993-94. In the same year, 63.7 per cent of tribal people were living below the poverty line, almost 20 per cent than the rest of the country. The poverty figures were 37.7 and 60.0 per cent respectively in the year 2004-05. The scenario has been similar in the sphere of education and health. The literacy rate of tribes in 2001 was 47 per cent as compared to 69 per cent for the general population. Moreover, as per the National Family Health Survey, 2005-06, the Infant Mortality rate was 62.1 per 1000 live births among tribes, and Under-five Mortality was as high as 95.7 per 1000 live births.
Committies for Tribal development
In 1947, The Elwin Committee was set up to examine the functioning of Multi-Purpose Development Blocks, the basic administrative unit for all tribal development programmes.
U.N. Dhebar Commission, constituted in 1960 to address the overall situation of tribal groups, including the issue of land alienation in tribal areas.
The Lokur committee, set up in 1965, looked at matters relating to the scheduling of groups as Scheduled Tribes. It was this committee which delineated the criteria for scheduling, which continues to operate to this day.
The Shilu Ao committee, 1966, like the Elwin committee, addressed the issue of tribal development and welfare.
The 1970s, on the basis of the recommendations of some committees that the Tribal Sub-Plan approach of the government emerged.
The Bhuria Committee (1991) and the Bhuria Commission (2002-2004). The Bhuria Committee recommendations paved the way for the enactment of the PESA Act, 1996, while the Bhuria Commission focused on a wide range of issues from the Fifth Schedule to tribal land and forests, health and education, the working of Panchayats and the status of tribal women.
The Bandopadhyay Committee, which looked at development and governance in Left-Wing Extremist areas.
The Mungekar Committee, which examined issues of administration and governance.
The issues that the above mentioned Committees have dealt with fall broadly into two categories: development and protection. And yet, on both these issues, the outcome for tribal communities has been mixed. Through the last six decades, the State has emphasized development while doing little to enhance the protections provided in the Constitution through the everyday practice of statecraft. Rather, the protective measures have been violated by the very State which is supposed to ensure the enforcement of these protections. It is this which largely explains the marginal status of tribal communities.
Approaches for tribal development
Tribal communities face disregard for their values and culture, breach of protective legislations, serious material and social deprivation, and aggressive resource alienation. Hence, the solution to these issues should enable the tribals to protect their own interests. State’s approach will be based on the following premises
- An empowered citizenry and a functioning, participatory (including participation of women) self-governance is the best guarantee for a democratic nation;
- Due share in socio-economic progress for tribal people and their habitations, including facilities like health, education, livelihood, drinking water, sanitation, roads, electricity and sustainable income, in situ;
- Protecting the land and forest rights of tribal communities is equivalent to protecting their livelihoods, life and liberty. This remains one of the critical necessities of a welfare State. Therefore, laws protecting tribal land from alienation must be upheld at all costs;
- The right to natural resources in tribal lands has to be protected. They should only be accessed with the consent of the Gram Sabhas of the villages (both directly affected and in the zone of influence);
- While tribal lands hold much of the natural and mineral wealth of the nation, these resources cannot be alienated against their will. Moreover, communities who part with their lands have the right to share in the wealth and income so generated from its resources.
- Hence, a reasonable share of the wealth generated by the resources in their homelands must accrue to them by law, and
The right to preservation of their language, culture and traditions, and to protect themselves against the loss of identity, must be recognized, protected, documented and allowed to thrive as a dynamic living culture.