The Fight for Tribals' Rights

The administration in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh has an extremely narrow and short-sighted view on the tribal question: with its characteristic wisdom it has come to the conclusion that it is only CPI(ML) Liberation which instigates the `innocent' tribals to grab the `forest' land. Hence, they unleash their rabid police force against the leaders of our Party in this district for ruthless repression. True, our Party is leading the tribals in their struggle for land all along the tribal hamlets of Yeleswaram, Pithapuram, Kotanandur and Tuni mandals braving all odds. But the near-insurgent situation among tribals of Andhra Pradesh has a broader basis and can hardly be suppressed in the long run by dubbing it as mere handiwork of Naxalites.

For instance, in the neighbouring West Godavari district also periodical but spontaneous clashes break out between tribals and non-tribal vested interests. To cite one example, sometime in mid-1995, Kondareddy and Khoya Dora tribals in Jillelugudam village offered stiff resistance against goons backed by both Congress(I) and TDP and prevented them from taking over about 1400 acres of cultivable land allotted to them in Jeelugumilli mandal. In this village itself, which is part of a notified tribal mandal where non-tribals cannot acquire land, one non-tribal landlord owns 60 acres of land, all grabbed from the tribals. The tribals are losing their land at an alarming rate. In the notified areas of this district, non-tribals hold 28,367 hectares while tribals own only 13,358 hectares. Losing their traditional land, the tribals are forced to move out of their traditional habitat to eke out an existence as day-labourers in distant cities. According to the 1991 census, the tribal population in 102 villages of the notified Scheduled Tribe mandals of Polavaram, Buttaigudam and Jillelugudem had come down by 43%. The out-migration of tribals and in-migration of non-tribals into the tribal areas is of such magnitude that today tribals form less than 20% of the population in Jillugumilli mandal.

Our own field studies indicate that it is mostly the moneylenders and the traders who grab away the tribals' land. And the rich farmers from the plains soon follow. Mango traders and bamboo contractors who supply for the paper mills corner thousands of acres from the tribals to raise orchards or bamboo groves. There is an emerging nexus between outside capital and a thin layer of tribal elite and powerbrokers, often belonging not only to Congress and TDP but also to CPI. Not just the local landlord who is invariably a non-tribal, and not only the mango exporters, timber and tendu leaf contractors and paper mills but the World Bank is also a villain which tears away the tribal from the tiny patch of land where he carries on his subsistence farming.

Impelled by the growing pressures from within the western societies against depletion of forests and against newsprint and plywood industries, the World Bank, in an act of 'green imperialism', encourages the growing of raw materials for these 'dirty' industries in the hills and forests of Andhra in the name of afforestation. The tribals who cultivate food crops or any other commercial crop of their choice in the so-called forest lands face severe repression from the forest department. The 'forest' lands have become so sacrosanct that the forest-dwellers are sought to be kept out of them. The only way they can continue to live in their own traditional areas and work on the lands which traditionally fostered their communities is by accepting the framework of World Bank-funded Joint Forest Councils wherein they have no right to raise the crops they need or prefer but are forced to raise bamboo, eucalyptus and other monoculture exotics. For accepting a meagre initial sum they will have to forgo their right over not just their lands but also on the World Bank-specified crops they have raised. They don't have an independent say on when they can cut the trees that they have raised, and to whom to sell them and at what price. Worse still, they don't even have the tenurial rights over these lands which are supposed to be jointly 'managed' by them. Here is a clear case of a state government unquestioningly sacrificing the interests of the tribals, for the sake of some meagre funds, at the altar of this institution of international finance.

In fact, the tribals are the most exploited and deprived section in Andhra. 1981 census figures say that the literacy among the STs in the State was 7.82% and among the ST women it was 3.5% The New Forest Policy cruelly pits the question of environment against the question of survival. It is not the tribals but the greedy vested interests from outside who are responsible for the depletion of forest cover. Armed by the Indian Forest Act, these tribals are systematically deprived of their rights over their traditional land. Land survey and settlement, which started under the British, was never carried out systematically in Andhra Pradesh as in most other states. Private ownership in land was virtually unknown among tribals and other non-tribal forest dwellers' communities earlier. While the landlords and the peasants in the plains had the benefits of various land settlement measures, not all the tribals got pattas for their land. It is the so-called civilised society, the class-divided society, which imposed its principle of private ownership in land among tribals only to deprive their control over their own land. Except in certain states in the Northeast, the tribal community's collective ownership right over community land is not even formally recognised by law. This principle of private property in land coupled with the Forest Act has wrecked havoc in the lives of tribals.

Of late, in Andhra Pradesh, there is an increasing clamour for revoking land transfer regulations protecting tribal lands. Cutting across party lines, both the Congress and TDP members were loudly demanding scrapping of these regulations right on the floor of the assembly. An earlier attempt by Chenna Reddy to prohibit eviction of non-tribals from the tribal areas was scuttled by High Court. On the other hand, the Supreme Court's insensitivity to issues of social justice was evident from the fact that the apex court has been sitting tight for the last 15 years over an appeal against AP High Court verdict which shot down a clause giving retrospective effect to Regulation 1 of 1970, a clause which could have benefited tens of thousands of tribals.

Constitution and the Tribals

Of course, the Indian Constitution is supposed to protect tribal interests, especially tribal autonomy and their rights over land, through Fifth and Sixth Schedules. Scheduled Areas of Article 244(1) are notified as per the Fifth Schedule and Tribal Areas of Article 244(2) are notified as per the Sixth Schedule. Sixth Schedule covers some tribal areas of Northeast region in the states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam, including the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, where it took a protracted struggle by CPI(ML)-ASDC to give effect to this Constitutional provision after almost 44 years since the framing of the Constitution. This Sixth Schedule provides for establishing autonomous district councils and autonomous regions empowered with legislative, judicial, executive and financial powers. The demand for inclusion of tribal-dominated regions of Andhra Pradesh under the Sixth Schedule is coming up these days and it would take no less vigourous a struggle to achieve this.

The Fifth Schedule envisages notification of tribal-dominated areas as Scheduled Areas and the formation of a Tribal Advisory Council at the State level. Since these Scheduled Areas are supposed to enjoy autonomy protected by the Constitution, the laws passed by parliament and the State legislatures do not automatically apply to them. Hence, the Fifth Schedule defines Governors' powers to adapt laws to these areas. It provides for making regulations by the State Government for the Scheduled Areas having the force of law. It also allows the Union Government to give directions to a State regarding the administration of Scheduled Areas.

These Schedules have had little impact on the ground. The Tribal Advisory Councils are either non-existent in many States or are defunct and dysfunctional. Worse still, the process of scheduling of tribal areas itself is not yet complete even after decades. It started in the fifties and soon the bureaucracy at the State level, acting at the behest of non-tribal landed gentry, gave it up. Having no inclination to protect the land rights of tribals, they saw no other reason for continuing it. The spread of Naxalites armed struggle to the tribal areas compelled the ruling class leaders to initiate some reform measures in tribal areas. When Mrs.Gandhi went on a populist binge during the mid-Seventies to consolidate her hold over deprived sections of the society including tribals as a prop for her authoritarian rule, she introduced what is called as Tribal Sub-Plan in the planning process, earmarking a portion of funds for tribal development. Only to ensure their share of the Central Plan allocations, the States started the notification of tribal areas again. The money seldom reached the tribals, of course. Soon the rulers at the State level realised that there is no need to continue with notification in order to divert the funds meant for tribal development for their own pockets. Hence it was abandoned again. Even the LF Govt. of West Bengal and the various LDF Govts. which held office at different times in Kerala were guilty of this. No wonder then that the Bhuria Committee had to specially call, in 1995, for the enumeration of tribal-dominated areas or administrative units and resumption of notification, especially in callous States like West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

In fact, the very formation of the Bhuria Committee itself speaks for the utter insensitivity and indifference of the entire political class towards tribals. When Rajiv Gandhi came up with his high-sounding slogan of 'power to the people', hoping to undercut State governments by directly reaching the money to the panchayat institutions, he had simply forgotten that among the peoples in India there are also around 400 tribal communities whose population was about 80 million. That is why when his successors passed 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution to enact Panchayat and Nagarpalika Bills, they simply forgot that these do not automatically become applicable to Tribal and Scheduled Areas and hence failed to pass an appropriate law through the parliament. From the Law Ministry to the Social Welfare Ministry, from the National Tribal Commission to various tribal members of the parliament and ministers belonging to different parties - all overlooked this anomaly. Faced with the actual realities of implementation, the Andhra govt. passed a law through State legislature to adapt their respective State Panchayat and Nagarpalika Acts to the Scheduled Areas. Only when the Andhra Pradesh High Court struck down this law saying it is not valid in the absence of a corresponding Central legislation the rulers in Delhi were forcefully reminded of the tribal realities in Indian society. Ironically enough, the very same Delhi durbar, which opposed tooth and nail the demands various tribal movements for autonomous state or autonomous district council, including the movement by the people of Karbi Anglong led by CPI(ML)-ASDC, was forced to give some concrete shape to these structures in order to bring 73rd and 74th Amendments in line with Fifth and Sixth Schedules. Due to one of those strange twists of bourgeois constitutionality, the Congress government which set out to erode the federal autonomy of the States by bringing the panchayati raj institutions directly to depend upon its fiscal handouts ended up being forced to give some practical shape to the institutions of tribal autonomy, a constitutional obligation which it wantonly avoided for decades.

Bhuria Committee

Nevertheless, the Rao government wanted to delay the process as far as possible. Hence, as usual, it appointed a committee headed by Mr.Dileep Singh Bhuria, MP, in June 1994, to work out the details as to how structures similar to panchayati raj institutions can take shape in Tribal Areas and Scheduled Areas and to define their powers. The Committee submitted its report this January. Rao government carefully avoided inclusion of Jayant Rongpi, an articulate tribal leader and CPI(ML)-ASDC MP, into the Committee who has led a successful struggle for tribal autonomy in Karbi Anglong and who has been sent to the parliament by the people of Karbi Anglong on the basis of this struggle. Nor did Bhuria Committee bother to study the ongoing autonomy struggles in Northeast and Jharkhand and their outcome. No wonder then that its recommendations on the powers of the tribal autonomous district councils fall far short of what has been achieved by ASDC through struggle.

The Bhuria Committee has recommended a three-tier structure of self-governance in the tribal areas: 1) Gram Sabha - Every 'habitation community' to have a Gram Sabha which will exercise command over natural resources, resolve disputes and manage institutions under it like schools and cooperatives; 2) Gram Panchayat - Elected body of representatives of each Gram Sabha, also to function as an appellate authority for unresolved disputes at lower level; and 3) A block- or taluk-level body as the next higher level. Additionally, an elected autonomous district council at the district level with legislative, executive and judicial powers for tribal areas covered under the Sixth Schedule. Bhuria Committee has also recommended the powers and functions of these three levels in details. The Committee also proposes in general terms that the Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas should be vested with adequate powers to deal with problems like growing indebtedness, land alienation, deforestation, ecological degradation, displacement on account of industrialisation and modernisation, excise policy, alcohol and drug addiction, hydel and water resources etc. However, it suggests no concrete legislative or executive measures in these areas to empower the proposed institutions.

The United Front government, in its common minimum programme, promises "a high-level commission to enquire into and report on the status, problems and aspirations of the members belonging to the Scheduled Tribes". But on the more concrete and urgent task of implementing the Bhuria Committee recommendations, the CMP says that the UF government will take its sweet time to "study the conclusions contained in the report of the Bhuria Committee and take necessary steps to implement the salient recommendations". Meanwhile, an anomalous situation prevails in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, and possibly in other States as well. The Scheduled Areas are not able to receive their due share of developmental funds through the centrally-sponsored schemes. While the formal institutions have not yet obtained legal sanction and hence are unable to function, the traditional ones are not recognised by law. This only provides an excuse for the state governments to divert the funds meant for tribal development.

A report in Statesman (April 11, 1995) says that Bihar is the worst in this regard where in the last few years the Tribal Sub-Plan areas have failed to get requisite funds to implement central schemes. The State government did not release any funds to Tribal Sub-Plan Areas. The funds have been diverted by the State government to pay salaries to its employees. Moreover, in Bihar, though there is an arrangement that 25% of the total allocation of the State budget is to be earmarked for the Chotanagpur and Santal Pargana region every year, this has not been happening in recent years. While the State government has transferred a section of its staff and liabilities to the JAAC, their due share of funds are not being transferred.

In fact, the funds being allocated by the Centre itself is a pittance. Centre had earmarked Rs.1250 crore - on an average Rs.250 crore per year and not even accounting for 1% of the total Plan allocations - during the Eighth Five-Year Plan to 18 non-tribal majority States and two Union Territories under the Tribal Sub-Plan which is supposed to promote the development of 80 million tribals. More money is spent in any single metropolitan city in a single year!

And any 'development' that takes place is nightmarish for the tribals. Narmada is a well-known story. This apart, in Chotanagpur, the tribals have in recent years offered stiff resistance to displacement due to Netrahat Firing Range, Swarnarekha Multipurpose Project, Koel-Karo Dam, Parej Coal Project and Jaduguda Uranium Mines. Army had to back out of its proposed Netrahat Firing Range Project over 45,000 hectares involving displacement of large number of tribals due to spirited protest by organisations of local people, mainly tribals, including vigorous campaign by some local CPI(ML) leaders. According to a campaigner on tribal issues, 40% of the 213 lakh people displaced by development schemes between 1951-90 in India are tribals. Less than a quarter of them have been rehabilitated.

Faced with high-profile protests over eviction, the Centre, through the Union Ministry of Rural Development has come up with a 'National Rehabilitation Policy' for the people displaced on account of land aquisition which is grossly inadequate. It doesn't recognise the fundamental right of the oustees to accept or refuse rehabilitation packages. It doesn't even accept the land-for-land principle. Above all, the Centre thought it fit to come up with a 'National Policy' without proposing any legislative measure to accord legal sanction to rehabilitation measures.

Invasion by Industry

Apart from these mega projects, industry is being liberally allowed to wreck havoc with the living conditions of the tribals under the liberalisation regime. The National Forest Policy of 1988 itself paved the way for encroachment of industry over forest wealth. Despite even this notorious policy affirming that the forest dwellers have the first right to forest produce, the forest departments themselves have started handing over the forest wealth to the industry. In the vast tribal areas of Andhra, MP and Orissa, the tribals are primarily dependent on the collection and selling of the non-timber forest produce (NTFP). In Orissa, the industry and the bureaucracy has colluded to circumvent the restrictions on leasing forest lands to the private industry illegally without obtaining central approval. Instead of land, the forest produce is being leased out to the industry. Earlier, the Orissa Forest Development Corporation and the Tribal Development Corporation had exclusive rights for a number of NTFPs. But under liberalisation wave since 1990, individual companies, among them Utkal Forest Products, are being given collection rights for 29 NTFPs for 10 years. In 1993, Ballarpur Industries, Straw products and Oriental Paper Mills have been engaged, under the guise of 'labour contractors', for working bamboo areas. They have cornered bamboo collection rights in Malkangiri, Puri, Dhenkanal, Parlakkamundi, Phulbani, Ballaguda, Rayagada, Kalahandi, Bonai, Sundargarh and Bamra forest divisions. A study by NC Saxena, Director of the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, says that from one depot alone 33,60,000 pieces of bamboo were sold to these companies at the rate of 15 paise each whereas the open auction prices for 27,275 bamboo was Rs.10-13 each. CPI(ML) is actively building up a movement in some of these areas to protect the tribal rights. Notable was the case of CPI(ML)'s loud protest against the proposal to handover collection rights for some forest flowers to an Italian company to produce some 'exotic' oriental perfume at the behest of Sonia Gandhi. The forest department, by contrast, comes down with bestial fury against the tribal organisations. In Rayagada, a women's group formed a society of 50-60 tribal women to make brooms and sell them for a better price through this society. The Orissa forest department, saying that the society was not licensed, promptly confiscated their brooms and prosecuted the women!

The World Bank too has stepped in to rob the tribals of their resources. Apart form the afforestatation scheme in AP already cited, the WB has proposed replacing a natural sal forest in Chotanagpur by a pine plantation despite the fact that the collection of sal leaves and seeds is the main source of livelihood for the tribals there.

These attempts to rob the tribals of their resources is criminal, especially when it occurs in places like Kalahandi and Koraput districts where starvation deaths among tribals are legendary. In 1993, an estimated 7000 tribal children died of malnutrition in Amravati district of Maharashtra. Infant mortality among some tribes in Orissa and AP are above 150 per thousand.

Being part of such a callous, oppressive, exploitative and man-eating milieu, the bureaucrats in East Godavari, as their counterparts elsewhere, can only meet the tribal aspirations with the use of brute force. But before long the oppressors of tribals will be made to bow down before their bows and arrows.

--N Murthy