Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

By Prakash Karat

Narendra Modi, while addressing an Adivasi rally at Bhopal on the birth anniversary of the legendary tribal leader Birsa Munda on November 15, claimed that after independence, for decades, the Adivasis were neglected. It was only his government that made Adivasis partners in the country’s development and beneficiaries of various welfare schemes.

The anniversary also saw the Modi government make a big pitch to project its pro-tribal image. It was announced that henceforth, the day would be observed as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas; Modi joined the ceremony to rename Habibganj Railway Station at Bhopal after a Gond queen Rani Kamlapati. On the same day, Modi inaugurated, online, a museum on Birsa Munda and Adivasi history at Ranchi.

All this celebration of Birsa Munda and Modi’s claim to be championing Adivasi interests are in glaring contrast to what actually the Modi government has been doing to undermine Adivasi rights and destroying their livelihoods and way of life, which is integrally connected to the forests and forest lands of the country.

The sorry plight of the tribal population in independent India can be traced to the capitalist path of development, which was embarked upon. Both State-sponsored infrastructural projects and private corporate enterprises displaced Adivasis from their traditional habitats, threw many into servitude under rapacious contractors and violated their basic democratic and constitutional rights. But this process of displacement and deprivation did not stop in 2014 when the Modi government took office. Rather, the pace of expropriation of natural resources and forest wealth by private capital has been stepped up – through mining, exploration for minerals and extractive industries.

The Modi government has, through a series of policy measures, diluted the requirement for consent of gram sabhas for mining leases and other projects in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas. The first legislation passed was the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act of 2015. This legislation did away with some of the diluted provisions introduced by an amendment law passed in 2011 at the time of the UPA government. The need to consult with gram sabhas in the grant of mining leases in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule Areas; the eligibility of tribal cooperatives for grants of minor minerals in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule Areas and the mandatory provision that coal companies should give 26 per cent of their profit to the District Mineral Foundation were all scrapped by the Modi government.

 

Thus, the Modi government has acted, on the one hand, to give licence to set up mining and mineral enterprises in the tribal-populated forest areas, at the same time taken away the constitutional right of the tribal population in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas.

The amendment proposed to the Indian Forest Act of 1927 would lead to erasing the role of gram sabhas, equating tribals with other communities in relation to their rights over the forest and criminalising all aspects of tribal life like the right to cultivation, fishing, right to forest produce and pasture.

The Forest Act Amendment Bill met with widespread opposition and has not been passed so far. But whether it is the proposed Forest Policy of 2018-19 or the other amendments proposed to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the net result would be to make it easier for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes; promote privatisation and commercialisation of forests and do away with the powers of the gram sabha for consent.

All these proposed policy changes would undermine the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, which recognises the rights of tribal communities and long-time forest dwellers to forest lands and their right to cultivate and access minor forest produce.

The snatching away of the rights of tribal people is in full swing. The Forest Rights Act of 2006, which gives tribals and tribal communities the right of title to forest lands and cultivate them is being violated. According to the figures released by the union ministry of tribal affairs, only 46.69 per cent of claims filed by tribals and tribal communities to titles (upto August 31, 2020) were accepted, i.e., less than half the number of claims. In Madhya Pradesh, where Modi waxed eloquent about his government’s pro-tribal policies, almost three out of five tribal families, who filed their claims under the Forest Rights Act, faced rejection.

The “social welfare” of the Adivasis under the Modi regime is exemplified by the plight of Adivasi children. From March 2020, when the first lockdown began and schools were closed, 90 to 95 per cent of rural Adivasi students were deprived of any education whatsoever. The world of online education was closed for Adivasi students. The right to education ceased to exist for most Adivasi children.

Rural Adivasi households have been the worst sufferers as far as food security is concerned and have the highest incidence of hunger. They are also the most disadvantaged as far as getting work under the MNREGA is concerned.

The Hindutva approach of the Modi government towards the Adivasis is typical of right-wing identity politics. Modi, in his speech, invoked Lord Ram whose ideal image he attributed to his association with tribal society. This is on par with the Hindutva project of assimilating Adivasis into the Hindu order, of course, in the lowest rung: cater to Adivasi identity by hailing tribal icons, naming railway stations and building statues for them, at the same time, denude the Adivasis of their right to land and forests and trample.

This story first appeared on nationalheraldindia.com