Lies about tribal rights


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AT around the time the media discovered the tribal rights bill, I happened to visit an industrial settlement called Atul, on the banks of the Par river just about where Maharashtra ends and Gujarat begins. It was a fortuitous coincidence because Atul is an excellent example of how the lives of adivasis can be improved without needing to sacrifice the last of our forests to their well-being. It is my conviction that if the draft Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill becomes law then its main achievement will be the destruction of our forests and not the betterment of adivasi living standards.

I drove to Atul from Mumbai on one of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s new highways; a journey that till last year took six hours now takes three. In that time you move from India’s cosmopolitan commercial capital to a district that till recently was, despite being on a national highway, an adivasi backwater. Local people remember that till ten years ago, when the 21st century began to creep in through telephones, roads and television, the average adivasi lived the life of a hunter-gatherer. He collected and sold forest produce and this brought him barely enough to buy a loincloth for himself and a cheap sari for his wife. Home was a mud hut without the hope of it becoming pucca leave alone dreaming of such luxuries as electricity and clean water. Illiteracy and infant mortality rates were high and jobs impossible.

They say it was because unemployment was such a serious problem that when Kasturbhai Lalbhai came here in the late forties to set up his chemical factory he designed Atul in a way that it would provide as much employment as possible. His grandson, Sunil Lalbhai, is now restructuring to reduce employment in order for the factory to survive and grow. But, this story’s relevance to the rights of tribals goes beyond employment. It is also about the forest that the factory developed even as the natural forests in which the adivasis lived were being destroyed, often because of their own needs of firewood and shelter. Over the past fifty years of Atul’s existence more than 500,000 trees have been planted so that visitors joke about whether the factory is a sanctuary in disguise.

A sanctuary it is. Something about the fumes that Atul’s factories generate attracts birds in vast quantities so that in the evening the trees change from green to white because of the numbers of nesting herons and other birds.


So many kinds of birds have made their home in the trees outside Atul’s factories that a natural bird sanctuary has been formed and to the complete mystification of Atul’s managers they seem particular to return here to breed – a phenomenon whose causes ornithologists have not been able to more than guess at. Maybe it’s the sulphur in the atmosphere that attracts them, maybe the safety of being in a forest without predators. They do not go in such large numbers to the adivasi villages that surround Atul because what you have here are degraded forests of scrub and bramble.

It is not just birds whose lives have improved because of the forest that the chemical factory has brought, but human beings as well. Atul brought electricity and piped water and jobs and the highway now makes it possible to go to Mumbai in three hours and Ahmedabad in not much longer. The local adivasi population has taken advantage of these developments to bring modernity into their lives and to move away from their earlier hunter-gatherer existence.


The Atul way combining modernity with environmental concern is the way forward, not the tribal forest rights bill that the government is contemplating. If it becomes law, 20 million adivasi families will be given 2.5 hectares of forest land each so that they can continue being hunter-gatherers. It should shame us that this is all that India, the future economic superpower, can offer its most desperate citizens in the 21st century. It should shame those who rule us that they have been able to do so little by way of development in nearly sixty years of independence that they offer our supposedly beloved ‘tribals’ stone age living standards. But they are not ashamed; they are proud. Those who devised the bill on forest rights for tribals believe that they are rectifying a historical wrong. They know as much about history as they do about adivasi living standards, so they do not know that the forests never belonged to the adivasis but to the ruler.

As Mahesh N. Buch pointed out in a brilliant article in the Indian Express (27 May 2005), ‘The tribals were deprived of their land in the valleys and on the plateaus in the sixteenth century and thereafter. They were not deprived of forest land as is being touted. If justice is to be done to the tribals it is not two and a half hectares per person of reserved forest land which must be allotted. It must be two and a half hectares of cultivated land in the valleys which must be taken away from the present bhoomiswamis and made over to the tribals.’

Mahesh Buch is chairman of the National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment in Bhopal and has written one of the few sensible articles on the tribal rights bill. For the most part it is the leftist and pseudo noble savage view that, alas, has prevailed. Typical is this letter I received in response to my attack on the bill in my column. ‘Tavleen’s description of the tribal lifestyle could be apt if you squint one eye. Sure – infant mortality is high, women frequently don’t own more than one sari, and live in minuscule mud huts, but if you transplant these people to an urban scenario, they won’t last a day. They manage to survive because they can forage – hunt rats, mongooses, monitor lizards in the rice fields, fish in the ponds, earn some money working at the local rice mill, digging trenches, etc. – skills that are totally useless in an urban landscape.’


In other words let the adivasis live like savages because after all they, poor things, have always been and will always be savages. For you and I the wonders of internet, air travel, education, health care, refrigerators and air-conditioning. For adivasis, the Stone Age. This kind of view is typical of the leftist political thought that deprives whole sections of Indian society of the basic comforts of the 21st century in the name of the ‘people’. This is the real historical wrong. This is where change is required but as the Sonia-Manmohan government is in the clutches of leftist thinkers, politicians and activists, this dangerous bill could easily become law before the year is over without doing anything to improve the lives of the adivasis.

Those who have drafted the bill claim that ‘not an inch’ of forest land will be disturbed and that all that the law will do is legitimize a situation that already exists. The ‘tribals’ they hope to endow are already living in the forests, they claim, and since they are already cultivating inside them, the law will make no difference at all.


This is typical of the sort of view that emanates from the denizens of South and North Block, most of whom have a telescopic view of what India really looks like.

If they would step out of their offices and wander the land a bit they would notice that adivasis are often willing helpers of poachers and timber mafias. They are usually too poor not to be. So once they become owners of the forests it is only a matter of time before they will be used by these predators as tools in the destruction of the forests. Those who believe all the baloney about how adivasis have traditionally protected the forest should go and see what happened to the forests in the districts of Dhar and Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh.

I was there in 1987 to cover the drought and after driving miles and miles through a landscape of denuded, khaki hills I remember stopping in a small town to ask local officials what had happened to the trees. They said they had been cut by the adivasis at the instigation of a socialist party that gave them a slogan that went something like ‘jhaad hamarey, zameen hamari’. The trees and the land belong to us. Well, by that year the land may still have done but there were no trees left and the enduring image I have of that journey is of adivasi women in colourful skirts walking for hours to collect their daily supplies of water.

The tribal rights bill is in my view an extension of that socialist slogan and will be far more destructive. Once legal rights to forest land are handed out how long will it take before 20 million adivasi families double and treble? Is this not what happens in our cities whenever it comes to legalizing slums? In any case there will be natural growth of the adivasi population as the years go by and once they have been given forest land rights which prime minister would ever dare take them back again? Once V.P. Singh forced the Mandal Commission report down our throats has any political party dared oppose reservations for other backward castes?

If we are to save our forests from certain destruction the bill must be stopped now. The prime minister and Sonia Gandhi will not be forgiven by history if under pressure from misguided leftists and dubious activists they go ahead with making this unforgivable law. Leftist opinion, as usual dominant in the media, takes the human rights high ground. Poor tribals, deprived of their only means of survival. This is rubbish.


It is not about survival and it is not about preserving a ‘way of life’. Most adivasis do not have a way of life. They live in appalling conditions and it is wrong that they should have to. Instead of wasting time making stupid, dangerous laws the government should come up with a plan that would bring schools, hospitals, electricity and jobs at double the normal speed in adivasi areas. Television itself acts as a vital engine of change and should be used for purposes of literacy in areas too poor to build the schools.

There already is a policy decision to give tax breaks to industries ready to set up in backward areas. This policy needs to be strengthened so that thousands of Atuls come up in the backwaters. There is a view that one of the reasons why the government is trying to push the law through is because of a desperate hope that it will help deal with the Naxalite problem. If this is true, and judging by the support the bill appears to have from the Home Ministry it could well be, then we are heading into dangerous political as well as environmental waters.


Surely, the best way to deal with the Naxalite problem is to bring roads, development, urbanization? Sending more and more people back to the land is indicative of a country that has given up the idea of bringing prosperity through creating wealth rather than distributing it. Distributing without creating was the old Indian way. It failed. If land reforms had worked then why is there not enough cultivable land to distribute to the adivasis? Why does it have to be forest land?

The idea is typical of the muddle-headed, leftist nonsense that is finding its way into most of this government’s policies. Another example is the employment guarantee scheme which seeks to guarantee a hundred days of employment to every family below the poverty line.

Sounds good on paper but think for a minute about implementation and you immediately come up with the same leaky delivery systems that have failed to deliver other anti-poverty relief. Below Poverty Line cards are distributed by sarpanches so they go more often than not to their supporters. I was sickened to travel through villages in Bihar last year in which dalits lived in little shacks of mud and thatch but had no benefits from anti-poverty schemes because the BPL cards had been given to the upper castes by the upper caste panchayats. If the government pushes through its employment guarantee scheme the same thing will almost certainly happen.

Instead of this kind of meaningless and expensive tokenism what needs to be done is to order a thorough revamp of rural delivery systems. We should begin by abolishing the post of Collector. This is a colonial post that should have no meaning in a decolonized country but so ineffective have we been at administrative reform that no government has begun to even consider the possibility that the rot in rural India stems from the Collector.

He sits, usually in the biggest house in town, on a delivery network that is rotten to the core. The central government alone spends more than Rs 40,000 crore annually on anti-poverty programmes that are supposed to help communities like the adivasis and dalits. Has anyone examined where the money has gone? If we did we might find that were the money spent where it was meant to be there would be no poor adivasis left.


We should have realized by now that paternalistic governance does not work, that it has never worked. In my opinion the tribal rights bill is of a piece with this kind of paternalistic governance. Someone sitting in distant Delhi with a map as his grassroots research has decided that the way to help our poor adivasis is to give the forests to them. Just like in the past we gave cattle to dalits living in villages in which there was no grazing grounds and money for fish farming to villages in which there were no lakes. Just like the public toilet scheme in Rajasthan has built toilets in the middle of village squares opposite schools so that children grew up thinking it is normal for the air they breathe to reek of sewage.

One would think that after so many failures our mighty bureaucrats would have learned some lessons. If nothing else at least the lesson of humility. While getting the government’s reasons for giving adivasis forest land I discovered that this is far from true. The official I spoke to in the Prime Minister’s Office was so certain that what he was doing was right that it was impossible for him to see that schemes devised in temperature controlled South Block looked quite different when they got to the real India.

Not only was he cocooned from the real India but from the politics of real politicians as well. He refused to consider the possibility that the idea of the bill could have originated from a political party that might be thinking not of adivasi welfare so much as adivasi votes.


Personally, I am all for local communities being involved in the preservation of our forests but this will not happen unless we involve whole communities and not just small sections like the adivasis or the dalits. Whole villages need to be involved and creating an awareness of the importance of conservation should start at the level of the village school. When the average village child understands that the forest is being preserved, not just for the benefit of tigers and elephants but for the benefit of human beings, you will not need forest guards or adivasis to take charge of the forests. Sadly, we are aeons away from this kind of awareness because no government has so far taken more than a token interest in preserving our forests.

Now we have a token interest in the welfare of adivasis through this dangerous and destructive bill. It will do nothing for the adivasis and everything to ensure that in another twenty years there will be no forests left in India. Manmohan Singh needs to think seriously about what he is doing or history will remember him as a prime minister who committed wilful harm against this country, not as someone whose heart bled for the adivasis.