Friday, August 24, 2012

Tribal travails

Dr. Satish Kumar

Although some tribals have large land holdings, the going gets tough for them as they are in debt-trap. Govt should take steps to save them.

It's a peculiar situation. Radhikabai is not the owner of this land. She just happens to be the custodian of this 15 acres by virtue of being Jeevanlal's wife. A Halba tribal who is among the only three farmers in this village to own over ten acres of land, Jeevanlal has gone out for work, despite such a large land holding, this year. Why? He is in the midst of a serious crisis. Three years of drought left him under the burden of debt. Last year there was pretty good rainfall. But, Jeevanlal could not afford to depend only on his agricultural yield. Much of his income from the farm would go in repaying the debt. And, that's why he had moved out, leaving the responsibility of cultivation to Radhikabai. The woman has since been managing the show. This is the story of a tribal family in the state of Maharashtra, the home state of the Union Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar.
There is another tragic story of a tribal farmer of Jharkhand. Manjhi Solon, marginal farmer having seven children and old parents. But there is no irrigation facility to produce anything. His village is not far away from the Agriculture University of Ranchi. Unfortunately the syllabus, which is taught in the university, has nothing to do with plight of tribals.
In fact, the slew of the new economic policies have blurred the sustainability of agriculture. The major impact of marketisation accompanied by modernization on the tribal communities is through the process of land alienation, displacement and deprivation of the control and use of natural resources.
To the tribals, the environment is their livelihood. It is the natural resources that are to be protected because they are part of an ecosystem with the human community at its centre. As a result there cannot be any enmity between them and the nature. Their priority is to prevent the overuse of natural resources. To ensure it, through centuries, they have developed a culture and tradition of their sustainable use that protects them by keeping a balance between human needs and ecological imperatives.
There is no doubt that agriculture and the use of forest resources are the basis of the tribal economy. Oroans, Mundas, Santhal are mostly agrarian communities and their worldview, festival rituals and to an extent social phenomena are governed by crop production. They have learned by experience to make the best possible use of the available land and other resources to optimise their yield to meet their needs. Adivasis classify land according to suitability of crop grown and amount of production; and this is directly related to moisture holding capacity of soil. Tanr or uplands fit for minor millets and oil seeds or coarse pady. Tanr or uplands is sometimes again classified into dihani or bari (adjacent to village). Then comes don land or terraced lowland. This type can retain more moisture and is subdivided accordingly.
This is the inbuilt mechanism of sustainable development, which tribal people have been practicing for years. They have not got the degree of sustainable development from any institution. Even well known agricultural scientist, Mr. Swaminathan has said time and again that people can learn a number of lessons from these practices of Adivasis. Unfortunately agricultural practices of tribal people in India are on rough edges. They have been robbed of their techniques and forced to practice the so-called modern agricultural practices that buckle them in perennial debt and a vicious circle of suicides. There have been a number of cases of suicides of tribal farmers in Maharashtra . Recently a dozen tribal farmers committed suicides in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
Now the reasons need to be identified as to why tribal farmers and their agriculture practices have been discarded. Thorough investigations it reveals many core issues. First, Indian Government failed to implement the Nehru's Panchsheel Policy towards tribal. One of the five components of this policy was to protect the tribal rights on land and forest, which has never been done. In fact, in the name of development and national demands their lands have taken over by the respective state governments. First the British government declared under the forest act of 1864 that any land covered with tress, brushwood or jungle as government forest. So, Adivasis homelands were therefore declared, by law, to belong to the government and Adivasis became illegal occupants or encroachers. Adivasis have relied on the forests for up to 80 percent of their food. In 1980 Forest Conservation Act has placed all forests under the Central Government. This makes the lives of tribal more difficult.
Tribals, to a large extent, depend upon forests for several basic needs like fuel, fodder, small timber for houses and agricultural components. Their agricultural practices are highly environment friendly. Rapid deforestation is depriving these communities of the means of livelihood and also cash income. It is a fact that 66 per cent of the total forest cover lies in the tribal areas.
The second major problem related with tribal agriculture is water. Tribal villages depend upon small stream, rivulets, ponds and lakes for water. After independence the government has launched a massive programme to construct dams for the storage of water. Most of these dams are meant to supply water to cities and towns for domestic and industrial use. It is great contradiction of development that water harvesting lies in the catchments areas of tribal villages but do not provide irrigation facilities to them and it flows down to cities. Lands of the tribal get submerged and tribal farmers being forced to become landless labourers.
Tribals constitute 8.4% of India's total population. Tribal habitats are biodiversity-rich, but tribal farmers are resource-poor. Conceptually, tradition and science are two intersecting spheres that overlap on principles. The intersection is conceived to represent reality. Tribal cultivation exhibits some traditional practices with an underlying scientific basis. At the same time, there are traditions of scientific concern needing appropriate modification.
Rapid globalization and forces of marketisation have brought many problems for the tribal people. The World Bank published a special manual titled 'Tribal and Economic Development - Human Ecological Considerations'. It says, approximately 200 million tribal people, roughly 4% of the global population, and who among were the poorest of the poor, were adversely affected by some development projects.
There should be a paradigm shift in the policies towards tribals. Mere Constitutional safeguards are not sufficient. Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution have failed to protect the interests of tribal people. Obviously development must go hand in hand with traditional practices of Adivasis.

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