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Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Tribes Of India

Who are the Adivasis?
Some 67.76 million or 8.08 per cent of the population of India have been designated as 'Scheduled Tribes' (STs) - generally referred to as Adivasis.
The term 'STs' indicates those communities specified by the President of
India under Article 342 of the Constitution of India. 'Geographical isolation, distinctive culture, primitivity [sic], shynessand economic backwardness [sic]' are some of the criteria considered
relevant for scheduling as tribes. Although scheduling is intended to be a
legal process, arbitrariness and political expediency are often factors indetermining the recognition and non-recognition of Adivasis (indigenous
peoples) as STs in the absence of a clear definition. For example, only some sections of a particular group have been scheduled in one
state, while being omitted in another. Also some non-indigenous or
non-tribal peoples have been included in the category.

The word 'Adivasi' means 'original inhabitants' in Sanskrit, and therefore
the term means the indigenous people of India. However, their status is
being distorted and denied particularly by the Hindu fundamentalists within
India, and the government has also taken the consistent position at the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Indigenous Populations that the STs are
not equivalent to indigenous peoples and that 'the entire population ofIndia ... [is] ... indigenous to the country'. This despite the overwhelming
academic, legal, literary, popular and official practice or view both within
and outside India to the contrary.
However, India contradicts its behaviour at times. For example, Coal India
Limited has submitted 'Indigenous Peoples' Development Plans to the WorldBank in response to the Bank's directives and in compliance with the Bank's
guidelines on indigenous peoples, to secure loans of $500 million and $80million for an India Coal Sector Rehabilitation Project and a Coal India Environmental and Social Mitigation Project.
Yet the Indian government persists in viewing the development of the
possible higher international standards on indigenous peoples with concern,
because these echo the growing political demands of Adivasis internally -which the government is unwilling to concede in practice.

The Adivasis are spread over 26 states and union territories. They are not
evenly distributed over the Indian land mass, there are pockets of Adivasis
across the country - mainly in the forested, hilly and mountainous areas -populating nearly 20 per cent of the geographical area of the country. Apart
from small gaps, the habitat of the Adivasis runs continuously from the Thane district of Maharashtra to the Tengnoupal district of Manipur.

Adivasis and the caste system
Adivasis in India share many of the characteristics of other indigenous
peoples of the world. However, a vital distinction of the Adivasis of the
Indian subcontinent is their opposition to the caste system. The caste
system is one of an 'ascending superiority and descending inferiority' , and
although various peoples have been assimilated into this system, the Adivasis are increasingly identifying themselves as being opposed to this
system, to its principles, and to the unequal positions it relegates to them
in this hierarchy.

Constitutional and legal safeguards
The Indian Constitution and law have laid down certain safeguards for the
STs. The Constitution has incorporated most of the contents of the
Government of India Act, 1935. This allows for the classification of Adivasi
areas into 'partially excluded areas' and 'excluded areas' by creating the' Fifth' and 'Sixth Schedules' of the Constitution. The Fifth Schedule
applies to much of the Adivasi areas in mainland India and the Sixth
Schedule to the North-East region of India. Both of these schedules were
envisaged to protect the socio-cultural identity of the Adivasis, and to
provide them with some measure of autonomy in their administrative affairs.
But these schedules are subordinate to the powers of the various state governments, many of which have undermined the
proposed safeguards. A centralized and incongruent institutional structure
has largely contributed to the situation of the Adivasis going from bad to worse.
Various nationalist movements are struggling for the right to
self-determination in the North-East region, despite some parts of this
region ostensibly enjoying the constitutional provisions of the Sixth Schedule.
Parliament enacted the provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the
Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which has become law. This suggests that the
original and broad provisions of autonomy that were conferred on Adivasi
areas were inadequate; Adivasis are demanding change.
The Indian Constitution also provided for positive discrimination or
affirmative measures in employment and higher education, and even for
political reservations for seats in Parliament and state assemblies. These
benefits are available if a community is included in the 'Scheduled' category.
While this system of reservation was intended as a positive measure, it is
increasingly seen as merely fulfilling certain constitutional formalities,
rather than serving the interests of the STs and Scheduled Castes (SCs) -which are provided with similar reservations. In most of the educational
institutions, departments and offices, where reservation rules are supposed to have been followed meticulously, the
representation of SCs and STs is poor. When it comes to political
reservations, the Adivasi Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of
Legislative Assembly (MLAs), are constrained by party ideologies because
almost all of them belong to the larger national and mainstream parties.
Those belonging to regional parties which are more conversant with Adivasi
interests, or those who have more independence, are very much a minority.
These positive discrimination measures - whether on political reservations,
education or jobs - have not worked to benefit those who are really in need
of such measures. This is because the whole system is largely following a
development, economic and social agenda that is not only inimical to the Adivasi ethos but also detrimental to the survival of the Adivasis.

Adivasis and their territories
The opening up of Adivasi areas during British colonial rule has intensified
in a planned manner since India's independence. The Adivasis' territories
and homelands have been divided by state boundaries and international
borders. State governments have consciously followed a policy of
'development' to make their respective areas conducive for outsiders to
enter and settle, either to extract resources or to produce goods for the
predominantly urban market. Because Adivasi territories have huge forests,
minerals and other profitable resources, various forms of legislation, suchas the Coal Bearing Act, 1957, have been introduced in order to acquireland. Furthermore, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, an instrument of British
colonialism, is still being used to legally take over Adivasi lands in the
name of 'national development' and 'national interest'. Adivasi homelands
have become the cradle of heavy industries, which have in turn displaced
hundreds of thousands of Adivasis. Others have been relegated to unorganized
and unskilled sectors of wage labour.
The Indian Forest Act, 1927, which became the main legal instrument for
depriving the Adivasis of their forest rights, still continues to be the
basic Indian law on forests. In the name of environmental protection, the
Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, was also promulgated. This Act severely
restricts the rights of Adivasis in the wildlife sanctuaries and extinguishes all rights in the case of national parks. Growing
efforts to carry out ecodevelopment projects, and promote eco-tourism, with
the financial backing of multinational agencies like the World Bank, have
heightened the crisis, with Adivasis having to further restrict or abandon
their survival activities in the forests.
Adivasi peoples' struggle for autonomy, for control over their territories
and for the restoration of their traditional rights continues. The reaction
of central and state government to the Adivasis' struggles has been brutal.
Whether the Adivasis organize along trade union lines and form associations
which are constitutional and aim to enforce their rights, or whether they
demand autonomy, the state has treated these struggles as being a 'law andorder' problem. The state has resorted to extreme measures, killing
countless numbers of Adivasis. It has placed areas under special measuresand sent in battalions of paramilitary forces and police who have let loose
reigns of terror to keep the people under state control.

Excerpt from the Minority Rights Group International Report -
The Adivasisof India (1999)
Read full report at

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