How Well Has Narendra Modi's Government Protected India's Scheduled Tribes?

 
 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power heading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in May 2014, with an overwhelming majority in an election with one of the highest voter turnouts in recent history. Modi rode to power promising development and ‘acche din,’ or better days to come.

Marking two years of his government’s tenure, several attempts have been made to assess his performance. Other analysts at The Diplomat have shown that while his achievements have been substantial, they have not quite been the phenomenon his promises suggested back then. Moreover, other commentators here have observed his need to act with speed to eliminate delays in the implementation of reforms and policies – an admirable trait that may not necessarily be desirable in the case of large-scale projects with multiple stakeholders and long-term socioeconomic implications. In a two-part review for the Pulse, I will look at the Modi government’s approach toward the rights of India’s Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

The NDA manifesto devoted a section to the provision of social justice and empowerment to SCs, STs, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and Other Weaker Sections—designated social classes in India. On the principles of ‘Samajik nyay,’ or social justice and ‘Samajik samrasata,’ or social harmony, they promised to fund high priority education and entrepreneurial development of these groups. Further, promises were also made to provide better housing, education, healthcare, and skills development services, with a specific focus on enhancing the connectivity of tribal peoples, improving their access to health, housing, and water. A whole separate point was a promise that tribal land will no longer be alienated.

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In a rally in the state of Jharkhand in November 2014, Modi was very keen to point out that Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and previous governments had not taken adequate care of the ‘adivasi’ or tribal populations. He accused the JMM of looting the state and pointed to the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Chhatisgarh, with large adivasi populations, who had voted BJP in large numbers.

The implication seemed to be that his government would make them a priority. However the case of Chhatisgarh, for instance, suggests otherwise. The industrial belt in the city of Raigarh which is referred to as the ‘Jindal Kingdom,’ has vast tracts of land purloined from tribal communities, it has not been purchased. The Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) belt sees a common story of tribal farmland where debris is dumped overnight to indicate takeover, threats in the case of refusal to sell, and complaints going ignored by government officials.

This did not begin with the Modi government. The Congress government strengthened the rights of tribal communities over forest lands through short deadline hearings via a National Green Tribunal. It also mandated community impact assessment in the case of projects in proximity to tribal lands and mandated the need for consent from a majority through the Land Acquisition Act in 2014. Schools, farmlands, playgrounds, etc, that were regularly at threat from industry seemed safer. However, during elections, they entirely cycled back in the name of redressing stalled growth and, in a bid to garner corporate campaign funding, forests were allotted to industry. The Modi government just took this further through its environment ministry.

The supposed fast growth agenda came at a cost too. In August 2014, a committee was set up to review key environmental and climate change laws. Critics found its mandate too enormous and its agenda too vague. It had fewer than ten public consultations and only one in its five members was closely associated with the environment. It gave recommendations within just three months to change laws in a manner that effectively bulldozed what they called roadblocks to investment. These were a variety of human rights and environment protections. They recommended a single window clearance for green permits and even suggested removal of government and individual monitoring mechanisms for green purposes, instead requiring self disclosure from corporations.

Viewed in context, a majority of coal producing areas are forested and home to tribal populations. Entire villages have already lodged protests demanding the cessation of industrial activities and of the expansion of mines. The rhetoric of jobs and better human development goes unfulfilled, since these populations lose land and then struggle to get jobs. Access to the forests is denied to them as industries are empowered through such provisions and eventually cut away from the expensive welfare nets that these industries provide. This goes against not just the NDA’s explicit manifesto promises regarding tribal land and tribal health, but is also a welfare policy disaster in the wake of the recommendation of the report of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India.

The Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has himself called his ministry’s green policies a roadblock to development. The ministry embarked upon a reinterpretation of the Forest Rights Act, which would make it much easier for the government to secure tribal forestlands. This draft was picked from a rejected report of the previous government, which was vilified on grounds of inadequately respecting the Forest Rights Act. Consent from the ‘gram sabhas’ or village self governance bodies is no longer a strict requirement in the re-interpreted draft of the ministry; the public hearings that are held before land acquisition become consultative and a veto is denied to the gram sabha. States are furthermore left to ascertain the need and the strength of consent, under this draft, thus absolving the onus of the government at center. This culminated in the Land Bill 2015, which has been introduced, protested, tabled, and revived and is in constant tussle in Parliament.

Thus, while evaluating the Modi government’s performance in the arena of the rights of tribal communities, his electoral promises, far from being unfulfilled, seem to be explicitly turned on their heads. While the commitment to speedy results may seem lucrative, in this case they set back key disempowered stakeholders that the government committed to protect.

This is the first in a two-part series on the Modi government’s treatment of India’s Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

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