Displaced tribals are adrift in an alien world

  • Mark Tully
  • Updated: Jun 21, 2015 00:41 IST

In all the heat being generated by the government’s amendments to the land acquisition law, the tribals are being left out in the cold.

In his Mann Ki Baat broadcast Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed himself to “My dear farmer brothers and sisters”. He did not include the tribals. Perhaps farmers are in the spotlight because the tragedy of farmers’ suicides gives the opposition an emotive issue to raise in their attack on the amendments and their campaign to portray Modi as anti-poor — incidentally I do sometimes wonder how many small farmers or tribals know who the suited and booted are. Yet it is the tribals who will suffer most if Modi succeeds in making land acquisition easier. Some say as much as 90% of the country’s coal is situated in tribal areas.

In the present rumpus about land acquisition the focus is as before on obtaining land whereas in the tribals’ case what matters in the long term is resettlement. Successive governments have consistently failed to resettle satisfactorily those who have been dispossessed of their land and livelihood compulsorily, particularly the tribals. Back in the late eighties, when the row over the World Bank’s loan for the Narmada dam project was raging, a World Bank official said to me, “There is not a single case that I can find of satisfactory resettlement of displaced people in India.” The situation has not improved. In 2012, British academic Kalim Siddiqi from Huddersfield University wrote that “the rehabilitation programmes since independence have performed miserably”.

In debates on resettlement there is always much discussion on monetary compensation. But for the tribals money is not the answer unless they are helped to invest it profitably. Sharks swirl around tribals when they come into money.

Motorcycle salesmen are notorious for their ability to take money off them. Ejaz Kaiser, the Hindustan Times correspondent in Chhattisgarh, reported a case in which a tribal who received compensation was persuaded to buy a tractor on hire-purchase and a succession of motor-cycles, at least 20, over two years, leaving him stony broke.

Commenting on this Bangaram Paikra, a social activist in the area, told Ejaz Kaiser that “there should be some regulation or monitoring structure to prevent such loot”. But there isn’t.

The local officials who could monitor the tribals are at best patronising and all too often callous. Singrauli, on the borders of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, is a place which always reminds me of William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and the social and environmental devastation they wrought. Tribals in Singrauli have been displaced from their forest homes to make way for an artificial lake providing water for 11 power plants, and an open-cast coal mine providing their fuel. There I met tribals who had moved twice to make way for power plants. But when they suggested that they might be provided with electricity, an official accompanying me said dismissively, “You! You can’t afford electricity.”

Tribals do have their own ministry, formed in 1991, and the Forest Act of 2006, but neither has afforded them protection when their lands are purchased nor are they going to protect them if the present government’s plans to exploit India’s coal and mineral resources go ahead. But there is of course a very strong argument that India should exploit more of those resources than it is doing at present. So how can mining be expanded without tribals paying the price for it? The price is not just losing land. They lose their livelihood. Providing one member of each dispossessed tribal family with a job is not the answer. It doesn’t provide a livelihood to the other members of the family.

The fundamental problems with resettlement are that tribals are not involved in the planning of their resettlement and they are not helped to create new lives. Oxfam India has found that “the roles of indigenous groups in the planning, implementing, and monitoring of resettlement schemes are minimal”. All too often the planning just consists of finding land to plonk those concrete boxes on and provide the basic facilities. Instead of the monitoring needed to nurture a new livelihood, officials like the one I met in Singrauli provide the tribals only contact with the government. So they are cast adrift in an alien and hostile world.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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