Mention Primitive Tribes, Denotified Tribes or Nomadic tribes at a dinner conversation and you would get either a blank look or descriptions of an exotic species arrayed in extraordinary ethnic attire, dancing to tribal drums at Independence Day celebrations.
The reality is not so cheerful. These are people who once lived in dignity and at peace with their surroundings. They depended on nature — hunting, cultivating and gathering forest food.
But thanks to skewed government policies, misplaced notions of wildlife conservation and the rapacious extraction of mineral and forest wealth from the tribal areas, they have been pushed into abject poverty, starvation and malnutrition.
Displaced and pushed out of their millennia-old forest homelands to make way for tigers, dams and mining, they invariably end up as either bonded labourers in lands that were once their own or, worse, child labourers in middle class urban homes.
In an innovative move, the Planning Commission has set out to correct this historic wrong in the run-up to the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP). It has invited grassroots workers, academics and people with expertise on these groups to suggest ways to redress the legitimate grievances and lacunae, which has characterised earlier policy, programmes and their failed implementation.
While the commission has held consultations on Scheduled Tribes in general, it is now looking at Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG) in general and Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT/NT) in particular.
The government, in 1975, recognised that there were certain communities within the STs that were at a much lower level of development, and that the major share of funding went to more assertive adivasi groups. So in 1975-76, the “poorest of poor amongst the STs” were identified and called PTGs.
These communities are particularly vulnerable and outside traders, moneylenders or migrants exploit them and cheat them of their land, grain and forest produce.
DNTs are those who were criminalised by the British before 1947. They were the adivasis who fought independent freedom struggles, refusing to be subjugated. The British did not know how to deal with them, so they demonised them. After Independence, ironically, instead of being treated as heroes, these tribes were officially denotified as criminals.
But they retain the taint of being dangerous and remain on the periphery of society. Krishna and Anuja of Econet, Pune, who have been working on issues related to these tribes for almost a decade, point out some of the problems that the DNT groups face: they are generally left out of the Census enumeration and don’t enjoy any constitutional protection.
The lack of any demographic analysis results in their exclusion from the Five Year Plans.
The NTs are seriously hampered in their movements by legislation and by the civil society. Both NTs and DNTs face harassment from both society and the police. Often, the police conduct arbitrary raids on their hamlets leading to false arrests, illegal detention, custodial deaths, rape, molestation and sexual harassment.
For over a century, the violation of human rights has been the norm rather than the exception for them. The goods that many of them carry to sell from place to place are regularly seized and confiscated on the assumption that since they belong to the NT, DNT groups, the goods are stolen property.
It’s indeed a grim scenario. These are citizens of our country. The Constitution guarantees them the same rights as it does to any other Indian. But they are condemned to live on the fringe of our society.
As the nation makes its ambitious plans for the next five years, let’s hope that the 12th FYP brings them the justice they so urgently need.
(Mari Marcel Thekaekara is the founder of Accord, an NGO working on tribal issues in the Nilgiris )
(The views expressed by the author are personal)