Between a rock and a hard place: The invisible Adivasis of Gujarat
Suresh Vasava, 37, spends part of the year as a farm hand and the rest of the time labouring on construction sites. He does not think highly of the Gujarat model; big dam projects scare him.
“We used to have 20 hectares of land,” he says. “We lost it to the Ukai dam. We left with whatever we could load onto our bullock carts and we were shifted to this village, Limbi, in Tapi district. That was in the 1970s, but we still have no land rights here, and no jobs.”
Vasava lives with his parents, wife and three children in a wood and mud home. “We eat two meals a day — rice and dal that we grow. Fish, if we catch some from the river,” he says.
The closest school is 17 km away, as is the nearest hospital. It’s a great strain to keep his children in school, but he’s determined that they graduate. “I worry that they won’t get good jobs and will have to work in a farm too, but I want them to finish college,” he says.
His concerns are typical of the tribal who feels left out of the ‘Gujarat model’.
In a state that leads in state highways, with a road density of 146 km per lakh of the population against a national average of 126 km, the tribal-majority districts are dotted by inaccessible villages. Turn off the state highway, and the rutted roads and dirt tracks force you to drop pace to 10 km an hour.
Gujarat ranks 14th in school enrolment across India; dropout rates in the tribal-majority Dang, Tapi and Narmada are highest in the state at the primary school level, according to a 2017 report published by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).
“The dropout rate is only one indicator of the condition of the Adivasis in the state. The already impoverished community has been pushed to the margins over several decades as a consequence of large-scale factors such as development projects and small-scale ones like a lack of teachers in government schools,” says Hemant Shah, a professor of economics in Ahmedabad.
The Adivasi has been neglected by successive governments as we have not had strong leaders, adds Vinubhai Chaudhari, who retired as deputy secretary of the state irrigation department in 2004 and was one of the first Adivasi bureaucrats from Tapi district. “Our MLAs hardly spoke in the assembly. Even now we do not have leaders who can voice our concerns firmly.”
“Some parties which are in power in these tribal districts don’t want these places to progress and hence do not push for them. It is not right to blame the ruling party for their failures,” says Prabhu Vasava, BJP MP for Bardoli.
The four districts we’re discussing are Dang (with a tribal population of 94.64%), Tapi (84.17%), Narmada (81.55%) and Dahod (74.31%).
Here, large chunks of the population live below the poverty line — 40% in Dahod, 34% in Narmada, 31.5% in Dang and 28.36% in Tapi. By contrast, the wealthier plains district of Rajkot has 9.69% under the poverty line; the state’s average is 16.8%.
According to 2011 census data, 57.09% of the scheduled tribe population in Gujarat is agricultural labour and earns an average of Rs 180 a day.
They hover at the bottom of the state lists when it comes to availability of roads, schools and banks too.
The major political parties are, for the most part, not plugged into the demands of this demographic. The tribal population makes up just under 15% of Gujarat’s voter base and accounts for 27 of the state’s 182 MLAs — but it is a fractured slice of the electorate.
“The truth is that the nearly 27 tribes of the state have never been a unified power,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. “Until there is a strong unified voice in the assembly and Parliament, nothing changes.”
Gujarat had its only Adivasi chief minister, Amarsinh Chaudhuri, in 1985.
“There was not much focus on development of Adivasi districts even during this period,” says political analyst Achhyut Yagnik. “Over the years, the Adivasi vote has become ever more fractured. The Adivasis have never voted as one block in Gujarat, neither has there ever been a political party for the Adivasis unifying the more than 20 tribes of Gujarat. Some organisations for the Adivasis like the Bhilistan Tiger Sena exist but they have a very small area of influence.”
The three-pronged challenge
Displacement, a lack of land rights and a growing number of pyramid schemes, meanwhile, combine to form a three-pronged challenge to tribals in Gujarat, one that is exacerbated by a lack of government intervention on each front.
In the Dang, Tapi and Narmada districts, many of the tens of thousands of people displaced by dam projects are still waiting to be rehabilitated as much as 45 years later. Some were shifted to areas that fall under the forest division. Under the forest rights Act, they should have been allocated plots for agriculture but this process is dragging, as it has tended to do across states.
Meanwhile, eager and desperate tribals are becoming prime prey for a rash of pyramid schemes rising and crumbling in Gujarat, making offers of 100% returns on deposits as small as Rs 10 a day, collecting money steadily over two or three years and then vanishing overnight.
When Odisha-based activist Alok Jena filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2014 asking that the CBI be directed to investigate 78 chit fund companies, it turned out that 17 of them were either based or operating in Gujarat. It also emerged that the state had the highest number of chit fund victims after Odisha.
After one such company, Oscar, went bust in 2015, it emerged that an estimated 1 lakh people from Gujarat had invested a total of Rs 150 crore in that one scheme alone.
In Selud village, Tapi district, Amrutbhai Harji lost his life savings and his dream of a pucca house to the Oscar chit fund scam.
Harji lives in a mud hut with his wife and three children. He too was displaced for the Ukai dam, he says, in his father’s time. Now he works in others’ fields, and in off season, on construction sites in Surat.
Every day, he invested Rs 50 of his Rs 180 earnings in the Oscar chit fund. His dream was to turn his mud hut into a brick-and-cement one with a tiled roof.
“My wife used to put in Rs 10 also, from her daily earnings. By 2015, we had together put in Rs 60,000.”
Harji has never had a bank account; the Oscar agents would come to the door to take installments, and occasionally to hand over part of the interest due.
With land rights, the tribals say, they could sink wells, expand, invest in farm infrastructure. Their struggle for these rights continues, with little to no success. “When we learnt about the forest rights law in 2007, 32 families in the village applied for land. It’s been 10 years and no one has got anything,” says Kankabhai Gamit, 57, of Medha village in Tapi district.
In Dahod, there was a protest in January to draw attention to the fact that, of a total of 20,150 claims, only 3,162 farmers had been given cultivation rights over the decade.
Now, there is talk of a new land-gobbling undertaking in the Dang district — a river-linking Par-Tapi-Narmada project.
Since it was first proposed in 2011, as a state-Centre undertaking, it has caused such widespread protests among the local tribal populations that even the local BJP leader, former MLA from Dang Vijaibhai Patel, has joined in marches and denies that the project is coming up.
“This is a Congress conspiracy to rake up this issue before the election. There has been no movement on that project in years,” he says.
On the union ministry of water resources website (wrmin.nic.in), the project is described as under way.
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