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Untangling governance? State policy 'protects' Adivasis, not in terms of rights and identity

By Rajiv Shah

A new book, “India’s Scheduled Areas”, has gone a long way to suggest that the contradictions between two diametrically opposite views during the “intensive discussions and debates” at the Constituent Assembly on what policy to adopt towards India’s tribal areas – whether to see them as regions with distinct identity or now – continues to this day. 
Even as the policy makers successively declared India’s tribal areas as scheduled areas (SAs), the book points out that different states have “reacted differently” in identifying the criteria for inclusion of geographical areas into SAs. For example, states like Gujarat haven’t thought it necessary to consider them as areas with ‘a distinctive way of life’, while Madhya Pradesh has identified ‘primitive way of life and the practice of shifting cultivation’ as viable criteria for notifying as SA.
Edited by Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, former professor at the Centre for Rural Studies, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussourie, better known as IAS training institute, and the Nirma University, Ahmedabad, and Sujit Kumar, who is with St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, and published by Routledge, the book seeks to explore complexities of governance, law and politics in India’s SAs, inhabited predominantly by tribal communities because of their “geographical isolation, primitive economies, and relatively egalitarian and closely knit society.”
A collection of papers jointly or individually by 12 scholars, in their introduction to the book Bhagat-Ganguly and Kumar state, “Though ‘protection of tribal population’ is the aim, it is difficult to spell ‘protection’ in terms of upholding ‘rights’ and ‘identity’ of Adivasis or protection ‘against the ills of underdevelopment’ or bundle of these concepts.”
It is in this context that the authors – Asoka Kumar Sen, Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, Bhanu Shree Jain, Sumarbin Umdor, Chandra Bhushan Kumar, Sonali Ghosh, Siddharth Sareen, Emma Jane Lord, Sujit Kumar, Shomona Khanna, Richard Hemraj Toppo, Anjana Singh – examine Adivasis’ alleged underdevelopment, violations of their human rights, and inadequate funding for them.
The introduction says, “While the colonial ethnographers recognised the separate religion of the Adivasis as a basis to differentiate them from the others, the Hindu right wing, deriving from Ghurye’s description of Adivasis, considered them as ‘backward Hindus’ ignoring their characteristics like isolation, language, and social structure.”
Though refusing to take a religious view of things, the Nehruvian era towards modernisation policies adopted under Jawaharlal Nehru through state-led developmental projects like dams, industries, and mining disregarded the distinct identity of the Adivasi areas, causing them “irreparable damage”, the introduction says, adding, “The temples of modern India evicted the Adivasis and also their deities/spirits alike to make way for development.”
The result of the refusal to recognise the “political aspirations” of the Adivasi areas in a multi-ethnic nation-state, say Chandra Bhushan Kumar and Sonali Ghosh, has, over the last 15 years, has only “witnessed occasional but extreme violent responses.” Discussing “politics of dispossession of land” in Jharkhand in this context, Sujit Kumar says, “the process of land acquisition” suggests, several fault lines exist even within the Adivasi society, which “the external forces” exploit. 
Problematic issues include reduction in fund allocation, fund diversion, non-utilisation, and a lack of accountability in financial governance
If Shomana Khanna points that that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for the first time provided an important framework for the undoing of historical injustice meted out to forest dwellers by a colonial dispensation”, Richard Hemraj Toppo believes, “lack of development and governance” in Adivasi regions led to the ‘Naxalite problem’ – he blames the state for engaging “in several policies and practices that have gone against the interests of Adivasis.”
Pathalgadi edicts
Examining the Pathalgadi movement of Jharkhand – seeking to put up controversial stone edicts at the entry points of Adivasi villages that declaring their areas do not come under the Government of India laws but are under “self-rule” – Anjana Singh says, the movement has responded to “the widespread dissensions within the Adivasi community”, yet “its aggressive and anti-state/nation programme does not receive wide support.”
Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly and Bhanu Shree Jain, suggesting how the ambivalence towards Adivasis has got reflected in the “financial governance” of SAs, pointing towards “problematic issues” such as “reduction in fund allocation, fund diversion, non-utilisation, and a lack of accountability of the government in the financial governance.”
Especially examining the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana (VKY), originally initiated by Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister, they say, as a centrally sponsored scheme, it is meant “for the welfare of the friends of forests” even as focusing on their “quality education, health, livelihood, infrastructure development”, pointing out how it has seen major “ups and downs”.
“An initial fund allocation of Rs 112,000 million was made which was reduced to Rs 10,000 million for the year 2014–2015. The fund was six times more in the consecutive year (i.e., Rs 62,900 million in 2015–2016). The following three years witnessed a reduction in the fund allocation under this scheme”, Bhagat-Ganguly and Jain say.
According to them, “There is gap in the actual estimates and the financial estimates done by the Central government. The gap is on account of the fact that the financial estimates of the government lack proper supervision and control and planning.”
In fact, Ganguly-Bhagat say, “Contrary to this statistics, Ministry of Tribal Affairs reported that only 12.5 percent of the funds (Rs 249.3 million) were utilised by the states in 2015–2016. The Rs 2,000 million that were earmarked for 20 blocks in BJP rules states – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra – remained unspent under the VKY scheme.”
Seen against the backdrop of PESA (Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act), 1996, one of the legal instruments which provides the right to the elected representatives of the local governance to participate in the decision-making related to resource utilisation, they say, state laws such as in Jharkhand deny “Gram Sabha’s rights on the management of community resources.”

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