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Opinion - Leader Page Articles

The Adivasi question — II

By Mihir Shah

Given that the vast majority of Adivasis are engaged in low-yield agriculture, the single most important challenge for their emancipation lies in raising their productivity.

FOLLOWING THE breakdown of their relationship with the forest, Adivasis in most areas have made a hesitant and faltering entry into agriculture. Over 93 per cent of Adivasi workers in India are engaged in agriculture and allied activities, more than two-thirds being cultivators. It is clear, therefore, that the stereotype view of Adivasis living in isolated, self-contained, food-gathering communities is no longer accurate. The distinguishing feature of most Adivasi peasants is that they hold land of very poor quality, which forces them to work additionally as agricultural labourers to feed their families. More than 80 per cent of Adivasi agricultural labour households in India are landed. These even include some small and semi-medium landholders.

These Adivasi farmers are subject to myriad forms of exploitation by the highly interlocked non-Adivasi axis of power that dominates the land, land-lease, labour, credit and input markets. It is typically a case where the provider of inputs and credit is also the person to whom the Adivasis have to sell their produce, at much lower than market rates. The driving force of the whole system is the exorbitant rate of interest, itself a reflection of the terribly unequal balance of power between debtor and creditor. At the end of the stipulated period of debt, Adivasi peasants are unable to repay the loan. And in need of fresh cash, they are forced to sell their output to creditors at throwaway prices. They may also have to labour on the distant land of the creditor. There they are paid no money, given nominal food and occasionally their women suffer terrible indignities. At the end of the contract period, they get an advance (at high, not always clearly specified, and certainly never properly accounted for, rates of interest), which ensures that they return the next year.

Adivasi farmers also lease out land in distress on most unfavourable terms. They get an advance in return for which the lessee has the right to cultivate their land for an indefinite period, till the advance is returned. An extraordinary system known as byaj peta entails an implicit rate of interest that can amount to as much as 10 per cent a month. Often Adivasis lose control over land they leased out since they cannot repay their debts. Thousands of hectares of land have been lost in this manner.

This is the Adivasi predicament — shorn of their traditional resource base, violently integrated into the national mainstream, they are subject to an inextricable nexus of exploitation. What is the way forward for them? Given that the vast majority of Adivasis are engaged in low-yield agriculture, the single most important challenge for their emancipation lies in raising their productivity. Here the role of the state is critical. For one, it must ensure that safeguards enshrined in the Constitution for protection of Adivasi rights are in no way diluted. It must also recognise that contrary to the refrain of the liberalisation lobby, privatisation will not work in Adivasi areas. Adivasi livelihoods can never be a priority for the corporate sector, given the huge negative externalities. What the markets cannot handle, what the private sector will not do, the state must. Massive public investment is required in location-specific watershed and micro-irrigation programmes, combined with a renewed thrust towards dryland agriculture and optimal land-use planning, if the productivity of Adivasi areas is to be raised. Many Adivasi regions, such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, have vast unutilised water resources, which could form the basis for a massive leap in agricultural productivity. The huge stocks of grain lying unused in FCI godowns must be put to urgent use to finance these programmes. The incomes generated as a result of such investment will lead to increased offtake from the Public Distribution System, lowering the burden of food subsidy. Increased incomes will also give the Adivasis a chance to break the vicious stranglehold on their livelihoods, of the high interest rate based axis of power. Every effort needs to be made to save incomes through self-help thrift groups, linked to public sector banks, whose outreach, along with that of the PDS, must be greatly extended in the tribal hinterlands.

While the primary focus is on enhancing agricultural productivity, forest reforms are also critical. Here the state must recognise that without the active participation of the Adivasis, forest protection is impossible. And this will only occur if they are guaranteed all their needs from the forest. Not only is this an ethical imperative, it is also an eminently achievable proposition. To meet all the fodder, fuel, housing and agriculture needs of the Adivasis from the forest requires setting aside less than 5 per cent of the country's forest wealth. Surely, this is a very small concession to make for a critical element in both Adivasi survival and forest protection. Institutionally, this demands a major shift away from the current Forest Department-dominated JFM programme, towards a genuinely Community Forest Protection initiative, under the leadership of the Gram Sabha. Alternative technologies of energy and housing that reduce dependence of local communities on wood must also be promoted by the state, with the active involvement of NGOs. State-supported cooperatives of landless Adivasis should be set up for processing and marketing of various non-timber forest produce.

The most important pre-requisite for the success of these initiatives, however, is the progressive empowerment of the Adivasi people, so that they can increasingly take over the leadership of the development process. Here, the role of grassroots NGOs is critical. They must assist in preparing a cadre of local youth who are technically empowered to run these initiatives. This cadre would also act as watchdogs, ensuring accountability of the state and NGOs working in their areas, and build alliances that are pro-Adivasi, pro-women and pro-poor, so that a new leadership can be provided to panchayati raj institutions. Without this happening, no amount of development activity will be of any use.

Finally, to return to where we began — the question of violence. The integration of Adivasis into the national mainstream has undoubtedly been founded on violence. It is also in the Adivasi hinterlands that expressions of regional self-determination have taken their most violent forms. In many areas activists are organising Adivasis to cut down the forest and claim this land for agriculture. But surely this "land reform through deforestation" is not only an impossibility, it will end up further endangering Adivasi livelihoods. We must also be clear that violence always returns to hurt the most vulnerable. We have to chart the slow and more difficult path of non-violent mobilisation and empowerment. Not only is this the strategically obvious option, it is also the course of responsibility and ethical affirmation. Must Adivasis always remain in the victim mode, merely imitating what is done unto them by their persecutors? How long will their identity be determined wholly by the actions of their oppressors? Violence is ultimately the response of the weak, desperate and defeated. We must not only question and oppose what is wrong, but also be strong and confident enough to articulate a new transcendental imagination for the world, even for those who stand today as our adversaries.


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