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Nurseries of alienation

By Mihir Shah

Geographical enclavement in a remote pocket has provided the physical basis for a kind of "internal colonialism" faced by Adivasis throughout India.

THE DEFEAT of the Congress in the recent Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh reveals that it has been virtually eclipsed in its traditional Adivasi strongholds that form as much as 25 per cent of the population in these States. Disaffection with the ruling party has been growing among Adivasis for some years now. This stems from their consistent neglect in development policy in India. Latest National Sample Survey data reveal that one in two Adivasis lives below the poverty line (BPL) in rural India, which is almost double the figure for all village people. What is worse, the only social category whose below-the-poverty-line population has increased in the 1990s is the Adivasis.

A unique feature of Adivasi areas is that they are invariably a small, dry and/or hilly enclave within a larger non-Adivasi district. This geographical enclavement in a remote pocket has provided the physical basis for a kind of "internal colonialism" faced by Adivasis throughout India. Apart from enclavement, they have also suffered by living in areas under the purview of the Forest Department. There may not be too many forests surviving here but the writ of this department still runs large. In the so-called "forest villages" virtually no development activity of any kind is possible without its permission, that is rarely granted.

Most Adivasis do not have legal titles to land they cultivate. Appallingly low awareness of rules and literacy allows above-average levels of corruption due to which land records are not updated for generations. In rural India not having a legal title to land amounts to your almost being a non-citizen, a virtual sub-human. You cannot get a legal power connection, credit from banks or agricultural inputs from cooperative societies. Worse is the plight of those cheated out of their lands through a combination of legal subterfuge and deep bonds of debt. Over the years, millions of acres of Adivasi land, protected on paper by law, have moved into the hands of non-Adivasis. This is, of course, apart from the massive loss suffered by Adivasis displaced from their homes by development projects.

In November 2003, I visited a watershed project in an Adivasi area just 30-km west of Indore, which is India's fourteenth largest city. It was difficult to believe the condition people are living in. There are no health or education facilities to speak of. The forest department does not allow most development works to take off. People migrate in search of employment. Most of them are caught in relationships of debt bondage. They appear tired, cynical, defeated. But one could also sense a quiet anger among the younger generation, a volcano simmering silently. Yearning for change. These areas could easily become the nurseries of naxalism since the vast majority of Adivasi people live in a state of constant attrition with the forest bureaucracy. At times the tide of disenchantment does boil over and violent skirmishes result, with several innocents being killed. This is what happened at Dewas in 2001 and Betul in 2003.

Sadly, there are many among social activists who believe that change will only come through such violent conflicts. Nothing could be more suicidal than this view, especially for the Adivasis themselves. The state has undoubtedly been an oppressor in so many ways. Yes, the bureaucracy has failed to deliver. The functioning of the Forest Department, in particular, has to be brought within the democratic fold. Adivasi regions have suffered monumental neglect that is likely to grow in the coming years. But violence is no option. It has been shown time and time again, most recently in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, that violence always returns to hurt the most vulnerable.

We have to also recognise that the anti-state rhetoric of the romantic left-wing or Gandhian anarchists falls neatly into the lap of right-wing market fundamentalism, which like them argues for a reduced role of the state. But which private company is going to pioneer the cause of these regions? The market sends no signals of profit from here. Prospects for the Indian economy in the coming decade, the current bullishness of the stock market notwithstanding, hinge critically on much higher levels of public investment in the drylands of India. These are areas with huge untapped macro-economic potential that can be realised only through massive development inputs by the state.

The way forward is to fight for the empowerment of Adivasi people who have been left at least one whole generation behind the Constitution. Just the implementation of many existing provisions of law and policy would be tantamount to a revolution here. And this is what we have to work for. To ameliorate the harshness of the system while building Adivasi capacities to deal with it, taking advantage of the spaces conceded to them.

There is no option but to force the state to be accountable to the people, by forming a cadre that can effectively build more democratic institutions. And argue for a location-specific model of sustainable development, pioneered over time by an enlightened and vigilant local leadership. With a capacity to deal with an increasingly global economy. Oriented to development, not violence.

(The writer is a social activist who lives and works among the Adivasis of the Narmada valley in Madhya Pradesh.)

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