The Union Government has put on hold a proposal to change the procedure for scheduling new communities as Scheduled Tribes, which has been in the pipeline for more than eight years. Instead, it will continue with the existing longer procedure which “defeats the Constitutional agenda for affirmative action and inclusion”, according to a government task force. However, government officials justifying the decision told The Hindu that it is a norm that has been followed for decades, is scientific and most practical.
The proposal to change the procedure was based on the recommendations of a government task force constituted in February 2014, headed by then-Tribal Affairs Secretary Hrusikesh Panda. It called the existing procedure “cumbersome” and “time-consuming”, adding that it “defeats the Constitutional agenda for affirmative action and inclusion”. It noted that as many as 40 communities had been excluded from the ST list or were facing delays in inclusion due to the current procedure and criteria, and recommended their immediate inclusion.
The Panda task force’s report, with suggestions to change the procedure and the criteria for scheduling new communities as STs, has been with the government since the first Narendra Modi-led Cabinet took oath in May 2014.
In response to a direct question in the Lok Sabha in March 2017 on whether such a proposal had been put on hold, erstwhile Minister of Tribal Affairs Jual Oram had replied that the proposal had been sent to the States and Union Territories, and that only a few States were yet to respond. The government repeated this reply in the Rajya Sabha in December 2017.
Now, senior government officials have told The Hindu that the proposal has been put on hold for the time being, meaning that the existing procedure will be followed in the meantime. “This is a norm which has been followed for decades and this is quite scientific and most practical… In respect of all proposals, we are following that,” one official said.
In its report, the Panda committee had explained that there were multiple obstacles unnecessarily preventing at least 40 communities from being listed as ST. For instance, several tribes pronounced or spelt their community’s name in different ways; some communities were split when new States were created, leaving them as ST in one State and not in the other; and some tribespeople were forcefully taken as indentured labour to other States where they were left out of the ST list.
“The Panda Committee had gone into some details about whether there is spelling change, whether there is any phonetic variation, which of the tribes could be considered because they are slightly similar in sound and all that,” said Tribal Affairs Secretary Anil Kumar Jha. “Later it was considered that we have to follow procedure. And it has to go to RGI [that is, the Registrar General of India].”
As per the current procedure, each proposal for the scheduling of a new community as ST has to originate from the relevant State Government, and is sent to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, which sends it to the Office of the Registrar General of India (RGI). Once approved by the Office of the RGI, it is sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), and only after its approval is it sent to the Cabinet.
Examining this procedure, the Panda task force noted that if a proposal is defeated at any one of the stages, “it is disallowed”, and if the Office of the RGI says no twice, “this is liable for rejection”, calling the latter provision “egregious”.
‘Lacks anthropologists, sociologists’
The task force had pointed out that when the modalities were being framed in 1996, the erstwhile Ministry of Home Affairs’ had provided its opinion in a letter, saying that “The Office of the RGI should merely be required to provide information available with it,” as it not only lacked sufficient anthropologists and sociologists to comment on proposals for exclusion or inclusion, “but also because no build-up of the data bank on tribes/castes based on the ethnographic study/surveys has been possible for long, limiting the ability of ORGI to do justice to this task.”
Citing this, the task force had recommended changes to the procedure, suggesting that once a proposal is received from a State Government, it should be circulated simultaneously to the NCST, the Office of the RGI and the Anthropological Survey of India, each of which would have six months to give their opinions. A special Committee on scheduling would then consider the proposal and the opinions of the above-mentioned authorities and make a final recommendation within one month. The Committee would consist of the Tribal Affairs Secretary, and representatives of the NCST, Office of the RGI, Anthropological Survey of India, State Government and the concerned State tribal research institute.
A senior government official said this would not be possible. “There is no such thing that there can be a parallel Committee which can decide which tribe is to be scheduled or not because this has to be decided on the basis of how many communities are there, what is their population, what is the reference to them in previous records, census reports of decades long. So those records are available only with the Census Commissioners,” said the official.