The identity of tribal communities is rooted in their culture. Its uniqueness lies in the unbreakable bond between the community and nature. As societies embrace modernised development, the richness, diversity, and depth of tribal cultures tend to fade away. They tend to get overshadowed by the homogeneity of globalised norms.
While the Central government has introduced several developmental projects for tribal people, it has a one-size-fits-all approach that divorces tribal development from tribal cultures. Even in schemes such as the Aspirational Districts Programme, the focus is exclusively on development-driven indicators; the cultural and societal contexts of those districts are sidelined.
In a significant move towards preserving, promoting, and popularising tribal culture while also continuing with the development process, the Odisha government launched the Special Development Councils (SDCs) initiative in 2017. This is an active effort to preserve the culture and heritage of 62 tribes in the State under one umbrella while keeping economic development on course in the regions. The scheme, which covered nine tribal-dominated districts and 60 lakh tribal households in 117 blocks, has now been expanded to 23 districts covering more than 84 lakh tribal people.
In this model, important cultural markers that are a reflection of tribal identity are identified and promoted. First, language is recognised as an important marker of culture. As Odisha is a land of over 22 diverse tribal languages, the focus is on the use and propagation of these languages. Over 21 tribal proficiency centres have been established. These have modules to educate frontline workers like ASHA workers and non-Odia speakers about tribal culture and dialect. Second, more than 4,500 sacred groves that were close to vanishing from the village landscape are now being conserved. These groves hold immense cultural and conservational value for the tribal population, as they are considered to be inhabited by the gods. Resource extraction in these groves is strictly prohibited. More than 4,730 sacred groves are under protection in nine districts, and 1,609 tribal cultural clubs have been set up. Third, artisan ID cards have been issued to over 40,000 tribal artisans. This initiative not only preserves culture, but also enables employment opportunities. Fourth, to ensure an efficient transfer of knowledge, more than 50 Tribal Resource Centres have been constructed in Sundargarh district. More are coming up in the remaining districts.
The SDCs is a completely state-funded programme. This helps the government factor in the cultural context, which is sorely missing in most Central schemes. An amount of ₹387 crore has been budgeted and spent from 2017-18 to 2022-23 by the SDCs. Further, a total of ₹ 223.5 crore has been budgeted for 23 SDCs for the year 2023-24 for 62 tribal groups including 13 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). The projects are taken up by the Council Fund, which is given complete autonomy over the utilisation of these funds.
The SDC model also helps to preserve the culture and tradition of small tribal groups by giving them a role in decision-making processes. Thus, it takes care of intra-tribal majoritarianism. The Councils not only have people from major tribes, but also the PVTGs. The Boards are formed under the chairmanship of an eminent tribal person of the locality. The Council consists of the chairperson, vice chairperson (where one among the two has to be a female), and members from various tribal groups nominated by the government. This makes the bodies truly representative of the community.
The vision of inclusive growth and community-led development is not an idea but an actionable strategy for Odisha in its 5T (transparency, technology, teamwork, time-limit, leading to transformation)-driven development model. This model of culture-sensitive and culture-inclusive tribal development is here to stay. It is about time that the Central government also takes inspiration for its tribal sub-plans and district/nodal plans from this model in other tribal-dominated States such as Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim, and in the north-east so that they can benefit from this.
Dr. Amar Patnaik is a Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha and an advocate. He was a former CAG bureaucrat. Views are personal