MAC: Mines and Communities

India's pathway denies very existence of indigenous peoples

Published by MAC on 2018-11-23
Source: EPW India

"The people who have suffered the most on India's path of development - epitomised as "sabka saath, saaba vikas" by prime minister Narendra Modi - "are the tribes, especially of mainland India".

Says author Virginius Xaxa: "Their resistance is not against development but development of a kind that is antithetical to their very existence as the people".

Coercive ‘Development’

Virginius Xaxa

Economic and Political Weekly

17 November 2018

The tribes, especially of mainland India, have lost their lands and livelihoods to development projects which have not brought them any benefits. In fact, they have been displaced without rehabilitation and adequate compensation.

For nations that were born after World War II following the dismantling of the colonial rule, development became an important concern in the state’s agenda making. In the case of India, this was evident in the adoption of the strategy of the five year plans. While development has remained the overriding concern since then, the key thrust has kept on shifting. In the years preceding the dismantling of the five year plans and institutions associated with them, the idea of inclusive development had become a dominant theme of the states’ strategy for development. “Sabka sath, sabka vikas” (collective efforts, inclusive growth), the current slogan of the present regime since 2014, in a sense entails this idea though it goes beyond as well. Inclusive development meant development of all but did not necessarily mean cooperation of all, that is, sabka sath. Without cooperation from all, there could still be policies and programmes that aim at development of all. Sabka sath is an added phrase. This slogan has kept on echoing in television debates and public rallies. Does the cooperation (sath) lent by people invariably lead to their vikas? Paradoxically, it is not so and in the case of Adivasis,  India bears witness to this.

Paying the Price

Tribes, spread over the length and breadth of the country, are concentrated in certain contiguous regions. A little over 80% of the tribal population lives in the contiguous regions of eastern, central and western India. Another nearly 12% inhabits the north–eastern region, over 5% is in southern India, 2% in northern India and much less than 1% in the island region of India. At the dawn of independence, tribes along with the erstwhile untouchable castes stood as two of the most disadvantaged groups in India. Accordingly, special provisions were provided in the Constitution for their protection, development (social and economic) and integration. While this was so, they were forced out of any claim in the larger stake of India’s rapid economic and social development that formed part of the nation-building process. The latter entailed massive infrastructure development in the form of power, dams, irrigation projects as well as industrialisation and institution building. Interestingly, many such projects then as well as now have come up in the tribal areas of mainland India. No region illustrates this better than the states of Jharkhand and Odisha. Odisha saw the establishment of a large number of public sector undertakings like the Rourkela Steel Plant, National Aluminium Company (NALCO), Indian Aluminium Company (INDALCO), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). There have also been a number of coal firepower projects besides dams like Hirakud, Upper Kolab, Indravati, etc. Similarly, Jharkhand saw a large number of public sector enterprises such as the heavy engineering factory, Bokaro Steel Plant, Sindri Fertiliser Plant, the Hindustan Copper Mines, INDALCO besides many others. Of course, these regions also witnessed large-scale mineral exploitation.

The projects led to acquisition of revenue land, forestland and common property resources resulting in massive displacement of tribals and poor who lived off such resources. Data available for the period 1951–90 point to a little over 21 million estimated to have been displaced by development projects such as dams, mines, industries and other infrastructure projects. Of the total displaced, as many as 8.54 million have been enumerated as tribals. Tribals have thus come to constitute 40% of the displaced though they comprise only about 8% of the total population.

During construction the labour for these projects was provided by tribals. However, once the construction phase was over, the many benefits and opportunities that resulted did not accrue to the tribes who had made way for these projects at the cost of their land and livelihood and without any rehabilitation and resettlement. They found themselves out of the labour market, even for jobs that required little skill. Many were thrown out without any compensation, and those who did get it, found that the amount was meagre. Benefits that came in the form of irrigation and electrification did not touch their lands and homes, but went to non-tribals. There were, of course, special development programmes and schemes for tribes. Yet what good have these special schemes and programmes done? As late as 2004–05, the share of the tribal population living below poverty line (BPL) was as high as 46.5% as compared with 27.6% for the country as a whole. In the case of states that have seen massive development and mineral exploitation projects, the level of poverty has been much higher than the national average. In 2004–05, the proportion of tribal people living BPL stood at 54.2% in Jharkhand while it was as high as 75.6% in Odisha. Their educational and health status was
no better.

Coercion for Development

In view of what development has done to the tribes, there is now stiff resistance to “development” projects in tribal India. Interestingly, the nature and type of development discussed above took place under a regime that aimed at building a socialistic pattern in society. Hence laws, policies and programmes were mainly oriented towards safeguarding and protecting the interests of the common people, including the tribal people. Such protectionist arrangements are no longer the ethos. In 1991, India adopted a new economic policy, aimed at major structural economic reforms encompassing almost all sectors of the economy. The thrust of the reforms was the integration of the economy with the global economy, dismantling controls, welcoming foreign investment and technology, promoting productivity and restructuring public sector. An important aspect of the reform was the programme of deregulation, which increased the scope of the private sector in the economy.

Given this, what kind of development have the tribal regions seen? As noted above, most of the states with a high concentration of tribal population have rich mineral and other resources and have opened up for private investment, including the multinational corporations. Memoranda of understanding (MoUs) have been signed with private investors. In Jharkhand, for example, between 2003 and 2007, 67 MoUs were signed with different companies. The figure stands at 51 in Chhattisgarh for the period between 2001 and 2005. In Odisha it was 80 MoUs by the end of 2009. Most of these MoUs are to do with either the steel or aluminium or power projects. In Odisha, for example, of the 80 projects as many as 57 were steel projects, six were aluminium and 15 were power projects. In Jharkhand, an overwhelming number are sponge iron, steel and power projects and so is the case with Chhattisgarh. These are now at different phases. The projects require land and those tied to mining lease, require much more land than others. In fact, the six aluminium projects in Odisha have shown requirements of lands as high as over 12,350 acres. Similarly power projects, which again happen to be another mode of important development projects in tribal areas, require vast tracts of land. In Odisha, for example, 15 power projects have made demands of as much as over 19,200 acres of land. The result is that private land belonging to tribals and other cultivators is increasingly being acquired by the state for such projects and has resulted in large-scale displacement of the population.

The tribes did not resist these projects when they first started as they are doing today. The genesis of their resistance in a nascent form could be traced back to the late 1970s, which gained momentum in the course of time and has become wide-spread post 1990s. Till then, they cooperated and lent support to these projects as a part of their contribution to the nation-building process. They suffered displacement all through the post-independence era of the national reconstruction process without any proper resettlement and rehabilitation or adequate compensation. If development turned out to be exclusive even when its overall ethos and objective was that of “development of all”, as manifest in the socialistic pattern of society that India aimed to build, the same seems to be far distant in a new economic order where the corporate world has assumed the key role and the state has actively aided them in the process by trampling every safeguard and protection provided in the Constitution and law. The widespread restlessness that one encounters in the tribal areas of the mainland since the 1990s must be seen against this backdrop.

A Myth

Is the development we talk of invariably inclusive? The people who have suffered the most on this path of development are the tribes, especially of mainland India. Their resistance is not against development but development of a kind that is antithetical to their very existence as the people. It is against the state’s model of development that the tribes are resisting and the state is using all the measures at its disposal, including the monopoly of the use of physical force. What this means is if cooperation is not forthcoming, coercion and violence are the means through which the state’s development agenda is to be pursued. Contrary to the spirit of and the provisions provided for the tribes in the Constitution, the development pursued by the regime is not only contrary to its proclaimed agenda, it also points to the hollowness of the slogan “sabka sath, sabka vikas.”

( is Professor of Eminence at Tezpur University, Assam.

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