Guest post by Ishwar Singh Dost
Whatever I say here, is born of three decades of day-to-day experience of India’s poor. And, amongst them, India’s tribals share a worse fate. Theirs is a faceless existence. They are in India from ancient times, for thousands of years, yet the mainstream India has continually refused to recognise them. In the tribal society there is no caste division, no dowry system, divorce and widow remarriage is socially sanctioned. They are, after centuries of oppression and neglect, still so civilized! Yet we have simply refused to recognise their worth, have made them bonded slaves in the unorganised sectors, have evicted them from land wherever we have founded industries, or built dams.
Having been denied fundamental human rights, they have joined the floating population of the other poor who follow the contractors and go anywhere for a pittance. The mighty tribal culture, their fantastic dances, music, painting and wood cuttings are lifted by middlemen for a handful of coins and sold at high prices at home and abroad. The artisans receive next to nothing.
– Indian author Mahashweta Devi on the Indian tribals, aka adivasis
In comparison with other sections of Indian poor, the adivasis or the tribals are at the lowest rank of the Human Development Index, much below the Dalits. 50% of the adivasis live below the poverty line- a figure twice of the other rural poor. The Below Poverty Line (BPL) percent for all agricultural labourers is 45% but 61% of the adivasi agricultural labourers live below the poverty line. The number of adivasi cultivators declined from 68% in 1993- 94 to 45% in 1999-2000. Poverty increased by 5% among the rural adivasis and by 30% among the urban adivasis between 1993-94 to 1999-2000.
The Scheduled Tribes are the only strata of Indian population whose number of poor went up during this period- when other vulnerable sections of the population, the scheduled castes, agricultural labourers and urban casual workers have shown some decline in poverty.
Historically, the tribals have been pushed farther and farther into the interiors of the forests and away from cultivable lands- it is no coincidence that they occupy the land rich in minerals, since such land tends to be poor in terms of cultivation.
But it was British rule that dramatically altered the patterns of land and forest use forever. By 1860, Britain had become a world champion of deforestation. Besides denuding forests in its own country, it also ravaged the jungles in its colonies the world over, using the timber in shipbuilding, railways, smelting iron and so on.
The colonial state declared the forests as state property and the dispossession of the adivasis from their own land bagan. While the Forest Department established in 1865 was assigned the role of a revenue generating organ, the Indian Forest Act of 1927 gave arbitrary powers to the forest officers.
Post independence experience of marginalisation and subjugation continued- laws like the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the India Forest Act of 1927 are still in force. The pattern of industrialisation reinforced processes introduced by the British, the same laws were retained post 1947 while ensuring that “development” was achieved via internal colonialisation.
The extent of the colonisation of the forests can be discerned from the following statistics:
Export of wood and forest produce was worth Rs. 4,459 crores, about 15% of the total exports from India in 2000-01 from Rs 95 crores in 1960-61. This is despite the fact that the area under forests has continued to shrink from 40% in 1854 to 22% in 1952 to 10% in the 1980s. The revenue from forest lands rose from Rs 24 crores to Rs. 472 crores in 1980-81.
The count of people displaced from the projects like dams, mines and industries ranges between 20 to 30 million. Almost half of these displaced persons are adivasis. They are only 8 percent of total population of India, but constitute 40% of displaced persons. If we add the numbers of displaced persons after 1990, this would go to 50%.
The Forest Policy of 1988, however, brought about some welcome changes to the country’s approach to the issue, and to some extent reflected the aspirations of popular movements. It introduced elements of conservation- replacing monoculture cultivation with mixed forests- the World Bank funded Pine project in Bastar had by then proved how disastrous monoculture cultivation- specially of pine, can be.
While adivasis continue to be displaced for ostensibly nationalist projects like construction of dams, reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks are being seen as the new destination for eco- tourists- that is the new mantra of the international aid agencies, governments, environmental lobbyists and agencies like the World Wildlife Fund.
Recent years have also seen the rise of the fashionable “environmentalism of the rich” within India, which is not unlinked to the Western nations’ invocation of conservation- countries that had achieved a degree of progress by destroying the ecology now demanded that the victim countries now help conserve it to save the world from global warming, while evading the question of compensation.
It is also being pushed by a conglomeration of ex- maharajas, ex- shikaris, tourists and other privileged sections.
It is a paradox that while adivasis are being driven out from their habitats, tourist activities are being promoted. The adivasis are being blamed for “encroaching” on their own lands.
A report last year in Down to Earth magazine pointed out:
Tourism is flourishing in Ranthambore, with hotels mushrooming around the tiger in its reserve. Till the mid-1990s, there were just over 10 hotels in and around the forests of the reserve and in the town of Sawai Madhopur some 12 kilometres (km) from the gate of the national park. Now there are 33, of which 26 are prominent. Six new hotels are under construction. Average room rents vary between Rs 400 a night to a staggering Rs 30,000 for a night of ultra-deluxe luxury in the midst of the wild tigers.
Lack of regulation has meant that many hotels have come up on agricultural or charagah (grazing) land, within a 500-metre radius of the park boundary. “The demand for new hotels has led to the sky-rocketing of land prices,” says a local hotelier. Along the Ranthambore road, land prices have gone up from Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh per hectare (ha) 10 years back to anywhere from Rs 30 lakh to Rs 40 lakh per ha today, depending on the proximity to the park entrance. “Due to the high prices villagers prefer to sell the land near the park,” says Hemraj Meena, a guide at the tiger reserve.
Among those who own houses and hotels near the (Ranthambore) park are Valmik Thapar, well-known conservationist and member of the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee, and his relatives, and Fateh Singh Rathore, former field director of Ranthambore and now vice-chairman of Tiger Watch, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and his family. These properties are within 500 meters of the forest boundary. “Hotel Sher Bagh located at a distance of 104 meters from the forest boundary is run by Jaisal Singh, Thapar’s nephew,” says Chandu Sharma, a local journalist. “Sher Bagh is a deluxe tented camp owned by Valmik Thapar’s family,” confirms wildlifeworldwide.com.
The stark truth brought about by the report is: People who direct conservation policies profit from the regulations that promote tourism and park management.
This is just the continuation of the so- called “Panchsheel policy” established during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. Nehru had himself stated while addressing villagers who were being displaced by the Hirakund dam:
If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.
Mrs Indira Gandhi wrote in the same vein to Baba Amte in a letter dated 30 August 1984:
I am most unhappy that development projects displace tribal people from their habitat, especially as project authorities do not always take care to properly rehabilitate the affected population. But sometimes there is no alternative and we have to go ahead in the larger interests.
The end of the story has remained the same: whether it is the development of the nation or conservation of the environment, the “somebody” who has to pay the price is the adivasi.
Ishwar Singh Dost is a long time activist, researcher and journalist. His paper “Forests, Adivasi Rights and the State” is due for publication in a book edited by Prof. A.V. Afonso