Op-Ed: The State Must Change Its Attitude Towards Tribals

Bhubaneswar: The Kondh tribals of Niyamgiri, a forest-clad hill in Kalahandi that shot into international focus during the anti-bauxite mining movement, are reportedly gearing up for another battle, this time against possible eviction in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that could affect more than ten lakh tribals across the country.

The apex court has ordered eviction of tribals whose land right claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) have been rejected. In Odisha such instances exist in Niyamgiri as well as in other parts of the state. Tribal and forest rights activists have questioned state government’s sincerity in the implementation of the FRA and hold it squarely responsible for the threat looming over the forest dwellers.

The FRA, which was passed by the UPA-I government in 2006 recognises the rights of traditional forest dwellers over land and community forest resources. Under the law, Gram Sabhas have a big role to play in determining rights and verifying claims as also in the management of forests. The claims once recognized and vested make tribals practically immune to the threat of eviction save under special circumstances.

But the law, a constant thorn in the side of forest officials, has widened the existing gap between the vast tribal community of the state and the officialdom. Attempts by tribals to assert their rights have often faced resistance from reluctant state machinery.

Last year there were reports of Forest officials asking a particular gram sabha in Kalahandi district to abide by a set of conditions if it wanted a Transit Permit (TP) for bamboo, a minor forest produce (MFP). A permit is an important document required for commercial transportation and sale of bamboo under FRA. But Forest officials sought to make things difficult for the tribal gram sabha by demanding that it follow bamboo cutting rules as laid down in the micro plan and also submit a monthly progress report to the department.
In another case in the same district residents of a village were asked to undergo training in bamboo management by the Forest department to procure transport permit. Such instances are illustrative of the non-cooperative attitude of bureaucracy in dealing with matters pertaining to tribal rights.
No wonder the vast tribal community of the state feels alienated and their collective anger often vents itself in the form of movements like ‘Pathargadi’ which turned violent at certain places in Sundergarh district in the recent past. Pathargadi is basically an assertion of the rights of gram sabhas and through them, of the tribal community in areas where its members enjoy a sizeable population.

Such movements actually reflect the failure of the state machinery in dealing with issues pertaining to deprived and exploited communities like scheduled tribes and castes. What is worrying is that when the state fails these communities they often play into wrong hands in their quest for power and entitlement. The violent turn of Pathargadi movement itself is an example of how local tribal leaders in Sundergarh district have sought to channelize the collective anger of the community to serve their own narrow political ends.

An even better example is the large-scale recruitment and indoctrination of tribal youths by the Maoists active in several areas of the state. With state government failing to take care of their developmental needs and leaving them at the mercy of corrupt Babus and predatory middlemen and contractors, tribals in large parts of districts such as Koraput, Malkangiri and Rayagada started treating the gun-toting Maoists as their messiahs.
Though the situation has changed slightly in the last few years with new roads, schools and hospitals coming up in some of these districts, the attitude of government officials towards the tribals is yet to change. Unless that happens tribals would continue to treat the state as their enemy.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)