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The Adivasi, the State and the Naxalite

The state's attitude towards the adivasis since independence has ranged from neglect to a disregard of constitutional obligations. The growth of Naxalite activity in the adivasi tracts has brought down the heavy hand of the state and the tribals are caught between the Naxalites and the government. The exploitation of adivasis in Andhra Pradesh is illustrative of the experience elsewhere in the country. The imminent execution of the Polavaram project on the Godavari is yet another example of the state's attitude towards adivasis.

The Adivasi, the State and the Naxalite

Case of Andhra Pradesh

The state’s attitude towards the adivasis since independencehas ranged from neglect to a disregard of constitutionalobligations. The growth of Naxalite activity in the adivasitracts has brought down the heavy hand of the state and the tribalsare caught between the Naxalites and the government. Theexploitation of adivasis in Andhra Pradesh is illustrative of theexperience elsewhere in the country. The imminent executionof the Polavaram project on the Godavari is yet another exampleof the state’s attitude towards adivasis.

E A S SARMA to outlaw that very group in less than 15 months. n no other state in the country has the political equation between the govern

Government’s Earnestness

ment and the extremists been so opportunistic and unreliable as in Andhra Pradesh The Congress Party’s earlier commit(AP). Nobody ever expected a political ment to talk to the extremists and its party, that came to power less than a couple subsequent knee-jerk reaction to ban their of years ago, with the mandate to negotiate activity had nothing to do with any ideoa peaceful settlement with the Naxalites logical or even strategic thinking. The

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

recent decision to raise a 1,200-strong, “girijan” battalion in answer to the problems of the adivasis of the state speaks volumes about the lack of earnestness on the part of the government to understand and address the core problems of the adivasis. When the government has all along dragged its feet in the matter of filling up the vacant posts reserved for the adivasis, this announcement of creating a battalion is a hollow promise. Moreover, would this proposal not amount to arming the tribal and pit him against his brothers and sisters?

When the Congress announced its intention to negotiate with the Maoists, it simply wanted to play for time, buy peace and be sure that it successfully tided over the impending crisis during the elections. Once the Congress had won the 2004 assembly elections and come to power, the basic issues concerning the adivasis, that ought to have topped the government’s agenda, became secondary. Since then, the party in power has had no qualms about terminating the talks with the extremists and reverting to the usual practice of using physical force to create an artificial feeling of quiet in the tribal areas. The very same Maoists, with whom the state wanted to negotiate last year, have since been outlawed. The chief minister went to the extent of even dubbing that party as an “evil” that needed to be “stamped out”, at a meeting of the National Integration Council last year.

Adivasis and Their Problems in AP

AP has a large adivasi population. The five million adivasis constitute 6.6 per cent of the total population of the state and 6 per cent of the total tribal population of the country. As the term “adivasi” suggests, they were the original residents of the hilly, forest areas of the state. For generations, they have owned the lands and the forests, enjoyed the forest wealth and exercised their rule in those areas. Today, their very existence is threatened.

The problems of the adivasis are well known. They are documented extensively. Moneylenders, traders and land grabbers from the plains have illegally occupied vast areas in the tribal tracts and displaced them from their lands. In the guise of extending democracy to the village level, the government has bypassed the age-old tribal institutions of self-rule and imposed externally designed structures that make a mockery of the adivasi customs. Year after year, both the centre and the states have allocated funds for the “development” of adivasis, but the amounts spent by them have largely benefited contractors and middlemen. Under the garb of industrialisation, one government after another has auctioned off valuable mineral-rich tribal lands to unethical miners and, in that process, deprived the adivasis of their livelihood and shelter. In short, whichever be the political party in power, both the centre and the states have not only remained insensitive to the problems of the adivasis but also consciously abetted their steady displacement in numerous ways.

Between the Devil and the Deep Sea

The adivasis of AP are facing an additional threat. Almost four decades ago, looking for an opportunity to “wage war” against the “evils of the established state”, the Naxalites from West Bengal shifted their operations to the tribal tracts of Srikakulam, the northernmost district of the state. The continuing exploitation of the adivasis in that district and the utter indifference of the state agencies to their problems offered an excellent opportunity to the Naxals, who readily took up their cause and mounted aggression against the state. Any sensible government would have promptly responded to the impending crisis and addressed the cause, rather than the effect, of Naxal violence. Unfortunately, the state’s response was to treat the whole matter as a routine “law and order” problem.

As far as the adivasis are concerned, the government was never serious about evicting encroachers from their lands or prohibiting middlemen and moneylenders from their hamlets. If they were to look to the extremists for help, they would be branded as having leanings towards the “Naxals”. Then, they would be subject to the wrath of the police. On the other hand, if they were to turn to the government for protection and help, they would be suspected by the extremists to be police “informants”.

Whenever the state government and the extremists were at loggerheads, each trying to outwit the other, there were incidents of violence in which many adivasis lost their lives. There were occasional lucid intervals when the government would seemingly recognise the importance of solving the problems of the adivasis and show its willingness to negotiate peace with the extremists. In reality, however, the government’s concern for the adivasis had never been credible. The government machinery in the tribal tracts consisted largely of petty non-tribal functionaries, interested more in exploiting the adivasi, rather than helping her. Those officials that genuinely tried to reach out to the adivasi were promptly transferred out, as their intentions invariably clashed with the influential and the powerful.

‘Encounter’ Raj

The peace talks between the government and the extremist groups would often get aborted with an occasional “encounter”, vitiating the atmosphere in which the talks were held. An “encounter” prima facie implied the elimination of an “extremist” trying to use force against the police but somehow “accidentally” felled by police bullets. Many innocent adivasis became victims of this hide-and-seek game between the state and the extremist groups. The report of the Tarakunde Commission (constituted by the civil society) during the 1980s vividly brought out many gory details of such “encounters” at that time. As already pointed out, the state generally ignored the importance of recognising the socio-political and economic dimensions of the problems of the adivasis. The state rarely conceded that the adivasis were entitled to own and manage the precious resources that were available as a part of their ecology.

By resorting to force in response to every act of violence committed by the extremists, the state has unwittingly justified the use of weapons in preference to democratic processes. Daily reports of “encounters” in which the so-called “extremists” were “eliminated”, continuing over a time span of four decades, make a mockery of democracy in this country. In public perception, the distinction between statesupported violence and extremist-led killings has become blurred. The fact that the activities of the extremists have not only flourished for 40 years but also gathered unprecedented momentum in the recent times shows how shortsighted and ineffective the official policies have been. The political parties and the governments led by them are yet to learn lessons from this.

Does Democracy ImplyProgressive Governance?

We pat ourselves for being a part of the largest secular democracy in the world. In our attitudes, we continue to be feudal, non-secular and undemocratic. As the 1984 riots in Delhi and the 2002 violence in Gujarat have amply demonstrated, the

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006 minorities in our country have much to fear, even five decades after independence. None of the political groups associated with these incidents of carnage have ever been outlawed, as in the case of the CPI (Maoist) or the revolutionary poets of AP.

Whatever be the motive, it was the British “colonial” administration that first took note of the true magnitude of the problems of the adivasis in different parts of the country and established judicial systems necessary for addressing those issues. The first legislation to restore lands to the adivasis in areas that form part of what is known as AP today came into operation as early as in 1839. The word, “scheduled tribe” that describes the adivasis and the words, “scheduled districts” and “agency areas” that define the tribal tracts, originated from these laws.

The Agency Tracts and Land Transfer Act of 1917, applicable to the agency areas of the tribal tracts now situated in AP, firmly established the concept of “tribal domain” that presumed the adivasis to be the original owners of land in the agency areas. In other words, if a non-tribal were to be found occupying land in an agency area, by presumption, he would be treated as an illegal encroacher and the burden of proof to the contrary would be on him. All the subsequent laws governing the agency areas in AP owed their genesis to this pristine concept. The AP Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation, 1959 (this statute and similar other statutes referred to hereafter as LTR) is the legislation that is operational today.

It goes to the credit of the framers of our Constitution that they recognised the importance of safeguarding the interests of the adivasis and incorporated appropriate provisions by way of Article 244 and the Fifth and the Sixth Schedules to the Constitution. The president and the governors are assigned special responsibilities for ensuring good governance in the scheduled areas. The Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) has been instituted to ensure the involvement of the adivasis in taking decisions that affect their interests. At the ground level, however, these provisions are yet to make a discernible impact on the condition of the adivasi.

While we often assume, and rightly so for many reasons, that we freed ourselves from the colonial rule forever, when we attained independence, it is interesting to note that, it was in the erstwhile Hyderabad state ruled by the Nizam that special measures were taken for the first time for the welfare of the adivasis. It was the Nizam who introduced the well known anthropologist, Christoph von-Furer Haimendorf to the tribal tracts of Telengana, when he requested the latter to advise him on tackling the problems of the tribals. Haimendorf was instrumental in securing title of land ownership for many tribals. The Adilabad tribals still remember the famous ‘Haimendorf pattas’ that recognised them as the owners of their lands. He also perceived the importance of education as the key to tribal development. He trained the first batch of tribal teachers in Adilabad and thereby started the process of modern education in that district. After Hyderabad became a part of India, unfortunately, the successor governments that came to power in the name of democracy were too busy to worry about the adivasis and their problems.

Laws and More Laws

The common minimum programme (CMP) of the UPA government at the centre waxes eloquent on the need to empower the adivasis. As a result perhaps, the rulers in Delhi are busy talking about the so-called “forest rights” bill that seeks to confer title on the adivasis in “unauthorised” occupation of forest lands within the scheduled areas. It is indeed a positive but belated step, as it recognises for the first time the basic right of the adivasi to be in possession of lands within the forest areas, though the draft law itself has many “if”s and “but”s.

The Forest Rights Bill proclaims something noble in its preamble and contradicts it in the rest of the text. The preamble recognises the adivasi to be the original resident of the forests, whereas the language in the subsequent sections sounds as though the adivasi is, after all, an “encroacher”. There is a “cut-off” date prescribed for the application of the law and it clearly negates the core concept of the adivasi being the original resident. It imposes an ad hoc ceiling of 2.5 hectares on the extent of occupation that could be regularised, without trying to understand that the adivasi’s agricultural practices continue to be primitive and the yardstick adopted in the case of his more advanced counterpart in the plains cannot be blindly applied to him.

Apart from these shortcomings, one should note that the tribals have lost vast extents of land that need to be restored to them under the respective LTR laws in different states. Thousands of LTR cases are languishing before the quasi-judicial authorities in AP and elsewhere, as the political and the bureaucratic vested interests in those states are blocking the strict implementation of the act, as the concerned officers’ kith and kin from the plains are the grabbers of land in the tribal tracts. To try and introduce one more law, without respecting the existing one, appears to be yet another exercise in futility.

Development vs the Adivasi

Almost half a century ago, it was Heimendorf who had suggested that the Srisailam forest area of AP should be declared as a “tribal reserve” to safeguard the interests of the local primitive tribe, the chenchus. Instead, the elected governments that assumed power after independence had chosen to notify that area to be a “tiger reserve”! In other words, the tiger gets precedence over the chenchu in that area!

There has been a direct and constant clash between the so-called “development” perspective of the state and the interests of the adivasi, not only in AP but in the other states as well. The recent bloodshed in Kalinga Nagar in Orissa is a grim pointer to this. Is it a desirable approach to development that displaces the adivasi, to benefit others? Should not the adivasis themselves have a say in the matter of any development scheme that interferes with the ecology of which they are an integral part? These are crucial issues as far as the adivasi is concerned, but often they are brushed aside with contempt by the administration.


The AP government has embarked on an ambitious scheme to take up large irrigation projects across the major rivers in the state. Polavaram is perhaps the largest among these. This is a project that will impound water from Godavari and, apart from irrigating the coastal districts, it would also divert a portion of the stored water to the Krishna. In all, it will irrigate 2,91,114 hectares in the plains but it will also submerge 300 villages and displace more than 1.75 lakh people, mostly adivasis. Simple arithmetic shows that for every two hectares of land irrigated by this project, one adivasi and his progeny would get displaced for life! If the past track record of the government in rehabilitating project displaced persons were to be relied upon, very few of those displaced as a result of Polavaram would get resettled properly and the majority would get reduced to daily wage labourers and

Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

migrant workers, stripped of their dignity and natural livelihood.

More important, the adivasis in their present habitat, i e, the scheduled areas, enjoy a unique set of constitutional rights and privileges, that would no longer be available, once they are uprooted. This is indeed a serious matter of violation of human rights! In an all-party meeting recently, the AP government officials tried to gloss over this issue by merely suggesting that wherever the displaced adivasis would get resettled, those areas would in turn be notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution! These officials were blissfully unaware of the fact that similar proposals to include some villages under the Fifth Schedule about two decades ago are still languishing in the corridors of the central secretariat. Such false assurances would only diminish the credibility of the government in the eyes of the adivasi.

Bauxite Mining

The state government has recently awarded a franchise to the Jindal group of companies to mine bauxite over vast tracts in the agency areas of Visakhapatnam district. Though the Congress Party at the centre has vowed to recognise the rights of the adivasis to the mineral resources that lie in the tribal areas, the Congress government in AP has blatantly ignored the need to even consult the adivasis before jumping into this venture. Neither the adivasi gram sabhas nor the TAC have been taken into confidence, before hastily involving the Jindals. Once again, this is a case in which the adivasis might lose their constitutional rights. It is highly doubtful whether the project would provide any employment benefits to the adivasis.

A few years ago, the Supreme Court had delivered a landmark judgment in the famous Samatha case and laid down clear guidelines on mining in tribal areas. The judgment clearly highlighted the need to consult and involve the adivasis whenever decisions in such matters were to be taken. Subject to the views of the adivasis, they could even own the ventures that mine bauxite. The courts have repeatedly directed the executive on the need to exercise caution in taking up mining in hilly areas and forests. The state government seems to be in a mad rush in pushing through some of these projects, without understanding and appreciating the spirit underlying the courts’ observations. Unless a public spirited NGO like Samatha once again moves the courts for judicial intervention, the adivasis by themselves are not in a position to defend their rights.

Where Next?

Would these issues ever engage the attention of the political parties and the bureaucracy in AP, so that, for once, the concerns of the adivasis are brought to the centre-stage of development of the agency areas and the whole problem of extremism is viewed, not merely through the eyes of the police, but as a multidimensional socio-economic problem? Would the rulers in Hyderabad, or for that matter, those in Delhi, ever stop equating tribal development with the hollow figures of budgetary allocations and expenditure and start recognising the need to permit the adivasi gram sabhas and the TACs to have a say in governance in the tribal areas?

Would the state authorities ever think of empowering the adivasi to oversee her own school, supervise her own hospital and run her own affairs? Would the government ever move away from contractors, brokers and intermediaries towards the genuine representatives of the adivasis in pursuing their development aspirations? A lot will depend on the answers to these questions for the situation in the tribal areas in AP to improve and for the adivasis to feel assured that the state government is genuinely concerned about their problems.

In a democracy, one has to be an optimist to be able to understand its idiosyncrasies and assume that one day wisdom would dawn on the authorities for the good of the adivasi and the long-term well-being of the people of the state! Perforce, perhaps, one has to end this introspection on that note.



Economic and Political Weekly April 15, 2006

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