India: A President of tribal origin is great news for the tribes of India

It is indeed a historic moment for the tribes of India to have in the highest position of the country a person of tribal origin who empathizes with their adversities.

The President of India, being specially empowered under the Constitution for the protection and upliftment of the scheduled tribes, can actually do a lot for them-over and above what the government is already doing.

Comprising 700 disparate groups spread over a population of 10.45 crores, the recent national family health survey (NFHS V) data is revealing: 71% of the population in scheduled tribe households rests in the two lowest wealth quintiles, with 46.3% of the population in the lowest quintile – against an average of 20% figure for other categories. Literacy is the lowest among the scheduled tribes, with 35% scheduled tribe women having had no education at all. At the secondary school level, children belonging to scheduled tribes have the lowest net and gross attendance ratios (NAR/GAR). The under-five mortality rate for scheduled tribes (50 deaths per 1,000 live births) is the highest in any category.

Only 55% of the scheduled tribes population had access to a doctor compared to 70% for the remaining population. Scheduled tribe women remain amenorrhoeic longer (6.2 months) than all other categories of women. Only 69% of scheduled tribe households have access to toilets compared to 93% among other categories.

This corroborates the annual report of the ministry of tribal affairs for 2021-22, which states that scheduled tribes living below the poverty line in 2011-12 were 45.3% in the rural areas and 24.1% in the urban areas. In comparison, people belonging to the general population and living below the poverty line were 25.7% in rural areas and 13.7% in urban areas.

Further, that there is a gap of about 14 percentage points in literacy rate of STs as compared with the literacy rates of the rest of the population, and that the drop-out ratio for tribal students at the higher secondary stage is almost 25%.

The President has powers of oversight on the work of Governors in scheduled tribe areas. Under Article 342 (1) of the Constitution, the President can designate any tribe as a scheduled tribe after consultation with the Governor of that state. In order to protect the interests of STs with regard to land and other social issues, there are provisions in the Fifth Schedule (tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana ) and the Sixth Schedule (tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram) of the Constitution which give Governors special powers in scheduled areas – areas that are so designated by the President.

In accordance with the provisions of the Fifth Schedule, the Governor of a state having scheduled areas can prohibit, restrict and regulate land-related transactions involving STs. “In making any such regulation, the Governor can repeal or amend any Act of Parliament or of the legislature of the state or any existing law which is for the time being applicable to the area in question.” All such regulations have to be approved by the President.

Further, the Governor of each state having scheduled areas has to annually, or whenever so required by the President, submit a report to the President about the administration of the scheduled areas. Although the Governors have to report to the President about the governance of their scheduled areas, their overall focus is only mediocre.

Besides the above, there are several macro areas where the President’s personal review can help make a difference to the lot of scheduled tribes.

One, for instance, even though the Panchayats (extension to scheduled areas) Act for ensuring self-governance through the traditional institution of the gram sabha for people living in the scheduled areas was enacted in 1996, its implementation by the states has been sketchy and piecemeal. Despite enabling provisions under PESA, states do not yet uniformly

tribal gram sabhas to take various decisions relating to, for example, collection/extraction of minor forest produce (MFP) and minor minerals and the right to market them and use the sale proceeds.

Two, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, which valiantly attempted to undo the historical dispossession of scheduled tribes from the forests, has not been liberally interpreted and forcefully implemented.

As on 30.09.2021, as per the latest annual report of the MOTA, the total number of claims filed under FRA is 42,96,452, of which titles have been issued only in 20,74,295 cases (48.28%), that is, more than 50% claims were not accepted.

One key reason for their rejection is the inability of tribals to adduce sufficient documentary proof about the length of their occupation. That is why the FRA mandates that the recommendation of the gram sabha will be treated as valid. However, most meetings of the forest rights committees in the states have been held at the gram panchayat level, where the level of awareness and sensitivity about specific tribal rights is relatively less.

Three, the status of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs – for example, Pahari Korbas, Bharias, Dongria Khonds, Onges, Shompens, etc., some teetering on the verge of extinction) continues to be dismal. Funds for the benefit of PVTGs largely go towards infrastructure and area development. Keeping in view their extreme backwardness, the development strategy has to be reshaped to focus on individual livelihood and skill development. Although some states have provisions for relaxing qualifications for recruitment in grassroot government jobs for PVTGs to promote their mainstreaming, yet those jobs usually end up going to non-PVTG scheduled tribes.

Four, the earmarked allocations under the Tribal Sub-Plan of many ministries lapse at the end of the year. Formalization of a scheme to retain unused resources in a non-lapsable Tribal Development Fund which can be easily available to ameliorate special cases of distress would be a step in the right direction.

Five, forest department officials view the STs as adversaries in their conventional quest to sustain forests and wildlife. This need not be so. If the government mandates that protection and development of forest dwelling tribal communities is one of their charter responsibilities – that would foster and promote more collaborative community arrangements and be beneficial to the tribes.

President Draupadi Murmu, by addressing the larger development issues facing the tribes, can surely carve a unique place for herself in the history of India.

(The author is a former Secretary, Government of India. The views expressed are his own.)


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