Deprivation and Development in Tribal Areas

B. D. Sharma


                  We may now turn our attention to the conditions of the people living in remote forests and hill areas. Many of them are designated as Scheduled Tribes. Most of these people in their inaccessible habitats have been living a secluded and simple life for ages managing all their affairs by themselves. Their economy until recently was undifferentiated, every individual having the requisite skill of eking out a living from his surroundings. In their case, while the community had the command of all resources in the relevant geographical areas, they lived in harmony with nature and amongst themselves, enjoying its bounty, though struggling against many an adverse element. Even though most of these people are settled cultivators, a substantial part amongst them have continued to remain at pre-agricultural stages of economy following shifting cultivation, some of them even subsisting on hunting and food gathering. Agricultural technology amongst the settled cultivators is rather in its earlier form; it is, however, admirably adapted to their specific agro-climatic situation. These communities appear to have been caught in a niche in the path of their development with minimal change in their social and economic system over a long period.

                   This was the idyllic situation of the tribal people in which they have lived for thousands of years. Early state formations appear to have started even in some of the tribal areas during the medieval period resulting in some stratification among tribal communities as well. However, this did not make much difference to the common man due to his strong tradition, the self-sufficiency of the village economy and the inaccessibility of their habitat and distance from centers of formal authority. Anew kind of torrential force appeared in India with the advent of the British, which superseded the traditional Indian village system in the plains within a short period of time. However, this assault on the traditional system evoked tremendous resistance and retaliation from the tribal people forcing the British to review their position. They acknowledged the special situation in the tribal belt and recognized their right for self-management, having got reconciled to and satisfied with the extension of their formal suzerainty over their territory.

                   The later developments in tribal areas were influenced by a number of factors, which cannot be discussed in detail here. Broadly two patterns of administration emerged in these areas. Firstly, some tribal areas were designated as ‘excluded areas’. The tribal communities here continued to enjoy all their rights of management of land, forests, administration of justice, etc., without external interference. These areas mainly comprised the hills in the North-Eastern region. The autonomy of the village community in these areas has been preserved even after Independence under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. The tribal areas in the rest of the country, some of which were designated as ‘partially excluded areas‘, were gradually brought under the formal administrative system either directly as a part of the British territory or indirectly in princely states. Consequently, a new situation was created in the tribal areas as the traditional community was placed in juxtaposition with a strong formal administration and a set of new laws with associated complex procedures for their implementation, adjudication, etc, got extend superseding their traditional forms. The impact of this change was not felt at all for a long time in most of the tribal areas for the simple reason that they were inaccessibly far away from the centers of authority. But its implication unfolded gradually and became increasingly severe as these areas got opened up and the tentacles of the new system reached out to their undisturbed homes in a variety of forms. The pace of change has quickened manifold after independence in the wake of the planned effort for economic development.

                     The dynamics of change in the tribal areas was significantly different from that in the other rural areas in the country for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the tribal community is, more or less, egalitarian with minimal stratification. Consequently, no section of the tribal community was advanced enough to take advantage of the modern economic system at the time when its foundations were being, laid in distant urban centers early in the twentieth century. Moreover,  due to the inaccessibility of their habitat these communities remained outside the pale of market economy for it long time and their sell-sufficient economy remained untouched by these forces. Lastly, by virtue of their egalitarian structure there are no disadvantaged sections amongst them which may have specially suffered and got pauperised under the inequitous processes of' modernisation as happened with the lower castes in the rest of rural India. In their case, however, the process of deprivation took other insidious forms in which many amongst them who found themselves at vulnerable points suffered greatly.

          The irony in the tribal areas is that the most critical factor in the process of their deprivation has been the modern formal system exemplified by the State itself. This was partly conscious since many adverse consequences flow from well-established policies of the State itself. It is, however, possible that their implications may not have been fully appreciated when the policies were formulated. Some consequences may be entirely unintended. Nevertheless, they may he a logical corollary of the working of the new system in the absence of its adaptations to the condition of the tribal areas and built-in mechanism to protect the simple people from its operations. Lastly, the socio-economic forces engendered in the wake of the planned economic development of the national economy have also had many adverse implications for the tribal people and led to their deprivation on many counts. It may, however, be added here that the incidence of deprivation is neither universal nor uniform. It is almost non-existent in most of the hills covered under the Sixth Schedule and insignificant even in some of the remote areas in central India. It is most severe in the vicinity of the new urban, industrial and mining centres, which have been recently established and are growing at a phenomenal rate as the outposts of the modern economic system in these remote areas.  The situation in the rest of the tribal areas may be anywhere between these two ends of the deprivation spectrum.

              The great fall of the tribal system began when the notional suzerainty exercised by the State over these areas for centuries got operationalised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and became a hard reality of life at the village level as it assumed a variety of institutional forms. First of all the traditional command of the community over natural resources within its territorial jurisdiction got questioned and was gradually superseded in the new institutional frame. For example, their forests came under purview of the Indian Forests Act. They were declared as ‘reserved’ or ‘protected’. Thus, they became subject to the administrative control of the Forest Department, conceding merely a few rights and granting some concessions to their traditional owners. Even these rights and concessions wore out with the passage of time, making the tribal communities trespassers in their very homes—the abode of their deities, spirits and ancestors. Further, the lands outside the forests so carved out also came under the purview of the general revenue laws, which again are based on the premise of State ownership of land and its prerogative to manage it. Consequently, all wastelands came under the control of the new administration, the effective command of the people being circumscribed to their abadi and the cultivated fields. Even here there is a sea change in the system with the recognition of individual’s rights over land in his possession and establishing a direct link between him and the State. Thus, the superior authority of the community and the clan, as the ultimate owners of land, was de-recognised. The community and the clan got alienated completely from the territory, which they commanded for ages. These developments had two disastrous consequences. The first natural corollary of individual ownership of land was that one who owned the land could also alienate it voluntarily or otherwise. Thus, the simple tribal lost the warm protective shield of community ownership under which the question of alienation simply did not arise. Secondly, the ultimate desideratum of an individual’s right to a piece of land was no longer embodied in the tradition and the wisdom of the community but in the formal records of the State managed by the small but mighty representative of the system, the patwari. Consequently, the individual in the changed situation is at the mercy of a complex system whose intricacies are beyond his comprehension and out of his reach. Thus the tribal community was shorn of its authority over its resources, dispossessed of its forests and the so-called unoccupied lands, while the individual member of the community found himself the owner of a limited area which he was not able to protect and its alienation was only a matter of time depending on his own circumstances. No wonder, in some areas the tribal communities have been completely dispossessed and rendered landless.

                          The traditional tribal economy in any area comprises a mix of numerous elements, which are relatable to different stages of development in their history. This includes gathering, hunting, shifting cultivation and settled agriculture, pastoral and animal rearing activities. The non-agricultural activities are usually based on extensive use of land under their command with varying intensity of tree cover and clearing. The expropriation of non-agricultural lands, particularly the forests, which provided a substantial part of their subsistence, has destabilized this delicately balanced system. The impact of this expropriation by the State on their economy and the condition of the people has been gradual. Initially the authority of the State was notional. However, as the forest officials appeared on the scene, the situation changed. They were allowed to continue their traditional practices for some time as the new system felt its way in an unknown territory where the cooperation of the people was essential. As the system gathered strength, the tribal people could use the forests only for a consideration, legal or otherwise. As the value of the forest resources was realised by the State and it became feasible to work them for augmenting the revenue, the forests were brought under more effective control. The use of the forests by tribal communities was regulated stringently and that too as a token of their rendering some services in exchange. For example, they must come for forestry work even during the busy agricultural season. They must also provide facilities to the visiting officials. The dividing line between this obligatory labour on token payment and the begar was rather tenuous. Since the tribal still had the option of moving out to the remoter areas outside the effective control of the administration, he had some bargaining power and he could not be forced beyond a point. Nevertheless, he was satisfied even with the meagre earnings as he was unaware of the real value of his labour or the goods, which he helped to produce, and his own personal requirements were quite limited.

                   The second phase in this relationship began when the forests came under scientific management and the natural forests were replaced by economic plantations. This accentuated the processes of deprivation. Firstly, the base of their traditional economy in the natural forest was completely knocked out due to the change of fauna and flora. Instead he could expect some casual wage employment in the new plantations. The forestry programmes had to be organised on an economic scale, which required large labour force in a given area but for a limited period. It was not possible to meet this requirement locally because the population in these areas was sparse and they could spare only limited time from their normal agricultural work. Therefore, outside labour was introduced for economic plantations. They worked for a while in plantation but were lured by the prospect of acquiring a foothold in the extensive land with unsuspecting simple people who had tenuous control over it as discussed above. It is not necessary to go into details of these developments at this stage. But what followed was predictable. Extensive alienation of tribal lands ensued through deceit and force, actively abetted and even contrived by puny representatives of the mighty system. The deprivation of tribal people in relation to their forest resources was full and complete as the tenuous link between the community and the forests got finally snapped with the introduction of corporate management of forests on commercial lines. The new organisations of Forest Corporations appeared on the scene not only as business managers but their employees have been even clothed with police powers, traditional- ly exercised by the forest officials- an unholy combination reminiscent of the Company days of early British rule in India.

                The destabilisation of the tribal economy described above was greatly accentuated by slimy and motivated interference, which was apparently innocuous and even righteous, by the new administration in an important aspect of their personal and social life, viz., drinking. Even the mighty power of the British found it difficult to subjugate the tribal people and the tribal areas continued to be the scene of incessant revolts and rebellions even as the British consolidated their authority elsewhere. The process is not yet over. The new administration of the British also required a number of new tasks  to be executed like the construction of roads, buildings and other public works. The untamed tribal was not interested in any wage employment at any price. Where money failed, liquor worked. He was lured to work by the offer of a delicious intoxicating drink. Drinking was not new to them; it is a part of their life but as a harmonious blend in their personal and social milieu. They brew their own drinks using the available material like mahua and rice as the base, enjoy it with friends and relations, on occasions festive and religious. The overall constraints and restraints are imposed by competing claims on the brewing base, the watchful eye of his responsible mate and the self-managing system of the community itself. But the shrewd
alien could see through their ways. He concluded that this could also be used as a soft spot for entering the system and destabilising and disrupting it. Taking advantage of their weakness for the pot, exotic drinks were introduced and commercial vending of liquor was started. It proved to be the thin end of the wedge in their happy life. Liquor outside the system led to indulgence unrestricted and unrestrained by individuals or in assorted groups, as it could be had just for the asking without ready cash or commodity for exchange. For the vendor knew he was an honest person, had a sense of honour and was also the owner of some land. This was not an innocent trade since the State became interested in maximising its earnings unmindful of the consequences for the people. Regulations followed prohi- biting preparation of drinks at home and even stocking of mauha notwithstanding the fact that mahua was a part of their own food as also their cattle’s feed. Every tribal was transformed from a law-abiding citizen to a habitual law-breaker. Persecution and extortion by the petty official was thus institutionalised. Unprecedented exploitation by the system through the shop has continued ever since even after Independence through prosecutions for their innocent indulgences sanctified by their custom, forced and induced sales of liquor, under the shadow of musclemen, forced recoveries through distress sale of their produce and property. This cancer continues to debilitate the system notwithstanding some amends in recent years through reluctant concessions to allow them to brew their traditional drinks and discontinuance of commercial vending of liquor in some parts.

                       We may go back to the idyllic situation of the small communities to appreciate another form of subtle expropriation and deprivation. Most of the habitations in the tribal areas in the beginning were ethnically homogeneous. Some community organisation or the chief with the help of the elders managed all their economic, social and political affairs. Contact with other groups was minimal but not unknown. A person from outside, not belonging to their group could settle in the village with the permission of the Village Council or the clan chief. In the context of plentiful resources and their limited needs this did not create a problem. Such migrants got assimilated in the system though perhaps as a distinct group but subject to the authority of the dominant clans. A new category of migrant groups appeared in the tribal areas, particularly in central India, with the early political formations and consolidation of authority by indigenous rulers who wished to introduce advanced agriculture, education and also management of other natural resources, which involved some trade as well. In some cases some forms of zamindari, though without interfering with the authority of the Village Councils, were also introduced. The new migrants comprising zamindars, traders and contractors were different from earlier migrants in one crucial way—they had strong links with the higher centres of authority in the State. Nevertheless, even they could not defy the strong traditional tribal authorities, if for no other reason than one of logistics. An outsider as an individual in a remote inaccessible area was just an individual who had to live in harmony with people and honour their ways.

                 Thus, there was a qualitative change in the situation, yet in practice the community did not feel much difference as the operations of the new system did not affect their own economy in a significant way. For example, when for the first time the rich sal forest was exploited for supplying sleepers to the Railways, he could not care less as the availability of the forest produce to meet his small requirements was not jeopardised.  Working in the forest was still a fun to him, which gave him something in return as well. But as discussed above, his economy got destabilised when the hold of the State on forest and land resources got further tightened. Similarly commercialisation of liquor introduced another alien element, which completely disrupted the balance of his family economy. These two forces together created the most propitious opportunity for those in authority and the moneyed to consolidate their hold. He needed temporary accommodation to meet the new deficit and fulfill his personal requirements, which was readily provided. But it was no longer a transaction within the community governed by their tradition of reciprocity. This was a new deal hitherto unknown with persons belonging to a different system, which had the sanction and support of the powerful State whose intricacies he did not know. Even a petty advance grew at a phenomenal rate and became a big drain on the fruits of his labour. He was forced to sell his agricultural and minor forest produce in an unfamiliar market to discharge those liabilities. The manipulation of figures ensured that the liability of even a small loan was never fully discharged. With the growing imbalance of his family economy he was forced to give away even the source of his living, i.e. his ancestral fields, one by one, in favour of the zamindar and the moneylender. He had to get reconciled with the lot of a tenant at will on his own land. Finally, many of them could not continue even at this level and were forced to accept the security of bondage for one- self, one’s wife and even one’s children just for a bare subhuman living. The process of exploitation reached a final stage where the individual was not even a master of his own self.

                           This is the way the poor everywhere must have lost their command over land resources. We have seen earlier how in the rest of village India the process of deprivation is affecting the poorer sections particularly the socially depressed classes. But there is a significant difference between the two situations. Deprivation and destitution in the rest of the country here not new, some social classes having been forced to subhuman conditions some thousands of years back. Consequently, the new spurt to deprivation in the wake of modernisation of the national economy has merely accentuated the existing social dualism. In the tribal areas, on the other hand, the deprivation process is a traumatic experience to the community, which had never known it earlier. Secondly, in the new bipolar economy of the tribal areas the non-tribal migrant groups alone comprised the affluent pole while the processes of deprivation are forcing the tribal communities increasingly towards the other pole. The affluent section has strong links with the modem sectors of the national economy including the new administrative, economic, legal and political institutions. In fact, this group is functioning like an outpost of the new system in the backward areas. It is outside the pale of influence of the traditional village authority, which finds itself completely helpless before the new power elite.

                         The various forms of subtle deprivation discussed earlier, which are ravaging the poorer people everywhere and benefiting the organised and the urban, are operating in the tribal areas with equal if not greater severity. But the tribal areas are being subjected to many other forms of deprivation taking advantage of the ignorance of the people. For example, the tribal may be persuaded, deceived or even forced to part with valuable trees standing on his land just for a song; he may be deprived of his land in a similar manner. He may be hauled up for technical infringement of rules and laws as, for example, when he brings a piece of wood for making his plough or making his hut. If he retaliates against an injury to his person property or honour, he may find himself locked up in the nearby police station and dragged to a distant court of law where he may have to pay heavily for every step in that complex web from which he does not know the way out. He finds himself alone in the face of a strong system including those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting his rights and his advancement.


              We have seen earlier that many processes engendered in the wake Planned economic development itself have accentuated the dichotomous character of our Society and deepened the deprivation of the poorer sections at the other end. While this observation is true for tribal areas also, in their case a crucial new dimension is added by virtue of their simple socio-economic conditions, which has had serious implications for them. Firstly, many programmes evolved for advanced areas are extended to tribal areas without due considerations of their suitability for their conditions. Although it may not affect directly the economy of the tribal as such, the expenditure on these programmes is wasteful. Further, the real problem begins when a developmental programme involves some financial liability on the part of the tribal in respect of a work which may be executed for him by some agency, for inputs supplied to the individual beneficiaries, for a loan given in cash or kind for any purpose whatsoever by any institution. Very often the tribal may not be aware of the nature of the liability though he may have put his thumb impression on a piece of paper without understanding the stipulated conditions. If a programme fails for any reason or does not yield the desired results, there is no one to help him, his liability is unequivocal and he may be forced to repay or face legal consequences. Moreover, our administrative system is becoming increasingly complex in response to the growing sophistication and specialisation in the national economy. The result is that a number of institutions may be involved at different stages of implementation of even a simple programme. In this frame, if anyone of the numerous partners involved in a programme defaults for any reason whatsoever, the brunt in the ultimate analysis has to be borne by the individual since each institution can rationalise and defend its position. Moreover, there is no simple remedy available to the tribal in such cases.

               In the above discussion it is presumed that there is no malafide on the part of any institution or individual associated with numerous dealings and transactions. Unfortunately in all money transactions, which involve execution of a variety of documents the tribal is at a terrible disadvantage since he is not yet experienced in handling money or understanding the nature of various transactions. This situation is accentuated by the fact that the tribal areas have continued to have indifferent administration and in many a case they are treated as punishment postings. Therefore, the quality of personnel is not equal to the task, which is expected in a massive programme of social and economic transformation in tribal areas as a part of the national developmental thrust. Misuse of the system by petty officials is the order of the day, which ultimately falls heavily on the tribal economy. A person taking a loan for a development programme like the construction of well or improvement of his land may find that his liability for repayment, real or spurious, has grown beyond his means. In this process he may even lose the land, which he may have planned to develop. Such examples of malfunctioning of the system can be multiplied indefinitely. Here is a severe backlash of development for the simple tribal, which becomes hard to avoid and he naturally wishes to be left alone.

                But he cannot be left alone. These remote regions, which have remained on the fringe of the economic system for ages after the rise of agricultural civilisation, are being drawn to its centre in the new industrial world. The new economy requires the energy locked in the running streams, the minerals hidden in the rugged hills, and the countless products of their natural forests. Development of agriculture itself depends on the harnessing of irrigational potential by impounding water in their deep and extensive valleys and the release of its hidden energy. But their lands are, by and large, marginal for agriculture, the only occupation for which the people have the required skills. These lands are getting further marginalised as the new technology has nothing to offer for the upland agriculture except the backlash of development on agriculture elsewhere. Thus, the linear continuum of the national resource potential with negligible resources in the hills and the richest in the alluvial plains has become circular as its two ends, comprising primitive agriculture and modern industry respectively, meet in the tribal areas. Since agriculture itself has been pushed to a subordinate position in the national economy, the relative position of resource regions in the country has got reversed. The rich Gangetic plains of north Bihar are now backward and the unknown hills of Chhotanagpur are humming with economic activity with a great industrial belt as its central spine.

                      But this new centre has no use for the man who lived in those hills and forests for ages. He does not have even the elementary skills, which are needed by the new system. The new world cannot wait for him for we are in a hurry. He can have no other claims in the system for the natural resources belong to the nation. He stands dispossessed and disinherited.

                      The intensity and extent of deprivation along new arteries of communication and around growing urban centres are very acute. In these cases the tribal people are being gradually pushed back by the stronger groups who are moving into the areas in the wake of development.

                      The establishment of big projects, industrial and mining and even irrigation has proved to be catastrophic for the tribal economy. Their lands are acquired for which money compensation may be paid, not infrequently, with considerable time lag. Money compensation has no meaning, as they are not used to handling large sums. Such money may be frittered away or the tribal may be swindled leaving nothing with him. Consequently, the proud owner of the land on which a flourishing township may exist could be found driving a rickshaw with his back bent and his spirit gone. Many of the displaced tribals may not be able to prefer the claim since their ‘ownership’ may not have been recorded in the papers of the State. The fact that the tribal draws a substantial part of his subsistence from the unoccupied land and the forests around goes unnoticed evincing no claims for alternative living. His economy is completely shattered. In the face of such adverse forces he prefers to withdraw to the deep recesses of the forest, if possible. Having no alternative he may be forced to crawl into the substratum of the new world and eke out a living at sub-human level. Thus, the powerful forces engendered in these new centres of modern economy sweep the surrounding areas forcing the original inhabitants in a wider circle to recede or to submit as a new wave of new migrants gradually spreads out. As the community gets disorganised, the individual is completely helpless and is reconciled to his fate to lead the life of a destitute. Moreover, he does not have skills to occupy even the lowest positions and the new economy, which grows around, is also alien to him. Thus the first shock is devastating and the system blissfully continues to create poverty and destitution where none existed earlier.

                 The biggest damage to the tribal system has been caused by the lack of appreciation of their condition. A different stage of their economy and a different life style are taken to be symbols of poverty. When they show no interest in petty jobs of casual wage employment offered to them, after their lands have been taken away, they are dubbed as lazy and happy- go-lucky types at the best. Their side of the story of deprivation remains unheard and unappreciated. '
[This article is excerpted from author’s book The Web of Poverty, NEHU, Shillong and Prachi Prakashan, New Delhi, 1989, pp 125-134]