The attitude of viewing the ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ as artefacts continues in the administrative echelons, even if some enlightened social scientists see it another way. As has been seen more than once in India, the attempts at reorienting the tribes’ way of living, have been overwhelmingly un-intelligent. Locked up in the jungles of south and middle Andamans, the Jarawas are one of six tribes here who shun modern living. Anthropologists who spent five months between 1998 and 2001 with them found that the Jarawas maintain a lifestyle in total harmony with their environment. Much to their surprise, the researchers learnt that this aboriginal tribe is content with its hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Though bundled together with 698 other scheduled tribes in the country, the Jarawas by definition are considered ‘primitive’. For their distinctive culture, shyness from public exposure, geographical isolation and socio-economic backwardness, Article 342 of the Indian Constitution characterises them as ‘primitive’. There are 75 other tribes that are thus considered primitive; together they constitute 2.5 million primitive scheduled tribes-people representing 0.3 percent of the country´s population.
Ever since the scheduled tribes were first ‘notified’ in 1950, they have been seen as those who live in a pre-agricultural stage of economy, have low literacy rates and whose populations are seen to be stagnant or declining. Reason enough for the government to launch schemes that could pull these tribes into the mainstream of development. However, after five decades of investing resources on the tribes, it is clear that a majority of them are still on the margins, de-rooted from their rich cultural and ecological past. What is more, attempts at bringing ‘development’ their way have left them socially and environmentally pauperised.
But if the draft National Policy on Tribals, released in early 2004, is any indication, no lessons seem to have been learnt. No wonder to find here a renewed emphasis on schemes that promise infrastructure and human-capital investment to bring a turnabout in their lives. Critical to this approach is the dominant understanding that the tribals are people with severe limitations, who lack power to make a case for themselves, and are limited by intellectual and financial capital. If this were not to be the assumption, how could the policy lay emphasis on strengthening the allopathic system of medicine in tribal areas while acknowledging the fact that tribal people have a well-developed system of medicine based on herbs and other natural products? Contradicting itself, the draft policy seeks to preserve and promote their traditional knowledge and wisdom as well. However, it fails on details when it comes to preserving the tribal knowledge-system and benefit-sharing in the event of knowledge transfer.
Jawaharlal Nehru´s principles of defining the contours of progress for the tribals seem to have been ignored while drafting the policy. The late prime minister had maintained that tribal people `possess a variety of cultures and are in many ways certainly not backward. There is no point in trying to make them a second rate copy of ourselves’. He had gone a step further to say that: ` The tribal people should be helped to grow according to their genius and tradition´.
Conversely, the British had slapped them for their `criminal tendencies´ under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. Whereas the Indian government has yet to do away with that piece of racist legislation completely, as the Habitual Offenders Act still apply to most of the tribes. Katkaris, the primitive tribe in Maharashtra, are periodically booked under this Act. Little does the system realise that it is the destruction of Acacia forests from which the Katkaris skillfully extracted kath or catechu for their livelihood that has led many to petty thieving.
Oblivious to such realities, the draft policy instead argues for getting the stigma of `primitive´ removed. Clearly, to ease administrative disbursement of funds, the policy favours merger of primitive tribal groups with the tribal mainstream. “This will erode the distinct identity of primitive tribes faster than expected”, says Rajeev Khedkar of Academy of Development Science in Karjat, Maharashtra, that has been working amidst the Katkaris for over a decade.
Central to the entire debate is the continuous shrinking of the economic base of tribal populations. While the British safeguarded the tribes’ isolation for the purpose of maximising revenue extraction, post-colonial policies have impinged upon their traditional rights and ownership over forests to do just about the same. With the tribal population constituting 55 percent of the total displaced people due to mega-projects in the country, it is clear that the tribals are seen as barriers to the process of development. Little wonder then that the draft policy considers displacement inevitable, though it does mention that displacement of tribals from their land amounts to violation of the 5th schedule of the Indian Constitution. Amusingly, the policy comforts the tribal communities by suggesting that in the event of displacement due to building of a large dam, they will have fishing rights in the new reservoir!
The various ongoing development schemes for primitive tribes amply prove that all are intended to alienate tribals from their traditional roots in the forests. The institutional mechanism of imparting education, of extending health services, and of development interventions is structured to distance the primitive tribes from their traditional vocations. Tragically, the rich repository of the knowledge base of the tribals is considered primitive and irrelevant by the modern yardstick.
Reports indicate that tribal children do not attend the schools setup for them; indication enough that the education imparted is irrelevant to their way of life. Yet, the state persuades them to go to school little realising that modern education will at the very least de-school the children of their rich knowledge and experience. The policy planners of India must realise that the ‘tribal’ have distinct biophysical characteristics and endurance skills, which must be understood if the tribes are not to be doomed to extinction.