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By Sandeep Pattnaik

Today, the 9th of August, is the International Day of the World Indigenous peoples.

The Day, observed every year, was proclaimed by the General Assembly in December 1994. There are approximately 370 million indigenous people living across 70 countries worldwide. Considering the awful treatment being meted out to the indigenous communities, this day should be a day of international concern. While discrimination and unequal treatment of indigenous peoples continue to grow around the world, there is an urgent need to seriously look at the issue with some degree of seriousness.

Following up with the observance of the Indigenous Day  in 2004, the United Nations General Assembly showed further commitment to the idea by proclaiming 2005 to 2014 o as the the international decade for commitment to indigenous communities with the theme, “A Decade for Action and Dignity”.

Dongria Kondh womenThe focus of this year’s International Day is “Bridging the Gap: Implementing the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. The theme aims to highlight the importance of implementing the rights of indigenous people through policies and programmes at both national and international level,  working together towards this common goal with governments, the United Nations, indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.

At the United Nations, the government of India recognized Scheduled Tribes but consistently denied the existence or applicability of the concept of “indigenous peoples”.

However, The Supreme Court in its latest judgment on January 5,  2011, while dismissing the Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction arising out of Special Leave Petition (Crl) No. 10367 of 2010) (Kailash & Others .. Appellant (s) -versus- State of Maharashtra), unequivocally asserted that Scheduled Tribes are indigenous peoples of India.

With about 84 million population, India is home to the largest number of indigenous people in the world. Indigenous people constitute nearly 8.2 percent of total Indian population. They have enormously contributed to the rich cultural heritage through their language, culture, dances, folklore, medicine, etc. These groups live very closely with nature and their way of life mostly depends upon the bountiful natural resources.

Historically, often been dispossessed of their lands the Adivasis are often amongst the most marginalized sections of the society. This marginalization is social, economical and political. There is an effort to integrate the Adivasis into the mainstream, something which has resulted in cultural alienation, dehumanization and deprivation of their livelihoods resources.

In the name of national development, the Adivasis are being deprived and dispossessed of their livelihoods and resources; they are being displaced and their communities are being fragmented. We have enough evidence to say thart wherever mining projects have been proposed or implemented on the land of Adivasis , their voices have been rarely heard and their concerns have been rarely heeded. All these have resulted in further impoverishment and marginalization of Adivasis.

Tribal Indigenous PeopleThe situation has  further been aggravated by economic reforms and liberalization initiated in the 1990s. That has posed additional challenges to the Adivasis in the form of food insecurity, water scarcity and diseases.

In one of the high Adivasi concentration state like Odisha, more than 73 % of Adivasis  are still living in below poverty line. India is yet to have a single comprehensive policy to deal with issues of the Scheduled Tribes of the country even though Neheru’s Panchasheel policy and Constitutional provisions protecting Schedule Tribes in the country mandate the government to address the issues on priority basis.
The National Tribal policy was first proposed and drafted in 2004.

In June 2006, The Ministry of Tribal Affairs circulated a new Draft National Tribal policy and sought suggestions and recommendations. The draft policy aims to provide an environment conducive to preservation of traditional and customary systems, prevent land alienation of STs, protect forest rights, provide a legislative frame for rehabilitation and resettlement, promote self governance and self–rule as per PESA; and protect political rights to ensure greater participation of STs in political bodies. The policy also aims at socio-economic empowerment, by removing the gaps in HDI between tribal population and general population by 2020. The policy further seeks to grant cultural and traditional rights and protect Intellectual Property Rights of STs.

However, the draft policy does not clearly list out the implementing agencies and time frame for a number of action points suggested. This will further suspend the process of implementation of the policy guidelines. The policy also doesn’t specify the modalities of the time bound programme.

The policy needs to recognise oral evidence in the absence of written records to address land disputes and entitlements. All the provisions related to land in the policy, must apply to Adivasi living in non-Scheduled Areas. To strengthen forest rights, the re-drafted policy must address effective implementation of forest rights act in all states. There should be fair and democratic representation of STs at every level of Minor Forest Produce ownership – collection, trading and processing. Displace and Rehabilitation of Tribal people has been major grey area.

Tribal-Packages-Gadaba-TribesThe right to free, prior and informed consent of tribal people should be a non-negotiable necessity while undertaking any projects in their areas Rehabilitation should be considered as an enforceable right of the displaced community and an indispensable duty of the State.

With respect to education, a scheme for free and compulsory education for tribals with separate budgetary allocation, along with participation of Tribals in developing its syllabus and pedagogy should be included. For strengthening access to health, the policy should propose that multi-doctors hospitals should supplement rather than replace existing PHCs. There is a need to include protection of rights of Schedule Tribes who have been victims of trafficking.

With respect to governance, participatory mechanisms involving local self governments to implement the approach of single line administration should be in place.

There is some ambiguity around the nature and scope of the term “Scheduled Tribe”. It merely points out the outdated and derogatory nature of criteria used for scheduling the tribes so far (primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact, backwardness). Therefore a new criterion should be outlined for Scheduled Tribe from the perspective of deprivation and exclusion – economic, political and social needs rather than drawing upon cultural and individual traits.

The declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People adopted by 143 member states of the United Nations, including India, in September 2007 states, “Indigenous people have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they are supposed to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development (Article 3)”. In the transient state of globalization, the Adivasis in the country are faced with new aspirations and problems. Therefore, the choice as to whether each community wants to retain or rebuild their cultural and political identities should be left to them. Thus, the right to self-determination be incorporated in the policy as a Fundamental Right of Schedule Tribes.

Apart from PESA, the policy should give recognition to traditional systems of governance and involve all community leaders in the decision making processes.

Most importantly, there shouldn’t be any further delay in the approval of the National Tribal policy.

The approval and implementation of this policy can ensure a guiding principle for the protection and empowerment of Schedule Tribes.

Adivasis should enjoy equal rights and treatment wherever they live or come from.

On World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we should be proud to recognize and honor the strength, resilience and dignity of indigenous people around the world and do all that we can to make sure that they are able to live without discrimination and disadvantages.

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*Sandeep Kumar Pattnaik works as a programme officer with the National Centre For Advocacy Studies, Bhubaneswar. He can be contacted at [email protected], mobile-8763210608

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