The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) lamented that tribal people have become the biggest victims of "development" for several reasons lack of numbers and political voice in a democracy run on a first past the post ballot being foremost.
They have been scattered and unorganized and thus unable to employ their votes as a weapon of change. The fact that Dalits and other backward classes with no pan Indian leadership have grown from their ranks has added to their woes in a centralised majoritarian democracy.
Development means different things to different people; for tribal people, however, it means just one thing: getting displaced. Those designated as scheduled tribes under the Indian Constitution have suffered the curse for way too long to think otherwise. They constitute just eight percent of country's population but almost 50 percent of the total number of people displaced for different development projects since independence.
The estimates for the 1951 to 1990 period put the total number of displaced Indians at 21.3 million, a whopping 8.54 million of them were tribal. The AHRC deplored that the trend has merely accelerated with the opening up of Indian economy in the 1990s with estimates pegging the total number of displaced people at 60 million, with tribal people being the worst affected.
The only thing worse than the displacement is the government's track record in rehabilitating those affected. Between 1951 and 1990 only 2.12 million of the displaced 8.54 million tribal people were resettled; the government abandoning the rest to swell the urban poor population of the country. As the resettlement policy of the government has not changed for any better, the numbers should give an indication of the fate of those displaced post-1990.
It was in this context that The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, making the prior consent of gram sabhas for acquiring land mandatory, arrived as a relief. Sections 43 to 50 of this Act have provisions for resettlement & rehabilitation and specific safeguards to Scheduled Tribes with respect to Scheduled Areas under Section 41 and 42.
Together with the Section 4(5) of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the 2013 Act rendered illegal the eviction of any member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe, or other traditional forest dweller, until the completion of recognition and verification procedure for settlement of forest rights.
AHRC expressed concern that the current government, unfortunately, seems to be in a hurry to undo the much-delayed safeguard obtained by tribal people in India. The Modi government stands ready with a notification that will allow industries to chop down traditional forests without the consent of gram sabhas a precondition of the 2013 Act.
Despite stiff opposition from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the Environment Ministry has allowed diversion of forest land for linear projects like roads and pipelines without the prior consent of the gram sabhas concerned if plantations are found to have been notified as forests after December 13, 1930. Ironically, the notification also negates the forest dwelling peoples' heritable rights to land where they have been living for either three generations or 75 years, something granted by the Forest Rights Act.
Thought the government has the numbers on its side in the lower house of Indian Parliament, AHRC felt that it might wish to reconsider the move that will end up violating the rights of millions of tribal people and exposing them to displacement and hunger. A strong nation and leadership is not one that postures across its borders, but one mature and sensitive enough to protect its most precious resources and vulnerable citizens: its teeming natural forests and its rich diversity of tribal communities.