January 2020
#Voter , 502 Views
The Fight for the Few

By: Sibi Arasu
Illustrations By: Namrata Kumar

For the indigenous people of Southern India, democracy hasn’t lived up to all it promised.

In an attempt to recognise the impoverished state of the geographically, culturally, and ethnically varied indigenous people of India, the makers of the Constitution created Article 342. The provision specifies many of India’s tribal communities as Scheduled Tribes (STs)—updated from the colonial-era term, “Depressed Classes”—issuing policy correctives for the discrimination and socio-political vulnerability they have historically experienced.

Through this intervention, the Constitution envisioned a three-pronged strategy for empowering disenfranchised communities in the prevailing social order: Firstly, offering legal protection against violence, secondly, enforcing a policy of affirmative action based on a reservation system in public service jobs, representative bodies, and educational institutions, and thirdly, allocating resources and benefits aimed at lessening the gap between these communities and the rest of Indian society.

However, with the definition of Scheduled Tribes, over 100 million people belonging to at least 705 unique ethnic groups, spread out across the vast geographical terrain of India, were clubbed together. Though convenient for administrative purposes, it has reduced STs to a faceless economically backward minority and, in the process, erased their strong and distinct identities. While the central and state governments are theoretically supposed to provide special attention to them, the failure of policy implementation at local levels has caused the voices of most tribal communities to be more or less ignored.

Adivasi, or indigenous people, make up only 8.6 percent of India’s population, and in many regions their numbers are too small to be considered as significant ‘vote banks’ for those campaigning for regional and national parties. This demographic marginality has meant that the Adivasis, often the passive recipients of government policy, have often been dispossessed of their land and meagre belongings and forced to join the seemingly limitless pool of migrant labourers relocating to various urban centres in desperate attempts to somehow survive.

In southern India, each state is home to at least 30 of the Scheduled Tribes officially listed in the Indian constitution. Despite this, theymake up only one percent of the population of Tamil Nadu and 1.4 percent of the population of Kerala. The Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu is a particularly interesting demographic case as it is home to the most diverse and vulnerable Adivasi population in southern India. Located in the Western Ghats, the mountainous Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu is home to some of the oldest peoples of India, with many dolmens and burial sites found in the region being widely accepted as indicators of settlements from prehistoric times.

There are several indigenous groups here, including the Todas, Kotas, Kurumbars, Irulars, Paniyars, and the Kattunayakan communities. The Kurumbars themselves have three distinct sub-groups, namely the Jenu Kurumbars, the Betta Kurumbars, and the Mullu Kurumbars. All of these Adivasi groups have only a few thousand people left and belong to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), assigned by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1961. PVTGs is a sub-classification under STs made to differentiate and provide special attention to tribal groups that have maintained a pre-agricultural system of sustenance through hunting and gathering, zero or negative population growth, and extremely low levels of literacy in comparison with other tribal groups. There are seventy five such groups listed in India, out of which six call the Nilgiris district home.

Each of these communities have traditionally had their own distinct habitats and were so isolated that there was little contact between them, let alone with people from other parts of the country. This is, in large part, due to the topography of the region. The Nilgiri Hills rise from 900 to 2,600 meters above sea level, with different indigenous groups having settled at distinct altitudes and geographies. The Todas, for instance, are pastoral and settled at higher altitudes where the grasslands were ideal for their buffalos to graze. The Kattunayakan people live in the more wooded tropical forests present at around 1,000 to 1,200 meters of elevation and are known to forage for forest produce such as honey. The community’s name literally translates to the “king of the forests” in Tamil.

The region, also home to endemic flora and fauna, was left largely undisturbed tillthe advent of the colonial era 200 years ago. During the 19th century, British colonists, who saw the Nilgiris as an ideal region for commercial tea cultivation, levelled the mountainous terrain en masse to grow tea, thus destroying most of the natural vegetation and traditional ways of living there. The Adivasi people, about four percent of the district’s population, could do little to counter these developments. Even though they were eventually employed in these plantations by the Indian administration, they remained isolated from the Indian mainstream because of the remote locations of their hamlets and villages.

After Independence, and with the emergence of the modern Indian state apparatus, many Adivasi communities in the region still enjoy only a remote relationship to democracy. Many Adivasi people living in distant or difficult-to-reach regions continue to be left out of the evolving public welfare system, and many of their demands still fall on deaf ears, with only a handful managing to leave the social and economic immobility they are born into.

We talked to people from some of these communities who have managed to break through the immobility trap and are acting as catalysts for progress. These are people who have been subject to, or have witnessed first- hand, the enormous pressures on Adivasi life in the Nilgiris. Through their work and life, they are trying to change their current circumstances of political invisibility and suppression so that future generations of indigenous people can be seen as equal and more valued participants of the Indian democratic system.

Sobha Madhan, 33, belongs to the traditionally nomadic Betta Kurumbar community, of whom only 6,000 people remain today. Madhan says, “When I think about the word ‘democracy’, I have to say the first thought that comes to my mind is that I have never seen it India.” Madhan lives in the tiny hamlet of Thenembad, nestled inside the Western Ghats, about an hour away from the town of Gudalur in the Nilgiris district. Like many other young Adivasi people, Madhan is a first-generation learner. She adds, “It is not only in India, but I believe the Adivasi experience is similar to mine, regardless of where you live in the world.”

Madhan has spent the last decade working as a social worker and activist, visiting and observing how various indigenous groups across the country work. She is now trying to apply these lessons for the betterment of her community by organising free after-school tutoring for Betta Kurumbar children and enabling everyone to receive the benefits that they are entitled to through the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. In Tamil Nadu, the implementation of the FRA has been particularly abysmal, with only 6,387 claims being fulfilled in the 12 years since the law was passed. “I might be an Indian citizen be- cause of the workings of geography and politics, but I honestly don’t know what role I play here. I don’t feel like I’m a part of a larger entity, nor do I experience any benefit from being a part of India,” says Madhan.

Northay Kuttan, 34, spearheads the Nilgiris Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (NPVTG) federation, which pressures government officials to stay attentive and accountable to the rights claimed by the Adivasi communities in the district. “Even though Adivasi people are entitled to a lot of rights, there is no one who cares about making sure they are aware of this,” says Kuttan, who belongs to the Toda community, of whom only 1,500 people remain today. “Since our populations are so little, we don’t figure in electoral calculations either. In the Nilgiris, since we are so scattered, that makes things more difficult as well. Most Adivasi people don’t know about any government schemes or what is happening at all in the outside world, because they are living in such remote regions.”

As the treasurer and one of the founders of the NPVTG, Kuttan has in-depth knowledge about the various programs and welfare measures that have been sanctioned for the socioeconomic development of Adivasi people across India. “There are crores of rupees allotted ever year that are supposed to be used for the benefit of the Adivasi people, but when it comes to implementing these schemes and utilising this money effectively, our governments are still sorely lagging behind. I don’t think we feel the benefits of being in a democracy completely.”

Much like the NPVTG federation, the Adivasi Welfare Association (AWA) was founded with the objective of empowering Adivasi communities, encouraging people to file claims for their rights and work towards achieving these claims. K. Veerappan, 44, a coordinator for the Association, says, “I tell them to not be slaves and that they shouldn’t be dependent on NGOs or Trusts or any other groups but be independent in asking for what is rightfully theirs.” He belongs to one of the Dalit communities who were relocated to the Nilgiris generations ago to work as wage labourers in the tea plantations. He adds, “I believe unequal democracy is the prevalent situation when it comes to Adivasi people. They are essentially being fooled in the name of democracy. A citizen-based democracy is not there.”

Veerappan works with various Adivasi communities in the region to establish the importance of educating communities about what they are entitled to and restoring their sense of dignity and self-respect. “The rights are there only for the privileged and not for all the citizens,” he adds. “If you are a Muslim, a Dalit, an Adivasi, or belonging to any kind of minority, it is more often than not that you are oppressed. The democracy seems to work only for those that are in the majority.”

Through their work, Madhan, Kuttan, and Veerappan have been able to witness the unequal relationship between the Nilgiris district’s Adivasi communities and the Indian government first-hand. In this region, while the Adivasi people are celebrated by the mainstream for their cultural heritage, there is little done in terms of implementing the various government measures meant for their communities’ social progress.

As Madhan told us, “The Betta Kurumbars, my community, are so less in number that they are not even listed as a separate entity in the listof Scheduled Tribes. They are actually grouped together with the Jenu Kurumbars and Mullu Kurumbars.” This lack of identity also affects how the community’s people view themselves. Madhan adds: “I almost feel like I’m an unwanted child or a stranger in this country, I do not feel like I belong here. My identity is not part of the Indian consciousness.” Kuttan expressed a more moderate stance: “I’m happy to be an Indian citizen. I don’t know too much about the situation in other countries but I do believe that I enjoy more freedom here in India than many people in the world, living in various regions.”

However, he empathised with the position of other Adivasi communities who have not been lucky enough to live near Ooty. “I do think my experience as a Toda is better than what most other Adivasi people go through,” he says. “We have had more access to various schemes and services.” Even though it is located at an altitude of 2,240 meters about sea level, Ooty, which was also the summer capital of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, houses many crucial administrative offices of the Indian government, which means that the people here are better connected than those who live in more remote regions of the district. “Other Adivasi communities such as the Paniars and the Kurumbars who live deep within the forests have been the most deprived,” adds Kuttan. “It is not even high-level government officials but lower rung officers who treat these people badly and are constantly threatening and instilling a sense of fear in them. I don’t think they feel independent here as many other Indian citizens do.”

His claims are only reaffirmed by repeated incidents in the district where lower rung officials have misused the little power they have, effectively antagonising the Adivasi people. For instance, this past October, twenty one tribal families where allegedly duped by a forest official, a local lawyer, and real estate developers, who pocketed the little money the families received as part of a rehabilitation package for relocating from their ancestral homes. “It is more than a decade since the Forest Rights Act got passed but, till now, hardly anyone has received the benefits,” says Kuttan. “I think the systems in India are very good, people like Babasaheb Ambedkar have done an amazing job. Having said that, I think there are a lot of loop holes that are being constantly exploited.”

The FRA, which was passed as an effort to “correct historical injustices,” has been mired in controversy ever since its ratification. Today, only 46 percent of the total claims received across India have seen land titles distributed. Most of these have been in what are classified as “Left Wing Extremism”-affected states in central India. If these states are removed from the equation, there is a further reduction of the percentage of claims that were acted upon, with states such as Tamil Nadu distributing land titles for only 18 percent of the claims it received. In addition to this, the law has also been stuck in a judicial quagmire at the Supreme Court regarding an eviction order that could potentially impact 1.1 million forest dwellers.

The haphazard manner in which the FRA has been handled by Indian administrators has only further reaffirmed the notion that India’s Adivasi people, similar to many other citizens, feel under-represented and used by politicians. “In my experience, I have seen that politicians are only interested in vote banks, they do not care about anything else,” says Kuttan. “So it falls upon the government officers, right from the district collector down to the clerical staff, to implement various development schemes.” In the beginning of 2018, the government had earmarked 390 billion rupees to be spent on tribal welfare. Various government departments were to spend anywhere from two to 20 percent of their budget on tribal welfare. Toward the end of the year, reports from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs showed that less than half of the money was spent.

According to another report published by The Economic Times in 2018, the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Department of Food and Public Distribution, the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports didn’t spend a single rupee from the fund allocated for this purpose. As Kuttan says, “People in tribal communities have no idea this much money has been allocated toward their community’s development. I don’t think neither the politicians nor the officials respect or put in as much time and energy as is required for the Adivasi people to progress and move forward.” The lack of any representative from the Adivasi communities only adds to the skewed views that are held by those in power.

“All people in government seem to think that the Adivasi have no values and are power- less people,” says Veerappan. “In the best case scenario, they don’t bother with them and in the worst case, they look at them like criminals or untouchables for no reason. The Indian democratic system has no clue about how the Adivasi people have lived or do things. [They] enjoy no respect, are provided no dignity and they are, I’m sad to say, barely considered as people even by most government officials.”

Even though they have been poorly documented, the traditional systems of being among Adivasi communities in India seem to have been more egalitarian. In an essay for the Economic and Political Weekly, the historian Ramachandra Guha argues that the Adivasi people, as a whole, have gained least and lost most from six decades of democracy and development in India. He states that despite being more deprived than the Dalits, they have been unable to articulate their grievances through democratic and electoral process, referring to the 1961 Dhebar Commission, a high-level committee led by senior congressman U.N. Dhebar aimed at looking into the situation in tribal areas in India. The commission concluded that, “There is a feeling amongst the tribals that all the arguments in favour of preservation and development of forests are intended to refuse their demands.”

This resonates with Madhan’s views on this issue as well: “Tribal lives were different beforeand the systems were totally different to what they are now. We had our own practices and the systems were framed in a way were sharing was given a lot of importance. There were no set boundaries and surplus produce was shared evenly. There was also a lot of bartering between families and groups and there was no concept of keeping more than you need to yourself.” Many academic studies and literature both about and emerging from Adivasi communities address such barter systems. References in compilations such as Contemporary Adivasi Writings in India: Shifting Paradigms by Rajshree Trivdi and Rupalee Burke and collections such as The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar are testimony to this. “Unfortunately,” the hallmark of the current systems has become selfishness, even among people in my tribe.”

According to Veerappan, these traditional systems also encourage an inherent sense of morality and ethical value that dissuaded membersof the community from performing crime or behaving violently among themselves. “Earlier in their systems, people were afraid to commit crimes, there was a certain ethic that encouraged behaving in a good manner and to be useful to the community,” he says. “Now those value systems are no more. So in that sense, the imposition of the Indian systems of governance without understanding their systems and ways of living has had an extremely negative effect on the Adivasi people here.”

While remnants of these systems remain, mostly as religious ceremonies which too have been appropriated by mainstream Hinduism—famously, both Odisha’s Jagannath Temple and Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple were places of worship for each region’s Adivasi people—the social ethos that would have held the various people belong to Adivasi communities has found little space to thrive in the modern Indian democracy.

When asked if they exercise their right to vote, Madhan responded with a vehement no: “I do not believe this system is going to help my people in any way.” Her view seems to be echoed by many Adivasi people in the region, especially those among the younger generations, who have both lost, or are quickly losing, their traditional systems and simultaneously finding themselves increasingly isolated from the Indian mainstream. Kuttan and Veerappan were more pragmatic with regards to this. As Kuttan says, “I vote for whoever I think will be most efficient in implementing government schemes. I also believe in anti-incumbency since most politicians tend to get too comfortable when they are in power for too long.” Veerappan expressed similar sentiments.

Overall, a sense of jadedness prevailed in Madhan, Kuttan, and Veerappan’s perspectives on being a part of the Indian polity—and rightfully so. For them, the idea of being victim to the system is more conceivable than that of benefiting from it. As Veerappan says, “India needs to understand the reality of the Adivasi way of life. The government needs to realise that a rights-based approach is important and not everything is about freebies and welfare measures. This will restore self-respect and dignity among people of these communities. It is only then that they might begin to feel like they belong here.” Madhan is less generous: “I don’t know frankly what democracy really means. Maybe at some point somebody thought of these lofty ideals. I have never seen it practised properly in my experience here. Politicians just want people’s vote and want none of the responsibility that goes along with it, this is the reality. I don’t know if I’m sounding too angry or disillusioned, regardless, this is the truth. Whether I am soft-spoken or shouting, the truth remains the truth. This is our reality that we are living in today.”