The Heart of our Darkness: Troubles in the Adivasi Homelands. II by Mohan Guruswamy

In the Heart ofDarkness. If youplace a map of India in front of you and put a finger on what you think is itsvery center then the chances are good that your finger will cover a tiny placecalled Multai in the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh. Over 35% of Betuldistrict is made up of tribal's of whom the Gonds account for a quarter of thetotal population. The other major caste groupings are the Pawars and Kunbis,both backward castes whose economic and social condition may only be marginallybetter than the Dalits and Adivasis.The plight of the Adivasis is probably even worse in thispart of the Satpura range where the deforestation is now total and what is leftis a monsoon dependent arid and dusty landscape of small farms on rolling hillsfrom which a marginal living can at best be pried out in the good years.
Multai is a small market town, about sixtykilometers south of Betul on what passes off as being a national highway thatlinks Nagpur and Bhopal. It is also the source of the Tapti River that like thebetter-known Narmada flows westwards to debouch into the Arabian Sea. It’s adirty and smelly town with overflowing sewage channels and piles of cattle dungand extrusions of pig shit that make walking on the narrow lanes dicey. It’s onthe main north-south rail line but few trains stop here. I have driven throughMultai several times over the years and had so far not even cared to stop byfor a cup of tea at a roadside dhaba. It’s that kind of place.
In the thirdweek of November 2008 I finally stopped by at Multai and spent the good part ofa week there and in the surrounding villages. What one saw was distressing anddepressing. In the small village of Jhulpa (pop. 495) thesarpanch, Radhubhai Kumre, an adivasiwoman stated the problems with dignified brevity. There is a severe waterproblem and that 80% of the men had gone to Bhavnagar in Gujarat as migrantworkers. Of the 550 acres owned by the villagers, only 50 acres are irrigatedby wells. The rest depend on rain. Gonds comprise 60% of the population with30% Pawars and the rest Dalits, a composition which puts them pretty low in theorder of priorities of the powers that be. The village along with theneighboring village of Kondhar had received only 70 quintals of wheat under theFood for Work program. Both which together have a working population of 500persons can thus provide work for only a hundred persons for just seven workingdays. She also told me that Namdev Wadbhude, the government appointed secretaryof the village panchayat and a class III government employee has not showed upin the village for over two months. On the other hand whenever he determinesthere is work to be done, he summons the sarpanch to Pattan town wherehe lives.

The onlyoutsiders who seem to regularly visit the village are the goons of MP’s mostfavored excise contractor who regularly beat up the Gonds who are each allowedto distil unto 5 liters of mahua liquor for personal consumption. But ifthey distil their own booze, and maybe even sell a bit the official excisecontractor, Som Distillers, loses business. The company makes significantcontributions to keep the political machineries of both the major parties, theBJP and Congress, well greased and hence the police are not about to take anyaction on them. It was the same sorry story in village after village. Somgad,Ambori, Kondhar….

It was anotherstory in the large village of Berul (pop. 5500).The population mostly belongs to the relatively prosperous Malicommunity and the major crop of the area is cabbage. There is almost 1500hectares under this and the farmers get a yield of about 20 tons or twotruckloads per hectare. The price of Rs. 10-12000 per ha they get just aboutenables them to break even. This works out to 50-60 paise per kilo is nowherenear the Rs.10-12 per kilo the consumer pays, suggesting that only themiddlemen prosper in the chain. The road joining Berul to Multai is in a worsestate than the usual MP road, meaning there are more potholes than tarmac onit. It also means that the trucks charge more. Electricity is intermittent. Thevillage boasts of one room government clinic and a part of the newlyconstructed school building recently collapsed. The villagers considerthemselves fortunate that it collapsed during the night. A retired SDO who nowlives here told me that he now realizes how pernicious and uncaring the systemhe served so long actually is. This is a prosperous village when compared tothe Gond villages, but the mood of hopelessness is worse here than there.

A famous Indian (guess who?) said that the soul of India lives inits villages.[66] Some nowsay that Bharat lives in the villages and India in the towns. But Bharat seesIndia everyday for TV now reaches out almost every village where people get tosee what is happening in the towns, cities and metropolises whereliberalization has given the middle class a new lifestyle and whereglobalization is the new mantra. Will they just sit back and watch the show? Orwill they be soon demanding that something comes their way also? This is themother lode of discontent waiting to be tapped in most of India. The nationalpolitical parties have other pre-occupations. It's the small regional partiesand the Naxalites who are tapping this.   A tourist brochure of the MP government describes thestate as “the heart of India” when it would be more apt to describe it as theempty belly of India. Nevertheless if one insists that it is the heart ofIndia, it must be its heart of darkness.

What is to bedone?[67] There is no need to seek solutions in VI Lenin’sprescriptions. And for that matter in Mao Zedong’s. Solutions lie within theIndian Constitution and in the universal principles of justice and equality. Inthe early days of our Republic, Jawaharlal Nehru on the advice of people likeVerrier Elwin sought to insulate the tribal areas from the predations of thenew order that was emerging in India. The migration of outsiders into thetraditional adivasi homelandscontinues unabated. This need to be reversed and the census data that will beavailable after the currently underway Census of India will provide enoughinformation about who is a local person and who is an outsider. There are 332tribal majority tehsils[68]in India, of which 110 are in the Northeast. Thus we see that in as many as 222tehsils spanning a population of over20 million.[69]Even so this is less than a quarter of the total number of tribal people inIndia, which the Census of 2001 estimated was about 84 million..[70]

The Fifth and Sixth Schedules underArticle 244 of the Indian Constitution in 1950 provided for self-governance inspecified tribal majority areas.[71]In 1999 the Government of India even issued a draft National Policy on Tribals[72]to address the developmental needs of tribal people. Special emphasis was laidon education, forestry, healthcare, languages, resettlement and land rights.The NDA government even established a Ministry of Tribal Affairs. The draft wasmeant to be circulated between MP’s, MLA’s and Civil Society groups. A CabinetCommittee on Tribal Affairs was meant to constantly review the policy. Littlehas happened since. The draft policy is still a draft, which means there is nopolicy. But it must also be stated that this sudden concern for tribals was mostlymotivated by the fears of conversion to Christianity that would have precludedtheir assimilation into the Hindu Samaj. Thus, even though the states ofChattisgarh and Jharkhand were carved out of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, realtribal issues relating to their culture, way of life and aspirations were notaddressed. Political power has still, by and large, eluded them. Even whentribal leaders come to the fore they are quickly sucked into the ways of thetraditional ruling classes and prove no less avaricious and corrupt.[73]Not to be left behind the UPA government drafted the Scheduled Tribes(Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005 but did not act upon it due topressure mounted by self-styled wildlife activists and the wildlife tourismlobby.

Even before Independence on December 161946, welcoming the Objectives Resolution in the Constituent Assembly, thelegendary adivasi leader Jaipal Singh[74]stated the tribal case and apprehensions explicitly. He said: “As a jungli, as an Adibasi, I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies ofthe Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should marchin that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group ofIndian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have beendisgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of theIndus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that itis the new comers — most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned —it is the new comers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley tothe jungle fastness...The whole history of my people is one of continuousexploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated byrebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. Itake you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter,a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity,where no one would be neglected.” The Resolution, to Jaipal, was simply amodern restatement of his own people’s point of view. In adivasi society, therewas no discrimination by caste and gender. Thus “you cannot teach democracy tothe tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them.” The adivasi’s paid dearly for takingJawaharlal Nehru at his word. Even if the provisions of the Constitution wereimplemented in some measure if not all of its spirit and word, the presentsituation would not have come to be.

But there are several paradoxes that mustalso be dealt with first.[75]The most important of these is that to provide good government in the worst oflaw and order environments. A better civil administration structure must comeup in place of the one present. This means the best officers drawn from acrossthe country. Perhaps it is time to constitute a new All India Service, similarto the former Indian Frontier Administrative Service. The IFAS was an eclecticgroup of officers drawn from various arms of the government. Unfortunately itwas merged into the IAS.[76]All tribal majority areas must be consolidated into administrative divisionswhose authority must be vested with democratically chosen leadership. This bodycould be called the AdivasiMaha-panchayat and must function as a largely autonomous institution. All lawspassed by the state legislatures must be ratified to the satisfaction of theMaha-panchayat. Instead of the state capital controlled government, theinstruments of public administration dealing with education, health,irrigation, roads and land records must be handed over to local governmentstructures. The police must also be made answerable to local elected officialsand not be a law unto themselves. The lament of the Adivasi about their role in their government is well known. It isthe subject of many a folk song.[77]

The local community must get all theroyalties for the minerals extracted from their areas. Till recently theroyalty paid by the extractors was a meager Rs.27 per metric ton. While it has beenannounced that this has now been raised to 10% of the market price, it islearned that in reality this has been raised just tenfold to Rs.270 per ton.[78]The cost of extraction is estimated to be not more than Rs.250 per ton. Theexport price has never fallen below Rs. 1500 per ton In February 2010 thelanded price per ton of Indian iron ore in China was $128, which is overRs.6000 per ton.[79] So one canimagine the margins the private and state owned exporters are raking in.Similar advantages are also accruing the Indian producers of steel, like TataSteel and the state owned SAIL.

The economics of steel manufacturing hasbeen made explicit by the Businessworld of July 31, 2010 in its story on thefinancial dire straits Ispat Industries, the steel company owned by ArcelorMittal Chairman L.N.Mittal’s two younger siblings, Pramod and Vinod. Ispat’sRs.12000 crores steel plant at Dolvi, Maharashtra financed with huge dollops ofinvestments by government owned financial institutions like the IDBI has nowpiled up a staggering debt of Rs.6800 crores. While some of this can beattributed to mismanagement and the usual shenanigans and corporate supportedextravagances of our industrialists, the economics of the industry based oncheap iron ore goes against Ispat Industries. In an insightful articleBusinessworld details how Ispat can never earn profits unless it has its own“captive” mines like Tata Steel, SAIl and others. The case is simple. Ispatspends about half its revenue on iron ore. Tata Steel, SAIL and others likeJindal, Essar spend about 20%. With captive mines Ispat’s input cost of ironore will be 70-80% cheaper. At present Ispat uses 7 million tons of iron oreannually, of which the public sector NMDC supplies 5 million tons, leaving agap of 2 million tons filled by imports. The average price of this iron ore isabout Rs. 6000 per ton, while if derived from ‘captive” mines it would cost itmerely about Rs. 500-550 per ton. The implications of this price differenceshould be obvious. What perhaps is not so obvious to most is that this isessentially a profit extracted from the nation’s mineral reserves, which mostlylies in the adivasi homelands andwhich by constitutional rights should be theirs.[80]The irony is that it is this low cost of iron ore extracted from its adivasi homeland mines that enables TataSteel not only to be one of the most profitable companies in India, but alsogives it the financial muscle to make huge overseas acquisitions. Ultimately,it is the poor adivasi who pays forit with his home and hearth and gets no credit for it! Either from the Statewhich connives in their exploitation or the industry that lords over theirresources.

But the real problem is that this relatively small amount of overRs.4600 crores because of the enhanced royalty will accrue to the state government’scoffers and like before little will filter down. It now needs to be mandated bylaw that for minerals extracted in tribal areas the royalty received should beentirely earmarked to the local administration. Only theAdivasi Maha-panchayat should be vested with the power to givemineral exploitation licenses to corporations.

If land is required for industrialization,the prices must be fixed to the satisfaction of local government authoritiesand not arbitrarily set by distant bureaucrats to suit the convenience of theinvesting corporation. We cannot have any more episodes like that in KalingaNagar[81]where the Tata’s got Adivasi lands ata fraction of their market value. Tata’s and others now want to exploitBastar’s iron ore. We have before us the experience of the National MineralDevelopment Corporation’s giant iron ore extraction project at Bailladilla inBastar’s Dantewara district. The locals get nothing but the most menial jobsand in return their hitherto pristine environment is ravaged beyond recognitionwith the streams choked with the debris of excavation. In 2007the AndhraPradesh government, in complete contravention of the laws governing theconversion of notified forests and tribal homelands and in a total reversal ofthe pre-election commitments of the Congress party, has signed agreements withJindal South West (JSW) of the Jindal group and the Anrak company ofRas-al-Khaimah to mine bauxite in the picturesque Araku Valley in the easterndistrict of Vizagapatam. This is estimated to displace over 100,000 tribalswhile creating jobs for a mere four hundred. The state government expects toreceive a royalty of Rs. 64.5 crores while the two companies are slated to rakein Rs. 1260 crores and Rs. 2350 crores respectively.[82]Clearly this kind of exploitation of tribal homelands and loot of the state hasgot to stop. And above all if natural resources must be exploited, then thelocal communities which bear the brunt of the suffering and burden due todisplacement and pollution must benefit the most. This is possible only whenthe public administration system is decentralized to ensure that localgovernments feel responsible for their people. That is why the Fifth and Sixthschedules under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution were enshrined in it in1950. Clearly sixty years is long enough to give the provisions of theConstitution life?

The real tragedy of the matter is that itis not as if the authorities are not aware of the oppression and exploitationof our tribal people. The Supreme Court while dealing with a case relating tothe acquisition of tribal land in Sundergarh district of Orissa by the MahanadiCoalfields Ltd., a Government of India enterprise, found that people whoselands were taken two decades ago were still not paid any compensation. In astunning rebuke to the government a bench of the Court comprising of JusticesAftab Alam and BS Mohanty termed its development policies “blinkered” and heldit responsible for “fuelling extreme discontent and giving rise to naxalism andmilitancy.” The Court also referred to the large-scale displacement of tribalsfrom forest land in the name of mining and development and said that the“non-settlement of their rights and non-provision of timely compensation oftheir lost land has created the worst kind of hatred among them towardsdevelopment, possible giving rise to extremism.”[83]

Another manifestation of “civilization”here has been the incidence of venereal diseases and the numbers of childrenfathered by NMDC employees who exploit liberal adivasi values. Clearly we need a new paradigm of development towork here. Merely establishing a “plantation” does not develop an area. Inreturn for their land, heritage and sheer cultural assault on their mores andvalues, the poor Maria Gonds of the region have got nothing. Sure India needsmore iron ore, but people like the Tata’s must be made to pay a pricecommensurate with the costs they will impose. If hydrocarbon reserves areopened to exploitation to the highest bidder, surely a similar and possiblemore equitable way can be found for the extraction of other mineral wealth?Just like Mr. Ratan Tata pays full value for acquiring Corus or Jaguar, he mustnow learn to pay full value to the people of the region who own the land. Mr.Tata will do well to visit an Indian reservation in the USA, where thecommunity now gets top dollar prices for their resources.

In the life of a nation, things are nevertoo late. Changes in course can always be charted. All that is needed is torealize that State is floundering and that it has made huge mistakesperpetrated huge injustices and has inflicted huge sufferings on tens ofmillions. The people who are vested with the control of the State must have thehumility to realize this. It’s never too late for a new beginning. But firstthe Prime Minister of India must have the bigness of heart to beg theforgiveness of India’s Adivasi peopleand seek a new beginning.

Mohan Guruswamy
October 7, 2010