Essence of freedom: What independence means to tribals of India


By Kanika Rangray

indianflagOn this 69th Independence day of India, we celebrate the anniversary of the fulfilment of the dream of the many freedom fighters of India; the dream for which they happily laid down their lives, the dream of an “Independent India.”

But the question also arises if this independence is the same for all. What has this independence meant for the tribal society?

The Tribal society of India

For a very long time, the tribal people have been considered as the primitive segment of the Indian society. They have been ear-marked as a community of people who live in forests and hills, and survive on what the forests have to offer them, without any contact with civilisation.

According to the 2011 census, tribal population in India is 104 million, which is 8.6 percent of the Indian population. Majority of the tribal population of India lives in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and some north-eastern states, along with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

When India became an independent and democratic country, relations between tribes and the more advanced majority communities changed; the tribal people now had rights to vote in general elections for the Parliament and Legislative Assembly of their respective states.

However, this did not have much effect on them, because they did not understand the implication of this right, but local elections did affect them. When some of the most powerful people in their district approached the poorest of the villagers for vote appeal; this alerted them to a fundamental change in the system.

Headman_Kapika_und_sein_EnkelTill date, tribals continue to occupy the lowest economic strata, their area of habitation least developed in terms of infrastructure and all other aspects of development.

The tribal people in India have been exploited since colonial times. The encroachment upon their land by the non-tribal people hampered not only their lifestyle but also led to uprisings among them.

In order to save the Indian tribes from further exploitation, the constitution provided some safeguards:

  • Article 46 of the Indian Constitution says that the state should promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the tribal people and should protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation through special legislatures.
  • Article 244(2) (Sixth Schedule) provides a self-government to the tribal peoples by making a provision of the creation of autonomous district council, creation of districts and regional councils. The objective of Sixth Schedule was to enable tribal people to live according to their own ways.
  • Article 275(1) provides special grant-in-aid for promoting the welfare of the Scheduled Tribes (ST).
  • Article 330, 332, 335 allocates a reservation of seats for the STs in Lok Sabha and in state legislatures as well as in services

However, these constitutional provisions have done little to help them. Majority of the tribes in India live below the poverty line. The tribes lead simple lives, with most of the occupations being of the primary kind such as hunting, gathering and agriculture, and they are carried out using simple technology. There is no profit and surplus making in such economy, and hence their per capita income is very meagre in comparison to the Indian average. This leads to debt at the hands of local moneylenders and zamindars, and mortgaging or selling off their lands to moneylenders. Ultimate result is displacement on a large level.

Talking about health and nutrition, the Indian tribal population suffers from chronic infections and diseases, the water-borne diseases being life threatening, deficiency diseases. Infant mortality rate is also very high in the tribal population of India. Malnutrition is common. Also, the disturbed ecological balance, caused due to the cutting of trees have increased the distances between villages and the forest areas, thereby forcing tribal women to walk longer distances in search of forest produce and firewood.

In terms of formal education, it has made very little impact on tribal groups. Even though there is an ST reservation quota in most schools and colleges across the country, the penetration of education in the tribal groups is still very low. This low level of education can be accounted to many reasons such as formal education not being deemed necessary to discharge their local obligations. Superstition and myths also play their role for tribals rejecting education. Also, extreme poverty makes it difficult for them to send their children to school as they are considered as extra helping hands. Most disappointing is that formal schools themselves do not hold any special interests for these children, and most of the tribes being located in interior and remote areas teachers do not like to go there.

The government initiated a handful of schemes to help the tribal or scheduled tribes (ST) communities; for their development. But the sort of development which they look forth to is like providing them roads, electricity, pukka houses to live in. But isn’t that equal to destroying their culture and their homes?

independenceThe tribes have made their homes in the forests and the hills, they know it better than anyone else. Just like a man living in a village or city knows how to take care of his home better than anyone else, similarly the forests are the homes of their tribes. They nurture it and take care of it better than a ministry set up by the government could do.

Development in the true sense for the tribals would be in educating them and providing them the technology through which they can nurture the forests. Development for the nation would be when these forests are given to these tribes, by making them their caretaker.

The end result would be a developed and independent tribal society of India, and a better green cover which would take us one step forward in achieving a perfect ecological balance in the country.

This would be independence for the tribal society of India.