Several provisions have been made for the protection and welfare of the tribal people. Prominent among them are affirmative action programmes, on which crores of rupees have been spent by the government since Independence.

The rest of the population sees tribals as one dependent solely on state patronage. Along with Dalits, they are seen as emptying the state exchequer. On close introspection, however, this is far from true.

Justifications for development projects that displace millions from their homes and sources of livelihood have been made on the ground that the projects are going to be of immense benefit to the country, region or locality. The generation of power, extension of irrigation facilities and opportunities for employment, development of infrastructure, etc., are some of the reasons invoked in support of such projects.

There is hardly any doubt that such projects bring about development and contribute to economic growth. The irony is that the benefits of such development have hardly accrued to people who have made possible these projects by their sacrifice.

Notwithstanding these developments, only 5 per cent of villages in Jharkhand were electrified and only 7.2 per cent of the total area was under irrigation by March 1973. Further, despite the rapid urbanisation of tribal areas, the percentage of tribal people living in urban areas was hardly visible.

Since then, there has been further development in the state. By 1996 in Jharkhand, for example, eight major and fifty-five medium hydraulic projects along with many more minor projects had come up. Needless to say, these displaced a large number of households. Yet the area under irrigation in Jharkhand constituted only 7.68 per cent of the net sown area and households electrified were a mere 9.04 per cent.

As many as 201 large- and medium-scale industries have come up in Jharkhand, displacing a large number of families on the one hand and providing employment to lakhs of people on the other. Yet the benefits of these did not go to tribal people of Jharkhand or the displaced tribals.

This can be vividly illustrated by citing the case of coal mine industries. Between 1981-85, the industry displaced 32,750 families, but provided a job to only 11,901 heads of households. The gravity of this situation is compounded by the fact that the displaced, until recent years, were hardly thought to be rehabilitated. They received only cash compensation. Yet, even here the state has been found faltering in its responsibility.

It was found out in 1988 that after thirty years of filling the Hirakud reservoir, compensation amounting to Rs 15 crore was due for payment to 9913 claimants who lost their land. In the case of the Machkund hydro-electric project, only a few households enjoyed the benefits of being rehabilitated, while the benefits of the project in general were hardly received by the displaced. In terms of irrigation, electric power, tourism, pisciculture and other schemes for economic development, the government, for example, justified the Upper Kolab project. However, the displaced had none of these benefits.

What has been the net result of the two kinds of interventions? One is that the gap between tribes and the rest of the population with respect to the fruits of development is widening. There is no doubt that there has been an increase in literacy rate, decrease in the size of people below the poverty line, decrease in the school dropout rate, etc. Still, the affirmative action programme to bridge the gap has not borne results.

To illustrate, the gap between Scheduled Tribes and the general population in respect of literacy rate was 18.15 per cent in 1971, which increased to 19.88 per cent in 1981 and 22.61 per cent in 1991. People below the poverty line, with respect to the general rural population, stood at 53 per cent in 1977–78 and 37 per cent in 1993-94. The corresponding figure for Scheduled Tribes has been 72 per cent in 1977-78 and 52 per cent in 1993-94.

By 2004-05, the share of the tribal population living below the poverty line declined to 46.5 per cent compared to 27.6 per cent for the population as a whole. The share of agricultural labour among tribes has witnessed a phenomenal increase. Landlessness, too, has increased manifold.

It is worth noting that it is unimaginable to think of tribes as landless, as land and forest have been traditionally their life support system. However, by 1993-94, as many as 48 per cent had begun to be enumerated as rural-labour households, which was much higher compared to 30 per cent for the non-tribal population. Further, the size of wage labour has been much higher in central India than in the North-eastern region.

On average, nearly 50 per cent of households depended on wage employment in the central India belt, compared to only 17.30 per cent in the North-eastern states. Thus, although there has been a decline in people living below the poverty line, the level of poverty in the tribal population, especially in the central India region, is still much higher than the national average and the gap between the two continues to be one of the major issues of concern in poverty discourse in India.

The poverty level and size, however, varies across regions, states and even tribes. The examples cited are merely illustrative, not exhaustive.

Much of the reason as to why the gap has remained intact – or even widening – is inherent in the way tribal problems have been articulated by the state and state apparatus. The tribal problem has primarily been couched in terms of social and economic backwardness arising from their geographical and social isolation. Hence the whole discourse on tribes has been around the question of integration through the extension of civil, political and social rights.

Yet, the economic rights which tribes enjoyed – and which was their critical asset – have been usurped by the state in exchange for the above-mentioned rights. In fact, the extension of civil, political and social rights has become the arena of legitimising the expropriation of resources of the tribal people.

In fact, the integration of tribes has been seen as the panacea of their problems. However, if one looks at the nature of integration, one finds that the relationship between tribes and non-tribes and even the state, has been overwhelmingly interspersed with exploitation, domination and discrimination, which is conveniently overlooked.

Being Adivasi: Existence, Entitlements, Exclusion

Excerpted with permission from Being Adivasi: Existence, Entitlements, Exclusion, edited by Abhay Xaxa and Ganesh N Devy, part of the Rethinking India series, Penguin Books India.