The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes has been quite proactive in the last few months. It has prevailed upon the central government to withdraw orders that it thought “diluted” tribal rights, asked states to return “unfairly acquired tribal lands”, and reminded governors of their powers to protect Adivasis. Speaking to, the commission’s secretary Raghav Chandra explains why Adivasis in several parts of the country are upset with the projects coming up on their land and how the commission has come to play a central role on matters concerning Adivasis. Excerpts:

Adivasi communities in several parts of the country are protesting against the takeover of their land for development projects. What exactly is triggering so many conflicts over Adivasi lands?
The root cause of these problems is that adequate diligence has not been exercised at the critical stages of the project development. And the long-term interests of the villagers who are being affected by such projects – have not been credibly assessed, credibly diagnosed and credibly dealt with – let alone resolved. As a result of this, there is a state of distrust. There are empirical evidences on that. Besides the villagers are not suitably trained to be able to address and anticipate what their difficulties, challenges and problems will be in future. The government, on its part, has not adequately thought through various proposals in terms of taking aboard the long-term sustainable interests of the villagers whose land is going to be taken or those who would come into the influence zones of the projects. The industry has also not been sensitized that it would be deleterious to their long-term interests, if there is a backlash or if the people who are staying in that area are going to be adversely affected. A situation has emerged where industry has cut corners, government is fire-fighting and people have suffered.

As government servants, we have all been through this. We tend to treat project clearance as a matter of expediting and easing business and ensuring that the investments come in – into our area. There is a competitive pressure to enhance the speed and volume of investment. The perception is that there is a one-to-one correspondence between investment input and economic outcomes. But what we often overlook is that along with economic development also come environment hazards associated with the projects. Those are often ignored. That is the social cost and that has to be adequately factored in. People affected by projects are most vulnerable to their side effects. Suitable mechanisms should be set up to ensure that they are in a position to think their future through and are involved in every part of the planning process when the land is being acquired. Land is critical for people, especially for the tribes because they are largely dependent on it. Land is the only factor endowment of economic development that they usually have.

The other side of the argument is that we need growth for which investments need to be expedited.
There are studies, and I remember reading an article by Swaminathan Aiyar sometime back, that say people displaced by the Narmada dam have ultimately benefited. But I think such studies are neither comprehensive nor do they reflect the length and breadth of all the projects involving displacement. If you look at displacement, it is like forced migration – 20 years later, some people will get good jobs or get rehabilitated. That is because of innate human resilience and grit. But the pain and the strain they have to go through initially that too needs to be estimated and quantified. Displacement, especially of Adivasis, needs to be tackled right from the beginning, so that when land is acquired for an industrial or irrigation project, it should be a win-win situation for all, and not necessarily a situation where one party is benefitted at the expense of the other.

I have seen, as a field administrator, that we get carried away by the thought that we are bringing in investments and this will lead to dramatic economic development. We must indeed bring investments because investments mean employment opportunities for the people. While that side of the picture is clear, we have to also ensure that the people whose land is being taken and who are going to be displaced are rehabilitated in a manner that they are happier and more comfortable than they were previously – and this should be followed as a rule, not as an exception.

This is why one of the things I feel strongly about is that whenever land is acquired from scheduled tribes they must necessarily be given land in return – not just for homestead but also agriculture. It is not good enough to give them monetary compensation, because monetary compensation is very evanescent, very transient. They have little value for it. Tribal people spend their lives depending on their forests and land, and they must continue to enjoy the same synergetic relationship with their forests and land even after their land is acquired.

Some say the commission was operating from the fringes earlier but is now playing a more proactive role in governance. What has led to this change in attitude?
See, our perception is that we should deal with policy issues as well as individual cases. I am happy to say the commission has been focusing on a large number of policy issues related to safeguarding the larger generic status, rights and benefits associated with scheduled tribes. Therefore, we have sought to look at the larger picture of how to improve the condition of scheduled tribes wherever we have gone.

Let me give you an example. We went to Kerala to investigate the case of an Adivasi named Madhu. He was killed by some non-Adivasis in Attapadi. It was the negligence of the Forest Department that people were able to enter the reserve forest and bring this boy out and beat him up. We made various recommendations, some of which pertain to land issues. We said that apart ensuring compensation to Madhu’s family and their rehabilitation, and providing road, water and a ration shop in their area, the Forest Rights Act cases related to Adivasis living there should be resolved expeditiously.

Second, we observed that a lot of non-Adivasis have come in and settled in that forest area. Non-Adivasis are not supposed to be given access to the buffer zone of a forest, especially when it happens to be the Silent Valley reserve. But what has happened is that in a sort of creeping acquisition, the forest department has allotted pattas and leased land to non-Adivasis from outside that area in the garb of facilitating departmental activities. Our contention is that if at all they had to lease forest land, they should have leased it to Adivasis of that area given their historical indigenous rights over forest land. Now, non-Adivasis have come in, taken land and even sought more land. So, we have asked the state government to reconsider this whole matter of leasing to non-Adivasis forest land that should rightfully be settled in the name of Adivasis as per the provisions of the Forest Rights Act. They have not been able to give an adequate answer to this yet.

The third notable thing is that Kerala has a very fine model of returning land to Adivasis whose land has been alienated. They can go back even several decades to restore that land. While work on this was done expeditiously in the past, we have found that in the last decade the work has practically come to a stop. So, we are urging the state government that district collectors should relook at all such cases, decide them fast and wherever land can be restored to Adivasis it should be done expeditiously. We are also recommending that all states follow Kerala’s model and enact similar laws for restitution of tribal land.

In an unprecedented move, the commission has asked the Odisha governor to make sure the acquisition of land for the Rourkela Steel Plant is cancelled and the land returned to Adivasis living there.
In the matter of land acquisition for the Rourkela steel plant, we have found glaring anomalies. Thousands of acres of land were acquired for the plant. This was fine if you were utilising the land for the basic industrial activity for which the acquisition was intended. But if you were not doing industrial activity anymore, then that land should have been returned to scheduled tribes. Rourkela comes under the Fifth Schedule (a constitutional provision meant for the development and protection of scheduled tribes). Even though excess land was available with the steel plant, it was not used for resettling the displaced Adivasis. On the contrary, excess land was surrendered to the state government, which, in concert with the steel plant, allocated some of it to non-Adivasis – cooperative societies and private outfits – ignoring the Adivasis to whom it should have been actually devolved.

There is some land that was acquired for the Rourkela plant but not used and on which Adivasis continue to live. Now, the plant suddenly wants to displace those Adivasis in the name of expansion. We feel the Adivasis who have been staying there for 40-50 years should be allowed to remain. In any case, considering the modern technology available today, the plant should not require that much land. The plant already has 15,000-20,000 acres of land with it. So, they should relook at land utilisation, get it suitably mapped and planned, and cancel redundant allotments. What the commission has recommended is that the governor use his inherent powers under the Fifth Schedule to restore the unused land back to the Adivasis so that they do not have live in fear of being displaced.

You have frequently taken up matters related to the dilution of tribal rights by the Union ministry of environment and forests. What are your differences with the ministry?
We have no conflict with the environment ministry. Because they are doing their duty and it is our job to keep advising them about the interests of Adivasis. But at a general level, I would say the forest department, which is largely made up of people from the forest services, is trained to view Adivasis as adversaries and not as their associates. This thinking has to change. Adivasis, who are dependent on forests, who are part of forests, who are the children of nature, should be treated by the forest department and the environment ministry as no different from the forest. They should be treated with the same love and affection as the flora and fauna. This symbiotic relationship, which is unfortunately not there today, needs to be restored.

The Fifth Schedule areas were created for the upliftment of Adivasis. But decades after the creation of these areas, Adivasis remain among the most marginalised vulnerable sections of the country’s population.
I feel the Fifth Schedule needs to be strengthened. Compared to the provisions of the Sixth Schedule (which apply to tribal areas in the Northeast) that allow considerable administrative and legislative autonomy to schedule tribes, the Fifth Schedule has not succeeded in adequately safeguarding scheduled tribes or promoting their economic standards. It has not adequately protected them from displacement or enabled them to leverage their historical relationship with the forest. Their economic and social parameters are the lowest in the country. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act has not been suitably implemented either.

The Fifth Schedule does provide some safeguards but not the kind of protection, autonomy, confidence building and the ability to raise economic status that the Sixth Schedule provides. As a result, tribal people in the North East are perhaps more economically advanced than those in Chhattisgarh or Madhya Pradesh or Odisha. They are also more confident because of the greater independence derived through their autonomous tribal councils.

This gap needs to be bridged through suitable legislation, effective policy intervention and sensitive execution. There is a need for a national cadre of tribal development officers, along the lines of the Indian Forest Service, to restore the balance and to help tribal people catch up with the rest of the society.