Tribal earth caves in

Updated on: May 03, 2012






When community rights are trampled upon with impunity, no mining package can ever compensate for the invasion into centuries-old tribal homelands. The Tribal Affairs Minister speaks his mind.

The recent abduction by Maoists of a Collector in Chhattisgarh has once again raised questions over the growing clout of Left-wing extremists in tribal areas. Hailing from a tribal chieftain's family, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj Kishore Chandra Deo didn't mince words when he told Life that inclusive growth and cancellation of mining licences in some of these regions can dramatically improve the situation.


The recent abduction of the Sukma district Collector, Alex Paul Menon, by Maoists has once again brought to the fore the strife and turmoil in tribal areas. What is your ministry doing to get the tribals away from the lure of Maoists and naxalites?

First of all, we have to go into the root cause. The naxal problem is confined to the five Scheduled States, which are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh… areas where tribals live. Can you imagine that many of these areas have not even been surveyed till today? I was surprised to read when this Collector was kidnapped in Chhattisgarh that, till today, 60,000 sq km of land has not been surveyed. We've got satellite pictures of particular habitations of the extremists. The paramilitary forces went there and found this was a tribal village whose name is not known or registered anywhere.

Which means even during elections, nobody goes there…

Yes, people don't go there at all. And it is not a small area…

But what is the reason?

I fail to understand. It is basically neglect, a question of exploitation, oppression and suppression that has led these people into the arms of the extremists. Today the main threat causing unrest and uneasiness in these areas is the threat of mining. These are also mineral-rich areas.

And the big corporates are naturally after them?

Yes, in UPA I, we got the Forest Rights Act, but in our Ministry we have records to show that while 14 lakh claims were accepted, an equal number — 14-15 lakh — of community rights have not been recognised. So before recognising their rights or discussing a package with them, if you want to go in for mining it is like putting the cart before the horse. And what proof will they have once you throw them out… they will become homeless and you will be depriving them of their sources of livelihood. They don't have a sustainable source of livelihood.

They depend on nature, as they always have…

Yes, and after that they are open to exploitation by anybody; they are homeless, they become orphans and in these situations and circumstances what else can you expect from them?

So as the Tribal Affairs Minister, who is expected to work for the welfare of tribals, you must be pitted against others from the economic ministries who want to give out land for mining citing economic development?

When we talk of development we'll have to understand and define what we mean by development. Our Prime Minister has time and again said he wants inclusive growth for development. But does development mean making two lakh or five lakh people homeless? And that, for the sake of half a dozen corporate houses? When we talk of development we'll have to be very, very conscious that development should also carry along this section of people.

The Preamble to the Constitution says we have a social commitment. What is its meaning unless we carry this section of people along with us? Any government worth its salt should take steps to ensure that this class of deprived people is first taken care of.

How do you manage the pulls and pressures in the Cabinet? And from strong corporate lobbies?

It is very, very difficult at this juncture. You see, things have gone to such a state…

The extremists have their own parallel administration in some areas…

Yes, parallel administration or no administration at all. In my constituency, which is on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, there is the threat of bauxite mining. Unfortunately, the Government gave licences to the State Mineral Development Corporation, which has signed MoUs with various private corporates. Some of these have partnerships with companies abroad. We have constitutional safeguards for these tribal areas; there are special laws to see that their land rights are protected. My point is, today you cannot buy or lease a piece of land there. But if you form a company…

You can take thousands of acres!

Yes, you can take thousands of acres for mining… isn't this the most naked and blatant assault on the provisions of the Fifth Schedule? This has to be undone.

What is the way out?

I have written to the Andhra Pradesh Governor; our Constitution endows the Governor with special powers as far as scheduled areas are concerned, and the special powers have to do with land and areas where there is no good governance. Now, here there is no question of good or bad governance; there is no governance at all in some areas. And this relates to problems arising from land, minerals and lack of livelihood. And if the Governor doesn't act on this, then why should the Governor have any powers at all? So I wrote to him about two weeks ago.

Bauxite mining is becoming a big problem and the border is very volatile and I am sitting right there. Tomorrow if you say there will be no bauxite mining you will see that within a week or 10 days there will be a change.

Because, repeatedly, the Government comes through as absolutely helpless when your own IAS or IPS officers or other bureaucrats and workers are kidnapped.

But, after all, all of us put together, including themselves (the bureaucrats), have created this situation… where they could be kidnapped. So, ultimately, we have to strike at the root of the problem. I feel that if you cancel the mining licences, if the threat of mining goes, immediately you will see that the situation improves. But you are not doing this despite your officers being kidnapped.

So the Government has to wake up?

Yes, and see the writing on the wall.

In the Cabinet meetings do you have a conflict with the other ministries that argue in favour of mining licences?

Yes, I do. I have spoken up saying we have to change our ways. Not only that. You can't ride roughshod over existing enactments and legal provisions we are bound by. After all, we are all bound by the Constitution, if nothing else. Even those provisions are being given a go-by.

And the corporates that come for mining say ‘we'll give them jobs'; but, ultimately, the jobs the tribals get are as watchmen, sweepers...

My point is that you'll give them jobs, but why can't you give them a share in the company. They are rich minerals and we need to mine them. I'll ask you one question. Under Lutyen's Delhi, if there is most valuable mineral (deposit), will you give it to the corporates to mine? In Colaba (in Mumbai), if they find something which is not available anywhere in the world, will you allow mining there?

Where do you see this problem heading? What is the writing on the wall?

The writing on the wall is that we are blinding ourselves to the truth, to reality. We can't escape reality.

These attacks are increasing in both frequency and intensity.

Absolutely! I don't see this as a mere law-and-order problem. Of course, where it is a law-and-order problem, look at it as such.

But if it's a question of inequity and lack of social justice…

Exactly. This Collector was a very sincere fellow. The same thing had happened to a Collector in Orissa… but in your over-anxiety and over-enthusiasm you can't have absence of basic protection when you go as an official. He agreed to go on a motorcycle to see another village. Probably he didn't check if that area was sanitised.

Do you see these alienated tribals getting integrated into mainstream life… and how soon?

It all depends on you and me… People are not bad; it's not as though they have fled somewhere or become aliens. But unless they get some kind of response from us it will be very difficult.

Do you think well-established and properly-run Panchayati Raj institutions could help in solving this problem?

Yes, it could be a very powerful instrument. If you have genuine gram sabhas , and not contrived gram sabhas where the sarpanch is bribed, from personal experience I can tell you, there is a lot of transparency; people have a forum to vent their feelings and grievances. In gram sabhas in tribal areas, women also participate. Tribal women may be socially and economically backward, but they are empowered compared to women from other parts of the country, including Kerala. Once that happens they feel they are part of the development process.

Published on March 12, 2018

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