Relocate economic activity, not tribals

V. Kumaraswamy | Updated on November 15, 2017

Low-skill manufacturing can be moved to tribal areas.

The Government and several NGOs have been zealously protecting tribal welfare and shun most proposed external interventions or economic activity in their area.

Tribals are economically poor largely due to (i) poor skill levels (ii) low mobility, geographical and occupational (or between skills/jobs) and (iii) and in most cases (not all) poor productivity of land. These make for an ideal combination for the existence, and perpetuation, of poverty.

Most objections of the Government and NGOs against external intervention in tribal matters are about the alienation of land and displacement of tribals from their geography to unfamiliar territories. To be sure, upgrading their skill sets is a difficult task, given their level of education, exposure, language/dialect barriers, and inadequate number of leading examples from within their own community.

They need skills that will bring them immediate economic benefits. The current system of mainstream education system into which the Government is trying to integrate them is almost guaranteed to fail.

A curriculum with which they have no immediate connect neither inspires them, nor are they capable of getting through the system. Most of the current incentives, such as scholarships and free education, and job reservations, while well-meaning, are inaccessible to most of them. By design, they can benefit only the already liberated, not the perpetually trapped.

Brazil programme

Trends in geographical and job mobility are like deeply ingrained habits and not easy to overcome.

Experiments in Brazil under a programme called ‘land without men for men without land' (in the late 60s to late 70s) for displacement and resettlement of Amazon natives resulted in a massive failure, with hardly 7,000 families finally re-settled after a decade of efforts and $3.9 billion of expenditure — of a target of more than 1,00,000 families.

Hence, addressing land issues is crucial to finding a solution to tribal welfare. The fears of tribals, NGOs and Government are justified where it concerns acquisition for mineral exploitation and mining. Here, displacement becomes inevitable.

But extending this fear to other dimensions of tribal existence seems more disposed towards perpetuating their misery than solving it.

Much of tribal land is mostly dry, not adequately irrigated or fertile enough to sustain agriculture. Yield from crops is rather low.

However, since the skill sets of tribals are rather poor, whatever little income is generated now comes largely from fertility of land and hence the fear of the consequences of alienation from their land. But continued reliance on this land and restrictions on change of use and legal transfers can only perpetuate low yields and low incomes.

Since it is very difficult to move tribals to other centres of economic activity, it is essential to move some economic activities to their area. Land use pattern has to change so that the economic value of land comes not essentially from its fertility and productivity but for its ‘load bearing', or capacity to house other activities. This has to be done without uprooting the tribals while transferring a meaningful part of the incremental benefits to them in return.

Govt as enabler

The Government should work on incentivising shift of some low-skill manufacture and services, where land costs in urban areas may be a dampener.

Sure, the existing skill sets will not allow the tribals to assemble mobile phones and laptops but there is no reason why biscuits, papads and several articles of daily consumption have to be made only in urban areas. Some of these activities require little training and may be done within their own households, assuaging displacement fears.

Likewise, many services, such as training retreats, seeds and clone development in areas suitable for it, old age homes, education, and research may also be shifted to these areas. Power connectivity and roads might help here.

These may not require large tracts of land, unlike mining. Of course, there will be many diseconomies (such as increased transportation costs) but the government can make good these by way of remission of its duties and taxes (to ensure minimum leakage in delivery of incentives).

While some tribals may participate directly in the production process, the others can be employed as domestic help, gardeners, baby sitters and so on, before graduating to higher skill jobs (and perhaps gain confidence about geographical mobility).

To make these feasible, it is essential to allow economic activities in tribal areas, make appropriate changes in land use, provide for acquisition of land (by lease, right to use or purchase) for commercial activities.

The government may impose restrictions on the proportion of total land that can be so transferred/changed within each area and impose development obligations, including share in employment. To continue with the existing rules and increasing the cost of acquisition (Land Acquisition Bill) will only perpetuate their misery.

(The author is CFO of a large paper company.)

Published on April 03, 2012

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