International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

Adivasis' Rights Under Attack in India

August 9 marks International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. It is also Quit India Day, a landmark of India’s freedom struggle.

Ironically, India’s indigenous peoples, the adivasis of India, who fought heroic battles against the British colonial rule, are today being deprived of their autonomy and robbed of their land, rivers and forests, in independent India.

The BJP Government in Jharkhand, for the first time, observed International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples as Vishwa Adivasi Diwas with a march of cultural groups. But this was a thinly veiled attempt to appropriate the occasion for a political purpose. BJP cadres on bikes carrying BJP flags were part of the procession – in a crass display of political appropriation.

What is even worse is the fact that the Modi Government at the Centre and various BJP State Governments are implicated in the worst assaults on the rights of India’s adivasis, and the Sangh Parivar in any case denies adivasis their recognition and dignity by referring to them in demeaning terms as ‘Vanvasis.’

Plunder of Resources and Displacement

The Modi Government suppressed the report of a High-Level Committee on the Status of Tribals that submitted a detailed 400-page report. The Government failed to take cognizance of the report that was submitted in May 2014, because the recommendations of the Committee are at odds with the Modi Government’s objectives of appeasing corporates and weakening laws that protect adivasis and peasants from land grab.

The Committee headed by Professor Virginius Xaxa, included K K Misra, Abhay Bang, Joseph Bara, Sunila Basant, Usha Ramanathan and Hrusikesh Panda. The report found that "Tribes are among the poorest and most marginalised sections of Indian society. Although numerically only about 8.6 per cent, they disproportionately represent the people living below the poverty line, are illiterate and suffer from extremely poor physical health."

The report found that “40 per cent of all people displaced in India due to development activity have been tribals (pegged at 24 million), even though they constitute less than 10 per cent of the total population. Only 21.16 per cent of these have been resettled (though most have not been rehabilitated).” (Nitin Sethi, Business Standard, December 24, 2014)

The report held that instead of respecting and protecting the distinct identity of adivasis as required by the Constitution, Governments have aggressively eroded this identity “through the process of cultural domination and more importantly, the prevailing development paradigm.”

The Environment Ministry of the Modi Government has said that the consent of tribal and forest-dwelling populations will not be necessary before deciding on diversion of forest land for projects – a statement that contradicts the Forest Rights Act 2006 and the Supreme Court judgement in the Niyamgiri case.

The MoEFCC order, issued on October 28, 2014, discards the FRA Act provision which seeks “free, prior informed consent” of gram sabhas before acquiring forested land and clearing forests for industrial or any other non-forest activity. It also weakened the requirement of public consultation with communities affected by mining and other infrastructure projects.

For the moment the proposed dilution of the FRA and the Land Acquisition Law are on hold, with the Modi Government having been forced to back track on the issue in the face of countrywide protest. But the intentions of the Government are all too clear.

The amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act extend private leases overriding the control of adivasis over natural resources, and the amended Coal Bearing Areas Act also tramples on the rights of adivasis.

The PESA, the CNT/SPT Acts are all under attack, either being flouted openly or facing covert attempts at dilution because they stand in the way of corporate plunder of adivasis’ lnd and rights.

Meanwhile, activists and organizations fighting for implementation of the FRA are being branded as ‘anti-national’ by the Modi Government – the witch-hunt of Greenpeace activists is an instance. Activists like Roma Malik have been arrested for agitating against FRA violations and land grab for the Kanhar Dam in Uttar Pradesh. And adivasis are incarcerated in jails all over the country for resisting land grab.

Atrocities Against and Arrests of Adivasis

It is well known that Dalits and adivasis have disproportionate representation in Indian prisons. SC/STs comprise about 25.2 percent of the Indian population, but their share in India prisons is 33.3 percent.

In particular, adivasis are arrested and jailed on all sorts of false premises – accused of being ‘Maoists’, ‘smugglers’ and so on.

Father Stan Swamy has documented the cases of over 6000 adivasi undertrials languishing in Jharkhand jails – arrested on charges of ‘helping Maoists’, ‘possessing naxalite literature’ and the like. Lacking the means to obtain bail, they remain in jail indefinitely.

Likewise in Chhattisgarh, over two thousand adivasis are currently in jail, charged with 'Naxalite/Maoist' offences, many for over two years without trial. They are also subjected to atrocities in jail, as the cases of Soni Sori and Kawasi Hidme remind us.

Thousands of adivasis of Tamil Nadu languish in Andhra Pradesh jails, falsely charged with smuggling red sandalwood. Hundreds of adivasis are political prisoners in West Bengal jails in Lalgarh.

A letter to the Government of India and judiciary by concerned citizens in 2013 had observed five barriers that made adivasis vulnerable to such prolonged incarceration:

“One, language barriers. The vast majority of adivasi under-trials speak only adivasi languages, such as Gondi and Halbi. However, few if any courts have official interpreters/translators. This leaves the adivasis unable to communicate directly with the Officers of the Court or otherwise effectively make their case.

“Two, the failure, in case after case, for evidentiary material, such as captured arms or explosives, to be promptly submitted in court by the security forces when they first produce the detainees before the Magistrate, as the Magistrate can statutorily direct the security forces to do when they level such serious charges. In the absence of prima facie proof, the grave risk of injustice being done to innocent adivasis is self-evident.

“Three, procedural barriers relating to 'Naxalite/Maoist' and other security offences. Being charged with such offences, the under-trials are not produced in the courts for lengthy periods. Owing to this, the trial does not proceed for years together.

“Four, other procedural barriers. Since under-trials charged with 'Naxalite/Maoist' offences are only held in Central Jails, many of them of them are transferred to jails at a great distance from their homes and families. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, nearly one hundred adivasi under-trials from Bastar have been transferred to Durg or Raipur Central Jails, a distance of over 300 kilometers. The great distance, coupled with the poverty of most adivasis, means that families are unable to regularly visit them or provide them with vital emotional support.

“Five, the lack of proper legal defence. Lawyers who visit 'Naxal/Maoist' under-trials in Chhattisgarh are photographed by the authorities and their information listed in a separate register, making lawyers reluctant to visit their clients. In any event, many of the adivasi under-trials are dependent on legal-aid lawyers who rarely go to meet the client or seek instructions regarding the case. Often lawyers are careless in their conduct of cases and are amenable to pressures from the police or prosecution.

“In addition to the humanitarian imperative, the prolonged failure to provide speedy and impartial justice to these thousands of adivasi under-trials is damaging the prospects for peace in India's heartland - by leading adivasis to feel that the Indian government does not treat them as full citizens and by intensifying their generalised sense of alienation.”

In addition, cases of massacres of adivasis by police and paramilitary forces abound in Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and all forest areas. Activists who pursue justice in such cases are also branded as ‘Maoists’ and victimized. For instance, Soni Sori and Lingaram Kodopi have been threatened by the Bastar IG SRP Kalluri with excommunication from the region, because Soni had exposed the fake encounter killing of Hemla Podiya in Nahadi village of Dantewada district on July 29, 2015 by Salwa Judum-type Special Police officers who were outlawed by the Supreme Court.

Robbing Adivasis of Budgetary Allocation

In 2010-11, union budgetary plan outlay for tribal sub-plan was a mere 3.16 per cent – far below the 8.6 per cent mandated by the Planning Commission in proportion to their share in the population. In the 2011-12 it was increased to 5.11 per cent. The actual expenditure fell far short of the already meager allocation, with only 30%-40% being utilized.

But in the Modi Government’s budget, the allocations have been slashed from the previous year and are half of the allocation mandated for the ST Sub Plan. The current budget allocation for STSP has been reduced to Rs 20,536 crores (4.3% of the total budget) from Rs 26,715 crores in 2014. The amount due to be allocated by right was Rs.40,000 crores.

To add insult to injury, the STSP funds have been diverted to pay wages for the mega projects that are evicting adivasis and grabbing their land and resources! A law needs to be enacted to ensure that Governments allocate and spend the mandated share of the budget on adivasis’ welfare and rights.

There have also been paltry allocations and cuts in allocations for adivasi students. The allocation for post matric scholarships for STs has been reduced by Rs 305.78 crore rupees and is just Rs 1599 crore, and provides meagre amounts of Rs 230-1200 a month to just 2.1 lakh students. These payments also don’t reach students because of delays in release of funds.

Even in the Government sector, SC/ST reservation is not properly implemented, and the Government is unwilling to implement reservations in the private sector, which is absolutely necessary to end rampant discrimination.

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