Monday, 10 February 2014

Realistically Defining Tribal Identity for Effective Policy Interventions

Photo Source: IndiaNetzone
In India’s struggle to safeguard tribal rights, the deliberations on tribal identities are still coloured by stereotypes. The discourses pertaining to tribal populations and tribal identities invariably fall upon the civilised-uncivilised, primitive-modern dichotomies.
Political representatives in the country have not been able to effectively lobby for tribal rights and tribal voice in policy decisions. The National Tribal Policy, which was formulated in 2008 and is still in the draft phase, bears testimony to this fact. The country has not yet formulated a comprehensive national policy guaranteeing tribal rights. Apart from the lack of a strong political will; the policy formulation mechanism is also based on the model of assimilation of a ‘primitive’ culture to a ‘mainstream’ culture, the root cause of which, perhaps, is that the discourse governing policy decisions is a bureaucratic discourse prescribing modes of modernisation of the primitive instead of being driven by the tribal voice and demands, the Draft National Tribal Policy is a case in point.
Need for Tribal Welfare
The need to safeguard tribal rights arises because; “as per the 2001 Census, the tribal population was 8.43 crore or eight per cent of the total population, with over 90 per cent living in rural areas with poor social indicators...Infant mortality, maternal mortality and neo-natal death figures are unacceptably high among the STs because of lack of healthcare infrastructure [and] low literacy rates.” Moreover almost 40% of those who have been   permanently displaced from their native habitats due to development projects are tribals.
As a result of these displacements a large number of tribals have migrated to metropolises where while some work as domestic and shop servants, rickshaw-pullers, even sex-workers, some get pushed into petty, deviant and criminal activities. But the draft notices that tribes are scattered “over all the States/Union Territories, except Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and the Union Territories of Pondicherry and Chandigarh.” These three states and two union territories do not have the native communities scheduled as tribes; however, they have a considerable population of migrant tribals. While the draft acknowledges this phenomenon, it does not provide for acknowledging this section of the tribal community, which has moved out of the conventional markers of tribal identity.
Locating Stereotypes
Clause 20 of the draft, which deals with the Scheduling and De-scheduling of Tribes, refers to criteria evolved by the Lokur Committee for determining which communities could be classified as Scheduled Tribes which include: (i) an ensemble of primitive traits, (ii) distinctive culture, (iii) geographical isolation, (iv) shyness of contact with the community outside, and (v) backwardness. It follows by noting that the criteria laid down by the Lokur Committee are hardly relevant today. The draft notes that “for instance, very few tribes can today be said to possess ‘primitive traits’. Other more accurate criteria need to be fixed.”
Again, while the draft acknowledges the need for more accurate criteria, it does not provide for reformulating the tribal identity as one that is dynamic and not static. Vinay Kumar Srivastava in his analyses of the draft policy, by way of an analogy notes, that many “of the traits that are found in the so-called primitive societies, may also be found among the contemporary affluent and patriarchal societies.” Moreover he notes that in “the context of definition, we need to use concepts that have an operational value, i.e., they are given an empirical content, and with their help, we are able to classify societies as objectively as possible.”
Policy interventions cannot be effective unless the policy making decision is guided by the needs of the stakeholders. For this Srivastava notes, realistic understanding of tribal society lies in refraining from using value-loaded assumptions, such as the ones the draft notes: tribal way of life is “woven around harmony with and preservation of nature.”
Preserving a culture to contribute to the ethnic diversity of the country traps the tribal community in a frozen image. The dynamic reality of tribal living is missing in the draft, the policy needs to incorporate tribal voice and more comprehensively acknowledge the dynamism of tribal identity.

Ashwin Varghese 

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