By Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri*
Each year 9th of August is celebrated worldwide as International Day for the world’s Indigenous People. In India, we have 8.6% of the population who have been officially designated as Scheduled Tribe (ST). These are the people who want to be known as Adivasi or Indigenous people. However, after 74 years of independence, STs are some of the most deprived sections of people in the world. The Human Development Index and Human Poverty Index for STs are found to be around 30 per cent lower than the corresponding all-India indices. In an international comparison, development and deprivation among the STs of India are similar to that in the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
If that is the case, what does celebrating Indigenous People’s day mean for India? Is there anything to be celebrated?
Who are the Adivasis?
The group of people who were originally not part of the caste-based societies in this sub-continent and did not have any written history was termed as tribes by the British colonisers. After independence, these groups of people were termed as Scheduled Tribe (ST) as per our Constitution. The term ‘Adivasi’ got popular among this group of people when Jaipal Singh Munda, a member of the Constituent Assembly (and captain of the gold-winning Indian Hockey team in Amsterdam Olympic, 1928), claimed that the tribes are the original inhabitant of this sub-continent. The term Adivasi got further popularised during the Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh movement when tribal groups got mobilised to protest against displacement and dispossession claiming that they were not only dependent on the resources but had a right to their original homeland.
Tribals are concentrated mostly in the north-eastern hills and central plateau; a small portion of them live in the north-western plains. However, the tribals in central India use the term Adivasi or Indigenous people as their identity. In this article also we will refer to them as Adivasi.
The Adivasiness – Adivasiyat
Adivasiyat is the lifeworld of the Adivasis which is a reflection of their worldview. This worldview includes their perspectives about their life, their own ecosystem, the basic principles to structure their social relationships, whether it is with their neighbourhood, with their own community, with their own governance or whether it is with regard to coping with the crisis.
Adivasi worldview is all about a non-hierarchical relationship among human beings and between human beings and other living and non-living things of nature. Adivasis believe in a harmonic, non-extractive and symbiotic relationship with nature. This non-hierarchy is reflected through their language, dance, songs, paintings and other art forms. Their religious rituals are also to connect to nature and to celebrate together.
Another important aspect of the Adivasi worldview is cooperation and togetherness. Human values like brotherhood, mutual support, and cooperation are an integral part of the tribal society. Not only in villages or jungles, one can see these in towns, universities, offices – Adivasis are more comfortable in groups, working in groups, helping each other.
Adivasiyat is the practice of this worldview. After a prolonged extractive relationship with nature the non-Adivasis – the people in the mainstream have started realising very recently that a more non-extractive relationship with nature may be needed to keep this planet suitable for the human species. However, Adivasis not only think like this but also practice these values in their day to day life.
We may celebrate the worldview of this non-extractive relationship with nature and start practising it in our own life and discover the ‘Adivasi’ within all of us.
The Adivasi Knowledge system
Any knowledge system is also a product of the larger worldview of the society in which the knowledge is generated. The mainstream knowledge system is about how to extract things from nature to make human lives more comfortable. On the contrary, the Adivasi knowledge system is about co-existence with nature.
Adivasis’ practices of agriculture, hunting, collecting forest products everything is based on the principles of regeneration and co-existence. Many of them have vast knowledge about ethnomedicine.
This knowledge has been considered belonging to the community and has never been codified. These were passed intergenerationally through the folklores, songs, dances, paintings and rituals.
We can celebrate this Adivasi knowledge system at a time when an apparently insignificant product or process are also patented in the name of individuals for making a profit out of it.
How are the Adivasis now?
The CIP, dominated by the Adivasi population, is known as one of the poorest pockets in India and is characterised by low life expectancy at birth, low literacy rate, very high Infant Mortality Rate, very high incidence of poverty (BPL), etc. The soaring income gap in India is mostly due to the very low per capita income in this area. Data, wherever available, shows that Adivasis are the most deprived even within this region.
Most of the Adivasis in the CIP are dependent on lands and forests for their livelihoods. Since the colonial period, the tribals are losing access and rights to the forest. Although they cultivate lands in the forest, they did not have any formal rights to do so. Recently, the Forest right Act 2005 (FRA) has been enacted to give these rights back to the Adivasis. However, there are issues related to proper implantation of FRA.
Adivasis, since the colonial period and post-independence have been displaced from their lands for dam construction, mineral-based factory establishment or mining. According to an Indian government working group, 40-50 per cent of those displaced by development projects are Adivasis.
In a scenario of reduced access to forests, continuous fragmentation of lands, loss of lands due to industrialisation and mineral extraction these Adivasis are finding it difficult to sustain their life by being in the village for the entire year. Many of them, especially the younger people, migrate to distant cities in search of wage employment.
Adivasis’ plight is caused by the unlimited greed of the non-Adivasi people, the so-called diku, a term used by the Adivasis to refer to the oppressive outsiders who cut their forests, make mines, build large dams and establish mineral factories.
On the international day of Indigenous people, we may also think about the importance of implementing FRA and other progressive acts such as PESA in their right spirit. The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA is a law enacted by the Government of India for ensuring self-governance of Adivasis through traditional Gram Sabhas.
*With Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN)