My  latest piece for The Asian Age ( September 2, 2010)

One year ago,if you had uttered the words “Dongria Kondh”at a dinner table, only anthropologists and human rights activists would have lit up. Most others would have reacted with blank stares. Someone might even have asked if you were speaking in a foreign language.

Today, the Dongria Kondh people living in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa are celebrities. The tribe’s momentous victory over London-listed miner Vedanta Resources is household knowledge. A huge chunk of Vedanta’s market value was wiped out when the Union environment ministry blocked its plans to extract bauxite from the forested hill considered sacred by this ancient tribe.
For this bold, unprecedented action, the Dongria Kondh and their supporters can thank minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who has declared himself their “sipahi”(soldier).
The David and Goliath nature of the Dongria versus Vedanta narrative has unleashed a stormy debate about development and displacement across the country and beyond its shores. The controversy is welcome because it offers a splendid opportunity to rescue the public discourse about tribal communities from its current binary character in which a tribal is either exoticised or damned for all his/her ills. It also throws up possibilities to look more closely at the bigger picture of the tribals or “adivasis” in this country. The Dongria story offers a partial glimpse of the reality of tribal India. It is by no means the entire tale.
Scheduled Tribes make up 8.2 per cent of India’s total population, and 17.5 per cent of the rural poor. Tribal communities typically live in the remote interior and have been neglected for years because they did not have powerful people to lobby on their behalf in the corridors of power. That, hopefully, is set to change.
The Dongria story has turned the spotlight on two of the most contentious issues of the day — the turf war for natural resources and development-induced displacement. Over the decades, various tribal communities have been turfed out of their land and natural habitats due to large irrigation dams, hydro-electric projects, opencast and underground mines, super-thermal power plants and so on… How much of a say did they have in the decisions that affected them and how effective was the rehabilitation?
For answers, glance through official documents. In the Tenth Five-Year Plan document (2002-07), the government acknowledged that “a population of 21.3 million have been displaced between 1951 and 1990 in various states. Out of this, 8.54 million, or 40 per cent, are tribals. Of these, only 2.12 million (24.8 per cent) tribals had been resettled at the time when the report was written.
This week, the Supreme Court raked up this hot-button issue by asking the Chhattisgarh government to file a report on measures taken for the relief of those displaced by large-scale mining in that state.
India’s tribal communities suffer on several other fronts. Although the Constitution provides safeguards for scheduled tribes, and various government schemes have been floated to promote tribal health and welfare, they lag behind woefully in key social and economic indicators. Two indicators from the latest annual report of the tribal affairs ministry offer a telling comment about the status of tribals in relation to the rest of the country. The infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births) of scheduled tribes in the country is 62.1 — higher than the national average of 57. For the under-5 mortality rate (per 1,000 live births), the figure is even more stark — 35.8 for STs against the national average of 18.4.
“There seems to be no systematic mechanism to capture various disaggregate health-related data for the scheduled tribe population. All available studies and surveys leave one in no doubt that all health indicators, especially those related to health status, accessibility, reach and health delivery, are very much below the national average and in most instances lower than even the rural figures,” noted a 2010 study conducted by Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, an NGO, in collaboration with the health and family welfare ministry and the WHO’s India country office.
None of this should surprise anyone who has ever visited a tribal village in the rural interior. Several years ago, while researching an article on a cholera outbreak in three tribal-dominated districts of Orissa, I discovered a few bitter home-truths about the institutional apathy towards tribals and the lack of coordination among various government departments in India tasked to improve the lot of tribals.
More than 100 people had died of cholera and other diarrhoea diseases in the three districts of Koraput, Rayagada and Kalahandi during the epidemic. Close to 10,000 people had been affected. A local representative of the NGO Action Aid told me that “most villages in tribal areas do not have a functioning hand pump. People in these areas are forced to drink water from streams and rivers, the same water that they used for bathing, cleaning and washing clothes.”
The core issue was poor access to safe drinking water. The scarcity of doctors and a weak local health system made matters worse. Doctors had to be called from other districts to deal with the emergency because of ongoing staff shortages in these tribal areas. The examples are from Orissa. But the issues are as relevant for other states which have a significant tribal population.
NGO workers in tribal areas say the remoteness and inaccessibility argument is often used to deny tribal communities even basic services. A case in point is malaria. Tribal communities suffer a disproportionate burden of malaria deaths. The government has special programmes for malaria control in tribal areas because these regions are often inaccessible and forested. But sadly, these initiatives do not have the desired impact because of a shortage of manpower. Thirty to 40 per cent of fieldworkers’ posts are lying vacant and posts for medical officers also remain unfilled.
Against such a backdrop of neglect and apathy, how do we engage with tribal communities?
The environment ministry’s verdict in the Dongria case is part of the answer. You cannot engage with a community by snatching away all that they hold precious. But more is needed. Tribals need better access to health, education and skills which offer them wider choices and a greater stake in the country’s economic growth. Mutual trust is the key. By lowering the bar for tribals, and tolerating fewer functioning primary health centres, on an average, in tribal areas than in non-tribal areas, and holding them responsible for their suffering, we will only confirm the tribals’ worst suspicions about the rest of the country.

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at


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