“600 Adivasis have come to the dharna,” says Chetkumar, the head of the Adivasis who have congregated on the ghats of the Ganga in a peaceful protest, “They’re aggrieved because they’re never gotten anything from the government to date.” Chetkumar, along with the rest of the community, is holding a dharna at Shastri Ghat in Varanasi, where he’s come armed with a six-point list of demands for the government to help realise their rights as citizens.
The huge gathering of tribals from across districts of Uttar Pradesh, in Prime Minister Modi’s constituency, Varanasi, is a deliberate one.
While Uttar Pradesh has the lowest proportion of individuals that fall under the Scheduled Tribes — only 0.57% of the most populous state in the country — by most indicators, this minuscule section of society is disproportionately suffering. They have literacy rates lower than the country’s average for STs. There were only 51 Primary Healthcare Centres in the tribal areas in UP, as of 2017, to cater to a population of 10,31,076 people. Only 52.46% of all ST households in UP are in liveable conditions, as defined by the 2011 Census; 6.92% fall in the extreme category of dilapidated. Only 43% of these homes have a source of drinking water within their premises. 64.5% don’t have latrines within the premises.
“We don’t have water tanks for our homes, we have no resources really,” says Jigna, an Adivasi woman present at the dharna. “I have small children. We have no means to live. Where do we stay? Do we as Adivasis not have a right to live? We have rights, do we not?”
Indeed, it would be mindful to hark back to the Indian Constitution here, which recognises the need to protect tribal interests, especially tribal autonomy and their rights over land, through the Fifth and Sixth Schedules. In India, most of the tribes are collectively identified as Scheduled Tribes and their right to self-determination is guaranteed by Article 244 — Administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas. Tribals in India are also protected under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996.
There is also the Forest Rights Act (2006), which gives the tribal and other forest-dwelling population individual or collective rights over forest land for habitation, cultivation or livelihood, given the inextricable relationship between tribes and the forests, and the colonial denial of that relationship.
Despite these legal provisions, as well as eligibility to welfare schemes, the ground reality clearly highlights that there is much left to be desired in their execution. “We want a ration card, housing, ownership of land — land on which five generations have grown up, but they’re refusing to let us make a house on it,” says Sugaga, another protestor. Even with the FRA, matters of land ownership for Adivasi communities is far from black and white. In UP, till 2018, 93,644 claims were received by the FRA; in turn, only 18,555 individual titles have been distributed. 74,945 claims were rejected. And UP has realized 0% of the 1,913,577 acres of potential Community Forest Rights land.
“Many politicians and officials have promised us that they’d get things done for us, but that hasn't happened,” says Sugaga, pointing to the failure of bureaucracy as a possible reason for why so many Adivasis seem to fall through the cracks of the system. She illustrates her own experience: “We went to the Chief Development Officer with a charter of demands and he just dismissed us, asking if we had nothing better to do! If we had what we needed, would we be doing this?”
Jigna too echoes her dissatisfaction with the government, “I have no faith in any official.” Chetkumar is direct and to the point about the purpose of the dharna: “The main reason why we have gathered here today is to make sure that our demands reach the Prime Minister.” With the 2019 elections right around the corner, and the BJP having taken a significant hit in the state assembly elections in 2018, it would be wise to heed Chetkumar’s honesty when he says, “One thing is clear. We will now only elect someone who listens to us.”
And at least superficially BJP’s Varanasi head Azad Vishvakarma claimed he did, “We certainly hear their demands and feel their pain. If something is lacking in their lives, we will do it now.” When asked if he had read their charter of demands, he responds, “Yes, yes, I'll read it. Later.”
Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.
Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 16:21:09 IST