The lost tribes of India: For vulnerable indigenous communities, is integration the only answer?
For India's tribes, initiatives that help in sustaining a traditional way of life while improving access to modern facilities could provide a way forward
It’s a familiar story around the world — tribal communities being pushed out of their land and livelihoods, murdered, or plundered and left to fend for themselves, without help. Some instances have made international headlines, such as the Dakota Pipeline Protests, or the thousands of missing indigenous women in Canada. India, too, has its share of tales rooted in the displacement of tribes across the country owing to rapid urbanisation and development — arguably the biggest reason behind their dislocation here — and climate change. It is home to the largest tribal population in the world, numbering over 84 million.
For example, according to statistics provided by development professional Abhijit Mohanty, the Indravati Dam in Kalahandi, Odisha, has displaced around 18,000 forest dwellers, mainly the Kondh communities. About 11,000 hectares of virgin forest in Southern Odisha — one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in Asia — have been affected, along with 97 villages.
“In the case of vulnerable groups such as tribals, the burden and impact of displacement is the most pronounced,” says Mohanty, who has worked with India’s tribal communities for many years and aims to induce change through writing, research, and enabling international philanthropic and non-profit organisations. “They have neither the experience nor the temperament and culture to negotiate their lives amidst the ruins of their overturned existence. It has been also observed that many individuals cannot use their earlier skills at new locations; human capital is therefore lost or rendered obsolete."
“Tribals are forced into the ever-expanding low paid, insecure, transient and destitute labour market. So, for them, the displacement is not only from their lands, but also their livelihoods, culture and larger social environment. Compensation for land cannot compensate these deeper losses, making it imperative to come up with an alternative thinking of development,” he adds.
In an August photo essay published in The Wire, Mohanty highlighted the plight of Adivasis struck by bauxite mining and resulting large-scale deforestation and biodiversity loss, which has affected food security, caused drastic climate change and decline in wildlife, and led to serious health issues like brittle bones, infection and respiratory problems. But while these tribals are still somehow connected to the outside world in terms of livelihood, for instance, it’s the remote or isolated tribes that face the greatest threat to their existence.
According to an article published last year in The New Yorker, only about a hundred groups of isolated indigenous people are believed to still exist, with more than half of them living in the wilderness that straddles Peru’s border with Brazil. When the Mashco Piro emerged to the world some six years ago (one tribal was photographed pointing an arrow at a helicopter), they were treated with awe by world media, but more commonly of the variety that is ascribed to coming across a rare creature of the jungle. In a strictly literal sense, perhaps this description, in this day, is as accurate as can be, but when one adds layers of socialisation, skewed notions of what civilised life ought to be, and institutionalisation by way of mainstream society, it takes on a deeply disturbing pattern.
Take, for instance, the Jarawa of the Andamans. A Scheduled Tribe according to the Indian Constitution, they were an uncontacted tribe until 1998. Following a 12-year campaign by Survival — the world’s largest organisation that works with tribal communities globally and champions their right to life — as well as Indian activists, the Andaman authorities developed a forward-thinking policy that the Jarawa should be able to choose their own future, and that outside intervention in their lives should be kept to a minimum. It’s a fragile line of thought though, considering many official and unofficial entities believe they should be brought into the mainstream.
“Tribal people like the Jarawa are just as modern as we are; they have just chosen to live their lives in a different way,” says Sophie Grig, senior campaigner for the Jarawa at Survival. “They are perfectly aware of the way mainstream society lives, but have made an active choice to continue to live in their forest and sustain themselves by hunting and gathering. The idea that this is backward or stuck in the past is what drives misguided approaches to ‘develop’ tribal people. We advocate neither isolation nor integration, believing — as with all tribal peoples — that they are best placed to determine what, if any, changes they wish to make to their lives."
“Crucial to having the time and space to make these decisions is that their land is properly protected from outside incursions. But the Jarawa are under severe threat from international and local poachers who enter their waters and forests to fish, hunt turtles and wild boar and other animals they need to survive. Abuse from outsiders is also a very real threat — there have been cases of sexual abuse of Jarawa women by poachers, who ply them with alcohol and marijuana and then abuse them. Additionally, the Jarawa are also at risk of diseases to which they will have little or no immunity. For instance, in 1999 and 2006 they suffered outbreaks of measles, which has wiped out many tribes worldwide, after contact with outsiders,” Grig adds.
Despite these factors, the road that passes through their territory has robbed the tribe of the freedom to keep outsiders at bay. Human safaris, where people drive down the road to “spot” the tribals, are just one of the gross insensitivities they face in the name of progress.
Governmental failure to ensure that tribal communities in India live as they are accustomed to, particularly in relation to land acquisition in favour of industrialisation, has been acute and appalling. “The overdrive for imposing development from the top has resulted in tremendous discontent among the tribals,” says Mohanty. “There has been a real shrinkage of democratic space, because of which they are no longer able to resolve their own issues of self-governance.”
However, the burning question is: should there be effort to integrate tribal communities into mainstream society? Griggs says: “When the drive for assimilation comes from outside the tribe, it is almost inevitably going to lead to disaster. When it comes from the tribe, it’s almost always because their land has been stolen, or their resources are under threat and they can no longer sustain themselves.” Either way it’s catastrophic to their existence.
Mohanty differs in that he believes that training and capacity-building exercises should be provided to tribal youth, leaders and women on how to revive and sustain traditional lifestyles, while making improvements through modern science. For example, WaterAid India is laying groundwork for research into the Baiga and Gond communities in Madhya Pradesh, who are afflicted by illness owing to lack of clean water and sanitation facilities.
“The tribals are part of Indian society, but at the same time they are unique,” he says. “Special policies are required to address these differences especially in the context of globalisation.”
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