When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, to mark National Panchayati Raj Day (24 April 2018), on the agenda was unveiling a five-year ‘roadmap’ for overall development of tribal people.

The focus on tribal development is a much-needed one: Three of Madhya Pradesh’s tribes — the Baiga, Bhariya and Sahariya — have been declared ‘backward’ by the Government of India, and they account for nearly 21 percent of voters in the state.

The Baigas — which the state government numbers at 1,31,425 — practice shifting (slash-and-burn) cultivation in deeply forested zones and mainly inhabit the districts of Mandla, Shahdol, Dindori, Umariya, Anuppur and Balaghat (Baihar). This is the first generation of Baigas to complete formal school education, says Anand Tandiya, a social activist who has been working with the tribe for the past eight years in the fields of health and education.

The Madhya Pradesh government has schemes like the Matr Protsahan Yojana (which grants between Rs 3,000 annually to the mother of a girl who has passed Class Five, and Rs 5,000 for one who has finished Class Eight) and the Chhatravriti scheme (Rs 300 to children in primary school and Rs 600 to those in middle school). The Baigas are also guaranteed government jobs after completing Class 12.

Few members of the tribe, however, are aware of these schemes — due in part to the language barrier: the information is disseminated in Hindi, not baiga boli; the medium of instruction in primary schools too, is Hindi. The reality, as Anand Tandiya says, is that only 20 percent of the Baiga children are able to finish their schooling; just about five percent pursue graduate-level education. Most end up working as wage labourers, or are married as children. Poor connectivity in the forest areas is a major obstacle; Tandiya lists as examples, the villages of Chhindpuri and Saida, which are far away from any middle schools.

Implementation of tribal welfare policies largely benefits only local private players and political leaders

(L) Members of Baiga tribe; (R) At an anganwadi in Chhindpuri village, district Mandla
(L) Members of Baiga tribe; (R) At an anganwadi in Chhindpuri village, district Mandla

The Madhya Pradesh government lists on its website the decision that a high school be established within a distance of 5 km (from every village). However, Anand Tandiya points out that even standards like drinking water, boundary walls and libraries for schools — as prescribed by the Right to Education Act — aren’t enforced in Mandla.

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During his Mandla visit, Modi also launched the Rashtriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan, which looks at enhancing the capacities and effectiveness of panchayats and gram sabhas; enabling democratic decision-making and accountability in the panchayats; promoting people’s participation; and strengthening the institutional structure for knowledge creation, capacity building of panchayats.

This is a welcome move because unless local government is strengthened, the community won’t get involved in administration. But the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 in the Fifth Schedule Areas lacks clear rules on implementation. This lack of an implementation mechanism to the Act over the last two decades has left social workers like Anand Tandiya disenchanted.

The implementation of tribal welfare policies largely benefits only local private players and political leaders, says Dhanesh Paraste, a cultural conservationist who works with the Baiga community in Dindori, 140 miles off Jabalpur. In Dindori, most people do not have homes, although a few have now got houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana. Some have also found jobs through MNREGA; however, the absence of industries in the area means tribal children can only work as labourers.

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Among the tribal communities’ major problems is migration. With their parents on the move seeking work, children are unable to attend school on a regular basis. Javed Anis, an education activist based in Bhopal, tells us about a survey his group conducted in 2015, of 13 tribal dominated districts in the state. “We observed that the education of 25 percent of the children was affected by the migration of their parents,” Anis says. In 2016, a network of education activists (NGOs, CBOs and activists) conducted another survey based on RTE indicators in the same districts and assessed 190 primary and middle schools. “What we found was that out of the total children enrolled, 25 percent didn’t attend school regularly. The percentage is higher in tribal-dominated areas: 45 percent in Mandla, 53 percent in Sheopuri and 43 percent in Vidisha,” Anis shares.

Healthcare and nutrition are other issues.

Firstpost recently reported on a healthcare crisis in Panna, Madhya Pradesh: anganwadi workers in districts like Sajhapur, Rajgarh, Ujjain, Panna and Aagar took to the streets, alleging that for a mere Rs 5,000, they were being made to do administrative work to the detriment of focusing on real problems like filarial and polio.

In Mandla, Anand Tandiya showed us data indicating that 40 percent of the children below the age of five are malnourished.

Anand shares data collected in October 2017 by her cadres through home visits (covering nearly 150 households) in three villages: Saida, Khikhsanad and Chhindpuri
Anand shares data collected in October 2017 by her cadres through home visits (covering nearly 150 households) in three villages: Saida, Khikhsanad and Chhindpuri

In Mandla, Anand Tandiya showed us data indicating that 40 percent of the children below the age of five are malnourished

In September 2016, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Madhya Pradesh government over the death of 116 children due to malnutrition in the Sheopur district. The apex panel that investigated three Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres in Sheopur found that they were overcrowded and did not have the requisite infrastructure and resources.

It was in these circumstances that chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan centralised the contractor system for the supply of supplementary nutrition in Madhya Pradesh, handing over the task to Women’s and Self Help Groups, so that women at the village level could monitor and prepare meals for children.

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Previously, in an October 2004 ruling, the Supreme Court had already decreed that “contractors shall not be used for supply of nutrition in anganwadi centres, and preferably ICDS funds shall be spent by making use of village communities, self-help groups and mahila mandals for buying grains and preparations of meals". Bhopal-based social activist Sachin Jain tells us that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government continued with its centralised system despite the Supreme Court order (until 2016). Jain further states that till today, there is no protocol or a framework for community-based management of malnutrition. “Instead, it formalised the centralised system in the year 2009 by giving space to private players through the Madhya Pradesh State Agro Development Corporation,” he contends.

Here’s why the move was particularly problematic:

MP Agro formed three joint venture companies for the production and supply of Take Home Ration (THR) for five million beneficiaries under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Initially, when the task was given to MP Agro, a profit margin of 7.5 percent was fixed, but a CAG report dated 31 March 2009 revealed that the company earned profits to the tune of 29.50 to 37.64 percent.

Another CAG report, from March 2015, revealed that these institutions continued to show a profit margin of 23.44 percent to 29.35 percent of the total allocation. MP Agro also paid an amount of Rs 196.56 crore as VAT — which should have been waived considering the nature of work was community welfare.

This in turn reduced the allocation meant for the children’s nutritional wellbeing. As per estimates, all THR suppliers were being paid approximately Rs 700 crore a year.

On 8 March 2018, the state government decided to suspend the procurement of THR from MP Agro with immediate effect, seeking permission from the High Court to continue the supply from the same system as an interim option. The question is, why has the government shown such desperation in seeking collaboration with private stakeholders?

A 9 March 2018 High Court order states: “It appears that the State Government wanted to favour those private persons who were in joint venture supplying Take Home Ration to the State Government and for the reasons best known to the state government, on some pretext of the other, the order dated 13 September 2017 was not complied with (in the) time granted by this court.”

To challenge the high court order, private players appealed to the Supreme Court, which allowed the companies to participate in the tender process, as per an order dated 26 March 2018.

Displacement is another problem for the tribal communities that must be highlighted

A woman from the Baiga tribe, with her children. PHOTO — Hritu Singh Pawar
A woman from the Baiga tribe, with her children. PHOTO — Hritu Singh Pawar

The government’s wishy-washy approach to a community-based distribution system for nutrition has demoralised healthcare workers in the state, says Prateek Kumar of the NGO Adivasi Adhikar Manch. (AAM operates in the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district, where 30 percent of the population is adivasi; the prominent tribes here include the Kol, Gond, Mawasi and Khairwar.) “The supply of nutrition packets made by MP Agro stopped in March, after the High Court order. Khana roz ki zarurat hai... (food is a daily need),” points out Kumar.

The tender has now been finalised for five months, with the government enrolling seven suppliers, including the three old joint ventures.

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Displacement is another problem for the tribal communities that must be highlighted.

It can be illustrated with the story of Rajaram Singh Gond of Godan Tola village (Panchayat Deewala) of Satna, who has been cultivating five acres under Forest Range Beat No. 837 from the 1990s. His brother Babu Singh Gond has three acres of land nearby. The brothers have no other land or means of livelihood.

In 2014 and 2017, they claimed to get forest rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006, but their claim was rejected by the sub-divisional committee saying that the brothers had not provided proof of residence.

Suman Singh Gond, also from the same village, claimed to own three acres of land. The claim was investigated, a map was created from GPS, the claim was verified, but when the letter was received, Suman Singh found he had secured the right over only 0.477 hectares (or 1.17 acres). The sub-group committee refused to explain the outcome.

As many as 41 Gond tribal families of Bhathwa have made claims under the Mazgaon Vikas Mandal of Satna district.

In December 2017, the Department of Tribal Welfare responded to an RTI query regarding the status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 by stating that in Madhya Pradesh, 4,22,403 tribals had filed personal suits for forest land by November 2017. Of these, the district level committee rejected 2,01,393 claims (47.7 percent of the total claims). Out of 8,466 claims in Satna, 6,398 (75.6 percent) were rejected. In Sidhi, 78.8 percent claims were rejected; in Umaria, 63.9 percent; in Seoni, 67.4 percent; 66.8 percent in Panna; 61.7 percent in Damoh. In Jhabua, where more than 80 percent of the population is tribal, 65.5 per cent claims to forest land by tribals were rejected.

The illusion of reform is somebody’s unchanged reality. As things stand, the tribals of Madhya Pradesh are far from Bhopal and even further away from New Delhi in an ecosystem that can only be improved.

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