I have written about the lack of connection between practice and social science education.  There is no point in merely highlighting what is `missing’. Hence we have started modest initiative in Azim Premji University to document and reflect on those practices which contribute towards social change. This essay is a brief introduction to the first in this series. The details of this case can be read here.

Scheduled Tribes (ST) are at the lowest position in terms of human development indicators in India. More than 3/4th of ST can be reckoned multi-dimensionally poor. There is almost 14 percentage point gap between the literacy rates of Scheduled Tribes and others.  Nearly 50 percent of children from this social group drops out while transitioning from primary to secondary grades.  Nearly 80 percent of them stop education when they are in grade 10.  This is despite the fact that they have a sex ratio, which is somewhat favourable to women compared to other social groups.

The relative backwardness of scheduled tribes may not disappear through the overall development of a state and that may require special efforts. This is evident from the situation in the state of Kerala. Rural poverty among STs in the state is more than two-and-a-half times of that among its rural population as a whole[1].

However, the life of Scheduled Tribes in certain parts of India is relatively better. The state of Mizoram and other states in North-East India are one such case. What has enabled the human development of ST population in North-East India (compared to other parts of the country) is an interesting question and we will discuss that in another essay.

However, there are parts of Central India too where the development status of Scheduled Tribes is relatively better. Northern blocks of the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra is one such case.  A major part of the land in the district is covered by forests. This district has nearly 45 percent of the population belonging to Scheduled Tribes. The literacy rate in the district is 70 percent, and the Gross Enrolment Ratio in schools is more than 80 percent.  Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) has declined from 64 per 1000 in 2003 to 36 in 2010. The relative improvement in Gadichiroli becomes clearer when we note the situation in the adjoining districts of Dantewada and Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh.

Our short-period field work in the northern blocks of Gadchiroli district (Kurkheda and Korchi) in December 2017 also indicate a relatively better situation there. Tribal families use traditional methods to construct hygienic and comfortable houses. They have access to electricity and drinking water. Households have constructed toilets and there are no visible signs of open defecation. Almost all children go to primary school (located mostly within the village), though there is dropping out after completing 10th grade. There are boys and girls from these hamlets who pursue graduate and post-graduate education. The discussions with people there confirm that there is no serious issue of food poverty, and this could be due to the access to land and also the functioning of the public distribution system. Almost all households have land and these could be of reasonable size (3-5 hectares). Since these hamlets are surrounded by forests, the agricultural land is fertile and can be used for one cropping of paddy cultivation. However, their main source of income is through the collection and sale of Non-Timber Forest Products, facilitated through the community rights under the so called `Forest Rights Act’.

Through the implementation of this Act, people belonging to Scheduled Tribes have community rights over NTFP from a specific area of forest surrounding their settlement. These products include bamboo, Tendu patta (used for making beedies), Mahua flowers (a food item which can be fermented for making local alcohol), honey and so on. The collection and sale of NTFP are not carried out on an individual basis but is mediated through the community. We could see each household getting a substantial income (relative to their other sources of subsistence) – around Rupees 100000 or more annually – through the sale of these products. There are settlements which have fewer households (say 10-11) and then it is not unusual for each of them getting around 1 million rupees from this source. Grama Sabhas (assembly of ST households in each settlement which are formed under the FRA) display the income that each household has received through the sale of NTFP and these practices ensure transparency. Hence people get a significant amount of cash income through the sale of NTFP, and food from the cultivation of private land (which may include a field for cultivating paddy and a backyard for the cultivation of vegetables and/or fruits.)

Though the institution of Forest Rights Act is a policy action on the part of governments, local mobilisation among Tribal population, and non-governmental organisations have played an important role in its effective implementation. This area has witnessed different forms of social mobilization under leaders coming from tribal communities. There was an agitation and struggle for land-use (land-encroachment) rights by the tribal population under the banner ‘Jabarn Jot Andolan’ (Agitation for Land Encroachment Rights) led by socialist tribal leader Late Shri Narayan Simha Uikey. He was 5 times MLA from Sangathana Socialist Party. He was active during 1952 – 1972 and then the struggle was led by Late Shri Sukhadeobabu Uikey until 2015.

Non-Governmental Organisations such as Amhi Amchya Arogryasadhi played an important role here. This organisation was founded by Satish Gogulwar, a medical doctor by training and Subhada Deshmukh, a trained social worker. They were influenced by the `Agitation for Total Revolution’- a movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), and were active members of the Chatra Yuva Sangharsha Vahini (CSYV) – the youth organisation established by JP. Following the advocacy of JP to combine `Righteous Struggles’ and `Constructive Work’, these two people decided to work in the northern parts of Gadchiroli district in the early eighties.

Gadchiroli district also witnessed other notable initiatives to improve the health status of rural people who did not have access to advanced and institutionalised medical care. The spread of homes-based neonatal care by SEARCH (Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health), an organisation founded in Gadchiroli in 1986 by two doctors – Abhay and Rani Bang – is well known.

AAA’s initiative to strengthen the effective and sustainable use of Community Forest Rights

AAA has accorded a higher priority to the sustainable livelihood of tribal population. For example, they work to strengthen Grama Sabhas for the effective enforcement of community forest rights. The purpose is to improve livelihood opportunities through sustainable harvesting, and the cultivation of local forest/agricultural plants and trees.

Bamboo plantations were developed through the collective action in the community forest area. Bamboo is an important source of income for the tribal population, and a process of harvesting without replantation may work against the sustainability of this income.   Hence planning and implementing a project for bamboo harvesting and cultivation are important for the sustained welfare of the population here.

In summary, relatively better human development indicators of the tribal population in the northern bock of Gadchiroli district seem to be shaped by the social and political activism of the tribal leaders and the constructive work and the capacity building of organisations such as Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi.

What should be attempted to improve the life of Scheduled Tribes in India?

The lessons from the northern block of Gadchiroli district can be summarised as follows:

  • Community rights over Non-Timber Forest Products for the Scheduled Tribes should be implemented as early as and as sincerely as possible. Bamboo should be included as part of NTFP, and tribal people should have the right to harvest and sell it on a sustainable basis.
  • There is a need to strengthen Grama Sabhas of these tribal communities so that these can mediate the collection and sale of, and the distribution of income from, Non-Timber Forest Products.
  • These community institutions should be encouraged to use peer pressure and other ways to see that individuals are not extracting forest resources in an ecologically harmful manner.
  • There may be innovative actions on the part of non-governmental organisations in collaboration with communities and forest department to strengthen the resource base (like the plantation of Bamboo and other such trees/plants) so that the incomes from NTFP does not decline in future.

There is a need to improve the quality of public services, especially education and healthcare, by the government. However this may require non-governmental actions too, firstly to try out innovative solutions by considering the specific characteristics of the region such as low population density, remoteness, social and cultural features of tribal population and so on. Secondly, there is a persisting need to generate the demand for such services among these people. The average family size continues to be large and this can be reduced only through the spread of education among girls, delay of the age at marriage and also through the access to better health-care.

[1] Human Development Report, 2005, Kerala http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/stateplan/sdr_pdf/shdr_kerala05.pdf