Adivasis: Pawns in Development?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

RANCHI - Down the ages, the adivasi community, which inhabits what is presently Jharkhand, have lived their lives closely connected with the land, mostly the forests that both sustain them and they in turn nurture.

They have faced challenges in the past that threatened the symbiotic connection between their lives and natural resources be it water forests and land (Jal Jangal Jameen).

Historically, the dreaded famine of Bengal in the 1770’s the famine triggered off a wave of migrations from Bengal into adjoining lands the Santhal dominated areas of present day Jharkhand, notably Potka. Communities like ‘ Sundi’ (Mandal) and ‘Baniya’ (Monalaha) made this their home and lived amongst adivasi communities notably the ‘Bhumij’ and ‘Santhali’.

The clash between the non-adivasi and the adivasi way of life and thought was based on the relationship to Jal-Jangal-Jameen. For adivasis this was a hallowed bond, life would be inconceivable without it. For others, it was a more practical approach sans the reverence. Infact many of these communities were engaged in non-forest activities for their livelihood like trading (’Khoja’ in colloquial terms) and wine-making.

Today the contemporary realities in Jharkhand are quite different yet these differences still play themselves out in the modern context. The land is still largely inhabited by adivasis. The predominant face is still very much the farmer, the agricultural labourer. Society is still defined by the bond that communities share with the land.

Yet super-imposed on this picture of the yore is another super-structure of economic and social relationships. In essence, this is a reflection of the industrialization and globalisation that is sweeping not just this state but also the entire country.

Industry is not new to Jharkhand. This too like the socio-economic patterns of society has been part of another kind of tradition. Beginning as early as 1905, the present-day Jharkhand has been home to major engineering works and large companies like Tata Steel, Bokaro Steel Corporation and Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC).

Today, Jharkhand with its immense deposits of mineral and iron ore is being eyed as a gold-mine of opportunities by industries. The political establishment regardless has gone all out to open the doors to the modern industries.

Quick on the heels of the formation of the state of Jharkhand, carved out of Bihar, Chief Minister Babulal Marandi set the ball rolling in 2001 with Industrial Policy. This proposed a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) from Barahi to east Singha Bhoom in Hazari Bagh.

This was taken forward by another leader Arjun Munda who by 2005 had signed a number of MOUs with industrialists on a variety of projects to exploit the state’s natural wealth. To facilitate these, the political bosses perceived a need to amend the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, considered safeguards for Adivasis.

Around the same time a Delhi based company Bhushan Steel and Power Limited approached the state government with its project and rather summarily, without a formal MoU began the selection process of land for its unit. In 2006 came the MOU with Mittal Steel, which is hailed by the government as a landmark achievement. 14 villages in Potka were identified.

Yet through this trajectory of industrialisation in Jharkhand runs a parallel story of displaced lives, unfulfilled promises and broken dreams. Right from the inception of industrialization, this has been the case. All industries today stand on lands of adivasis who have been displaced, been promised jobs but find themselves on the margins today.

A typical scenario runs like this: Factories which acquired lands by promising employment gave one member from a displaced family the job. But what about the others given the fact that there would invariably 6-7 potential job-seekers in any one family?

The army of the landless and the disposed increased while the select few got jobs. Clearly Jharkhand’s massive industrialization drive was not based on the sound principles of equity and social justice.

There is another factor , a more technical one which drives this ‘joblessness’ Jharkhand has been primarily an area for the mining industry. The lack of technical expertise amongst the locals prevented their large-scale recruitment. Perhaps one of the family members got absorbed into the ‘non-technical’ field say a peon. For the rest, industry preferred recruitments from outside, skilled persons who were readily available.

Obviously the social commitment of industry was not advanced to a level to plough resources into training of the local populace. Nor did the Government step in which is a serious flaw. It should have woken up to the immense potential of industrialisation in the state and linked it to creating new livelihoods.

The trend to downscale and trim down workforce only added to the angst of the people. It makes sound business sense perhaps but has a human fall-out. Ramesh Sharan is economist in Ranchi University does not envisage big industries creating employment opportunities.

The recent economic recession was bad news for this shrinking job base. Every company retrenched its employees. This has coincided with Arcelor- Mittal’s plans to set up a steel plant in Potka region. It has unabashedly declared that its work force would be drawn in from outside.

Kumarchandra Madi a long-time social worker in Potka says “The existence of Adivasis is linked with their culture. Their livelihood is linked with water, forest and land. 62 years’ experience of Independent India tells us that the Adivasis lost everything in this rat race of development. A recent statement of the Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, recognises that the single biggest threat to forests comes from development and growth.

There is a growing realization in the policy circles that this needs change. Control over forest land needs to rest more and more with the local community and farther away from the government. Otherwise the drive for industrialization and growth as currently defined in the economic sense would continue to threaten the country’s forests.

This means a community-led approach to forest conservation. This holds out a hope for the adivasis in Jharkhand who have unwittingly found themselves in a game or a race towards ‘development’. This has nothing to do with their interests; infact runs contrary to it. Charkha Development Service points out how this more holistic, inclusive concept of replaces the current exploitative one will depend on the sagacity of the government and the political will to stand by it. By Aloka Kujur (ANI)

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