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'Trickle-Down Economics' Have Left Jharkhand's Adivasis High And Dry

The recent amendments in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (1908) by the BJP-led state government only aims to weaken Adivasi land ownership.

31/12/2016 1:54 PM IST | Updated 03/01/2017 1:40 PM IST

I grew up in Hazaribagh, a small, desolate town surrounded by hills and thick forests in the Chotanagpur region of Jharkhand. I still remember that residential quarters for Railway employees were built, but the train line took far longer to be constructed—it is a telling example of the typical Indian mentality!

The town is known for its vast untapped coal resource, a national park and a relatively cool climate throughout the year. Retirees from PSUs across the state are known to flock to the town; markets and businesses took the Monday blues seriously and remained shut on that day. Slow, quiescent and monotonous—these three adjectives best describe life in Hazaribagh.

Post- liberalisation Indian policymakers advocate for "trickle- down" economics... a fancy way of saying that the rich should continue to hoard wealth while the government does little to redistribute.

I studied at the DAV Public School, which was nestled below the famous Canary Hill; folklore has it that the hill and the adjoining forests were the abode of tigers in the 60s. It has been decades since the last stray tiger pug mark was found. It's the same old story: reckless deforestation and the pressure of the growing population have wreaked havoc on the picturesque town. Today, Hazaribagh bears only a vague resemblance to its former self, much as is the case with other towns and cities in Jharkhand; Ranchi, for instance, used to be the summer capital of undivided Bihar and today, the temperature regularly soars over 40°C in May.

The Adivasis

Growing up in the Muslim locality of Pagmil (predictably called mini-Pakistan by some) I had little understanding of the Adivasi culture. When I moved to Ranchi, the capital city and the centre of the Adivasi struggle for a separate homeland, my eyes were opened. I realised that Adivasis were in fact a heterogeneous people practicing multiple religions, from Hinduism to Christianity to their native Sarna faith. From grand churches built by missionaries to sacred Sarna places of worship, the Adivasi culture has been at the centre of them all.

The provision of affirmative action within the Constitution of India has helped the Adivasis dispersed across Eastern India to move up the social ladder. Those who belittle this constitutional guarantee ought to realise that the Indian society is one of the world's most discriminatory; it is redolent with casteist customs that treat the Adivasis as outcasts. Let me put this bluntly; this constitutional guarantee is no privilege for the downtrodden; it is actually atonement for the collective sins of our society that has for centuries robbed the Adivasis of a dignified life.

During the early 19th century, the Adivasis were the first people to rise against their British overlords. Decades before the 1857 revolt fought under the name of a senile and reluctant Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Adivasis rebelled against the Raj. The Kol and Santhal rebellions are only a few well-documented rebellions among the many that originated in Jharkhand.

Historically, the Adivasis were always the "shunned"; people who didn't fit into India's age-old caste tradition. These were the same people never permitted inside the city walls during the ancient/medieval eras. In a sense, this disregarding of them from the Indian caste tradition spared them of the fate of the Dalits who by their birth were expected to perform odd jobs while residing in the fringes of the city. The outcast status of the Adivasis meant they were at least free to do their own thing beyond the confines of city. Hence, the Adivasis developed a symbiotic relationship with the forest. Adivasi villages began mushrooming around the forests. The forest land helped them in subsistence. That's why the forest is such an integral part of the Adivasi culture and customs.

The coming of a conflict

As long as the British were content with their possessions on the coasts, the Adivasis and the Raj kept off from each other. But, once the British interest expanded in the interiors in search of raw materials for rail-roads, the Adivasis became an obstacle. The Raj now saw the Adivasis as a menace to their new interests in the interiors. Thus, they first enacted laws restricting Adivasi "incursions" in their "forest possessions" and later completely banned the Adivasis from forest lands.

The policy shift from "inclusive growth" to "pro-market liberalisation" has had an adverse effect on the Adivasis of Jharkhand.

From decades of mutual distrust to outright animosity, the Adivasis and the Raj equation reached the point of no return. It was always going to be a battle of un-equals. The Adivasis with their bow and arrows up against the British Army, armed to its teeth. Innumerable Adivasis were slaughtered and their leaders mercilessly tortured. The inhumane treatment meted out by the Raj created scores of martyrs. The stories of Birsa, Sidho and Kanho encouraged thousands more to confront the British. The region in and around modern day Jharkhand was always a troublemaker for the British government. Post independence the Jharkhand Party was founded in Ranchi (1949) to press the Congress party to recognise Jharkhand as a separate state. The Congress had promised reorganisation of states post independence but the vicious environment of partition prevented Nehru from honouring his word. In 1952, following the death of a protester and independence revolutionary Potti Sreeramulu demanding a separate Telugu state from Madras forced Nehru to soften his stand and new states were recognised on the basis of language. However, demands for a separate Adivasi homeland in south Bihar would take many lives and another five decades to materialise.

The Bihar government refused to relent to demands of a separate Jharkhand. The formation of would-be Jharkhand was to suddenly "rob" the Biharis of their "legitimate" right over the vast mineral reserves of Jharkhand; touted to be nearly 40% of India's total. Successive governments of Bihar tried best to sabotage the statehood demands by exaggerating the ties between those fighting for a separate state and the ultra- Leftist Naxals. It was yet another iteration of the animosity that characterised the Adivasis' relations with the Raj.

From the British Raj to modern day federal governments, little has changed for the Adivasis. Their inalienable right on jal (water), jangal (forest) and zameen (land) continues to go unheeded.

Nehru's commitment to socialism is well-known; PSUs established immediately after independence such as DVC (Damodar Valley Corporation), Coal India and NTPC were all committed to the idea of "inclusive growth" i.e. helping the local community to grow and prosper along with these public companies. Most of these PSUs drew raw materials from mineral-rich Eastern India and were headquartered there too, giving a sense of local ownership to the people of the region. The concept of "inclusive growth" pulled many millions out of abject poverty, giving them a dignified life.

Post-liberalisation Indian policymakers advocate for "trickle- down" economics—a fancy term that theoretically implies unfettered market growth with minimal government interference. It's a fancy way of saying that the rich should continue to hoard wealth at a breakneck pace while the government does little to redistribute. This ruthlessness has meant that the concept of "inclusive growth" is vilified by everyone.

The consequences

This policy shift from "inclusive growth" to "pro-market liberalisation" has had an adverse effect on the Adivasis of Jharkhand. Lands were forcibly taken away and given to big industrial houses whose policies are driven only by profits. The very concept of alleviating the issues of local communities is alien to them. The recent amendments in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (1908) by the BJP-led state government only aims to weaken Adivasi land ownership and pave the way for big industrial houses to acquire it easily. This year Jharkhand was ranked among the top Indian states for ease of doing business, a commendable feat for a state that's otherwise in news only for three reasons; Naxalism, Dhoni and the corrupt former- chief minister Madhu Koda. As this news spread across the state I only wondered; if the destruction of environment was equally well-documented? There's utter disregard for climate and environmental issues here. Environmental destruction as a consequence of industrialisation bothers only a handful of proponents who have worked with the Adivasis, like Jean Drèze (a Belgian-born economist associated with Ranchi University) and Bela Bhatia, a human rights activist hounded by Chhattisgarh state for her active participation for the causes of Adivasis.

Sadly, the policies pursued by governments in states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are inimical to the substantial Adivasi populations there. From the British Raj to modern day federal governments, little has changed for the Adivasis. Their inalienable right on jal (water), jangal (forest) and zameen (land) continues to go unheeded.

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