22/10/2016 6:45 AM IST | Updated 31/10/2016 8:36 AM IST

How Misguided Idealism Is Deepening The Crisis In The Tribal Heart Of India

The economic exploitation and developmental neglect of the core tribal areas of India's eastern plateau and hills across Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have to be tackled through practical solutions unhindered by ideological blinkers.

Collin Key
Celebrations at a community meeting place in a tribal village in Chhattisgarh.

By Sanjiv Phansalkar*

The eastern plateau and hills region in India, mainly (but not entirely) in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh has been in crisis for several decades now. A devoted community health doctor working all his life in a missionary hospital in this area has only half jocularly termed this the 5M region. At least one of these 5Ms is core to any major discussion on the region and its problems. These 5Ms are Mines, Maoists, Missionaries, Malaria and Malnutrition.

The mainland folk, their ancestors having ruined all semblance of ecological balance in their own habitat, have suddenly become great saviours of the environment in the 5M region.

This region starts near Mandla in the west, includes Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, the old Bastar district, western and southern Odisha and reaches north through Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to reach as north as Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh. Its eastern fringe is Medinapore in West Bengal with its infamous Jungle Mahal and Nandigram.

This region is home to a large number of people belonging to Santhal, Munda, Ho, Oraon, Gond, Kanwar, Bhumij, Kolam, Kondha, Dungariya, Kole and other tribes. It is characterized by undulating, hilly and mountainous terrain, reasonably good forest, and decent rainfall of about 1200-1500mm. A large number of major and minor rivers such as the Narmada, Sone, Tapti, Wainganga, Damodar, Subarnarekha Mahanadi, Brahmani and Baitarni rise in the wooded hills of this region.

Romantic tint

There is a strong trend to romantically set tribal people apart from the rest by calling them indigenous people, children of nature who live in harmony with nature. This school of thought condemns virtually all manner of modern development. An extreme form of this view is to treat them akin to protected animals to be conserved in a national park to which then the state will arrange excursion trips for foreign tourists in air-conditioned buses. This actually used to happen till very recently—buses took people to see how the Bondas lived in Bonda hills in Malkangiri.

Since the rest of the country no longer lives like pristine children of nature, the disparity between the tribal folk and others in terms of educational status, well being, health, general progress, etc., keeps rising. Fortunately this sort of madness is restricted to a very few cases.

Rita Willaert
Farmland in Bilaput, Odisha.

In reality, what has been happening for centuries is abject neglect of the people coupled with rapacious exploitation of the resources in their region, often at their peril. Our ancestors did not kill the aboriginals the way they did in Australia or the United States, but they certainly marginalized them. Dams submerged their homes. Our ancestors proudly killed the fauna of these people, and then proudly displayed photographs with dead tigers.

Extractive policies

Governments in the past looked only at revenue from timber from these regions. The ore and metal industries have been extracting ores from this land and generating wealth elsewhere, including in the form of royalty income to states, which is then invested elsewhere. As this wealth brings in non-tribal people, these regions no longer remain demographically dominated by the tribal population. The savvy non-tribal people then become the new exploiters of the tribal folk. This has happened with tragic consequences in Jharkhand.

The ethnic divide and economic exploitation have together found expression in the form of political protests. Maoist insurgents have exploited the resultant turbulence. Important rail and road routes pass through the 5M region and both the protests and the insurgency tend to affect smooth movement of goods and people. Thus in administrative terms, the 5M region has become essentially a matter of law and order for the state. The 5M region has become a core of underdevelopment in terms of HDI (Human Development Index) or other parameters of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). This region tops in statistics regarding every form of shameful social ill: bonded labour, serfdom, flesh trade, child trafficking, miseries brought in by diseases, hunger and starvation etc. In that sense it has become a millstone.

Environmental twist

Perhaps the most recent complication has been the environmental twist to the issues of this region. The mainland folk, their ancestors having ruined all semblance of ecological balance in their own habitat, have suddenly become great saviours of the environment in the 5M region. It is easy to oppose development to save the environment when those who are already marginalized and impoverished face the negative consequences of underdevelopment.

Rather than opposing the mining and metal industry... the focus of the self-appointed friends of tribal people needs to shift to training tribal youth to take jobs in these industries...

So then we have a cauldron of political insurgency, environmental activism, economic strife and sharp, stark problems of underdevelopment here in the 5M region. Is there a way out? There is if people were to remove their ideological lenses and think practically. If the focus were on working together in evolving win-win solutions, things could change for the better for everyone.

Rather than opposing the mining and metal industry in its entirety, the focus of the self-appointed friends of tribal people needs to shift to training tribal youth to take jobs in these industries and in all upstream and downstream activities. The industry or the state needs to stop looking for shortcuts and ways to shortchange the tribal people and make serious efforts at including them in the growth. With such a Midas touch, all could benefit— industry, tribal people and the country.

Sanjiv Phansalkar is Programme Director at Tata Trusts. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. The views expressed in the article are personal.

This article was first published on, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.