A lost paradise for tribals in (Modiland) Gujarat

The tribals of Gujarat are stuck in a quagmire of false hopes and a vicious circle of electoral politics played by the ruling party. With no relief in sight, depleting livelihood plunges them further into poverty and a malnourished future.

The Gujarat assembly elections are scheduled later this year and vote bank politics is again at the forefront. With Patels (Patidars) looking away, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to rope in the 8.9 million tribals who constitute 15-16% of the state’s total population, about the same size as the Patels and are significant voters in 27 assembly constituencies in eastern Gujarat. After suffering a loss in the local body elections in rural areas in December 2015, BJP is working all angles to hold on to the position of power.

Tribals have traditionally been a Congress vote bank but started to drift away after the KHAM (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) strategy fell apart. Congress still has a stronghold over substantial talukas in the tribal belt but BJP is making inroads, albeit with a stronger focus than before.

Earlier in February this year, chief minister Vijay Rupani flagged off the ‘Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra’ from Unai village in tribal-dominated Navsari in South Gujarat. The yatra covered tribal dominated constituencies and team Modi-Shah sold promises of development, which will be conveniently forgotten as soon as the mandate is delivered.

Promises in the air

The “last man in the queue” sure was filled with a lot of hope and optimism when Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated his 66th birthday amidst Gujarati tribals last year. He promised them water for drinking and irrigation; inaugurated projects worth Rs. 3,800 crore catering to the parched region of Dahod.

Quite surprisingly, similar promises were made in 2012, that too a few months ahead of state assembly elections.

In May that year, Narendra Modi, then CM of Gujarat, promised a bulk water supply scheme worth Rs. 456 crore for drinking and irrigation purpose for 210 villages in northern Dahod and an 82-km long Kadana dam-based water supply scheme, worth Rs. 127.12 crore. He also announced the laying of a 119 km-long pipeline to provide clean drinking water for villages in southern Dahod.

And before 2012, the pre-election months in 2007 too witnessed promises akin to the ones made in 2012 and 2017. A few months short of Gujarat state assembly elections in 2007, Narendra Modi announced Rs 15,000 crore worth Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojna for the upliftment and development of the tribal population in the state.

Shocking and eye-opening at the same time, is the fact that though hundreds of crores of rupees are being pumped into the tribal heartland of Gujarat, the situation is still the same. Year after year, election after election, there is no respite for the tribes living in the region.

This goes to prove that these last minute offerings are nothing more than sops. Innumerable studies, conducted by various NGOs, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Centre for Social Studies, National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and many more, all point to the grim reality of lies woven around Narendra Modi’s fancy speeches and BJP’s false propaganda.

Hyped up Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana

The tribals have long been relegated to the fringes and kept out of development and employment related opportunities. Be it social and human development like education or health; basic amenities at household level; infrastructure or livelihood heads like agriculture, industry or animal husbandry, Gujarat’s tribals fare low in all. Close to 94% of state’s tribal population lives in villages and any agrarian change affects them.

Dr. Indira Hirway, Director & Professor of Economics at Center for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad,in her study, “Employment and Income Generation among the Tribal Population: Some Critical Issues”, details the shortfalls of the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana, a tribal welfare scheme. The VKY, launched in 2007 with an allocation of Rs. 15,000 crore, was based on “re-engineering the processes of existing interventions which focus on livelihood development, provision of quality education and development of infrastructure in tribal areas”. The academician is critical of VKY for its dependence on corporate sector and MNCs for skill development of tribals and while it maximizes corporate profits, tribal economy suffers.

Modi’s government followed the public-private partnership approach for the implementation of the scheme. Instead of preserving the natural forest reserve, which are the main source of livelihood for the tribals, VKY’s model of development is facilitating exploitation of forest resources by corporates under the disguise of providing employment in mining sector and other fields. The underlying economic model in the scheme is the topic for ongoing debate between the policy makers and vote seekers.

The Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana also aimed at reducing migration from tribal areas. In most areas, livelihood issues remain unresolved. Research work in the Dangs, which is exclusively a tribal district, shows that despite better infrastructure facilities than other tribal areas, the area dwellers are migrating like they did before the implementation of VKY. Anthropologist Janmejaya Mishra, who works with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), Ahmedabad, has indexed several cases where tribals migrate to work as agricultural labourers or at construction sites for 7-8 months every year. Not only are these migrant workers exploited, the salaries are often delayed or paid at the end of the contract period.

Scattered development and water scarcity

Not only is development scattered and uneven in the tribal Gujarat, it eludes some districts totally. Dahod, where huge sums of funds are being supposedly pumped in, is one of the most backward and underdeveloped regions in the country. The tribal population is concentrated mainly in 43 talukas. The large dams and their canals elude these areas, serving mainly non-tribal and urban areas, which are predominantly industrial. The BJP government has made half-hearted efforts to promote irrigation in tribal areas.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) reported that only 32% of the total cultivated land in Gujarat is irrigated. In tribal areas, the situation is far more worrisome. 45% of the 43 talukas inhabited by tribals have less than 15% cultivated land under irrigation while 30% have less than 5% irrigated agricultural land. Only 3 talukas match the state level.

As the tribal belt is extremely drought prone, scarcity of water is pushing tribals to use tubewells for irrigation. This in turn is leading to groundwater depletion further escalating the problem and having an adverse effect on the tribal environment. Lack of water is also affecting dairy development and animal husbandry in the region. Shortage of green fodder and animal feed is resulting in low milk yield in the cattle owned by tribals forcing more and more farmers to take the migration route.

Carrying the burden of poverty and hunger

The tribal communities of Gujarat shoulder the burden of extreme poverty and deprivation, which is immensely disproportionate to the rest of Gujarat. Although the tribal region is receiving more and more attention with the passing of each year, more so as their vote has suddenly become very important for the ruling party, the tribals are still in the same quagmire of poverty as they were 1a decade back. In the absence of satisfactory regeneration of forests and forest resources, the tribals are denied access to their livelihood and migrate which further worsens their situation. According to Census figures, tribal households depending on casual labour have 36% higher poverty score than those who depend on agriculture.

Majority of tribals live in a constant state of destitution and malnutrition, spending around 70—80% of their income on food. These families have hardly any spare income to be spent on education, health or asset formation. Studies conducted Surat based Centre for Social Studies (CSS, an autonomous institute backed by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development and the state government showed that malnutrition in a high number of tribal talukas is as high as 94% in children aged 5-15 year. Within the tribal community, there is a sharp difference in spending on health and education. While the non-poor spend close to Rs. 24, their poor counterparts spend a mere Rs. 9.

The Comptroller and auditor general (CAG) of India made observations which point a direct relation between the condition of aganwadis and the high levels of malnutrition. Stunting or reduced growth in tribal children in Gujarat is severe. Factors influencing household poverty, maternal nutrition before and during pregnancy, poor access to water, sanitation and health services, shortage of food, ignorance and poor feeding practices in early years of life take a toll on the younger tribal generation.

Misplaced rights and grants

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was set up with the sole purpose of ensuring and securing livelihood of the tribal population which has been dependent on forest produce since hundreds of years. Narendra Modi’s government has faltered in allocating funds to the tribals in accordance to their population. In 2010-11, the allocation of welfare fund was only 14% as against their 16% share in the state’s total population.

The state government has also been charged with being the worst performer in settling claims and distributing allocated land to the tribals. According to the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry, Gujarat has settled only 32% of the claims under the land allocation scheme. Needless to say, the state figures among the worst performers.

Another crucial right which the tribals are devoid of, is the Right to Education (RTE). The latest CAG, in its audit of the social sector of the Gujarat government, has reported that the implementation of educational schemes and RTE has been poor and unsatisfactory in tribal areas of Gujarat. The report also pointed out several loopholes in usage and dispersal of funds granted to the state for education, with incorrect expenditure figures being reported.

In a sharp contrast, while the state of Gujarat ranks 5th in terms of Scheduled Tribes population (Census 2011), the literacy level of its tribal’s ranks 19. There is also a sharp gap of more than 20% between the literacy rate of non-tribal and tribal population of the state.

As if the adversities faced by the tribals were not enough, the Gujarat government added to the already miserable situation of the state’s ST community by cutting the grants for their welfare schemes. According to the Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry, the grants for welfare of scheduled tribes (ST) and scheduled castes (SC) has drastically been cut down from Rs. 27 crore in 2012-2014 to Rs. 2.53 crore in 2014-15. The Ministry also reported that no grants were released for STs in 2015-16.

A paradise no more

To the rest of the country, the state of Gujarat is being showcased as a model state. However, the ground reality is as far away from truth as are rain drops from the sands of Thar, especially for 15% of its population residing in forests.

According to noted tribal rights activist, Ganesh Devy, the government (BJP) has let down the tribal population of Gujarat. The tribal belt, in sharp contrast to the rest of Gujarat, is devoid of jobs, universities, education facilities and other basic infrastructure.

The tribals in Gujarat are not only facing displacement and deforestation due to dams, industrial growth and infrastructure projects but their hope for tomorrow, their children are becoming victims of government apathy and are falling prey to malnutrition.

As chief minister, Narendra Modi stumbled in safeguarding the rights of his state’s tribal people. As prime minister, he failed to uphold the promises made to them. The urban rich in Gujarat keep flourishing while their rural brethren are becoming victims of marginalisation and are struggling for a decent chance a living. Without the firm support of a caring hand, the tribals of Gujarat are staring at a bleak tomorrow.

(The article written by Ms.Sadhavi Khosla Researcher, Writer, Activist, Political Analyst and the Author of ‘Punjab – The Enemies within’. Also created a Documentary on Punjab ‘Fading Glory’.)