What happens when a ‘powerful’ Act to enhance the rights of tribals across India is passed in 1996, but the Rules to enforce it aren’t seen the light of day for nearly 25 years? "It becomes inoperative," explains Dr AB Ota, director of the Odisha Tribal Research Institute, who along with Dr SB Roy, chairman of the Indian Institute of Bio-Social Research and Development (IBRAD) spoke to TNIE Editorial Director Prabhu Chawla and senior journalist Kaveree Bamzai on Expressions, a series of live webcasts with people who matter.
The Act in question is the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). "The pity is that, though it was promulgated 25 years ago and is still the most powerful Act, the government is yet to come up with the rule to support it and without this, the Act is inoperative. Once the rules are announced, I think the tribals may get their due," said Ota, who has worked in the sector for the Odisha government for decades.
But merely passing policies is inadequate. "There is no dearth of policies for tribals. Keeping people aware of the policies in the community is what is lacking. Lack of competency in managing the resources as per the provisions of the Act is also there," said Dr Roy.
Responding to a question about whether the shrinking of forests was hitting India’s tribal population, Roy explained: "The geographic area of tribal forest land is shrinking. If you see the Forest Survey of India, the green cover has increased in the last few years, but that is outside the tribal area."
But he agreed that a large portion was still dependent on the forests and its produce. Ota agreed on both counts. "Traditionally, tribals have been dependent on forests. But because of government schemes, inundation and depletion of forests, they do not depend on it as much. As much as 59.3 per cent of the total forest coverage is in the tribal (TSP) districts and this shows that a good number of them still live near or depend on forests."
Why then are there are sporadic allegations that the tribals are over-exploiting and harming the forests? “It is an issue of perception. Conservation is not preservation. Conserving means tribals need to harvest it and survive on it without harming the forest.
History tells us that the harvesting of timber is done by commercial corporate companies and tribals are used by them as labours,” said Roy.When asked if education held the singular key to bringing about large-scale tribal development, Roy said: “Tribals should be provided with the best education. But, for their development, if you create a few doctors, engineers and IAS officers, they will not stay in villages and aid the process.”Perhaps the key to stemming the high dropout rate among tribal kids could lie within the Odisha model, “The dropout rate was high and so we built over 7000 schools and brought our children to a residential mode of education. The rate has reduced to single digits,” said Ota jubilantly.