Giving Tribal Communities Back What They Deserve
The onus to ensure quality and prosperous life for tribals lies with the government by way of shaping environment conducive to policy and effectively implementing the legislations already in place
Tribal population displays remarkable diversity in India. Constitution of India has notified over 700 Scheduled Tribes in 30 states/ UTs constituting about 8.6% of India's population. It is unfortunate that they have remained economically deprived and socially isolated. In 2011-12, incidence of poverty among tribals was more than double than that of non-tribals. Frequent occurrence of tribal uprising and solidarity movements on issues such as land tenure security, displacement, and social injustice speaks of their alienation from the mainstream.
Tribals have long been living in the vicinity of forests and are dependent on products obtained from forests for their sustenance and securing livelihoods. Collection and sale of minor forest produce (MFP) helps them meet economic needs. TERI's research indicates that income from sale of MFP constitutes about 20% of the overall income of tribal households. Tribals, however, fail to get the best prices for the produce they collect and sell. At times, pressing need for money compels them to sell the produce at throwaway prices. On other occasions, information asymmetry disables them to fetch a better price. In any case, they lose their bargaining power and have to make do with whatever they get in return.
The MSP scheme of the Government of India provides for a minimum (support) price for the effort MFP gatherers spend in collection, primary processing, storage, packaging, transportation etc. of selected forest produce while ensuring sustainability of the resource base. This minimum support price ought to be remunerative and over and above the costs incurred by the MFP gatherer from collection to sale of the produce. The MSP should be inclusive of a royalty component to recognize the fact that local community is the owner of the resource under Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Area) Act, 1996 (PESA) and Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA). This will give an incentive to the community to conserve the resource and engage in sustainable practices of harvesting.
FRA 2006 also allows individual forest dwellers to live in and cultivate forest land that was occupied before 13 Dec 2005 and grants community forest rights to manage, protect, regenerate the forest and to own and dispose minor forest products from forests where they had traditional access. As compared to individual forest rights, the progress on implementation of community forest rights and community forest resource rights has been extremely poor. Out of 41,78,320 claims filed under FRA by November 2017, 96.67% were claims for Individual titles. Community titles distributed of the remaining 3.33%, stood at merely 47%. This dispossession of rights has made them a victim of social exclusion. Implementation of community forest and resource rights requires renewed vigour in all states to reverse injustice to forest dwellers and restore the social recognition they deserve. There is also the need to empower the communities by making them aware of their rights, privileges and constitutional guarantees.
Utilizing the collective strength of communities either through constituting a committee or gram sabha can solve multiple purposes. MFP gatherers need to form responsible groups among themselves, taking cues from self-help groups and farmer producer organizations, which can put the cogs of the value chain in order - track the market prices and trends, arrange for the required equipment, establish contacts with prospective buyers and so on. This way they can also minimize their dependence on middlemen to sell their produce. Collective strength also gives them more purchasing power which can be used to undertake primary processing of the produce to fetch better price in the market.
The progress made on financial inclusion nationally should also be put to use now. Financial institutions need to encourage social entrepreneurship among tribals by providing appropriate credit support to help them setup local processing units to add value to the produce and secure better prices. This will ensure that local skills are optimally utilized and enhanced to bring economic prosperity in tribals' lives.
Tribals and other forest dwelling communities have been custodians of forests for ages. But with growing demand for food, fuel, fodder and other forest based resources, unsustainable consumption of natural resources has grown which is leading to degradation of the existing forests and depletion of resources obtained from it. Local communities must be alarmed of the grave consequences of unsustainable usage of forests and its resources. Training programmes and sensitization towards good practices of harvesting forest resources must be taken up at larger level to create awareness amongst the forest dwelling communities. Further research should go into developing sustainable harvesting techniques and promoting them to help communities gain sustainable livelihoods through forest resources without hurting the environment.
The onus to ensure quality and prosperous life for tribals lies with the government by way of shaping environment conducive to policy and effectively implementing the legislations already in place. NGOs and government agencies need to sensitize communities for better usage of resources for communities' own good in long term. Financial institutions must come forward and support communities by offering credit in times of need and encourage social entrepreneurship. Apathy towards welfare of tribal and other forest dwelling communities has to be discarded for they are an integral part of the society. Sustainable development is unimaginable without them getting uplifted.
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