Establishing and running a non-profit establishment, Agragamee, that works with some of the most impoverished, marginalised and underprivileged tribal communities in India, Vidhya Das is a beacon of hope in the densely forested area of Odisha. As joint director of the organisation, she has worked for decades at grass root levels with tribal communities striving to improve the quality of livelihood, health, education and women empowerment in these areas. Das is one of the speakers on the panel of ‘Civil Society’ at the Difficult Dialogues which is being held in partnership with The Navhind Times from January 28 to January 30. In conversation with NT BUZZ Das speaks about the trial and tribulations of the tribal population in Odisha and the entire country and how the constitution of India doesn’t work in the tribal areas.
Janice Rodrigues|NT BUZZ
Q: What triggered your interest in tribal communities and how did you begin work with them?
I grew up in the tribal areas of Jharkhand and was close to many tribals. Slowly I started looking up and studying about how they live, the level of poverty and started taking up rural development issues. I worked in Rajasthan and now live in Raigada (in Orissa) – one of the most backward regions of the country.
Q: Can you elaborate about the work that the organisation ‘Agragamee’ undertakes? Which of the issues that Agragamee are the most pressing and need urgent attention and why?
Agragamee works primarily in two areas, tribal rights, tribal education and natural resource development. Tribal communities are ecosystem people, they depend on their surroundings. If you deprive them either by destroying the resources, or through displacement, then their livelihood is seriously affected. Agragamee works on the rights of tribal people to land rights act, forest rights act and panchayat extension to scheduled areas act. We also help them regenerate forests, have perennial resources in the forests, etc. We take up schools and try to increase the level of literacy. So we work on a combination of rights based and socio economic development issues for tribal peoples.
Q: When one talks about tribal issues, it is very difficult not to relate to mining issues. What are your observances in the tribal areas with regard to mining issues in the country in general and Goa in particular?
Here in Orissa, the tribal issues are severely affected by mining. You may have heard of the Niyamgiri struggle with Vedanta. Agragamee has tried to help with these issues. Where we are, there are bauxite mines operated by the Birlas, Tatas and French companies. Tribal people are getting displaced without proper compensation. Some of the resettlement and rehabilitation policies are worse than when they were first offered during Indira Gandhi’s time. Initially tribal groups were offered land for land but now they just offer money. Previously, we were operating under the draconian Land Acquisition Act that was passed in the British times and allowed the government to take whatever land they wanted for public use. But recently with the passing of the Land Acquisition and Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act in 2013, there are better provisions. But other pro-tribal acts that empower gram sabhas to look after tribal resources are seen as hindrances by state and district authorities. It’s been our experience that when tribal people have a legitimate right to land, the government uses brute force. The government is for rich people in this country. The way they look at development is very different compared to how people look at development. Nobody questions the violence initiated by the state. Whatever the political parties, their behaviour is the same.
Q: Tribal issues have been mostly neglected in the bigger picture when it comes to the nation’s development. What do you think are the steps needed to be taken so that the average Indian is aware of the issues faced in the tribal areas?
Tribals are the original inhabitants of this country. In the US, they are called the first people; and to see them face problems of underdevelopment and poverty is very sad. If they were allowed to develop with support, they would develop well because they have knowledge and land. But they are being treated as secondary citizens. Government programmes don’t run in tribal areas. In places like Orissa, where one fourth of the population is tribal, there isn’t enough understanding. There is a stereotype of tribal people as uneducated but where are the schools in tribal areas? The media also doesn’t really care to highlight the tribal community. Real issues don’t get discussed. So how can we make people aware of their problems? Tribal communities actually have a negative carbon footprint because they protect the environment.
Q: Last year there was a bid to amend the The Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (by Scheduled Tribes) Regulations, (OSATIP) 1956 that would enable tribals to sell their land. How do you perceive such a step and what could be the repercussions?
OSATIP is a big barrier because tribal land is highly valued for minerals and what you can grow there- eucalyptus plantations, digging of mines, etc. This is also a move to derecognise some of the indigenous tribal groups. They are not being accorded tribal status so that their land can be grabbed by non-tribals. The tribal communities should come back strongly against these acts but the level of education is low. Their understanding of the constitution is also low. In fact, the real constitution doesn’t work in tribal areas. If you want to access a rural housing loan, you have to pay big percentages as bribes. These rules are as good as laid down. In rural India, this is nicknamed ‘PC’, and this is the constitution that works there.
Q: Connectivity to the tribal areas is a major issue; what are your thoughts on the idea of building roads and facilitating the connectivity in these areas? Do you think it will be beneficial or detrimental to the tribal community?
Connectivity is good but if you don’t give people food to eat or help them have better agriculture, better education, then mostly you will see people coming out and not going in to the tribal areas. People need to reach hospitals, markets, etc. When you build railways, it leads to people going out, rather than good developments coming in. We have to ensure good quality education first.
(Vidhya Das will speak on the panel of Civil Society of the Difficult Dialogues on January 29 at 2.30 p.m. at Cidade de Goa)