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Result of skewed development?

The recent tribal unrest in Kerala is not just the result of alienation from traditional land. Rather, its roots lie in a development process far removed from tribal culture, writes A. DAMODARAN.


ONE of the interesting offshoots of the Wayanad (Muthanga forest) incidents of February 2003 has been a sharp renewal of interest in the Dhebar Commission Report on "Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes". Scores of writers have attributed the current problem in Wayanad to the failure of the Kerala Government to implement the Dhebar Commission recommendations on alienated tribal lands. While there is no dispute about the importance of the land alienation issue, it needs to be noted that there are deeper social and cultural causes for the Wayanad problem that can be traced to the tribal development policies of successive State Governments in Kerala. Interestingly some of these problematic policies were conceived and implemented in the best traditions of the Dhebar Commission recommendations.

Three implicit strands of thinking underlie the Dhebar Commission report. The first is that tribes of India need to be weaned away from their traditional habitats towards alternative life support systems centring on "land" as the basic "resource". Since alienation of tribal lands could frustrate the shift to new living, the Commission was understandably concerned about the land alienation problem. The second revolves around the principle that tribes (particularly those in the landless category) ought to be put on a fast track of "intensive development", based on "alternative" and "non-conventional" vocations. The third lay in its slant towards "acculturation" and "modernisation". The Commission deemed it important for tribes to undergo a process of protracted interaction with non-tribes in the larger interests of their social and cultural uplift.

The Dhebar Commission (set up in 1960) was not in favour of creating new scheduled areas in India. The Commission deemed the Fifth Schedule of India's Constitution as a temporary expedient. The Commission's recommendations regarding "alienated lands" and "intensive development" was to forestall the formation of new scheduled areas. State Governments, which had "openly"' or "subtly" practised the art of re-balancing demographic equations in tribal areas, found in the Commission's emphasis on the "contiguous area criterion", an alibi to stall demands for "tribal republics".

Despite backtracking on the critical issue of land alienation in Wayanad in the 1980s, successive Governments in Kerala undertook many social experiments in this tribal heartland in the true spirit of the Dhebar Commission recommendations. Indeed some of the "Dhebar model schemes" initiated in Wayanad predate the Commission.

In 1950, the erstwhile Madras State instituted the Wayanad colonisation scheme (Wayanad was part of the Madras State then). Under this scheme, tribes and migrants were jointly allotted land for agricultural operations in contiguous areas. However, the art of settled cultivation was alien to large sections of the tribes and many leased their lands to migrants for cultivation. But, except in very few cases, the land did not come back rightful owners. Tribals, who lost their lands, wound up working as bonded labour for landlords, most of whom were migrants from Tamil Nadu, the plains of Kerala and Karnataka. Also the tribals could not return to their customary shifting cultivation practices thanks to the forests and wildlife legislations.

In the late 1970s, the Kerala Government initiated rehabilitation programmes for the bonded labourers released during the Emergency. However, some of these schemes were "outlandish". For one, they involved exotic commercial crops such as cardamom and tea. Worse, they expected the tribals to work with modern agriculture gadgetry. One such venture that I visited in 1998 was the Priyadarshini Tea Project in Mananthvady. I expected the project to capture the virtues of ethnicity and naturalness. But Priyadarshini was something radically modern. Tribal women labourers were grappling with mechanical shears, given by project authorities, to harvest tealeaves. When the best tea production zones in India boast of hand plucked tealeaves, it was strange to see the labourers of Priyadarshini using mechanical devices.

Another curious scheme in Wayanad was a colony constructed by the local block office for the Katunayaka tribes in the outskirts of the Muthanga forests. The Katunayakas, by nature food gatherers and hunters, traditionally lived in dwellings constructed of thatch. However, the new colony provided them with "tiled roof houses", latrines and sanitation facilities. Unfortunately, the latrine was situated close to the Nayakas' spot of worship. Nothing could be worse than the imposition of such callously designed development programmes.

A major casualty of the development schemes in Wayanad has been tribal language. The Katunayaka tribes' speech is similar to Kannada. However, school education in Malayalam has threatened to swamp their native tongue. Bhaskaran's interesting biography of C.K. Janu mentions the changes that have overtaken the language of the Adiya tribe. However the acculturation process has not proceeded smoothly. Modern education has not changed the affinity of the tribes for their language. The Paniya and Adiya tribes suffer the agony of speaking in a "dying language".

The finer sentiments associated with linguistic identities and feelings did not find a place in the Dhebar Commission's scheme of things. Rather that approach holds a close parallel to the linguistic and nationality theories of Stalin and Mao. Despite shedding tears for linguistic minorities and small nationalities, Stalin and Mao did not deem it necessary to provide nationhood to communities that did not "enjoy a stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make up".

The idea was simple. Marginalised communities were "history-less" — they did not deserve their language and, finally, did not deserve to exist except as insignificant cogs of a monolithic State. The Dhebar Commission was not fundamentally different in its approach to tribal languages.

It would be an over-simplification to view the Muthanga imbroglio as arising only from the land issue. Even if the land issue is satisfactorily resolved, there is no guarantee that tribal dissent would vanish from this part of God's own country. The real message of Muthanga is loud and clear. A development process that is neutral to traditional cultural values of tribes has no roots.

Many years ago Julius Nyerere said, "People are not developed, they develop themselves". Unfortunately, this bare reality by-passed our tribal development architects, including the Dhebar Commission.

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