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Enduring Poverty & Land Dispossession, Adivasis Must be Empowered for Self-rule

The Forest Rights Act, which aims to protect individual and community rights for tribals, has had limited success.

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Five years after the Forest Rights Act (FRA) was passed in 2006, India’s first village secured community forest rights. That village, Mendha Lekha, quickly built a thriving, resilient local economy on the sustainable management of its bamboo forest. Yet, even as the country progresses on socioeconomic indicators, too few Adivasi communities have had the same opportunities as Mendha Lekha.

Despite constitutional guarantees for education and employment, well-intentioned government policies for land rights and self-governance, and dedicated efforts by philanthropists and NGOs, Adivasi people—who constitute roughly 8 percent of the population—continue to experience high rates of poverty and low levels of opportunity. 

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Rise in Violence Against Adivasis

A 2015 Oxfam report summarised how Adivasi communities continue to be marginalised: “Violation of their land and forest rights, often leading to their displacement or dispossession; exploitative economic relations with the world at large; and the erosion of their cultural practices are some of the harsh, yet common realities in the life of the tribal community.”

To make matters worse, violence against Adivasi community members is on the rise. Atrocities involving members of Scheduled Tribes increased by 6.4 percent in 2021, according to a National Crime Records Bureau report.

In recent decades, civil society organisations have introduced an array of programmes to boost services in areas such as education, healthcare, and sanitation, where inequities run deep. While the attention to specific sectors is valuable, it still doesn’t provide Adivasi communities the support they need to step into their own power.

Their collective ambition is not just for educational and economic benefit, but for autonomy and agency—the ability to take action, be effective, and influence their own lives.

Strengthening Agency to Encourage Self-rule

Self-rule over their constitutionally guaranteed land and natural resources is just as important, if not more so, as programmes promoting education and jobs, says Ramesh Sharma, general secretary of Ekta Parishad, a people’s movement for land rights. “Nearly 100 million people are directly dependent on natural resources for getting their livelihood, and for them, their livelihood is their culture, their identity, their dignity—their everything,” he explains.

We heard similar views expressed by the dozens of NGO leaders, academics, and intermediaries we interviewed to better understand how the economic and social development of both the Dalit and Adivasi communities can be advanced. We reported our findings in Pathways to Greater Social Mobility for India’s Dalit and Adivasi Communities.

Adivasi communities each have their own unique identities. The government identifies 705 tribes spread predominantly across a dozen central and northeastern states, where they are minority voices in electoral politics. Their political influence as a collective has been limited by their geographic spread and diverse beliefs, as well as by the diminished profile of Adivasi leaders amongst institutions.

Our interviewees pointed out that the government’s efforts to support Adivasi self-rule have been slow to spark action and outcomes. The Indian parliament enacted the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA, in 1996 to ensure self-governance through gram sabhas for communities in 10 states with substantial Adivasi (Fifth Schedule) areas. As of late 2021, 25 years since its passage, four states still had not enacted rules to implement PESA, an exercise in decentralising power from governmental structures back to village residents. In states that have enacted rules, low participation and widespread confusion about the power of gram sabhas have limited their effectiveness.

Similarly, the Forest Rights Act, which aims to protect individual and community rights for tribal people in forest areas, has had only limited success. At issue is the inherent conflict between the Adivasi communities and the corporatised push to develop the abundant mineral, forest, and water resources found on Adivasi lands. As a government committee on tribal communities concluded in a 2014 report, “Laws and rules that provide protection to tribes are being routinely manipulated and subverted to accommodate corporate interests.” 

Interventions designed to empower Adivasi communities must focus on strengthening their agency and voice. Agency directly counters marginalisation, while amplifying the local influence Adivasi leaders already hold. “When identity gets triggered and people feel worthy, they believe they can effect change,” says Sujata Khandekar, founding director of the Committee of Resource Organizations, known as CORO.

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Ekta Parishad and CORO

Our research identified a number of organisations and programmes that focus on enhancing Adivasi agency. For example, Ekta Parishad strengthens collective voice and agency for rights and entitlements. Ekta Parishad is supported by some 250,000 landless poor across 15,000 villages. It serves as an umbrella organisation that unites and mobilises activists, community leaders, and more than 2,000 organisations to campaign for equality by providing poor and landless villagers (most of whom are members of the Dalit or Adivasi communities) with access to land and resources they are entitled to by law.

Umbrella organisations like Ekta Parishad help to build awareness and broad support for change. The small, grassroots NGOs that partner with Ekta Parishad listen to the voices of the people they serve to steer their work, but they struggle to find financial footing. Here, individuals and equity-minded philanthropists can give to or support organisations working with members of these communities.

CORO, which builds agency by developing leaders within marginalised communities, is another example. CORO’s fellowship programme strengthens individual identity and supports fellows to act as agents of change. Participants choose between 12-month and 18-month programmes for training on modules such as understanding of self and community, communication, and facilitation. Throughout, they continue to work with their organisations and communities, creating a “learning lab” during the programme. Fellows also receive a stipend from CORO as they work to identify local needs and mobilise support for change.

Since 2008, CORO’s fellowship programme has trained 1,300 grassroots leaders, who have reached an estimated 2.5 million people. In rural areas fellows work with two to three villages, and in urban areas they work with up to 500 households, all on community-driven initiatives.

Ekta Parishad and CORO are just two examples of programmes that strengthen the voice and agency of Adivasi individuals and communities. Such programmes help Adivasi communities take charge of their destiny. As that happens, more members of Adivasi communities will have access to an upward social and economic path. And society gains by learning to respect the values and practices of Adivasi communities, especially those reflecting their respect for the environment and mutual communal support.

(Riti Mohapatra and Rishabh Tomar work at The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit advisory firm that works with philanthropists, NGOs, and intermediary organisations to create long-term social impact. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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