Failed Promises and Tokenism: Why Modi's Renewed Tribal Push Doesn't Exude Confidence

The Prime Minister's special focus on tribals this election season can't be missed given that they constitute a sizeable voting bloc in the poll-bound states. However, his tall talk on tribal welfare doesn't match with the reality on the ground.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special focus on Adivasis can’t be missed in this election season. In a majority of his campaign speeches in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and even Telangana, the Prime Minister emphasised that his government is committed to the development of the tribal society, even going so far as to declare that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has strived hard to integrate the Adivasis into the mainstream of development, while the Congress treated them as mere vote banks all these years. 

On November 15, two days before Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh went to polls, Modi announced schemes worth Rs 24,000 crore for tribal welfare on the occasion. The announcement came on the day which the Modi government had earlier declared as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’ to mark the birth anniversary of Adivasi freedom fighter Birsa Munda. A week earlier, Modi had also said that the Union government has made a five-fold increase in the budget for tribal welfare, although the increase is proportional to the overall jump in budgetary allocations over the years. 

The significance of Adivasis in the assembly elections can be gauged from the fact that in all the five poll-bound states, Adivasis form a sizeable chunk and swing outcomes. In Madhya Pradesh, Adivasis constitute 21% of the total population, according to Census 2011, and have 47 out of the 230 assembly seats reserved for them. In Chhattisgarh, Adivasis have a commanding position with 30% and 29 reserved seats out of the 90. Rajasthan has nearly 13.5% Adivasis, but they are concentrated in pockets to influence the outcome in the Mewar region. Twenty five seats of the 200-member assembly are reserved for Adivasi candidates. Although the number of reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes in Telangana is nine out of a total of 119, the Adivasis still form around 10% of the total population.

Also read: MP: Can Modi’s Tribal Push Help BJP Recover in ST Seats Where it Suffered Losses in 2018?

Ever since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he has made similar announcements from time to time, especially during election campaigns. The BJP has counted the nomination of Droupadi Murmu as the President of India as its biggest achievement in empowering Adivasis. At the same time, the saffron party has invoked Adivasi icons in election campaigns and brought them to the forefront of political memory. While declaring that he was “born to serve tribals”, the Prime Minister at a recent election rally in Chhattisgarh’s Bishrampur asked whether anyone had ever imagined that a tribal woman would become the President of India.

Similarly, in line with the BJP’s strategy of creating new Hindu icons among communities, Modi also recently recalled the role of tribal freedom fighter Govind Guru of Rajasthan’s Banswara. Later in Madhya Pradesh’s Seoni, he also reminded people that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government at the Centre had created a separate ministry for tribal affairs. Earlier, the BJP has also been recounting the bravery of tribal icons like Gond queen Rani Durgavati or Rani Kamalapati. The Habibganj railway station of Bhopal was also renamed as Rani Kamalapati station by the BJP-led state government. 

However, a large section of Adivasi activists believes that much of the BJP’s outreach is based on tokenism like creating new icons and histories, making positive gestures, and empowering Adivasi individuals to entice Adivasis into the fold of Hindutva. They believe that none of these have improved the Union government’s track record of delivering constitutional promises to communities. Moreover, a large part of tribal welfare schemes remain unfulfilled despite having been announced with much political fanfare.

All such criticisms have come at a time when even the Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge have attacked the BJP for using the term “vanvasi (forest-dwellers)” as a reference for Adivasis, considered derogatory by many in the community. The Congress’s tribal outreach has focussed more on material issues like implementation of legal safeguards for communities like the proper implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 that will empower the gram sabhas to take policy decisions, or implementation of Forest Rights Act (2006) that recognises the rights of Adivasi communities over land and forest resources.

Poor implementation of welfare measures

On many of these long-term welfare of Adivasi communities, the BJP fares quite poorly. 

For instance, according to an answer submitted by the Union government to the Rajya Sabha in July 2022,  the BJP-led state governments performed the worst in giving land titles to Adivasis in accordance with the Forest Rights Act. While Andhra Pradesh (77%) and Odisha (71%) fared better than the national average of 50.4% fulfilled claims, states like Gujarat (51%), Assam (38%), Madhya Pradesh (47%), Uttarakhand (3%), Maharashtra (46%), Uttar Pradesh (20%) performed poorly. Among the BJP-led states, only Tripura with 64% performed better than the national average. Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, which were led by the BJP until last year, had an abysmal 5% fulfillment of claims until 2022.  Although Congress-led states like Chhattisgarh (53%) and Rajasthan (52%) or Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led Jharkhand (56%) haven’t performed exceedingly well, their performance is much better than those run by the saffron party. 

Adivasi women in Mednipur, West Bengal. Photo: Koustav2007/CC BY-SA 3.0

Similarly, the Modi government’s track record of implementing the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP), which mandates earmarking 8.2% of central schemes and centrally-sponsored schemes for the targeted welfare of Adivasis, is abysmal. Diversion of funds meant for the TSP and Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan (SCSP) – which requires the Union government to earmark 15.49% of all central schemes for the targeted welfare of Dalits – have reached a new high over the last 10 years. Although all the previous governments had diverted funds meant for TSP and SCSP, the Modi government has used a great portion of these funds for infrastructure work like roads, flyovers, buildings, and so on.

According to the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights – Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolan, an advocacy group for Dalit and Adivasi rights based in Delhi, the targeted budgetary allocations for tribals should ideally be 8.2% of the allocations for central and centrally-sponsored schemes remained between 2.5% in 2018-19 and 3.6% in 2022-23, dropping even lower to 1.7% in 2023-24. 

The group also reported that many of these schemes announced as targeted allocations for adivasis are used for the general welfare of the region, instead of specific empowerment programmes for Adivasis like student scholarships, skill development programmes, and so on.  

Again, crimes against Adivasis, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), are on the rise. Reported crimes against Adivasis were 6,573 in 2016, 7,125 in 2017, 6,528 in 2018, 8,257 in 2019, and 8,272 in 2020. 

Also read: Over the Last 75 Years, Struggles of India’s Tribal Communities Have Multiplied

Ranchi-based researcher and activist Vasavi Kido, who has served in multiple governments as part of various committees on tribal welfare, said that although there has been a flurry of announcements by the Union government, there is hardly any difference in adivasi lives on the ground. 

“On the one hand, the government, in a welcome decision, nominated an Adviasi woman as the President of India, and on the other, it used the same person to approve amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act,” she said.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023 effectively restricts the scope of forest conservation. The amendments exempted multiple tracts of erstwhile forest lands from the purview of conservation to aid the construction of “strategic linear projects of national importance and allow development projects like running zoos and eco-tourism on forest lands. Many activists believe that this will further hamper adivasis who depend on forest and forest resources, as the amendments will allow the Centre to take control over, say, 40% of Aravalli range and 95% of the Niyamgiri hill range where adivasis have been protesting against establishment of mining and industrial activities. 

“The fact is that even the minimal budgetary allocations meant for adivasis are not spent. Almost 60% of the allocations remain unspent. The trend has been the same every year.  In such a scenario, big announcements do not matter much,” Kido said, adding that tribal research institutes meant to advance Adivasi languages and culture continue to remain poorly funded. 

Big announcements, however, fulfill another goal, that of a poll promise to attract Adivasis. In the ongoing assembly elections, the Prime Minister’s announcement of Rs 24,000 crore for the welfare of the Paricularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG, formerly called primitive tribal group) is also meant for the same purpose. Modi has also indicated that a bulk of these new schemes related to education, health, and drinking water will be funded and supervised by the World Bank. It remains unclear whether the Centre will have any accountability in these schemes.

Despite these election-day declarations, one noteworthy progress has been made, according to Kido. The Tribal Affairs ministry under Arjun Munda has integrated ethno-medicine of Adivasis in the Ayush ministry. “This is a welcome step as this would help popularise Adivasi medicines and create employment. Similarly, the recognition of PVTG as a group that needs special attention is also welcome,” said Kido. 

“India is often noted internationally for malnourishment and poor health indicators. Which are these areas, one must ask. These are regions where adivasis live. This is tribal India which continues to be overlooked in the larger development goals of governments. We need to do much more than merely making announcements,” Kido said.