The most recent National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) started functioning from January 2015, under the ministry of social justice and empowerment. From the date of its inception till it was shut down after its three-year tenure, it failed to deliver on any of the deliverables clearly set out in the terms of reference for it.
The first NCDNT was constituted in 2003, reconstituted in 2005 (Renke Commission), which submitted its report in 2008. With none of them being able to make much headway in either being able to come up with concrete lists of the communities for which they were set up nor with tangible and achievable targets through recommendations based on surveys, the last NCDNT, chaired by senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member Bhiku Ramji Idate was constituted with the aim of addressing, once again, the plight of one of our countries most marginalised and invisible communities, the Denotified Tribes. These are communities which under several versions of the Criminal Tribes Act, were notified as being criminal during colonial rule, and were denotified by the repeal of these acts only after Independence. They continue to live a life of stigma, poverty and marginalisation.
It is to address these concerns that subsequent commissions were set up to look into the deprivation and stigmatisation they face, but apart from reports, contents of which have been sourced from mostly secondary data and field visits to all states and Union territories, the commissions have only made false promises and no one has held them accountable for their failure in delivering what they set out to deliver.
The audit of the last NCDNT that was conducted upto March 2017 stated that though it had incurred an expenditure of Rs 220.79 lakh upto then since January 2015, having completed nearly 75% of its term, no tangible progress had been made to achieve the objectives of the commission.
The commission saw visitors flocking the office of the chairperson, people belonging to the DNT and NT communities coming to the office with representations and various demands. These were collected and carefully filed in the records. Promises were made to the community leaders about the betterment of their communities and the role of the commission in it, whilst what actually came out of the three years were incorrect lists, publications (carrying a preface from the Prime Minister) with incorrect and irrelevant information and data and an interim report on the ministry’s insistence, written by a group of researchers such as myself, which was nothing more than well sourced and analysed secondary data, followed by a similar ‘final report’.
Shravan Singh Rathod, member NCDNT and Dada Idate, chairperson, under whose name the commission was constituted, did not contribute to even one of recommendations, which spread across 25 pages of the interim report submitted to the ministry in mid-2017. In this day and age of technology and where everything is documented, perhaps even an email or office order from the office of the chair which can prove his involvement or that of his secretary at the commission, in contributing to these, would serve as useful.
If one looks at one of the first two booklets released by the commission with state-wise lists of the DNT, Semi-nomadic and Nomadic Tribes, the first a draft list and the second a status list prepared in 2016, (which further divides the communities into the SC/ST and OBC categories) one is left aghast at the kind of errors one comes across. Where Andhra Pradesh in the draft list is shown to have 64 communities listed as DNTs, and 62 as Nomadic, the status list, the task of which was to provide the status of these has, 40 communities listed as DNT and 45 as Nomadic. Similarly, while Uttar Pradesh in the draft list has 59 communities listed as DNT and 29 as NT, the corresponding status list has a mere 33 listed as DNT and 20 as NT.
While the draft list at least mentions the source of where the names of these communities have been sourced from (some from sources one could not find even after days of online research), the status report does not bother to even do that. A further list of communities provided in the annexure of the draft list booklet only causes further confusion and adds on to the many anomalies that even the members of the various expert committees that the commission constituted, could not comprehend. What is astonishing is to see that from among the six publications which were submitted to the ministry upto 2016, one of the publications merely carried coloured pictures of the covers of the previous reports calling it as ‘one in the series of 6 mid-term reports’ submitted to the ministry.
In fact, as an aside, if one goes through the Renke commission annexures also, which have detailed graphs and data etc, it is astonishing to see the methodology and the results some of them display. One particular diagram had percentages which totalled to about 130%, where 100% could have been the maximum possible. The report has been extensively quoted by journals and articles and activists. A similar research for a thesis would have probably arguably resulted in the person writing it, struggling to even get the cut off marks.
If this was not confusing enough, let us now come to travels and field visits made in the three years with the aim of ‘collating information on population of the De-tonified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic Tribes and the problems they face on a daily basis with the aim of uplifting them by making a consolidated policy towards that end’ (as mentioned by the commission in a response to an RTI filed in November 2011, merely seeking details of field visits made by the chairperson and the member). As per the audit report mentioned above, insofar as the state tours undertaken by the chairperson Ramji Idate for the period January 2015 to November 2015 alone is concerned, out of the total tour of 201 days, 186 days had been spent in Maharashtra alone, his home state. This constituted 90% of his tours in that period.
The commission meticulously looked at grievances received when field visits were undertaken and maintained a register with these petitions, responding to them as and when required. It is interesting to note that as of March 31, 2017, it had recorded receiving 1,900 such grievances, over 700 of which were received, therefore, not surprisingly, from Maharashtra, his home state, alone.
While the chairperson on many occasions in public meetings proclaimed having visited all the 36 states and UTs while the commission was still functioning, to better understand the problems of the DNT communities (including states which had sent clear communication to the commission stating there were no DNT or NT communities), an RTI reply filed, seeking the amount of money spent on these trips did not reflect the entire amount spent on the delegation visiting the communities and did not carry details of many of the states that were visited towards the fag end of the tenure of the commission. Upon return of this delegation, what the research team, constituted in 2017 and sitting in Jeevan Prakash Building, that housed this commission, received from the delegation, were words of concern and that something ought to be done soon for these communities. The response to an RTI filed in November 2017, asking for tour reports of the filed visits undertaken by the chairperson from 2015-2017, end with a copy of a report of January 2017. No reports of tours post were attached.
Moreover, photographs taken during these visits were not captioned, as a result of which most of the pictures used in the interim and then the final reports submitted to the ministry were sourced from G.B Mukherji and his published work, with credit given to him after seeking his permission and by members of the research team who went to assist agencies in pilot surveys in a few states.
As if these were not enough, there were four agencies that were commissioned to carry a national survey on the socio-economic status of the DNT and NT communities by the NCDNT. They carried pilots in different states and engaged the services of experts to draw proper verified lists of these communities. The work of these agencies was terminated before it began and additional funds were not released by the ministry because of the failure of the commission to deliver. Two of the agencies confirmed to having not received any reimbursement for the pilots and the primary research they conducted, the total expenditure of which runs into lakhs. The cancellation of the survey thus amounted to punishment for non-performance of the leadership of the commission. This punishment, however, was ultimately meted out to the most marginalised, in whose name the commission was constituted.
With the survey being cancelled, the promises made by the commission to attempt to uplift hundreds of thousands of members of the marginalised communities has come to nought. Is it then fair to punish these communities for the fault of those in position of power who fail to deliver year after year? There are a number of NGOs working on the ground who were also consulted over the years by the commission, but what did these finally yield? Six colourful booklets with incoherent, incomplete and incorrect information and two well-researched reports based on mostly secondary data, the second simply reiterating the points in the first and providing lists sent by the states, based on incorrect lists sent to them by the commission in the first place, to verify?
Owing to the stigma of criminality bestowed upon them over 150 years ago, these tribes continue to live in abject poverty and amidst discrimination and fear. The British may have labelled these communities as ‘criminal’ and done them the biggest disservice, but has independent India by simply de-notifying them on paper and not giving them their due, treated them any differently? The answer, most certainly, is no.
Mariya Salim is a women’s rights activist. She was briefly engaged as a researcher at the NCDNT in Delhi and the article above is a personal account of her experience of its functioning. RTI inputs are from Saleem Baig, RTI activist and researcher.