“Tribal Rights Must Be Protected By All Means”
— Jual Oram, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs
Jual Oram, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs in talks with Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar on issues retated to his department and welfare of the tribals in the country. Excerpts:
There is a proposal by your government to dilute the Forest Rights Act [FRA] to clear the way for basic infrastructure projects like roads, rail line, irrigation canals and electricity towers. Will it not have adverse effect on the indigenous community?
At the very outset, let me clarify that the proposal is still under discussion. Chapter 2 of FRA provides various exemptions like to build roads and anganwadis. But construction of rail line, national highway, canals and electricity towers are not included in the exemptions. There is a proposal to include these in exemptions, as it will help the tribal people. Hence, there is a discussion underway to explore the possibility of amending the FRA to include these projects. No decision has been taken as yet. There has to be a consensus on the issue after which the cabinet will approve the proposal to exempt certain project from the need for consent of Palli Sabha/Gram Sabha laid out by the FRA. Even then any amendments to the FRA would require approval of the Parliament.
Recently, there was a controversy over the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules which violated the letter and spirit of FRA. Your ministry had ordered the Maharashtra government to withdraw the Rules. Even your ministerial colleagues from Maharashtra—Rural Devel-opment Minister Nitin Gadkari and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar—had, in separate communications, asked you to withdraw your ministry’s order. Don’t you think such attempts are made to deprive tribals their rights over forest?
In May this year, the Maharashtra Revenue and Forest Department had notified the Maharashtra Village Forest Rules which was examined by our ministry. We found that the new rules were “prima facie in violation” of the FRA which gives people living in forests legal property rights over the land and forest products. We had asked the state government to withdraw the Rules and it has agreed to keep in ‘abeyance’ the rules, it had framed for the management of forest villages in the state. Under the FRA and Forest Conservation Act, Gram Sabhas are supreme. My colleagues, Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar had written me to reconsider. But they also understood the primacy of both the Acts over the State Act and there is no controversy as the matter has been resolved.
You have been opposing Posco project in Odisha. However, the union minster of steel and mines recently indicated that his ministry would clear the project soon. How long you can uphold your stand?
I had not opposed Posco Foreign Direct Investment project. But I oppose the benefits showered to the South Korean company. I still reiterate my stand that Khandadhar iron ore mines can’t be handed over to Posco or for that matter to any other corporate houses due to ecological reasons. Khandadhar has a unique waterfall and is a religious spot for lakhs of people. We’ll never allow mining there. Being the Tribal Affairs Minister, I’ll try to convince my government not to allow Posco or any other company to mine at Khandadhar.
Several mega and medium industrial projects in the country in general and in Odisha in particular have dented on the tribal rights, culture and environment. Will the NDA government have a relook at these industrial projects?
I am not opposed to any industrial project per se. But tribal rights must be protected by all means and the projects can come up only with the consent of tribals. If there are any violations, my ministry will certainly act to project tribal rights.
Provisions under Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act [PESA] provisions are supposed to protect the resources of the tribal communities, and empower them to act against forcible acquisition. But today, acquisition of the individual’s and the community’s natural resources for mostly private industry in blatant violation of these provisions is going on in several PESA areas. What steps your ministry will take for its implementation?
I am aware of it. The fundamental spirit of PESA is that it does not delegate powers but devolves them to the village-level Gram Sabhas, paving the way for participatory democracy. PESA empowers Gram Sabhas to decide on important tribal matters like enforcing a ban on the sale and consumption of liquor, ownership of minor forest produce, power to prevent alienation of land and to restore unlawfully alienated land, management of village markets, control over money lending, and land acquisition. It is true that devolution of power still eludes tribals. The mandatory provisions specified in the Constitution have been implemented. All States held regular elections through the State Election Commissions and implemented reservation for women, SCs and STs, bringing almost 1.6 million representatives from these groups into elected positions in the Panchayats, State Finance Commissions have been constituted and in many states.
However, the implementation of Constitutional provisions—which were left to the discretion of the States—varies to a great extent.
The most important aspect in strengthening of the Panchayats is the devolution of functions, funds and functionaries related to the matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution. Another is the enablement of their function of preparing and implementing bottom up participatory plans for economic development and social justice.
The states vary a great deal in both these respects. In a federal structure, we will have to carry the states with us. Some progresses have been made.
The Christian missionaries are accused of targeting tribals for conversion into Christianity and they are being aided lavishly every year from foreign countries for that purpose. Will your government ban foreign funding and religious conversion like it has been done in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries?
Christian missionaries have done great service in the field of education and health. That simply cannot be denied. The trouble arises when they start meddling around with the religious practices of the tribes. That leads to tensions. Forced conversion is against law. We all should respect the law of the land. About banning foreign funding and religious conversion, I can’t say anything as it does not come under my ministry’s domain. Home Ministry looks after foreign funding issue.
What steps your ministry will take to bring the North-East Tribals to the mainstream?
I have gone several times to North-East and interacted with people and we are trying to win over their heart. We have stepped up communication network like air, rail, and highway connectivity in North-East. They have a feeling that they are being neglected. My government is seriously addressing this issue and their mindset is also changing.
Tribal people are being repressed in the name of curbing Maoism. What is your take on the issue?
Maoist issue is a very complex one. Maoism has inspired tribals, who are in trouble either knowingly or unknowingly. My government is quite alert about the issue. Let the culprits get punished, but innocent tribals should not pay a price for no fault of theirs. There are several development schemes for development of tribals. But what is crucial is to win their heart and mind.
What will be your key priorities for the cultural preservation of tribals in the country?
We have to have multi-pronged strategy to preserve their culture and ensure that they are preserved in their pristine form. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, North-East and Odisha have high concentration of tribal people. In fact, Odisha has 64 varieties of tribals and they have different dialects, living style and cultural moorings. We need to have a holistic view of the tribal culture and prepare a road map to preserve their culture for posterity.
What changes needs to be done in the rehabilitation and resettlement policy [R&R] for protection of tribal rights?
During my first stint as the Minster for Tribal Affairs under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, we pursued Land for Land policy. Today also it is the need of the day. The fundamental rights of tribal people must be respected at all cost and their rehabilitation and resettlement should get priority before any project comes up. Their consent for the launching of projects is also mandatory. There have been large scale alienation of land, forest and habitat in the tribal regions. Tribals suffered loss of social, cultural and political identity. My government is aware of these issues and would address it in proper perspective to ensure their inclusive development.
How would you like to address the education, health and other basic issues, from which the tribals are so far deprived of?
There are several welfare schemes for tribals. There are model schools and we have hiked the stipend to the tribal students. Scholarships to the students have been increased three fold. Education and health care to tribals is our priority.
Tribals are pioneers in traditional health care. What steps your ministry is taking to popularise these traditional systems?
Our ministry is considering protecting traditional school of medicine. It has received priority. There are around 20 tribal research institutes in the country which would be strengthened to do more research on herbs and their use in traditional medicine, psychosomatic and traditional healing. Integrated Tribal Development Agency [ITDA] and Integrated Tribal Development programmes [ITDP] would further be strengthened for the purpose.
The supply of power to the BPL categories has remained a distant dream for most parts of the tribal-dominated districts. What should be done to resolve the issue?
I think power can be provided them through solar and micro-hydel projects.
The Launching Of Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana
Centre has launched Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana (VKY) for welfare of tribals. Launching the scheme on the occasion of the meeting of the Tribal Welfare Ministers of States/UTs the Union Tribal Welfare Minister, Jual Oram, said that the scheme been launched on pilot basis in one block each of the States of AP, MP, HP, Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Under the scheme centre will provide Rs. 10 crore for each block for the development of various facilities for the tribals. These blocks have been selected on the recommendations of the concerned States and have very low literacy rate. He further added that this scheme mainly focuses on bridging infrastructural gaps and gaps in human development indices between Schedule Tribes and other social groups. VKY also envisages to focus on convergence of different schemes of development of central ministries/departments and state governments with outcome oriented approach. Initially the blocks having at least 33 per cent of tribal population in comparison to total population of the block will be targeted.
Oram informed the meeting that his ministry has taken up initiatives for strengthening of existing institutions meant for delivery of goods and services to tribal people i.e Integrated Tribal Development Agencies /Integrated Development Project and creation of new ones wherever necessary. Specific funds are allocated to the state governments for this purpose which should be utilised judiciously with a view to build the institutional mechanism more robust by way of strengthening these institutions.
Referring to the situation where Minor Forest Produce (MFP) is more often than not determined by the traders instead of self-sustained process of demand and supply. Jual Oram said his ministry has taken note of the situation and has implemented a scheme to ensure that such forest dwellers are not deprived of their due. Under the scheme maximum selling price for MFP is being implemented in schedule states initially. He said a webbased portal has also been developed which indicate current price of MFPs on real-time basis across different mandis of the States. 12 MFP products have been included in the programme namely (i) tendu leave (ii) bamboo (iii) mahuwa seeds (iv) sal leaf (v) sal seed (vi) lac (vii) chironjee (viii) wild honey (ix) myrobalan (x) tamarind (xi) gums (gum karaya) and (xii) karanji. The Minister also referred to the Forests Rights Act as a landmark legislation to recognize the pre-existing rights of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers and informed that out of 37.69 lakh claims filed by the intended beneficiaries about 14.57 lakh individual rights title and more than 22,200 community forest rights titles have been distributed as on June 2014.
The Union Tribal Affairs Minister also informed the meeting that in-principle approval for recognizing the Vishva Bharati, Shanti Niketan as the other centre of excellence in the filed of Tribal language and literature has been given. Another proposal to establish a National Research Centre in the Tribal Research Institute, Bhubansehwar to promote research activities on subjects/issues for socio-economic development and culture of states has also been approved by the Tribal Ministry.
(Uday India Bureau)