In your second stint as tribal affairs minister, how do you propose to bring about a qualitative difference to the lives of tribals in the country?
My ministry intends to pursue a development- oriented agenda. Recently, we launched the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana for the welfare of the tribals. The pilot project will be implemented at a cost of about Rs.100 crore. We have a District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) at the district level and an Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) in small pockets. Through the ITDAs, we ensure that the Special Central Assistance under what is known as the Tribal Sub Plan is spent on health, education, drinking water, irrigation schemes etc. In a sense, the Tribal Sub Plan can be seen as a Plan within a Plan. It is intended to bridge the gap between the tribals and the general population insofar as human development indices such as infant mortality are concerned. The ministry oversees Ashram schools for tribal children, Kanya Ashrams for girls and Eklavya Model Residential Schools. The ministry also imparts the necessary academic help to students aspiring for a career in the civil services, civil aviation (as pilots), engineering or medicine. In some cases, the ministry takes the help of non-governmental organisations for this purpose.
The ministry also focuses on the constitutional guarantees that seek to protect the lives and rights of the tribals in matters relating to access to tribal areas, property and customary laws. Then, there is the issue of reservation for tribals in education and employment, on the one hand, and Parliament, Assemblies and panchayats or other local bodies, on the other. For example, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, has ensured that the sarpanch is a tribal and the other executive posts, too, are occupied by tribals.
Here, I must point out that an overwhelming majority of the MPs elected from the reserved Lok Sabha constituencies are from the BJP. Of the 45-odd such MPs, about 32 are from the BJP alone. The Congress party is nowhere close to the BJP. In fact, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) comes second after the BJP. So, clearly, the Congress party has lost the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe vote to the BJP. The Congress used to bank on the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Other Backward Classes, Christians and Muslims, but even the minorities are deserting it. Communalism and regionalism are going out of fashion; instead, what we are seeing is an emphasis on development and the BJP has shown the way.
The ministry also deals with the designation of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes and drawing up criteria for the same. The list of Scheduled Tribes was originally intended to come up for review once every 10 years, but after the setting up of the UN Dhebar Commission in 1961, the only time it was reviewed was in 2002 when the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government constituted the DS Bhuria Commission.
So, do you now intend to institute a similar review?
In 2002, some 270 communities were reviewed; some were added, some synonyms were deleted, while in other cases, correction was done. However, in the 10 years of the UPA government, there was no such review. So the STs list has not been revised since 2002. Although revision is a continuous process, many communities have since demanded ST status and some of those cases are pending before the government. Now, the modalities for the review are clearly laid out. First, the request has to be made to the respective state governments; then, it is taken up with the Registrar General of India and, finally, by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. In addition to all of the above, an anthropological angle is under the consideration of the government, too, before the final review takes place.
Has the creation of smaller states helped the cause of the tribals?
Yes, it has benefited the tribals. For instance, Chhattisgarh has performed well in this regard but Jharkhand has not, because of political instability there. Uttarakhand is not necessarily a tribal state, but it has performed equally well.
The government has said that the consent of tribals will not be needed for industries…
No, who told you? That is not so. In fact, PM Narendra Modi has said the opposite: Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. It means industries would be encouraged, but at the same time, the interests of the locals will also be given priority and the interests of the tribals will remain protected by the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and the more recent Forest Rights Act. The consent of a gram sabha is still required for land acquisition etc. The relaxation in the provisions of the Forest Rights Act will only be for projects that will be of benefit to the local area. The relaxation is applicable only for a few projects such as roads, irrigation canals, electricity etc. Maybe railways could be added later.
But what about resettlement and rehabilitation?
These issues are being dealt with in accordance with the resettlement and rehabilitation policies of the states. Care has been taken that compensation in lieu of land acquisition is raised; still, if anyone is aggrieved, legal recourse is available such as approaching a high court or the Supreme Court. So there is no dilution.
Does the Ministry of Tribal Affairs feel handicapped by the multiplicity of authorities in that some of its work overlaps with that of the Ministry of Environment and Forests or even the panchayati raj ministry?
The system is such that reliance has to be placed on inter-ministerial or inter-departmental linkages. For instance, a Cabinet paper is circulated to more than one ministry for eliciting their views before the Cabinet takes a decision. That is how the government works. It is not a handicap. I don’t think one can call it encroachment. Moreover, for a ministry such as the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, in a federal setup, it is the states that implement the policies set forth by the ministry.