Hills show way forward for tribals
S A Aiyar, 27 June 2010, 12:30 AM IST
So you think that Indian tribals are utterly downtrodden, oppressed
and bypassed by national economic development? You think activists are
right to view Maoist insurgency as a tribal blessing and the only way
forward for such an oppressed group?
Think again. No less than 17.1% of tribals own colour TVs, 46.6% have
bicycles, 20% have two-wheelers, 12.5% have life insurance and 8.5%
have refrigerators. That is below the national average of course, but
nothing like the stark deprivation painted by activists.
These startling figures come from Caste in a Different Mould by
Rajesh Shukla, Sunil Jain and Preeti Kakkar. The book draws on major
household surveys by the National Council on Applied Economic
Research, especially one in 2004-05. Its main finding is that caste
matters much less than people think, while education and location
matter much more.
That is good news. The OBCs (other backward castes) show no sign of
suffering from discrimination — their income and durables ownership
shares are roughly in line with population share. The share of dalits
and tribals is below the national average, but not nearly as far below
as activists and Maoists would have you believe.
India's average annual household income in 2004-05 was Rs 65,041.
Upper caste households averaged Rs 86,690, higher than the national
average but not dramatically so. Tribals averaged Rs 40,753, lower
than the national average but not dramatically so.
Cynics will say this is too good to be true. Academic Pratap Bhanu
Mehta expresses surprise in an introductory chapter that inequality
seems so low. Tribals account for 8% of the population and 5.2% of
national income. This inequality is strikingly modest.
In the US, the bottom quintile (bottom 20%) of the population gets
only 3% of the national income. In India, the bottom quintile gets
twice as much. Tribals and dalits account for 24.8% of the population
and as much as 17% of national income, clear evidence that some are
One-third of tribals are in the lowest quintile, but as many as 4% of
them are well off and in the top quintile. Differences between
tribals are as great as all-India differences. Hence block benefits
for all tribals (such as job reservation) are not warranted.
Tribal households in hill states average an annual income of Rs
72,052, well above the national average. In other states, tribal
income rises in line with state incomes. Tribals average Rs 30,939 per
year in low-income states, Rs 44,533 in middle-income states, and Rs
53,176 in high-income states.
Laws on reservation (and most analyses) make no distinction between
tribals in different areas. That is a terrible mistake. Tribals in
hill states are privileged, not deprived. The tribal north-eastern
states have the benefit of low population, high literacy (boosted
initially by Christian missionary schools), and extensive road
networks built for defence purposes in these border areas. The
north-east also benefits from huge infusions of Central money and
substantial income from smuggling. Violent clashes are common in the
north-east too, but these are not Maoist: they relate to secession
(Nagaland) or inter-tribal tensions (Manipur and the Bodo
Hill tribals constitute a creamy layer, absolutely non-comparable with
illiterate tribals in the central Indian jungles. Missionaries worked
in the central jungles too, but the number of tribals there was
infinitely larger, so the impact on literacy was correspondingly
Tribals in low-income states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh earn
slightly less than half the national average. This is a pity, but
hardly represents a hopeless state of deprivation justifying violent
insurrection. Like me, most readers will be astonished that tribals
are not worse off in even the most inhospitable locations. Tribals in
these locations can double their incomes by migrating to higher income
states, and even more (to Rs 85,023 per year) by migrating to big
Illiterate upper castes earn 1.4 times as much as illiterate tribals.
This suggests a modest degree of discrimination. But a graduate tribal
earns 3.7 times as much as an illiterate one. Among upper castes,
graduates earn 4.2 times as much as illiterates. Clearly education
provides a way forward for everybody.
This suggests the foundation of a proactive strategy to combat the
socio-economic appeal of Maoism in tribal areas. First, roads and
other infrastructure are needed to improve economic possibilities and
migration opportunities. Second, education is needed to create skills
and lift potential incomes.
The combined effect of infrastructure and education can lift tribals
above the national average, as has been achieved in the hill states.
The task will be much harder in the central Indian jungles. But it can
be done. And it will benefit tribals far more than the supposed
blessings of Maoist rule.
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