Millennium Post

Indigenous people and the web of indifference

By taking away forest lands for industries and plantation forestry, instead of preserving natural species that provide livelihood to these people, the government was depriving them of the basic means of livelihood.

The battle for Niyamgiri may be won by Odisha’s Dongria Kondhs and the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh may have become the first indigenous people to get habitat rights in India after a century-long struggle, but these developments don’t dwarf the challenge that lies in promotion and protection of indigenous people’s rights.

Recognising their rights to forest areas and forest management practices is critical to understand their struggle for survival. Loss of forest cover, mining, and expansion of hybrid crops remain direct threats to the food security of these people who count on forest resources and wild food. There’s a need for scientific discourse on the impact of climate change on species that grow in the wild and are used by indigenous people living close to forests.

As legal loopholes, poor enforcement of existing safeguards, bureaucratic apathy, and corporate neglect of human rights try to further isolate these indigenous people and muffle their voices, it is time we took a look at the encouraging and disturbing developments that took place over the last few years.

Battle over oil, coal, and forests
As India debates how to allocate natural resources, the north-eastern states face a peculiar challenge: communities want recognition of their ownership over coal, forests and oil, the three “nationalised” resources. 

These tribal communities have traditionally controlled vast tracts of land and its resources, such as forests and coal, through well-established community institutions. They are now eager to exercise their ownership over oil. 

The Centre has for long protected their autonomy through various Constitutional provisions. The state governments have acknowledged this. But as the value of natural resources touches an all-time high, the governments turn their eyes to the largely untapped region, perhaps the most resource-rich landscape in the country. The hydrocarbon reserves in Nagaland may increase India’s on-shore oil and natural gas production potential by 75 percent. 

The coal reserves in Meghalaya are worth 10 times the state’s GDP. In Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, 60 percent and 30 percent of forests are with communities. As the Centre tightens its control over oil, coal, and forests, states try to wrest control from it by citing special Constitutional provisions and community rights.

With industries on board, the states are also exploiting legal loopholes to hoard benefits from these resources. Communities now find themselves in a quandary. While tribal communities in Nagaland and Meghalaya are protesting and approaching courts to protect their rights over oil and coal, those in Mizoram, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh are struggling to retain control over their forests.

Indigenous peoples’ health needs special attention: UN
On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a United Nations (UN) report mentioned the need for taking a more holistic view of their health and general well-being.
The report published on Tuesday said, “Several of common health problems that indigenous peoples share with other excluded populations may be addressed through general health initiatives. 

Indigenous peoples, however, further, face a distinct set of complex issues that require initiatives specific to indigenous peoples.” The report blamed political marginalisation and loss of autonomy for the deteriorating health condition of indigenous people.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 percent of the global population but account for 15 percent of the poorest. These people speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

China has the largest share of the indigenous population in the world, estimated around 105 million followed by India where 84.3 million indigenous people reside.

No proper data
Existing data do not show the real picture about indigenous populations, the report said. Like in India, the Constitution enlists 461 ethnic groups as “Scheduled Tribes”, but studies estimate that there are more than 635 such groups.

“There is no reliable information available as to determine the exact number of cultural or linguistic groups within the indigenous communities in different countries.”

In UN’s view, India is in a better position compared to other countries as the former’s Constitution has guaranteed certain rights to indigenous people after classifying them as “Schedule Tribes”.
As per the report, this means better information on the socio-economic and health scenarios of indigenous people in India than elsewhere.

(The views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)

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