Column : Tribals need a new avatar, Mr Gandhi

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Aug 27 2010, 04:47am hrs
Talk about timing. Two days before the Congress partys crown prince is to descend upon the Niyamgiri hills, his favourite minister Jairam Ramesh cancels the mining clearance for the Vedanta refinery. So a triumphant Mr Gandhi can go out there, like his grandmother, to say hes saved the Niyamgiri mountain from the marauding Anil Agarwals companylike Jake Sully, to use the Avatar symbolism, hes saved from marauders the Navis mountain where the spirits of their ancestors live. After rescuing the Dalit Kalavati some months ago from complete obscurity, but perhaps little else, Mr Gandhi will probably do the same for Jitu Jakeskia (thats a name I got from the BBC story on the Dongria Kondh tribals living in the hills).

Mr Gandhi may well win the hearts of the tribals, which should worry Naveen Patnaik, but the question is, what does he have to offer them except for five seconds of fame or the amount of time it takes for him to say Jitu Jakeskia to television cameras waiting to snatch sound bytes By the way, you have to hand it to him, Orissa is the best place if hes looking to woo tribals. It doesnt have the highest proportion of tribals in the country (that honour goes to Madhya Pradesh, which accounts for 15.5% of Indias tribals), but it has the poorest of them9.1% of the countrys tribals live in Orissa and they account for 5.7% of the income of all tribals in the country. Maharashtra, to put this in perspective, has 10.7% of Indias tribals and their incomes account for 14% of all tribal incomes. So, if hes looking at the traditional garibi hatao kind of speech,

Mr Gandhi is in a sweet spot.

It is probably true that, as in other forest areas, not all those living in the Niyamgiri forests are tribals. But since the proportion of this is likely to be as large, or small, as for other forest areas in the country, it doesnt change the essential argument.

So what will Mr Gandhi offer after he pledges to continue to save the mountain Precious little. There are only two ways to raise tribal living standards and incomes. One, many will tell you, places like Orissa have great biodiversity. Clearing 1.21 lakh trees, many lakh more shrubs and herbal flora for Vedantas mines, the environment ministrys presser says, can destroy the valuable edge effect of the grassland-forest landscape and adversely affect wildlife in the areaone of them, ironically, is a rare lizard called the Golden Gecko! So, the logic goes, let the tribals benefit from preserving the environment. Well, if you can find a way to monetise this forest wealth and give it to the tribals, good luck to you. Everyone wants the global commons but no one wants to pay for them.

A book, of which I am a co-author, analyses NCAERs income survey across the country for clues to why income levels of various caste groups differ. What comes out is unambiguouscaste does matter, but much less than wed think once you start accounting for the impact of urbanisation, education, location and so on. In the case of tribals (see table), those living in rural areas have an average annual household income of Rs 37,615 and this rises to Rs 60,929 as tribals move to small towns with less than 5 lakh population, and to Rs 85,023 as tribals migrate to big cities with more than a million people. So, an illiterate tribal household in a rural area earns Rs 22,396 but this rises to Rs 35,751 in large towns. In the case of tribal households with at least one graduate, those in villages earn just Rs 79,167 per annum as compared to Rs 1,29,423 in big cities.

In the case of those doing manual work, salaries double as they move from villages to big cities; as they graduate from manual labour to salaried jobs, even within rural settings, annual incomes rise from Rs 22,396 to Rs 79,167.

None of this, by the way, is exclusive to tribal groups; it applies to all groups, including upper castes. Tribals, or scheduled castes, or even brahmins, tend to earn more in high-income states like Maharashtra than they do in low-income states like Bihar. Eventually, urbanisation, more roads, education and industrialisation are the only way to raise incomes. Preserving poverty, like one would do with the environment, doesnt really help.