Tribal affairs minister Jual Oram talks about challenges of allocating funds to tribal schemes, underlines his focus on education and health, says Chhattisgarh is ‘one of the best states’ as regards tribals, and blames lack of political will for condition of India’s poorest district, Nabarangpur, in home state Odisha
Why Jual Oram
India’s first tribal affairs minister in the Vajpayee government, Odisha MP Jual Oram has been given the portfolio the second time in the Modi Cabinet. His ministry oversees implementation of the Forest Rights Act, that seeks to give forest dwellers and tribals ownership of the land on which they depend on for their livelihood. The FRA is very often viewed as a stumbling block for industrial projects in forests. Recently, the Congress blocked a proposed law on compensatory afforestation in the Rajya Sabha, claiming that it would dilute the FRA.
AMITABH SINHA: We hear very little about the tribal affairs ministry and its activities. Can you tell us about what has been happening in the ministry over the past two years?
The Ministry started out with a budget of R800 crore when it first began (1999) and now has a budget of R4,800 crore. We have 21 schemes under the ministry and allocating funds to each of these schemes adequately is a challenge. In the last two years however our focus has been education. If we manage to educate the tribals of the country, they can take care of the rest themselves.
Another priority of the ministry has been healthcare. Healthcare facilities in tribal areas are very poor. There are very few clinics and even the ones that are there are poorly staffed.
For education, we decided to make model residential schools. Under the previous government this plan had become a little weak. However, in the last year, we have managed to build 63 model schools. Today, we have nearly 200 of these schools. In these schools, education is free for students from Class V to Class X.
Earlier clearing entrance exams for engineering and medical colleges was very difficult for tribal students. Medical institutes only have 10 seats reserved for tribal students. Tribal students were unable to compete with students from the general category because their primary education was poor. But today that is no longer the case. Tribal students today have secured seats in engineering, medicine and business administration colleges and that is a positive sign for the ministry.
AMITABH SINHA: Two laws, PESA (Panchayats [Extension to Scheduled Areas] Act) and FRA (Forest Rights Act), which concern your ministry, have led to differences with other ministries. For instance, the Environment Ministry and Tribal Affairs Ministry have been at loggerheads over the FRA.
Squabbles between ministries happened in the previous government, they don’t happen in our government. Both the ministries (environment and tribal affairs) sat down and decided that the FRA would fall within the ambit of my ministry and forest rights would fall within the ambit of the environment ministry. Aside from the episode in Maharashtra (where the state government had attempted to frame rules that could have potentially led to dilution of the FRA) there has been no difference. This (the impression of differences) is something that people are trying to create. Currently, the Forest Rights Act is being implemented as it is.
AMITABH SINHA: There was another issue concerning the Forest Rights Act in connection with the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). The Congress has moved an amendment to the CAMPA Bill. Do you think it is important to include this amendment in the Bill?
I haven’t seen the Bill in much detail but the primary idea is that the money for compensatory afforestation will be put in a consolidated fund as bank deposit. I do not think that there has been any dilution (in FRA provisions). There are funds for CAMPA. If a forest has been cut down in an area because of mining or for building a dam, plantation needs to take place around the same area, that is the main objective. You can’t plant trees in another area.
AMITABH SINHA: But there is a possibility that a tribal files claim over a piece of forest land under the FRA, but that land is already taken over for afforestation before the claim is settled. In that case, he will lose his claim.
Yes this hasn’t been mentioned clearly in the CAMPA Bill, but we will make provisions for it. We will consider this as we move forward.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: You mentioned that the budget for schemes for the Scheduled Tribes has been increased. But no ministry, including yours, does any audit, and the expenditure on general schemes is considered to be spent on STs.
This was the case earlier but not anymore. The Prime Minister has called at least four meetings regarding this and has asked the Cabinet Secretary to ensure it (monitoring of expenditure of ST funds). Which is why we have said that the TSP (Tribal Sub Plan) expenditure for this year will be more than R1.2 crore. This is more than 8.33% of the Government of India’s budget.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: So will you monitor all schemes of all ministries?
No, not all, just the TSP component. Let’s look at the Health Ministry for example. At least 8% of the Health Ministry’s expenditure should be in tribal areas, and we will audit that expenditure. Only then will the expenditure
HARISH DAMODARAN: The Prime Minister has said that the Opposition is blocking the CAMPA Bill. Could you tell us about the points of contention?
See, technically, this money (compensation for forests cut for industrial or infrastructure projects) is deposited in banks. By a Supreme Court order, a Central Empowered Committee for forest was set up, after which they (the Congress) claimed that all the money (forest funds) is being spent. But the money is deposited in banks and until it comes into the consolidated fund of India, we cannot use it.
It was to utilise these funds that the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill was proposed, and if it is passed, the Government of India will have the authority to distribute and spend the money. But the Centre does not have the authority yet. (The Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha, but Congress leader Jairam Ramesh proposed an amendment when it came to the Rajya Sabha for approval.)
I don’t know what issue the Congress has with the Bill. Mostly, this deposited fund is tribal area money and has to be spent in tribal areas. I am not aware of the Congress’s stand.
AMITABH SINHA: But the amendment sought by the Congress to the CAMPA Bill seems to be in favour of tribals. They are in favour of improving the FRA.
But the Bill needs to be passed. If this is what they are seeking (improving the FRA) then it can be considered. Passing the Bill is important. Only if we are able to release the money, will we be able to spend it.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: You have been a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet. What is the difference, in terms of governance and functioning, between him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
It is difficult to compare the two. At that time the tribal affairs ministry was new and so working then was a little different. Now there is a lot of speed and the PM’s office reviews us very often. The PM has reviewed our ministry at least four times and for more than an hour each time. The PM’s office is involved at all levels now.
There were reviews during Vajpayee’s time also. I would meet Atalji every three months, for work or otherwise, because mine was a new ministry. Now, you can get called any time and you can be asked to provide a presentation on any issue. There is more speed and detail in the functioning now.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Does this mico-management affect productivity?
It is working very well and the results are good. The control by the Prime Minister’s office is not too much. We are free to work and take our own decisions as per law.
AJAY SHANKAR: This newspaper is doing a one-year project in the tribal-dominated Nabarangpur district in southern Odisha. The project is titled ‘District Zero’. The biggest gaps that we found in governance were in healthcare and education. Why is it so that in such a tribal-dominated district, from a Central government’s point of view, no efforts are being made?
There are two factors responsible for this. First is the state government. The person who is the chief minister is not born out of a political process. If you ask him to identify his MLAs, he will not be able to do so, I can say this with certainty. He is completely dependent on the collector and SP. There is no monitoring or redressal of public grievances.
The second factor is administration at the top level. There are no teachers. When a teacher gets appointed to a school, he appoints another proxy teacher in his place. The state government is not even aware of this. It is the same with doctors. A policy decision was taken that doctors would have to serve three to five years in tribal areas, but that never happened.
There is a Naxal angle too. The problem has reduced now but Naxalism has affected development, made it slow.
But the biggest reason (for poor healthcare and education) is the lack of political will.
AJAY SHANKAR: Their demand is that the Centre should have a fund that can be accessed directly by districts such as Nabarangpur. There can be some kind of categorisation where the worst-affected districts can get funds directly from the Centre as they neglected by the state government.
We have developed a solution to this. In fact, we have two big schemes, special central assistance and (grants under) Article 275 (1). Grants under this Article are normally demand-driven. So we ask the districts to decide what they will do with the funds and then give us a list, which will then be passed by our projects committee. So that even we know what, say Rs 100 crore, is being spent on. We will monitor it and this way we can give funds directly to Nabarangpur and other parts of India.
AJAY SHANKAR: But isn’t that a disadvantage of devolution that some districts get left out?
The main problem is political. Giving money is not a big deal. We have given money, but at times the work doesn’t start for up to three years. For example, we had sanctioned five model schools in Odisha as soon as I took charge. But even now site selection has not been done. It has been two years.
What can we do? This is the main problem. If state governments participate actively, only then can things work.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: What about Chhattisgarh and the situation of tribals there?
Chhattisgarh is one of the best performing states when it comes to tribals. Despite problems in the Bastar region, the state is doing well. Just a couple of days ago I was in Jagdalpur, where I saw the skill development centres. Naxals who have surrendered are brought there and are trained for different jobs.
Then there is the Prayas programme (a coaching initiative of Chhattisgarh’s tribal welfare department). Twenty-four students (who were part of the programme) qualified for IITs, many qualified in other engineering and medical entrances. They (Prayas) have set up hostels for those who want IAS and IPS coaching in Jagdalpur, Raipur, even Delhi.
In Chhattisgarh, 14 out of 24 districts are Naxal-affected. But the chief minister and others are working hard for the welfare of tribals.
ASHUTOSH BHARDWAJ: But the fact that so many districts continue to be affected by Naxalism, isn’t that a failure of the state government and the work that they are doing?
No. Naxalism is a very old issue. It is a different problem.
HARISH DAMODARAN: In two districts, Nabarangpur and the Dangs in Gujarat, the tribals are very good farmers. In the Dangs, there is modern dairy with artificial insemination, cross-bred cows etc. Similarly in Nabarangpur, they grow hybrid paddy, hybrid maize etc, which give very good yields. So when we talk about Adivasis, why do we still talk about mahua and tendu leaf and minor forest produce? Shouldn’t they be brought into the agricultural mainstream and encouraged to do commercial farming?
Maize, makai, dhan, they all have a season. Mahua is also seasonal, it is a commercial crop. As a minor forest produce, it has a good rate in the market. Modern farming must be taken up too, there is no bar. But the most important thing for tribals is marketing. Tribals have no problem with production but there is no marketing. This is why last time we decided to increase the minimum support price for 10 items and there have been good profits. We want to extend it for the products of tribals too.
Tribals also face problems with irrigation. They can only farm once a year. In Nabarangpur, there is just one crop. If they can cultivate two to three crops in a year, they will never be poor. But what can they do to achieve that target? They (farmers of Nabarangpur) depend on monsoons for agriculture. If monsoon gets delayed, they suffer huge losses. That is what we need to pay more attention to.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Despite being a senior leader in the party, why do you think your colleagues such as Dharmendra Pradhan have been given a more important ministry in comparison to yours?
It is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to delegate work. I don’t think the tribal affairs ministry is a small ministry. It may seem small but the ministry caters to 40% of the geographical area of the country. It is a big and influential ministry. I have worked in this department since the beginning and being a tribal myself I am interested in doing this work.
The oil ministry is a big ministry and Dharmendra Pradhan is an able minister. Senior or junior, it doesn’t matter, capability is important. Pradhan is a youth leader.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Both Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have a big tribal population. But why do these states not have a tribal chief minister?
There shouldn’t be any kind of reservation for the post of chief minister. Tribals have been given opportunity in these states. In Chhattisgarh, when we didn’t have a government there, Ajit Jogi was a tribal chief minister (2000-2003). Arjun Munda was the chief minister of Jharkhand (2010-2013).
A chief minister needs to have the capacity to lead, he has to govern the state and lead the government. I will be happy to see a tribal chief minister, but it is not necessary.
Secondly, it is not that only a tribal can be concerned about the issues and welfare of other tribals. There are many leaders who are not tribal but they have worked a lot for the members of the community.
AMITABH SINHA: Are you facing any kind of pressure from within the government regarding the FRA?
There is no pressure at all.