Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs)
Certain tribes have been characterised as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) (earlier known as Primitive Tribal Groups) on the basis of their greater ’vulnerability’ even among the tribal groups (although the precise contours of their vulnerability has not been clearly defined).
PVTGs, currently including 75 tribal groups, have been identified as such on the basis of the following criteria:
1) forest-dependent livelihoods,
2) pre-agricultural level of existence,
3) stagnant or declining population,
4) low literacy rates and
5) a subsistence-based economy.
As per the 2001 census, these 75 PVTGs had a total population of 27,68,322. The majority of the PVTG population lives in the six States of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Odisha has 13 PVTGs, the largest number for any State. Even within the groups labelled PVTGs by the State, there is considerable differentiation, most obviously with respect to size – there are 19 groups with a population of less than 1000 persons and 8 groups with a population of more than one lakh.
The groups most under threat have been identified as the Shompens, Sentinelese and Jarawas of the Andaman Islands; the Bondos of Odisha; Cholanaickans of Kerala; Abujh Marias of Chhattisgarh and Birhors of Jharkhand. Some PVTGs such as the Paudi Bhuiyan in Odisha are still not included within the list of Scheduled Tribes.
Other PVTG are Madia in Maharashtra and the Chuktia Bhunjia, Mankadia, Dongria-Khond, Juang, and Khadias in Odisha.
The vulnerability of the PVTGs primarily stems from the loss of their traditional livelihoods, habitats and customary resource rights through the gradual exploitative intrusion of the market and State into their areas in the form of industrial projects, conservation efforts, tourism, and the forest bureaucracy and so on. These conditions have led to the loss of their land and resources resulting in chronic malnutrition, starvation and ill health among these groups.
- One of the most critical issues to be addressed with regard to PVTGs is their perceived ‘primitivism’ and ‘backwardness’ evident in official discourse. Although, the term ‘Primitive Tribal Groups’ was replaced by ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’ in 2006, the highly derogatory term ‘primitive’ continues to be used by the government, media and NGOs. For instance, a look at the website of the Andaman and Nicobar administration on vulnerable tribal groups of the islands reveals the continued use of colonial depictions of tribes as ‘primitive’ and ‘hostile’. On the Shompens, it is noted that “Shompens have been visiting the settlers and they are gradually shaking off their shyness and indifferent attitude towards the civilized people”. It is essential for government bodies to shed assumptions of tribal backwardness and savagery. Moreover, even though it is imagined that PVTGs have lacked contact with other social groups and have to be protected from outside intrusion, it must be noted that these groups have had long histories of contact and change and it is precisely these exploitative encounters, which have contributed to their contemporary condition. Stereotyping of PVTGs as ‘backward’ presumes a linear trajectory of development and progress and devalues the culture and traditions of these communities with devastating effects.
- It must be noted that all tribes in the list of PVTGs have not been granted Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. For example, the Abujh Maria has only recently been granted ST status in the State of Chhattisgarh even though they have been in the PVTG list earlier. The rationale behind inclusion and exclusion must be made clear and all discrepancies must be immediately addressed. Further, of the States with PVTGs, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal do not have Scheduled Areas, thereby increasing the vulnerability of these tribes, who lack the protections and rights offered by the Fifth Schedule and the Provisions of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996.
- Their socio-economic vulnerability and low population levels has led them to be treated as ‘endangered’ and ‘on the verge of extinction’ – terminology which denies them their full humanity. Rather than granting them their autonomy and rights to address historical injustices, this perception has led to disastrous State Government interventions in the name of their ‘preservation’. One such scheme has been the State policy disallowing members of PVTGs from availing of sterilisation schemes in government hospitals. Tribes such as the Paharias, Baigas, Kamars and Pahari Korvas of central India have been denied permanent methods of contraception in an attempt by the State to encourage population growth in the face of their apparently dwindling numbers. This policy originated in an order passed by the Madhya Pradesh government in 1979 to exclude vulnerable tribal communities from the wave of sterilisation drives taking place across north India. However, even decades later, this order continues to be followed.
- Real factors contributing to high mortality rates are chronic malnutrition, starvation and lack of access to adequate health facilities.
- Tribal groups such as the Sahariya in Baran, Rajasthan continue to work as bonded labour for rich landlords for generations. Many of them are agricultural labourers working under the hali system which is one of the forms of bonded labour banned under the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976. Many Sahariyas were tricked into accepting loans with exorbitant interest rates and subsequently have had to work for big landowners without wages. Tribal indebtedness is a huge problem, often leading to situations of bonded labour. Even among the Juang PVTGs in Odisha, many families are forced to labour in repayment of their debt in a system locally called goti – despite the prevalence of the central law as well as the Orissa Debt Bondage (Abolition and Regulation) Act, 1948. Action must be taken to ensure that all PVTGs are removed from bondage and freed of their debts.
- Literacy rates among PVTGs are extremely low, most often much lower than even the State average for the Scheduled Tribe population. This is largely due to the abysmal education infrastructure in tribal areas, poorly trained or absentee teachers, lack of teaching in tribal languages and irrelevant and alienating curriculum. Yet PVTG children are highly educated in many ways and possess considerable knowledge about agriculture, forests and so on which must be duly recognised. Any educational policy or programme for PVTGs would need to take account of their distinct culture in order to develop a curriculum and pedagogic style which centralises their traditional skills, culture and language while introducing young people to diverse knowledge and cultures from across the world.
- Many PVTGs are forest dwellers and depend heavily on land and forest resources for their subsistence. Over time, their habitat has been declared as Reserved Forest, Protected Forest, leaving them vulnerable to displacement and eviction without compensation. For instance, in 2009, 245 Baiga families were moved out of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, when it was notified under Project Tiger. The housing colonies built for their rehabilitation soon began to collapse, they did not receive pattas for their new farmland and they did not get the full compensation owed to them under the Project Tiger relocation scheme. The Baiga families were relocated to an area where their traditional forest livelihood of collecting Sal and Tendu leaves as well as bamboo was no longer feasible. In Tamil Nadu, the Kattunayakans, a tribe of honey-collectors, who live on the fringes of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, a 321-square-kilometre park, are being prevented from collecting honey as well as other produce from the forest area due to immense harassment from forest guards. The adivasis here are denied their rights to access the forest in complete violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 which has yet to be implemented in the State of Tamil Nadu. It is essential that the habitat rights of PVTGs as guaranteed by the FRA be recognised by the Forest Department and the claims filed by forest-dwelling communities be granted at the earliest. It is crucial that their lands and habitats be protected from any intrusions and that displacement be prevented.
special programmes for their development
Habitat rights for PVTGs as guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act must be granted to them and definitional as well as procedural ambiguities must be cleared up. Section 3(1)(e) of the FRA recognises the “rights including community tenures of habitat and habitation for primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities” and Section 2(h) defines ‘habitat’ as the “area comprising the customary habitat and such other habitats in Reserved Forests and protected forests of Primitive Tribal Groups and pre-agricultural communities and other forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes”. The FRA Amendment Rules now provide that, “In view of the differential vulnerability of PVTGs, the District Level Committee shall ensure that all PVTGs are conferred habitat rights, in consultation with their concerned traditional institutions and that their claims for habitat rights are filed before the concerned Gram Sabhas”. State Governments need to be urged to recognise habitat rights over revenue land in addition to habitat rights over forest land (granted by the FRA). Except for the Madia in Maharashtra and the Chuktia Bhunjia, Mankadia, Dongria-Khond, Juang, and Khadias in Odisha, there have been few efforts to claim habitat rights. In order for this to occur, it would be necessary for the government to clear up the confusions regarding definition of habitat; clashes between traditional and State/district boundaries; claims to habitat rights in protected areas such as tiger reserves; and habitat rights for displaced PVTGs.
Development programmes have been imposed on PVTGs without considering their own priorities and development needs. In the current moment, a move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to development is absolutely essential. An enabling environment must be created in which communities are empowered to make their own choices about the path of development they would like to follow and the livelihoods they wish to adopt. No development project can be imposed on PVTGs – instead all welfare projects/plans/schemes must move forward only with their informed consent as well as their participation in the process of planning and decision-making. As the National Advisory Council recommendations have noted, there is a significant risk that vulnerabilities may be exacerbated rather than reduced through government intervention and therefore due caution must be exercised in all cases. Programmes should not have the effect of undermining their self-sufficiency and their own development priorities must be the driving force of government action. Vulnerabilities must be addressed through taking account of their food production and distribution systems and their rich repertoire of traditional skills and knowledge.