Hills show way forward for tribals

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 well off.

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 territories).

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 small.

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 cities.

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.

4 thoughts on “Hills show way forward for tribals”

  1. Sir,
    I understand the use of statics for comparing different communities.Averages can be misleading because of the fact that few families in the particular location may enjoy all the benefits.

  2. So you think Indian politicians are performing in their best and governing the country in optimal way.There is no corruption , no under-performance in this country !!! Thanks for being a happy citizen …… at least I think , the manipulation of political power CPI(M) has done in Bengal by making this once best state to a worst in all aspect , should not be solved by just changing of power in WRITERS – some lesson is there to be taught to the politicians of these country that what the ultimate consequence would be for such cheap politics .
    DEMOCRACY is India’s present and it will be the future of India , so a system in which India has to be rely on for ever should be known clearly with all it’s pit falls.
    And which country will be the best to write the “encyclopedia of democracy” other than that which has embarrassed it right from it’s birth and remain clung on it despite being lacerated by thousands cut …..

  3. Jayadeep Purushothaman

    This reminds me of the story of a person who tried to cross a river because the average depth of the river was 4ft and drowned. Surely, economists can’t be far behind in this average number game – very disappointing article!

  4. Sir,

    … 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 cities.

    Do you believe this to be practically feasible idea when the cities are already bulging with overpopulation, and there is lack of facility to support them? Don’t you feel that this will increase the number of slums and will create imbalance even in the cities?

    Whereas China is trying to penetrate its financial service and manufacturing in rural areas for development, we Indians are just modernizing the cities ignoring the other half.

    12,000 Cr is spend to modernize T3 of IGI Airport Delhi, what is the amount granted for rural development.

    Thanks and regards,
    Arnab Lahiri

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