Fight for survival

Tribals of Jharkhand’s Singhbum district have been slow to take advantage of government schemes. Many of them do not have job cards and bank accounts. The root cause is lack of effective local governance, writes Nitya Jacob

A stone at the entrance to a village in Jharkhand lists rules and regulations in Mundari, the local language
A stone at the entrance to a village in Jharkhand lists rules and regulations in Mundari, the local language

The quality of local governance is directly proportionate to the quality of local natural resources. Where village or town-level governance structures are weak or do not exist, the natural resource base is also weak. If there is a good panchayati system or municipality, water and forests are usually available in adequate measure to meet the needs of people.

Take the example of the tribal governance system in Jharkhand’s Singhbum district. It is a traditional village set-up where the hereditary head of the village, acalled the munda, rules with the help of two others and the consent of the village assembly. A group of around 12 mundas is headed by a manki. Prior to 1947, the mankis reported to the raja (king) of the region.

This system worked fine when the tribals—the Hos and the Santhals—were hunter-gatherers practising shifting cultivation. But in the 19th century, the British settled them on land to extract revenue. This meant they had to clear land permanently for farming, houses and plantation; it meant they had to borrow money from moneylenders. Non-tribals also moved in and disrupted the ‘munda-manki’ system.

The region was rich in forests and wildlife, but after the land settlement, the mundas and mankis became agents of moneylenders, prospectors and timber merchants. As the governance system weakened rapidly, the forests began to disappear. Along with that went wildlife, streams, rivers and ponds. In the space of a few decades, most of the forest cover in this region was reduced to a fraction of its former self.

Now, decades later, the Adivasis (tribals) have started getting their act together. The newly constituted gram sabhas (village councils) in most of the villages of Saraikela-Kharsawa district in Jharkhand have resolved to stop tree cutting on village commons. Their jurisdiction does not extend to forests owned by the government—still easy prey for tribals cutting firewood and timber for construction. Incidentally, panchayat elections were held regularly (once every three years initially and then once every five years) in Jharkhand (then called Bihar) from 1950 to 1978.

Timber is one of the main sources of income, in addition to the collecting and selling of minor forest produce such as lac (resin), kendu leaves (for making beedis), mahua, tamarind and other fruits. Each tribal family specialises in one trade and makes between Rs 100 and Rs 200 a day. How much they make depends directly on the quality of the nearby forests. This is a function of how well the village, and its neighbours, have been governed in the past. A strong village council does not allow tree cutting in and around its area; a weak one cannot stop people from towns and other villages from helping themselves to its resources.

The tribals here have been slow to take advantage of government schemes, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) and the Public Distribution System (PDS). Many of them do not have the job cards and accounts needed to access work under NREGS. Surveys to determine who will get a house under the IAY are seldom completed on time, and are discretionary. The PDS leaks like a sieve, so families that really need subsidised grain cannot avail of it. The root-cause is lack of effective local governance.

Across the border, in Orissa’s Gajapati district, also dominated by tribals, the story is pretty much the same, save for one major difference. The tribals here may have lost their forests to timber contractors, but they have started reclaiming the barren hills through plantation, under the guidance of non-profit organisations.

In Gajapati, people have mapped the panchayati raj (village governance) system on to their traditional governance structures. They have elections—as stipulated in the Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) Act—to a three-tier panchayati system, starting from the ward (approximately one village), through the block panchayat to the zilla parishad (district) level.

Life is still hard in Orissa because villages are far apart and not always connected by road. A sound local governance structure has helped them to improve their standard of living compared to their counterparts over the state border. With the help of the NGO, PREM, the tribals now manage two crops, one of rice and the other of vegetables or something that needs less water(gram and oilseeds), and have arrested deforestation.

Cashew is a major plantation crop here, in addition to the older mango, tamarind, papaya and banana plantations. It is more remunerative, yielding upwards of Rs 200,000 a hectare, once the trees bear fruit.

The panchayats here are so effective as to ensure attendance by teachers and the government health delivery staff. They have safeguarded and rebuilt their natural resource base to meet their basic needs and have managed to raise their standard of living to more aspirational levels. In contrast, the tribals in Jharkhand continue with their precarious existence, at the mercy of ineffective traditional village chieftains. —WFS