WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
It has become the habit of a lot of people to talk about our tribal population as though they were lesser mortals, despite the fact that at least in the case of Assam, their ancestors have been residents of the State much longer than most of its ‘genteel’ inhabitants who migrated from Kauj or badwip or elsewhere much later. As such, their identification with Assam and their commitment to the State is deeper than it can be in the case of those who migrated from elsewhere much later in search of a better living. What ought to be very clear is that it is the tribals of Assam and ethnic groups like the Bodos and the Misings and the Koch Rajbongshis who are the origil residents of the State. In any case, they have lived in Assam longer than most of the migrants from other parts of India who lay claim to being the real Assamese. And it is high time we thought about the numerous tribal groups of Assam that constitute about 4 million or 40 lakh of Assam’s total population of 31,169,272. And yet the kind of treatment that they get at the hands of the so-called upper class Assamese population of the State a shocking, to say the least. And as I see it, this is the main reason why the larger Assamese society with which they had identified for years, is breaking up with different ethnic groups of the State asserting their ethnic identities and attempting to de-link with the so-called larger Assamese society. Over the years, these tribes had not only readily admitted belonging to Assam but also accepted Assamese as the link language for communication with other ethnic groups of the State. Today, many of the tribes of Assam prefer to use English rather than Assamese to communicate with people outside their own tribes. The legitimate assertion of their ethnic identity has begun to be at the cost of their earlier sense of belonging also to a larger Assamese society. And this is largely because of the way the ‘big brother’ Assamese have treated them over the years.
As I said earlier, the total number of tribals in Assam today is around four million. [According to the Census of 2011, the tribal population of the State was 38,84,000. Of this number, 36.65 lakh (or 94.36 per cent) live in villages.] About 33.4 per cent (or almost exactly one-third) of the tribal population are very poor people, with average incomes of less Rs 1,000 per month. About 69.3 per cent of the tribal population still use kerosene lamps, with only about 28 per cent of them having electricity at home. About 23.8 per cent of tribal families still drink water from streams and springs. Almost 56.7 per cent of the tribal people have to mage without latrines even in the 21st century! How many of us ‘civilized’ citizens of Assam would condescend to carry on with such living conditions even for a week?
But this is not all there is to it. The facilities for education and health care for the tribals are far worse than what we have for the more privileged sections of the population, when they should have been somewhat better to make up for years of deprivation and disadvantage. As far as education is concerned, the tribal population has practically no access to the higher centres of learning mainly due to economic reasons but also because tribals are not familiar with the norms and procedures of competitive admissions. There is hardly anyone to help them in such matters. In the primary and subsidiary health centres located in the tribal inhabited areas, there are only 1,405 auxiliary nursing midwives (ANMs) against an entitlement of 1,566. Likewise, these areas are also about 83 doctors short of the entitled number.
The sad part of the entire business is that it is not just the non-tribal leaders and bureaucrats who are responsible for the pathetic lack of development among the tribals. What is indeed astonishing is that even the elected tribal leaders seem to be part of the total lot of political leaders and bureaucrats who have failed the tribals. Most of the development programmes for tribals is really just on paper, with nothing actually happening on the ground. Many of our politicians and bureaucrats seem to more interested in the game of siphoning out funds allocated for development of tribals (just as they do with development funds for non-tribals) than initiating the required steps for ensuring development. If anything, the temptation to do this with greater recklessness with funds specifically allocated for tribal areas is all the stronger because the ability of tribals to take appropriate steps to prevent such swindles is clearly lower than that of the other smarter segments of our society. The motivation for this stems from the fact that the tribals are deemed to be more innocent and less aware of the devious ways adopted to deprive them of their legitimate dues. What is really tragic in this scerio is that even the elected representatives of the tribals (generally their own tribal leaders) are no less enthusiastic than the non-tribal leaders or bureaucrats in the matter of siphoning out their persol piles from funds earmarked for tribal development. It is a clear and sad case of the tribals not being able to trust their own leaders and of their betrayal by their own leaders.
Now that much of what has been happening to tribal development has become public through a recent official report on the lot of the tribals and the rampant loot of public money allocated for tribal development, it has become imperative for all responsible citizens to take a hand in the matter and to demand a White Paper on the status of tribal development from the State government and a proper statement of accounts of funds allocated for tribal development. Since the government itself is involved in the inexcusable failure to do justice to the development of tribals despite the liberal grants received from the Centre, it owes an explation to the people of the State—and especially the tribals—as to why there are not the required number of special schools, hospitals and health centres in areas of the State with a higher density of tribal population. The government should also be able to tell us, why with all the belated brouhaha about skill-development centres, there should not be an adequate number of such centres in the tribal-domited areas of the State.
What is often forgotten in the business of working for development is that no segment of our population is in any way less able than other seemingly more advanced segments of our society to reach the same educatiol or academic levels as the more privileged sections of our society. What holds them back is the lack of opportunities available to them. Our bureaucrats must take up the challenge of providing our tribal brethren the opportunities that they have not had in all these years. The motivation for doing what has so far not been done for the tribals should now shift to our senior bureaucrats—as a sort of atonement for the years of serious neglect of the tribals and the denial of the right opportunities to them.
The state of our tribal people
WITH EYES WIDE OPEN