India is all set to get its first President from the tribal community. Droupadi Murmu will be India’s 15th President and the second woman to occupy the chair of the First Citizen. While this decision to bring Murmu to this position is political for the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is crucial to see whether the central government goes beyond misappropriation and identity politics to work on real development for tribals. Tribals in India face innumerable issues, but the most pressing one has to be malnutrition which has reached epidemic proportions and needs immediate attention.
Politics of symbolism
Behind the candidature of Murmu is a larger politics of symbolism and appropriation of the tribal community. The post of President in India is a ceremonial post, and the highest authority in terms of decision-making power remains with the prime minister. Every political party in the last 70 years of independence has tried to play some sort of identity politics when it comes to the post of President. However, in the case of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, this politics of appropriation is much more deeply rooted.
In his book Republic of Hindutva, social historian and cultural anthropologist Badri Narayan has depicted how the politics of appropriation works within the saffron ecosystem. Narayan observed, “Hindutva politics walks on the strategic process of appropriation very effectively. If someone watches closely how the BJP and the RSS function in tandem, one will find that they increase their influence through the moods of appropriation. At the core of the strategy lie the groups which had been, until recently, antagonised by both the RSS and the BJP. These are marginalised groups like tribals, Dalits, women, and minorities.”
The question here is whether giving the highest Constitutional post to someone from a historically oppressed community will change reality. For example, the current President of India, Ramnath Kovind, is a Dalit, but has this changed the condition of the Dalits in India? If people will put their show of bias aside, the answer is right in front of them.
However, Murmu's candidature gives the central government a good opportunity to focus on the core issues of the tribal community.
Conditions are worsening
According to the 2011 census, there were 10.43 crore tribal people in the nation, or 8.6% of the overall population. 10.03 percent of them reside in cities, compared to 89.97% who live in rural areas. In comparison to the overall population, tribal populations grew by 23.66% between Census 2001 and 2011, compared to 17.69%. The sex ratio for the entire population is 940 women to every 1000 men, and it is 990 females to every thousand males for Scheduled Tribes.
According to a report published by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in 2017, the condition of tribals in India has not improved much over the years, but rather, has deteriorated. According to the report, this community lags behind other social groups on various parameters such as child mortality, infant mortality, the number of anaemic women etc. Significantly, all these parameters have a connection with the issue of malnutrition.
Similarly, the community has been suffering from the issue of displacement. The report observed that out of around 85,00,000 tribal people displaced due to development projects and natural calamities, only around 21,00,000 received rehabilitation. However, social organisations and individuals who work closely with tribal development claim that this data is false because the majority of these rehabilitations are only on paper and nothing of the sort occurs in reality.
Malnutrition, an epidemic
Since independence, numerous government initiatives and programmes have aimed to improve the livelihood, education, and health of tribal populations. However, tribal peoples continue to be the most undernourished group in Indian society. According to UNICEF, 4.7 million Indian tribal children experience chronic malnutrition, which has an impact on their survival, development, learning, academic achievement and adult productivity. Only eight states — Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Odisha — are home to the majority of the 5 million tribal children who are chronically malnourished. Tribal communities have suffered the most from land alienation, displacement and inadequate compensation in these states, which are protected by the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, as well as other states.
According to the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (2016-18), in India, 40% of tribal children under the age of five are stunted, and 16% of them are severely stunted. Children from tribal and non-tribal families both have mild to moderate stunting. However, tribal children had a higher rate of severe stunting (16% vs 9%) than non-tribal children. Compared to children from socially and economically developed sectors, tribal children have greater rates of undernutrition. Similarly, losses and access to useful resources have had a negative impact on the income security of tribal communities.
What can be done?
Several state governments and the central government along with NGOs and other organisations have been working on the issues of development of tribal communities. However, the effectiveness of these initiatives is limited. It is time for the central government and state governments to work together to create an environment where authorities along with civil society representatives will reach out to these communities and work on targeted awareness programmes on the issue of nutrition.
Similarly, it is also important to develop a pragmatic statistical profile of all the scheduled tribes. Based on this data a detailed survey on the nutritional condition of different tribes should be done. To develop the nutritional condition of the tribal community the governments will have to scale up nutritional interactions immediately after a child is born. The authorities should also focus on improving the livelihoods and increasing the access of these communities to essential services.
A tribal representative as President will open new opportunities for the government to focus on tribal development. If the government decides to bring Droupadi Murmu to the fore as President of India only in order to play the politics of appropriation and symbolism, then it would be indeed unfortunate for the country.
The author is an independent journalist and columnist based in Kolkata and a former policy research fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Center. He tweets as @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are personal