Nov 11: Tribals lose land forced to become farm workers

November 11, 2013

Tribals lose land, forced to become farm workers

Subodh Varma

Over 70% of India’s tribal population lives in a 2,000-km long swathe
of forested land that cuts across the heart of India, from Gujarat and
Rajasthan in the west, through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra ,
Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to Odisha in the east. Usually, their lives
are below the radar of national attention. But upcoming assembly
elections in three major tribal states – MP, Chhattisgarh and
Rajasthan – and the build up to the 2014 general elections, has raised
the question: how are the tribals faring in these states?

Some indication of the changes taking place in tribal lives in the
seven central Indian states can be observed in recently released
Census 2011 data on scheduled tribes. A comparison with 2001 shows
that there’s a seismic shift in the kind of work done by the tribals
of these seven states. Abandoning cultivation, over 5.6 million
tribals joined the ranks of agricultural labourers in the decade,
while another 1.6 million shifted to non-agricultural work.

This shift is much more dramatic than the change seen at the national
level. The number of agricultural labourers increased by 35% between
2001 and 2011 at the national level but among the tribals of these
states, the spike was a mind boggling 52%. As a result, 48% of all
tribal workers are now agricultural labourers, compared to 38% a
decade ago. At the national level, 30% of the workers are agri
labourers, slightly up from 27% a decade ago.

In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the number of tribal cultivators
declined by over 15% in the past decade while the number of tribal
agricultural labourers went up by 41% and 63% respectively.
Surprisingly, despite being a highly industrialized state, the tribal
employment in non-agricultural jobs increased by only 12% in Gujarat.

Among the seven tribal states, Rajasthan showed the biggest rise in
tribal agricultural labourers – by over 128% in a decade, while Odisha
had the lowest increase – 33%.

“Dispossession from land and commercialisation of agriculture are the
two main reasons behind this shift,” says Archana Prasad, an associate
professor at Delhi’s Jamia Milia University who has studied tribal
communities over the years. Dispossession may happen because of
industrial projects or when land is leased out for contract farming,
she explains.

Many tribals migrate for short durations for specific types of
agricultural work like sugar cane or cotton harvesting. A 2012 study
of migration patterns across 20 states done by Delhi-based think tank
Center for Women’s Development Studies had shown that tribal women
make up the biggest chunk of short term migrants or circulatory
migrants. It also found that they migrated as family units to do
agricultural labour, brick kiln work or construction work.

Dayabhai Jadav, a social activist from Modasa in Gujarat’s Aravalli
district, says that tribals are forced to leave their lands and seek
other work because they can’t afford to buy fertilizers and seeds, and
also because often their lands are degraded, with no irrigation. “Rich
farmers send contractors who give advances to poor tribal families,
and then escort them to big farmers’ lands for farming. Usually the
tribal family gets paid one-fifth or one-fourth of the share for their
labour,” Jadav says.

Recent studies show that real wages of agricultural labourers have
either declined marginally or stayed stagnant over the past decade,
says Prasad. Coupled with the highly vulnerable nature of the tribals,
especially the migrants, this points towards their sharply
deteriorating economic status.