As a concept, ‘tribalisation’ is not congruent with being a savage or needing urbanisation. We would do well to remember that tribals fare far better than urbanites

It was probably for the first time that a definite action plan for tribal welfare figured in a presidential address to both the Houses of Parliament on June 20. It is all to the good. There was a time when small-scale industries had not graduated into the domain of a significant curriculum in the portals of leading educational institutes. Part of the reason was the lack of not only the ability to read but also that of instructional material. Then there was also no way forward on the unique characteristics of the management of tiny, medium and small scale enterprises. Many management functionaries erroneously believed that management principles, when reduced in size and domain, would be valid for tiny, medium and small industries.

Slowly as instructions focussed on entrepreneurship in a given sector, it grew in academic maturity, research contributed and the area picked up. It became abundantly clear that SMEs had unique characteristics. To feel the pulse, a sense about the nature of the area was needed. Similar is the story with tribal studies. That there has been little change in the plight of the tribals — most critically in their existence — is obvious. The tribals, take for example the Miris, who opted out of the tribal way of life and linked up with the mainstream, became the poster boys of tribal welfare. This, however, did more harm than good because these were precisely the very people who would not go back to the tribal environment and pick up the ways of life there. They got lost in the urban way of life and became part of the teeming millions. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But it’s just that what they gained by merging into the mainstream life did not filter back to the tribal world. But this is another story.

By and large, the popular image of a tribal is that of a half-clothed, dark complexioned individual with an unusual head gear, usually accompanied with drum beats and folk beats. There is nothing wrong with this. But the problem is that popular image is incomplete and it does not do any justice either qualitatively or quantitatively to the real profile of the tribal way of life. It is unfair to think of these men and women as lost in the woods, waiting for civilisation to absorb them. There are unique characteristics about the tribal way of life which people in the cities need to learn. It is indeed possible to see it as an alternate lifestyle model to what has happened in the name of urbanisation or mainstreaming.

If sustainability is a goal, then the tribal way of life has a huge message for the people and is worth emulating. The community system of administrative justice is certainly more expeditious than the ‘English’ system of administering justice. The broader point to be taken here is that the concept of ‘tribalisation’ is not congruent with being a savage or needing urbanisation. Tribalism is still a dominant theme in many parts of the country and the so-called urbanisation and industrialisation are a distant cry. Drive a few 100 kms from Itanagar and the truth will begin to dawn. There is nothing about Arunachal Pradesh which would remotely earn it the label of the so-called backwardness. Many parts of metropolitan cities across the world are more “backward” in operational terms. Hence, it is necessary to develop a scientific lens to view tribalism. The foresters’ ability at satiation and bonding without consumerism is enviable to say the least. Most of them do not have the mentality of accumulating beyond needs.

It is important to recognise that there is huge diversity in tribal practices, within 20 plus States of the country having significant tribal population. Their cultures, food habits and rituals are unique. Thus, it is that with Minimum Support Price for minor forest products being on the verge of becoming a nation-wide movement, tribals are being empowered. It is important to recognise that there is no one standard size which can fit all. There are group-related issues, process related issues, product related issues, giving to each ethnic group its unique identity.

This diversity is also reflected in different State administrations, where different Government departments with separate names —  ranging from Forest Departments to Tribal Welfare Departments — are charged with the responsibilities of looking after our native populace. One of the banes of tribal development has been the glib assumption that the time has come to lead them all to technical platforms. What needs to be continually kept in mind is that every technology has its own logic and imperatives. This includes machine acclimatisation, maintenance and repair facilities. Reaching out to the tribals through technology routes is one intervention but pushing them to imperative uses of technology is another story. The time has come for a design and delivery of an Indian Institute of Tribal Research and Management.