"Resources, tribes and the State" - A report on an international seminar, organized by the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies at Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, in February 2012

Guest post by: Raju Mimi

RGU Vice Chancellor, Professor David R Syiemlieh

RGU Vice Chancellor, Professor David R Syiemlieh


Tribal communities around the world have played a vital role in the preservation and management of natural resources within the frame of their indigenous knowledge system. About 80 per cent of the world’s cultural and biological diversity is reported in their inhabited regions. Despite this, the connections between tribes and their resources have emerged as critical issues, having interrelated internal and external dynamics.

The modern State plays a significant role in tribal society that aims to steer the traditional tribal society towards the path of progress and development through State-sponsored developments that follows the framework of western modernization. Consequent to such state interventions, tribals have started to lose control over their resources which they had conserved so far due to their subsistence livelihood pursuits. Emerging commercial interests have also linked the resources to market demand thereby expanding the demand base beyond the community. The expansion of demand base is further facilitated by the State which often accesses these resources under the pretext of national development, but in reality, caters to the consumption level of richer sections of the society. Multinational corporations that are engaged in mining and quarrying, damming of rivers and establishing industries are facilitated by the State through its legal instruments.

Significantly, this State mediation that has shaped the course of development, now provides sets a challenge to address the issue of connections between tribes and their resources. This international seminar tried to address the above issues with a view to understand the operational dynamics and development perspectives both in principle and practice.

Tribals – Sandwiched between resources and the State

During the inaugural session, the chief guest for the occasion, Dr BD Sharma, former Vice Chancellor of North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, and former Commissioner of SCs and STs, Government of India, said that due to geographical isolation and various other factors, the tribal people are deprived of various facilities promised by the Constitution of India rendering them poor and are alienated from their own land and emphasized that it is the moral duty of the tribal people to protect their land from exploitation.

Professor Bishnu Charan BarikProfessor Bishnu Charan Barik

Professor Bishnu Charan Barik, Vice Chancellor of Sambalpur University, Odisha and guest of honour for the occasion said tribal people are today sandwiched between the resources and the state. They are yet to reap the benefit of development in real sense though the government seems to be doing their best for upliftment of tribal people, he said.

The key note address was delivered by Professor Kamal Kant Misra, Director, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal and Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata. In his address, he highlighted the economical backwardness and geographical isolation of the tribal, due to which they are deprived of many basic facilities.

He urged that tribal related laws of the Constitution should be properly defined as they are inadequate to address their cause. He said tribals are deeply linked with their natural resources and the government must not destroy it in the name of development.

Special lecture – Importance of adivasi knowledge system

A special lecture on the topic “Market forces and the sources of life: the importance of Adivasi knowledge systems” was presented by Felix Padel, a freelance anthropologist trained at Oxford and Delhi Universities. In his presentation, Padel argues that concept of ‘sustainable development’ makes no sense if ‘environment’ is placed third, after ‘economy’ and ‘society’. In modern economic terminology, the public is defined as ‘consumers’, rather than ‘citizens’ which undermines democracy, he said.

Adivasis today are in a dire situation faced with constant challenge of being uprooted from their land and resources, he said. The traditional adivasi knowledge system challenges the entrenched beliefs of neoliberal economics to its core: of land, water, forest, food-crops, animals and minerals as source of life rather than inanimate ‘resources’, waiting to be extracted and sold for profit.

Presenting his case on central India, Padel put forward the importance of Adivasi knowledge system that recognizes mountains as the storehouse of water and that their role as sources of life will be harmed by mining. This is in the backdrop of the fact that all over India, there is a looming water crisis, as groundwater level is plummeting and pollution from industry and fertilizers are making it unfit to drink. In his presentation, Padel tries to bring in the indigenous tribal knowledge system as way forward, towards an economics compatible with preserving ecosystems intact.

Common property resources in Arunachal Pradesh

On the second day of the seminar, Bijaylaxmi Sharma, Assistant Professor, North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology (NERIST), Nirjuli, Itanagar presented a paper on ‘CPR management for sustainable development: A study of Arunachal Pradesh’.

In her presentation, she presented the problem of unplanned and unauthorized construction around the state capital Itanagar, which has resulted in soil erosion, shrinkage of forest cover and resources, landslides and dilution of water resources and scarcity of drinking water.

Highlighting the plight of common property resources (CPR) in Arunachal Pradesh, she brought out the role of the traditional system of CPR management. The village community manages and controls the natural resources, takes care of its boundaries and disputes. Villagers look to the village council for approval before any interventions on community natural resources. In case of violation that does not fall according to the code and conduct of traditional CPR management, the village institution imposes fine in the form of cash, or domesticated animals.

Ms Sharma brought out some key challenges to the CPR management in Arunachal Pradesh. Private ownership driven by individual benefits has deteriorated the community ownership and influence of the village councils in conserving the resources. She concludes that the current CPR use pattern in rural and urban areas due to the rapid economic growth and development is not at all sustainable.

Water resources development - A perspective

Subir Bhaumik, editor of Seven Sister’s Post strongly advocated that the 8.6 MW Gumti dam, a 30 metre high dam, 3.5 kilometres upstream of the Gumti River in Tripura must be decommissioned. Speaking on the topic, “Gumti dam, development and the tribal question”, he said the dam is the single biggest instance of ethnic injustice by the Tripura government, insensitive to tribal aspirations.

“The dam submerged 46.38 sq km of prime agricultural land belonging to tribals. As per official records, 2,558 tribal families were displaced. But it records only those tribals who had land deed. The rest of the tribal peasants got the boot,” said Bhaumik. 

Arguing his case for decommissioning of Gumti dam, Bhaumik said it could actually kick start the process of ethnic reconciliation.

“Within four years of the dam building, Tripura witnessed its first major ethnic riots between tribals and Bengalis. Though the two events are not directly connected, the scar on the tribal psyche caused by the displacement due to the Gumti project, cannot be underestimated,” he said. 

Tripura now sits on a huge reserve of natural gas and large gas thermal power plants are on the anvil. Its entire power needs can be met by the gas based-plants. So why do we need a hydel project? Bhaumik asks.

Elaborating on the advantage of Gumti dam being decommissioned, he said: “More than 45 sq km of land can be recovered. The displaced tribal can reclaim their lands. If resettlement and subsequent allocations are coordinated, the Gumti valley could emerge as Tripura's food basket, which is a priority, as food is an expensive proposition at present.”

Tage Habung, Assistant Professor, Donyi-Polo Government College, Kamki presented a paper “Tribes - State competing interests and power projects in Arunachal: Analyses of the Dibang multi-purpose project”, that reflected the competing interest between the State and the tribal, over the issue of large dams in Arunachal.

Arunachal Pradesh having low density population with abundant water resources is seen as most congenial for the development of big dams. The government argues that by exploiting the country’s largest perennial water system it can generate electricity which will bring economic benefits to the State through export of power. But affected or local people argue that mega dam projects, being built in their respective areas, are anti-constitutional as they are not approved by the local people.

According to the paper, the main issues in the Dibang multipurpose project which is proposed in Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh are, human suffering, environmental damage, loss of faith and belief, problem of labor migration and demographic consequences and the tribal identity issue.

The National Hydro Electric Power Corporation Limited (NHPC Ltd) which proposes to execute the Dibang dam sees the project as highly financially viable. The project is located in a sparsely populated area with very less displacement. Idu Mishmis, only about 12,000 in number are the local inhabitants around the project site.

However, the local people who are opposed to the project say that the government has underestimated the consequences of power projects being built in Dibang Valley. Though the number of people to be displaced may be less, but for a small community, it can be a huge figure. Also, the local people have built their faith and belief in the Dibang river, which is locally known as Taloh, since ancient times, says Habung.

It is also estimated that the Dibang project will involve around 15,000 labourers. Thus locals fear marginalization of their population due to the population influx. Habung in his presentation sums up the Dibang protest as an identity issue for Idu Mishmis.

Valedictory session

The three-day international seminar on “Resources, Tribes and State” organized by the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies (AITS), Rajiv Gandhi University at RGU premises concluded on the third day with a valedictory function.

Professor SN Chaudhury of Barkatullah University, Bhopal addressed the valedictory session. He said, it is difficult to define the local culture of the tribal community owing to globalization, as tradition and culture change their shape due to globalization in the name of development. Also rural people are migrating to urban areas, due to imbalance in the development process and such defective methods of development are exploiting the tribal society, he added.

Prof Chaudhury said that the tribal population is on the verge of extinction from the society due to excessive exploitation of natural resources by human beings. Therefore, he called upon the students to ponder upon these issues and work for the development of the local tribal communities.