“Gareebi hatao” has been an ever popular rhetoric of politicians. Do we really need to remove poverty? Of course we must…! Over the years, the phrase is so sacrosanct that it would be preposterous for someone to challenge its advocacy. And thus, without questioning, our politicians continue to milk its promise. Society believes them and benevolent individuals try to reduce their sufferings.
The precise economic definitions of poverty are debated and it’s not hard to see why. What is a reasonable standard of living? What are acceptable incomes? What constitutes essential spending? Can a poor in the US be poor in India? Each question further raises more. Until 2009, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) used an index called the Human Poverty Index (HPI) but this is now replaced with the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) which is more comprehensive and captures deprivations and their intensity. Poverty is relative to a country, thus in Burkina Faso (highest poverty index in 2002) it would mean the inability to buy a meal while in Sweden (which had the lowest in the same year) it could be not affording a particular lifestyle. When did poverty begin? Certainly it is not as old as mankind itself. It is interesting to understand how poverty is created in the first place. This essay attempts to explain its creation through the Adivasi story. Adivasis are designated as economically poor by the government.
History of Adivasi Wealth
The Adivasis of India comprise of hundreds of ethnic tribes. The term literally means ‘residents since the beginning’ and they are widely considered to be the indigenous people of India. The Adivasis inhabit remote mountainous and forested regions of India and have subsisted on a combination of hunting gathering, pastoral practices and shifting cultivations. Adapting well to the local conditions, their livelihoods are dependent on the biodiversity and physical conditions which has developed distinctive cultures, languages and customs around it. Their territories are their essence of their existence – jal, jungle, jameen (water, forests and land) take care of the people. From historic times, much before the British landed in India, the Adivasis were a self-governed people. Living in remote unconnected regions, the tribes inhabited areas outside the governance of local rulers.
Their autonomous existence was inexorably linked with nature which necessitated the prudent use and management of available resources. The tribes were guided by a system of restraints and social fencing. Their forest economy had meager use of energy and technology and which, unlike a market economy, was not based on creation or accumulation of surplus. The modest trade they had with mainstream communities was less for making money and more for procuring unavailable essentials. The exchanges did not foster social interactions and Adivasis have remained marginalized. The Adivasi lifestyle was bereft of economic wealth but was highly compensated for by the natural wealth essential for their survival. Tribes live in simple houses built with local materials offering basic protection, wear minimum clothes and indulge in the simplest forms of self entertainment. Apart from cooking and few other activities, they have hardly any use for energy. This meager energy requirement is met by the wood litter in their forests.
The MPI explained
The seasons hold unique position in their lives and they adjust activities and demands around them. For the Adivasis wealth meant having plenty to eat and drink, free access to forests and a cohesive community to enjoy life. They could not afford to pay for education and healthcare – a facet which government and NGOs love to highlight. For such an existence, prevention superseded cure and survival required skills and education which were constantly advanced. During times of trouble they had choices. If a particular food was in short supply, they had an alternative. If fresh water sources dried up, they had other means, else moved on. The land gave them their dignity and security. As expected, in this exposed lifestyle diseases frequently wreaked havoc and mortality was high. The average life expectancy of Adivasis is about 54 and infant mortality rates are the highest among Indian people. The simple life of the Adivasis based on frugal use and benign conservation which has helped preserve India’s rich biological and cultural diversity. For such an Adivasi, the term poverty would mean nothing because they regard jal, jungle and jameen as their wealth, which was in abundant supply.
On the other hand, measured by the MPI, the Adivasis have been poor all along. The MPI uses ten indicators based on three dimensions of poverty – health, education and living standard. Of which, Adivasis fail to even show up on two of the dimensions – education and living standard. Measures such as the MPI are created within an economic system and measure the poverty within the system. The creators are predominantly non-tribals for whom wealth is only economic in nature. The indices which are made are thus incapable of judging an Adivasi lifestyle.
Bringing Poverty to the Adivasis
It is easy to unsettle a community which is in harmony with its surroundings – take away their access to forests or clear their land for dams, mines and roads or simply dislocate them to unfamiliar territories. The Adivasi territories are rich in mineral reserves, fertile lands and dense forests. An estimated 90% of India’s coal deposits are in regions inhabited by them. Having realized this, the British and subsequently the Indian governments introduced laws and regulations to make it legal for dislocating Adivasis and gaining control of the land. With them, other entities have worked together to complete the transformation of these once wealthy tribes into paupers.
Role of the British: By the Forest Act and the Forest Policy, the British imposed restrictions on use of forest resources, a right which Adivasis freely enjoyed till then. The Land Acquisition Act allowed the government to acquire private land for public use.
Land was acquired for roads and railways which passed through deep forests. For the British, public use meant sovereign interests over local needs. The Zamindari system transferred control of land owned by tribals to Zamindars for revenue collection. Ownership and right to use were alien concepts to the Adivasis. Tax was collected in cash – a resource not in Adivasis possession till then. To pay these taxes some sought employment; often at appalling remunerations. One of the most shameful laws must be the “Criminal Tribes Act” passed in 1871 which branded some tribes as criminals and made them automatic suspects in a crime. The illiterate Adivasi could do little to defend their innocence and many were on a permanent run. Finally repealed in 1949, this left a dark blot on the tribes. Junglee was a derogatory term to address tribals, which is prevalent even today. Weaving a legal web, the British government claimed much of Adivasi territories for mining, building dams and railway.
The Indian government: Impressed by Western development, Pandit Nehru’s industrial and infrastructure policies encouraged urban growth. As the cities expanded, so did the demand for water and energy. Large dams were being built on the rivers. They submerged forests and valleys and displaced residents. Energy intensive industries fed the growing cities and exploration of minerals accelerated. Intensive mining became a necessity. The post 1991 liberalization opened the doors to foreign companies which had better technologies of extraction. The government acquired territories inhabited by Adivasis and leased them out to private corporations effectively shutting them out forever from their traditional homes. Those venturing back into their homelands were encroachers and were forcibly removed.
Left with no access to the forests they were forced to bribe their way in. The Wildlife Protection acts and creation of the national parks further imposed restrictions on the tribal homes. They have kept coming back to their forests and are under constant hostility with police. The denial of access to forests was to change their food habits and lifestyle dramatically. In the 1990s, thousands of Korku children less than six years old, have died due to malnutrition and starvation in the Melghat Tiger Reserve of Maharashtra. The Korkus were denied of access to their life sustaining forest.
Role of industry: Landscapes with rich biodiversity that once sustained the frugal needs of the tribals, made way for industry and now served the insatiable wants of cities. However, they created employment opportunities which drew the tribals. Having no skills that the jobs demanded, they were left with arduous menial jobs that offered little compensation. The low wages made them work twelve hour schedules. Weak health and safety regulations prevailed in India and thousands of deaths in mines, rail and road projects have been recorded. The increasing interactions of tribals and non-tribals during employment ushered in alien practices to the communities. Life at work was dramatically different from that
in forests. The convenience of the new lifestyle was taken back to the community and others were attracted to it. With surplus wealth the vices followed. Traditional home-made alcohol and hand rolled bidis (smoking tobacco rolled in leaves) were replaced by alcoholic drinks which introduced a new expense to them. Today, many Adivasis spend a significant portion of their incomes on it. Employment uprooted the tribals from their traditional homes and disrupted community bonding and social patterns. Whether this has increased violence among the traditionally mild mannered people can be debated. Similarly, the environmental violations, especially by mining companies have been detrimental to them. Poor enforcement resulted in pollution of soil and water sources. Over time the polluted water and degraded soil proved damaging to tribals and the flora and fauna. According to one study the average life expectancy of Adivasis of Attappadi, Kerala, has shrunk by 11 years in the past 35 years. The reasons behind this are said to be the disappearance of their traditional system of medicine, changes in their food habits, genetic disorders and the uncontrolled consumption of alcohol.
Role of the moneylenders and middlemen: The dramatic reduction in forests size and displacement forced Adivasis to turn to markets to meet their daily requirements. However, the low incomes were barely able to sustain large families and in came the money lenders. Money was lent on unfair terms and high interest rates, drawing the Adivasis into a poverty spiral. Many moneylenders have engaged in brutal methods for loan recovery. In league with them, local police too have helped in the illegal recovery procedures.
Urban markets offered an income opportunity and the Adivasis brought their produce to sell here. The dalal (middlemen) cartels ruled local markets and they h
ad an uncanny knowledge of seller’s weaknesses. Taking advantage of their weak negotiating positions the dalals bought at low prices and one sided terms. Expensive tribal products adorning swanky urban shops contribute little to their makers.
As a result of these interferences and disruptions, a people who lived in harmony with their surroundings, were being bereaved of their means livelihood. Poverty among the Adivasis is traceable to loss of access to and degradation of their traditional resources – jal, jungle, jameen. Additionally, a poor political representation has weakened their ability to negotiate with policy makers leading to deeper economic deprivation. The development of urban areas have been choking off the ecological wealth of the Adivasis and turning them into an economically poor community. Wealth, historically used and managed by them was being diverted to those who could afford to pay for it in currency.
Cornered in such a predicament many Adivasis migrate to urban areas. All that they can do is take up servile employment which barely makes ends meet. Extended periods of unemployment are harsh and can encourage illegal activities. In an urban world far dissociated from nature, Adivasis are reduced to paupers. Here they live a life without education, poor sanitation, little access to healthcare and no political representation. Even for those living in the forests shrinking habitats, fractured food chains, polluted water sources and changing vegetation have resulted in malnutrition and high infant mortality.
Poverty and Market Economics
The purpose of this essay is not to highlight the plight of the Adivasis, indeed the author claims no proficiency in that issue. However, the Adivasi story presents a compelling argument which brings out the linkage between market economics and poverty. That a s
ociety dependant on natural resources can be driven to economic poverty by deprivation of ecological wealth is evident from the story. Even in our own urban lifestyles this prognosis holds good, however, it is delayed by technology which creates substitutes for scarce resources with new ones and reaches out to new lands to dig out more resources. With no access to such technology, the Adivasis were affected in a short span of less than a hundred years.
The story repeats itself in rural India too. Farmers with marginal land holdings are not able to afford prices that have been inflated by urban consumer demand. Many are forced to sell off their land and migrate to urban centers. Here they take up menial jobs, inhabit nooks and crannies of the city and live a life of servitude. Although economically poor, their village offered them alternatives for survival and the security of a communal life – the cities offer them their first tryst with real poverty.
The absurdity in ‘Gareebi Hatao’
Other than the poor themselves, everyone else needs them! The industry needs cheap labour to keep costs down. The urban dwellers require underpriced services of the poor. If everyone in the city had comparable wealth, it would be impossible to hire house maids for a few thousand. We need cheap travel by taxis and auto rickshaws even if it means they cannot afford vehicle maintenance, education for their children and healthcare for their aged. By employing and encouraging such underpriced services, poverty turns out to be a byproduct in the journey of wealth creation and vital for it! Economic growth requires a continuously growing consumer demand and society as a whole is besotted with this singular goal. Even among the ultra-rich, the system fuels an insatiable desire to earn more and poverty is created every day. Cities teem with these creations … milkmen, newspaper boys, servants, hawkers, workers, plumbers, drivers…all of them selling underpriced services to the richer strata helping them in their quest to be richer. In this perspective “Gareebi hatao” seems absurd. Without poverty there would be no rich. Equality would be unaffordable!
As it is impossible to reduce the greed of wealthy individuals and corporations, so is it futile to remove poverty.
References for further reading
Declared Criminal at birth Article in The Pioneer
Adivasis Life expectancy Falls Article in Manushi
People’s Union for civil liberties – an organization formed by Jayprakash Narayan to address the needs of the oppressed
Violent Environments. Book on oppressions on Adivasis. Edited by Nancy Lee Peluso, Michael Watts
Indigenous Experience Today. Book edited by Marisol de la Cadena, Orin Starn
Of land rights and Land grab Article in CSE Gobar Times
The fifth and sixth schedules of the Indian Constitution. The Fifth Schedule applies to a majority of India’s tribes in peninsular States and the Sixth Schedule covers areas in the northeastern States.