INDIA: Tribes, living in stigma and starvation 

Sixty-two children have died of malnutrition in Khalwa Block of Khandwa district since May 2008. They were all from the Korku community, a tribe about which the outside world knows very little.

There have been many malnutrition related deaths in the tribal communities in India in different states including Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. The high number of these deaths and the continuity proves that the tribal communities are more exposed to food insecurity and child malnutrition in these states.

The state governments, rather than live up to their responsibilities blame the deaths on the communities, their food culture and living styles, accusing the members of these communities  that they are superstitious. The governments say nothing about their own rampant corruption and neglect. The difference between social groups, however, cannot be a principle for discrimination and exclusion in a society.

Historically, there have been ‘official’ designations labeling tribes. The British administration of India, in 1871, named some tribes as ‘criminals’ under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. After independence, in 1952, the Government of India repealed the old law. There are currently 313 nomadic tribes, 198 de-notified tribes comprising a population of 60 million people. However, the social stigmatisation continues against the members of these tribal communities. The existing legal framework in India and the way the law is enforced in actual practice provides amble opportunity for this, the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952, in particular. While the tribes are de-notified by the law, the stigma and the neglect of the government remain leading to violations and discrimination and this in turn leads to malnutrition and starvation deaths.

Apart from criminal-characterised nomenclatures, the government has made little effort to protect their rights. Approximately, among the 700 Scheduled Tribes, 75 are categorized as Primitive Tribe Groups (PTGs) a classification that was created in 1973. The Scheduled Tribes somehow functions as apparatus to protect them against political and social discrimination or ‘Untouchability’ under the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. PTGs, who are supposed to be more backward from other tribes, have a priority in certain public policy.

The criteria for PTGs are generally like the following. a. pre-agricultural level; b. dwelling isolated and remote habitations; c. small number; d. near-constant or declining population; e. low levels of literacy; and f. economic and social backwardness. These criteria describe geographical, social, economic marginality. In other words, they are counted as more vulnerable groups to food and health security and this includes starvation and malnutrition.

Seven out of forty six tribal communities have been identified as PTGs in Madhya Pradesh. The Korku community is not included in the PTG classification. However, the recent deaths of sixty two children from the Korku community disclose their vulnerability and backwardness.

The discrimination against the tribes has deprived them of their food security in many ways and the discrimination is quite similar to the caste discrimination. Some tribes in certain states belong to the Scheduled caste (Dalit), in other states they are not clearly categorized in practice. More essentially, according to the Hindu caste system, both of them are ‘out of caste’ which means they are not considered as Hindus. In essence, the Hindu caste system, that discriminates the lower caste communities pose a further hindrance to the realization of better living conditions of the tribal communities. Often, the benefit of the welfare programmes, particularly concerning the right to food, is denied to the tribal community exclusively based on the principle of social exclusion based on caste.

There are cases to show that the tribes are denied their right to food. The children of Birhor tribal community do not have access to the right to education and right to a midday meal at the school since the teachers do not allow them to eat at the school for the fear that the Birhor children will pollute the utensils. The human rights groups working on the right to food in Madhya Pradesh also witness that tribal children cannot have access to the facilities provided from the Anganwadi Centre (AC; child care centre) under the Integrated Child Development System as the tribal women do not have any priority to be employed as a worker for the centre.

As the government occupies the natural resources by development projects or in the name of preservation of natural resources, the tribal communities have been one of the sacrifices for national wealth. It is reported that almost 40% of displaced persons in the country are from the tribal communities. Some tribes have been displaced from the forests without any proper compensation and legal procedure. Some tribes’ land has been usurped by non-tribes and tribes farming their land have been encouraged to shift to cash crops by the government.

The infrastructure and facilities for farming available and accessible to the tribal communities are not sufficient. They find it difficult to manage expenses. The changes in the topography of the land and the alterations caused due to the haphazard development programmes have pushed the tribal communities to adapt to forms of farming alien to them. After harvesting, they are forced to sell the crops to the middlemen who obtain more profits from the process than tribal farmers. The soaring of the price of rice and grains since 2007 affects their capacity to procure food from the market thus threatening their food security. Due to this, some of the tribal communities have left their village looking for food and employment in the towns. Some of them have to migrate to neighboring districts to look for a new job every year. Tribes depending on the earth and the forest are losing their root for living. The two malnutrition cases in the AHRC hunger alert reveals this situation.

Despite the constant struggle for their lives, the tribal communities still cannot afford to manage sufficient and nutritious food to feed their children. Thus, their children have died and continue to die. The migration and the children’s deaths have reduced the population of the Korku community. By assimilating them to non-tribal life after immigration and by starving them, the Korku community is gradually becoming extinguished.

The public policy for the poor is far from their reality. The particular provisions ensuring food security does not apply to all tribes. For instance, according to the Supreme Court Order in 2003, the priority of issuing the Antyodaya card under the Public Food Distribution System, issued to the poorest among the poor, merely applies to the PTGs. Many of the families who lost their children in Khandwa district do not have an Antyodaya card. The report submitted by the local human rights group based in Khandwa district, Spandan explains that only 16.6% have Antyodaya cards in the sampled five villages. The ration shops are four kilometres away from the villages. As many as 50% of the children have not been provided medical and food services from the ACs.

More generally, the Supreme Court Order issued in 2004 recommends that all new ACs should be located in habitations with high Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes populations. Yet, many villages in Khandwa district that are highly populated with the Korku tribe and do not have ACs within their villages.

The government needs to pay more attention to the tribes. It is not because they are tribes, but because they are currently the most exposed groups to food and health insecurity. The ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), by India and the constitutional guarantee to the right to food as a fundamental right, casts a mandatory obligation upon the Government of India to protect, promote and fulfil this right of its people. However, Madhya Pradesh state has the highest rate of child malnutrition and mortality in the country, a record in which India as a country itself is one of the worst in the world.

The difference between tribes and non-tribes produces a prejudice, and the discrimination and exclusion based on the prejudice escalate poverty and malnutrition death in the tribal communities. Unless the Government of India rebuilds its consciousness and adopt and implement more affirmative public policies for the tribes, the government cannot prevent deaths from malnutrition or ensure food security in the country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-129-2009
Countries : India,