Indications of Rising Inequities among North East Tribes, 2001-2011
THE north eastern states are commonly perceived as socially, politically and economically distinct in their patterns of development. This perception is strengthened by their geographical location as also by their social composition. Seven of the eight north eastern states (except for Assam) have a scheduled tribe population in excess of 30 percent. In three of them (Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram), this figure exceeds 85 percent.
Further, there is also a more general understanding that these states are relatively more advanced in terms of their political and social structures. The application of the sixth schedule in these states has given the tribals a political voice and a status which none of their central Indian counterparts can match up to. This is largely because the predominantly tribal population of the north eastern region has had a vocal aristocracy that formed the ruling classes of the region. Such a politically active class also negotiated its own terms of integration into the Indian union at the time of independence. The formation of the sixth schedule was aimed at creating a space for the tribal political elite to establish a relationship between larger patterns of democratic governance and the customary authority.
The customary tribal elites formed the basis of the political ruling class in almost all states except in places like Tripura where the Left and democratic forces made a concerted political attempt to empower the working class among the tribal people. Hence the struggle for effective implementation of the autonomous district councils was limited to the pockets where the democratic movement was able to expand its social base and bring about effective changes within the tribal societies themselves since the middle of the 1980s. The wide ranging changes being experienced by the scheduled tribes of the north eastern region need to be contextualised and analysed in this context.
RISING LANDLESSNESS, GROWING INEQUITIES
The implementation of legal measures for the protection of tribal ownership rights over lands has largely ensured that the landlessness among the scheduled tribes in much lesser than that among the scheduled castes. The application of the sixth schedule also ensures that the land rights of the tribals are protected and even if small or marginal landholders want to sell their lands, they can do so only within their own communities. In this situation any change of ownership of land is a good indication of the changing economic and social structure of the tribal society of the region. The social group surveys of the NSSO point to this specific scenario as far as the north eastern region is concerned:
Decadal Changes in Land Possessed by Size, 2000-2010 (Hectares)
Computed from different rounds of NSSO
Table I alongside shows that almost all states except Sikkim show a loss of land ownership to a level that is significantly higher than the all-India average. Of these, at least two states with over 60 percent scheduled tribe population, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, recorded an increase of over 20 percent in terms of landlessness. Significantly, both societies are non-matrilineal and have a social structure whose customary laws are tilted towards concentration of authority in an oppressive patriarch. This indicates that distress sale of lands is taking place within the tribal communities, thus exacerbating the class contradictions within the tribal communities. Such a process is also recorded in the matrilineal societies of Meghalaya and Nagaland, but it must be emphasised that the scale of landlessness is much lower than in Assam (with only two areas under the sixth schedule) and Manipur, large parts of which are also under the autonomous district council. In comparison, the land-loss in Tripura (with only 31.3 percent scheduled tribes) is much lower than in other states. This understanding can be further nuanced with a comparison in access to cultivated land. See Table II alongside.
Decadal Change in Tribal Access to Cultivated Land, 2000-2010
Computed from different rounds of NSSO
The situation exemplified above is quite interesting because it shows that the rate of growing landlessness amongst the agricultural population is much lower than in the case of land possessed. Of particular significance is that fact that Tripura and Sikkim have a decline in the number of persons who own no cultivated land. In these states there is a rise in small and marginal holdings and decline in medium and large holdings somewhere, pointing towards the redistribution of agricultural assets. The eight percent rise in marginal holdings in Tripura is also partly a result of its diligent implementation of the Forest Rights Act. In contrast, Meghalaya has seen a sharp rise in lack of access to agricultural land while in Arunachal the sharpening class divide within scheduled tribes is once again evident and the percentage of large and medium landholders have increased in equal or higher proportion to landless farmers. The same is true of Manipur where small and large landholdings have increased along with the number of landless people. This clearly implies a stark differentiation that is taking place within the tribals of the region.
URBANISATION AS DRIVER OF CHANGES
In order to understand the drivers of this change it is important to see how the structural changes within the north eastern states. The table below shows the relationship between the trends in employment in agriculture and allied sectors and the urbanisation of the region. See Table III alongside.
Decadal Changes in Total Agricultural Employment and Urbanisation, 2001-2011
Decadal Growth in Urban Population
Calculated from PCA, Census 2001 and 2011
The Census of India 2011 shows that the workforce of the region is depending less and less on agriculture in both main and marginal work. Though this conforms to the all-India trend, this pattern appears more intense amongst the tribals of the north east as compared to the rest of the regions. The table below shows that the rate of urbanisation in all states except Meghalaya, Arunachal and Assam significantly higher than the all-India average. As mentioned earlier, there seems to be a consolidation of larger landholdings in the two states of Meghalaya and Arunachal. The high decadal growth in urban population is, however, not uniform in terms of its relationship with the decline in agricultural employment especially in states like Manipur where the rate of decline in agricultural work is lower than the all India average but the rate of urbanisation is higher. This is accompanied by the secular and high rates of decline in marginal agricultural work reflecting the agrarian crisis in the region. This is accompanied by the increase in the rates of main and marginal workers in the urban areas in the entire region. However, data from the NSSO suggest that there has been a significant decrease in the character of wage and regular employment and a significant increase in self- employment and casual work in the region. This is accompanied by an exponential growth in service sectors and slower growth rates in manufacturing, thus indicating a displacement of work from productive to non-productive activities that may not be leading to the long term overall development of the region.
Thus preliminary trends in the region show that the push out of agriculture amongst tribals may be much higher in the North East than in other regions. It remains to be seen whether this is leading to any social imbalances where the lower and labouring tribal people have got adversely integrated into the macro trends affecting the scheduled tribes of the country. The deepening regional inequities need to be analysed by the democratic forces in order to intensify the processes of class struggle in the region.