Planning for the Future of the Scheduled Tribes: Time for evidence based approaches

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By Amar Yumnam
The Fifth Five Year Plan was the period of intense discussion and expectations on the transformation of the tribal economies (unlike in the dictionary, tribal is plural in India and so does the economy) of India. At that point of time, economists in western India, particularly in Bombay University and the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research of Ahmedabad, were at the centre-stage of economic policy making of the country. The concept of Tribal Sub Plan was being evolved at that time. On hindsight, I absolutely feel lucky and very nostalgic as well of those days when the teachers there shared with us the evolving approach and did let us witness the debates among themselves.  Those things aroused expectations of altered social well-being. But unfortunately the approach seems to have fizzled out in the meantime.

I am reminded of this early experience in life by what is happening today. Right now there are salient indications of a renewed interest on tribal development issues at the policy recommending and policy making levels of the country. Thus we need to be really serious this time and not let the atmosphere dissipate over time as just political fashion. First, we just cannot afford to allow planning for the future of the tribal population of the country fail any longer. Emergence towards a strong nation from a strong country could be possible only in this way. Secondly, the planning has to be suitably structured now. We can no longer expect the tribal population to be satisfied with half-cooked food. Third, there is imperative now for contextualisation of the planning interventions rather than a common macro approach of the country as a whole. Fourth, for sustainability and success there is need for ensuring participation of stakeholders.

Having emphasised the rationale, we must be clear on what should we be aiming for. Definitely we should not be going for short-cut political stunts, but should be conscious and conscientious of the long term objectives. Here two mutually non-exclusive guiding principles of the interventions should be spelt out. First, we need to ensure equalisation of opportunities for the tribal population of the country at par with the general population. This long term perspective goes much beyond reservation of jobs and other things in tune with the share in the total population. The implications involved are quite encompassing including knowledge and demographic aspects amongst other things. Second, the capability of the population is to be enhanced to capitalise on the equalisation of opportunities.

Now contextualised planning with ensured development outcomes is possible but demands appropriate actions. To begin with, there is imperative to understand the tribal institutions and geography. When I say this it includes the culture, norms, disease conditions, hygiene and all that is important for household and social life. We must first accept that there is so much heterogeneity in institutions and geography across the country. We need to understand this differentiation. All the cultural norms, ethos and culture of each tribal group need to be fully codified.

In the context of the prevailing institutional and geographic realities, we need to build a data-base of each locality and group of the tribal population on the basis of differential institutional and geographic realities. One greatest weakness of planning for the tribal population in this country has been the absolute poverty of data. The cardinal principle of planning is that it should be founded on sound data to be of any meaning and moving towards the achievement of the objectives. Here we must hasten to add that we should not be following the Manipuri dictum of keithel nangnaba (just in time for the market); it is a serious and perennial affair. On the basis of the contextual institutional and geographic data, we should identify the differential institutional and geographic needs of development.

All these call for a major reconsideration of the concepts we use today as the bases for data collection. Let us take the concept of household for instance. Looking at the level of well-being, household style, etc. we need to redefine this concept. In quite a few interior and poor tribal households, we necessarily have to include pigs. This redefined concept would have lots of implications for hygiene, knowledge level, health and housing. The concept of social and household infrastructures and their needed levels of investment are markedly different in the tribal areas. Besides, development interventions in the rugged areas have to alive to the realities in a way different from interventions in plain areas. The data thus collected would bring out the important development interventions needed in the tribal areas. The interconnected way of the different interventions would also be evident and should be respected to.

Now three things are salient. First, the knowledge and data base of the tribal society and economy are still weak. Second, today planning in tribal areas must deliver. Third, there are differential institutional and geographic needs of development among the tribal locations and societies. All these imply that the time is not for a common macro approach for tribal development in this country. It is incumbent on the part of the policy makers to devise plans which would deliver. This is where the relevance of evidence based planning arises. This could be done through the randomisation approaches being attempted around the poor areas of the world today. Instead of going for wide macro approaches and before adoption of any development intervention, experimentation is done and the treatment effect of the intervention is measured. Once acceptable results are found, the intervention is adopted on a wider level. So besides the large scale operation for generating data base of the tribal areas of the country, there is need to identify which development intervention can deliver in what institutional and geographic context. This entails the involvement of the entire population. Here we should remember the Rawlsian principle of remembering the interest of the most downtrodden of the downtrodden. Now this is going to be a big challenge in India, particularly Manipur. A politically vocal and powerful, emphasise powerful, minority has emerged over the years that have prior commitments and enjoy an unequal power vis-à-vis the general population. They have vested interests which would thwart every attempt to evolve a more deliberative foundation for development decision-making. The temporal necessities today however are for contextualisation of development interventions and linking up the tribal households with the financial system of the country. This would make development interventions deliver in the tribal areas and make emergence of entrepreneurs from among them possible. The country cannot afford delay in ushering the tribal
economies to more complex planes.

(Amar Yumnam is the Director of Center for Manipur Studies and Prof. of Department of Economics, Manipur University)

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