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india’s ‘indigenous peoples’ in urgent need of climate justice

September 14, 2020

India is a large country with interspersed legacy and identity largely driven out of its people and their natural habitats. The country has 705 ethnic groups recognised as Scheduled Tribes. which literally means ‘Indigenous Peoples. There are, however, many more ethnic groups that would qualify for Scheduled Tribe status but which are not officially recognised.

Where are Indigenous People in India?

The largest concentrations of Indigenous Peoples are found in the seven states of north-east India, and the so-called “central tribal belt” stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal. One of the characteristics of these indigenous peoples is that they live by riverbeds, forests, seashores and deep into hinterlands to protect their legacies. They depend on forest produce and locally available means of subsistence.


At the national level, India has several laws and constitutional provisions (such as the Fifth Schedule for central India and the Sixth Schedulewhich recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and self-governance. The laws aimed at protecting Indigenous Peoples have numerous shortcomings and their implementation is far from satisfactory.

The Indian government voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with a condition that, since independence, all Indians are considered Indigenous.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007

India undertook large economic reforms in 1991, allowing industrial development to spur national gross domestic product. This resulted in the allocation of land to industries for setting up their bases including oil, gas, cement, mining, and steel and bauxite projects.

The Threat to Indigenous Tribe Culture

As industries encroached upon their lands, many communities were displaced and some continued to wage a struggle to either protect their homes or demand fair compensation. By taking away forest lands for industries and plantation forestry instead of preserving natural species that provide a livelihood to these people, the government was depriving them of the basic means of livelihood.

The battle for Niyamgiri by Orissa’s Dongri Kondhs and the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh may have become the first indigenous people to get habitat rights in India after a century-long struggle, but these developments don’t dwarf the challenges in protecting indigenous people’s rights.

Understanding the Struggle for Survival

Recognising their rights to forest areas and forest management practices is critical to understand their struggle for survival. Loss of forest cover, mining and the expansion of hybrid crops remain direct threats to the food security of these people who count on forest resources and wild food.  There’s a need for scientific discourse on the impact of climate change on species that grow in the wild and are used by indigenous people living close to forests.

As legal loopholes, poor enforcement of existing safeguards, bureaucratic apathy and corporate neglect of human rights try to further isolate these indigenous people and muffle their voices, it is time we had a look at the encouraging and disturbing developments that took place over the last few years.

The “Nationalised” Resources

The north-eastern states, in particular, face a peculiar challenge: communities want recognition of their ownership over coal, forests and oil, the three “nationalised” resources. As the value of natural resources touches an all-time high, governments turn their eyes to the largely untapped tribal regions, perhaps the most resource-rich landscape in the country. For example, the hydrocarbon reserves in Nagaland may increase India’s on-shore oil and natural gas production potential by 75 per cent. The coal reserves in Meghalaya are worth 10 times the state’s gross domestic product. In Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, 60 per cent and 30 per cent of forests are still with communities.

As the Indian government tightens its control over oil, coal and forests, states try to wrest control from it by citing special Constitutional provisions and community rights. With industries on board, the states are also exploiting legal loopholes to hoard benefits from these resources. Communities now find themselves in a quandary. While tribal communities in Nagaland and Meghalaya are protesting and approaching courts to protect their rights over oil and coal, those in Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh are struggling to retain control over their forests.

The Constitutional Rights Enshrined

In India, under constitutional provisions, no land can be taken from the tribal and indigenous community without their written consent. In some cases, in India, due to absence of the consent by the indigenous community, large Korean (Pasco) and Indian (Vedanta and Tata Motors) businesses could not acquire land from farmers for greenfield steel, mining and automobile projects, jeopardising USD 500 billion investments which, according to estimates, would have potentially generated 100,000 employment for locals including the development of the area. 

The dilemma of development with environmental protection is not a linear one and can sometimes raise concerns for those on periphery including intrusion by vested interests, civil society and media.

Like any other sovereign government, the Indian government’s constitutional mandate continues to protect the rights of people while purposefully leveraging limited land and forest resources for national growth and development.

Framework for Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Empowerment

India’s indigenous peoples are key constituent as saviours of natural habitat including biodiversity, forests and land. They live without any carbon footprint in places of their habitats. Given their substantive contribution to climate control and environmental preservation, the Indian government is urged to look into areas of contestations and offer them relief and necessary support.

A good mix of national and state protection laws and the ILO’s Convention 1989 (No.169), can well serve as a framework for indigenous and tribal peoples’ empowerment. Access to decent work can further enable indigenous peoples to harness their potential as change agents in poverty reduction, sustainable development, and climate change action.

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