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Has Independence changed the lot of Denotified Tribes?

Denotified Tribes continue to be victims of uninformed stigma vested on them during the Raj, says Bharat Dogra. They remain vulnerable to frequent police action merely on the basis of suspicion arising out of the stigma

Denotified tribes, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities and tribes (DNT, NSN) constitute one of the most neglected sections of Indian society. (Denotified Tribes refer to all those communities which were once notified under the Criminal Tribes Acts, enforced by the British Raj between l87l and I947. These Acts were repealed by the Independent lndian Government in l952, and these communities were ‘De-Notified’.) These communities could have 120 million members, or even more, but we seldom hear about them. This neglect extends to welfare schemes for them – by and large very few and under-budgeted.

Some time ago, a new scheme meant specifically for economic empowerment of these communities was announced, raising hopes. The scheme, Scheme for Economic Empowerment of Denotified Tribes, called SEED in short, received a modest allocation in 2021-22 of Rs 50 crore, but the actual spending was later found to have been only Rs 20 lakh or less than 0.5 per cent. In 2022-23, the allocation was reduced to Rs 28 crore and the expenditure during the first nine months was found to be only Rs 2 crore. For 2022-23, only Rs 5 crore was allocated for the Development and Welfare Board for DNTs, but what is worse is that till 31st December 2022, the actual spending was only Rs 2.3 crore.

Another problem is that some of the development or educational budgeting for these communities have been merged with those for other backward classes and as these communities are the least influential, it is quite likely that their interests will get less attention. A scheme for their educational and economic development has been merged with the PM Yasasvi Plan. It will be better to have some schemes dedicated to these communities. It is, of course, also very important to increase the allocation for these schemes and to ensure their proper spending for meeting important welfare objectives.

A while back, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud gave voice to the suppressed agony of millions of members of denotified tribes when he said they had been  suffering injustice and discrimination for over seven decades after Independence. Delivering the13thB.R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture on Conceptualizing Marginalisation, organised by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, South Asia, he said, “The British enacted the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 through which a tribe, gang or class of persons (believed to be) addicted to the systematic commission of offences were notified. The Criminal Tribes Act was later repealed in 1949 and the tribes were ‘de-notified’.”

The judge, known for his concern for marginalised sections, went on to say, “However, even after nearly 73 years since the tribes were denotified, the members of the tribes are still subject to oppression and cruelty. Members of the denotified tribes are still picked up by the investigating officers to cover up shoddy investigations.”

The National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes has registered ‘shock’ at the living conditions of large sections of these people during its field visits. It was appalled by the fact that some of these communities are far away from receiving the benefits of freedom and social justice. “The nomads nurture a feeling that Independence of the country has no meaning for them, as their condition has become worse in the more recent past,” it was noted.

Based on these observations the commission made a number of recommendations aimed mainly at helping the DNTs to make better use of existing government programmes and to provide essential facilities for the settlements of DNTs and land to the landless. “One of the major problems being faced by the Denotified Tribes is the continuing stigma of criminality about them, which has made them vulnerable to frequent police action merely on the basis of suspicion arising out of the stigma. It is, therefore, necessary that the Denotified Tribes get rid of this stigma at the earliest and live a dignified life like the mainstream citizenry of the country,” the commission stated.

(The writer is a senior freelance journalist and author who has been associated with several social movements and initiatives. He lives in Delhi.)