Errors in ST data unattended for decades

Last Updated : 05 May 2015, 17:39 IST
Last Updated : 05 May 2015, 17:39 IST

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The Report of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India (the Xaxa Committee Report) highlights the poor socio-economic condition and marginalisation of tribes using a lot of government statistics.

While it draws attention to gaps in data on tribes, in some cases, it uses available data uncritically, for example, it uses flawed census data for Nagaland that was rejected by the government a decade ago. The Report pays insufficient attention to the possibility that the government statistics about the tribes could be unreliable and that the poor quality of data is itself an indicator of the marginalisation of tribes.

Even the most elementary statistics such as census population data are often unreliable in case of the tribes, which in turn, affects the quality of sample survey data. This is due to several reasons: the ambiguous definition of tribes; the politicisation and manipulation of census; weak state institutions and insurgencies in tribal areas; development and conflict-induced displacement; the inaccessibility of tribal habitats; mobility necessitated by tribal economy – shifting cultivation and grazing; contest over the religious identity of tribes; and, in tribal-minority states, interference of non-tribal communities.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs uses the following criteria to identify Scheduled Tribes: ‘primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness.’

‘Scheduled Tribe’ is, in fact, an underspecified constitutional category. According to Article 366 (25), certain communities are ‘deemed under Article 342 to be Scheduled Tribes’ and Article 342 stipulates that such communities are identified through a Presidential order. The Census mechanically follows the state-wise list notified by the President. As discussed below, the absence of objective criteria for identifying the tribes leaves room for errors and manipulation.

It is not uncommon for a tribe to be recognised under different names in different states while sub-groups of a tribe could be recognised as independent tribes within a state. Moreover, in the absence of a common national list of the Scheduled Tribes, the tribal status of communities varies across states, districts, and, even, seasons. Until very recently, the Gond tribe was recognised as ST in Madhya Pradesh but as SC in the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

The Bakarwals enjoy ST status only in Jammu and Kashmir and lose that status in winter if they visit neighbouring states in search of grazing grounds. The Barmans of Assamare recognised as ST in Cachar district, but not in Karimganj and Hailakandi districts carved out of Cachar. More generally, Assam’s hill tribes are not treated as tribes in the plains and plain tribes are not recognised as tribes in the hills. Similar territorial restrictions apply in most tribal-minority states.

This leads to undercounting as tribal people have in the past been forced to abandon their home regions because of insurgencies, ecological crisis, and displacement due to forest/wildlife conservation, mining, and development projects. But the problem of double-counting of tribes is not unheard of. At least until 2001, tribal people settled in urban Nagaland used to get enumerated both in the place of their present residence and in their ancestral village.

The ambiguous criteria used to identify tribes are conducive to manipulation. There are at least five ways in which tribal headcounts have been manipulated. In Maharashtra, a non-tribal community en masse claimed to belong to a neighbouring tribe hoping that enumeration in the census as a tribe would enable them to buy tribal land. This resulted in a very high growth of the tribe’s population in the next census and led to the statistical submergence of the original tribe.

Outside north-eastern hill states and Ladakh, tribes are surrounded by non-tribal people on all sides. This makes isolation of tribes from non-tribal communities difficult because the latter have an incentive to falsify identity to claim benefits meant for tribes. For instance, a former chief minister of Chhattisgarh was accused of fraudulently acquiring tribal identity. Sometimes, ghost tribes find mention in the census. In Nagaland, a residual tribal category that had an insignificant population share until 1991, suddenly emerged as the ninth largest community in 2001 before disappearing into oblivion in 2011.

Inflating of population
In states such as Nagaland and Manipur, tribes have in the past resorted to inflating of their population to increase their share in legislative seats and welfare benefits. Manipulation also played a role in a case of forcible assimilation/co-option in Nagaland. A tribal community’s population registered an unusually high growth rate in the 1991 Census when it was trying to assert its identity as distinct from a larger tribe.

In the next census, its growth rate dropped by 90 per cent as the larger tribe tried to forcibly assimilate the community. There have been cases of selective co-option/erasure of tribal identities in Assam, where the dominant non-tribal communities suppressed either the linguistic or ethnic identity of minorities.

In light of the above, the growing clamour for evidence-based policymaking seems to put the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, the government data for marginalised communities, which need greater state support, are often of inferior quality. Poor statistics vitiate development planning and contribute to the continued underdevelopment of tribes. Yet, the accumulated errors in official statistics about tribes have received insufficient attention because tribes are a marginalised minority in the country.

For instance, the task of harmonisation of state lists of STs has remained unattended for decades. Likewise errors in Nagaland’s census accumulated for three decades before attracting the government’s attention. Similar problems remain unaddressed in other states. Unfortunately, tribes are often unable to contest government statistics because of their illiteracy, poor socioeconomic condition, and limited representation in bureaucracy.

(Kumar and Agrawal teach economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and IIT-Delhi, respectively)

Published 05 May 2015, 17:39 IST

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