Humane Journey into the Nature of Human Culture: A Personal Narrative
- Part 2 -

Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti *

This article is the lecture delivered by Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti , Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India ; General Secretary, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, on the 2nd Gangmumei Kamei memorial Lecture

In the backdrop of what has been said in the preceding paragraphs, it will perhaps not be out context to proceed with a discussion regarding the word 'tribe' and 'development'. There is no doubt that even now we carry uncritically the intellectual legacy of defining or refining these two important terms for a comprehensive understanding. The popular notion of tribe in fact emerged with the rise of colonialism during the late eighteenth century carrying a racist stereotype with reference to the people of Asia and Africa.

Attempt was made during 1931 census operation to enlist the primitive tribes. The number of forest tribe in 1891 was 16 million. The number of tribe in 1931 became 22 million. These people were called as the backward tribes under the Government of India Act in 1935. Since then and till date it has taken a long journey to understand the problems of the tribal population of India, which present nearly eight percent of the total population.

In some states of North-East India, as you already know, the tribal population remain as the decisively dominant group in the percentage of the total population. By and large the question of intimate relationship of the tribes with forest needs to be discussed in a detailed analytical perspective. Since this issue itself is a broad topic for study and research, I will not take up that discussion here excepting a minimal reference to the point just mentioned. The symbiotic relation of the tribes with forest is well known.

The Report of the Committee on Forest and Tribals in India prepared under the directive of the Ministry of Home Affairs in the early 1980s noted that, "this symbiotic relationship suffered a setback during the colonial rule when forest was looked upon only as a source of maximization of profit and not as a vital link between human habitat and the larger environment....There cannot be any development of forests without development of the forest dwelling tribal communities..The scheduled tribes live mostly in forest areas...Therefore, the two directive principles of the Constitution, namely Article 46 and Article 48A, which seek to protect the economic interest of the forest tribes remain mutually reinforcing".

Integrated development of the forests and tribes have been the major concern right from the Dhebar Commission of 1961, the National Commission on Agriculture of 1976, the Central Board of Forestry from time to time between 1950 to 1980, the National Forest Policy of 1988, the National Tribal Policy of late 1990s to the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill of the early 2005.

It is interesting and important to note here that while the British Forest Policy of 1894 recognised the rights and privileges of the tribes on forest resources, this became rights and concessions at a later phase. Subsequently, only concessions were granted to the forest dwellers. Now, in the latest Act, the earlier condition of granting right of the forest tribes on forest resource came back for serious re-consideration.

Forest, specially in North-East India, has become a subject of prime importance in the backdrop of its rich bio-diversity on the one hand and systematic depletion of green cover on the other. Macro politico-economic forces are operative in a big way in the process of manipulation towards the ruin of ecological balance. This has obviously become a great challenge for the local tribal communities to put up a formidable resistance against such destruction and to save themselves from t he resultant economic exploitation and legal deprivation.

There are some important dimension when we discuss development in general and tribal development in particular. The meaning of development as such is highly relative in its content. Its actual message presupposes certain indicators that may be actualised in a specific situation. General emphasis is put on the economic aspect of the problem-both from indigenous and the induced point of views.

There are other concomitant parameters like social, cultural, educational and even political which demand to be considered with equal importance. There is further one more distinction between the approaches of 'welfare' and 'sustainable development' so far the economic programmes are concerned. A cursory look into the tribal development programmes initiated since the first Five Year Plan till the eleventh Plan period would justify the point made above.

This has invariably gone through various stages of experiment from the local to the national level, namely from sub-plan in t he fifth Five Year Plan to Antyodaya under Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) in the 1980s. What is actually important to take into cognizance is the ration of the total investment between the expenditure on the programme itself vis-a-vis the expenditure to maintain the infrastructure in order to carry out such programmes. This angle of interpretation will perhaps take us close to go for some alternative paradigm for tribal development which will keep pace with the national development perspective. This prelude with help understand the human culture in a larger canvas.

I will now enter into another domain of my field journey. This is the major livelihood activities of the largest section of population in the country, i.e. agricultural production. I will place my observations in brief on my fieldwork in the peasant villages in West Bengal, Karnataka and the Andhra Pradesh. My purpose in these studies primary was to enquire into the socio-cultural context behind the major economic livelihood activities centring around the cultivation of soil.

Since the agricultural production is organised covering a wide range of specific dimensions, such as techno-operational, organisational, national or perceptional and ritual, it requires one to understand this huge universe mainly in terms of people's cognition, their technological operation from preparing the soil to the reaping of the harvest. These entire human activities are ultimately controlled to a large extent, visibly or invisibly, by the market forces and its designed network.

Therefore, the dynamics of this whole agrarian situation warrants a close scrutiny, intimate understanding of the involved intricate processes and finally a logical interpretation of the total system of production, consumption and distribution. In the studying this system of management of land and its produce cultivators' knowledge about the climate, quality of land, livestock, varieties of seeds, agricultural implements, optimum condition of field operation are very important.

Next comes the question of social organisation of production and management of labour. In each step one finds the involvement of a number of categories of people. There are absentee landlords, who own substantial amount of land but are not directly involved in the cultivation. There are land owners who live in the villages but only supervise their engaged labourers or share-croppers. Likewise we find a category of landowners who directly cultivate their lands.

This is followed by other categories, such as small owners of land who combine their cultivation as the share-croppers of others' land; then there are share-croppers of small patches of land who also work as agricultural labourers; and finally, there are agricultural labourers of three kinds (i) those who work for a land owner throughout the year, (ii) those who work as the migrant labourer against a specific contract, and (iii) those labourers who work on daily wage rate (cash, kind or both).

This hierarchy of engagement of rural population in cultivation almost goes close with the existing social hierarchy in the villages whether it is in eastern or southern Indian region as observed by me. Invariably the upper layers of Hindu castes would belong to the landowning groups of people, while the people in the relatively lower rung in local social hierarchy would form the main force of the agricultural labourers.

But in rural set up all of them were seen to share a kind of a common cultural canopy so far their understanding of the universe of agricultural activities, their beliefs and ritual engagements were concerned. That is why even after the pace of industrialisation and urbanisation, the majority of Indian rural population who are substantially engaged in the agricultural production share among themselves distinct cultural traits.

They have somehow withstood the massive techno-economic onslaught emanating from the mechanisation of agriculture and commercialisation of its produce. They have managed to continue to a great extent their traditional agro-emotional living wading through various phases of experimental planning for rural development. The life of the rural cultivators (peasants of all categories) appear to be culturally articulated with everything that surrounds their immediate environment.

(To be contd......)

* Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti wrote this article which was published at Imphal Times
The writer is Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India and General Secretary, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata
This article was webcasted on March 24, 2019.

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