Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays tribute to Birsa Munda at Ulihatu village in Jharkhand, November 15, 2023 (Photo: PIB)
THERE WAS A LARGE dose of symbolism in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Jharkhand on November 15. Modi visited Ulihatu village in Khunti district, where he met the family members of tribal icon Birsa Munda—who died under incarceration by the British Raj—and later, paid his respect to the Independence hero in Ranchi. But the visit was also the occasion to launch the Pradhan Mantri Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) Development Mission, the ₹24,000 crore programme that was announced in the 2023-24 Budget for the indigenous people of India.
In his speech on the occasion, Modi said, “They [PVTGs] did not get pucca houses, nor did they get schools for their children. But we are reaching out to them now. Earlier governments used to add them to data but we are adding to their lives.”
The Budget announcement stated, “This [Mission] will saturate PVTG families and habitations with basic facilities such as safe housing, clean drinking water and sanitation, improved access to education, health and nutrition, road and telecom connectivity, and sustainable livelihood opportunities.” At that time, the money devoted to the Mission was ₹15,000 crore over three years. When Modi made his announcements on November 15, the programme was pegged at ₹24,000 crore. With this, the outreach to Adivasis now ranks among the major welfare measures in the Centre’s portfolio of such programmes.
In many ways, the Mission is a logical corollary to the new welfare of the BJP government. Over the past nine years, all groups of citizens in need of support have been reached out one by one. Farmers have their own PM-Kisan and a slew of other programmes. Similarly, the poor have been given a clutch of schemes such as free and subsidised grain distribution that has continued from the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, and various healthcare measures such as Ayushman Bharat. Women have their own schemes. There are multiple welfare measures that target Adivasis, both at the Central and state levels. However, PVTGs require a different kind of emphasis.
If one looks at the list of these groups across different states, two features are striking. In many states, these groups are located in remote districts that until recently lacked virtually any connectivity. In addition, these districts are distant from state capitals and given their own priorities, these groups were left behind in the country’s developmental journey. The second feature worth noting is that, unlike other groups that have received help from governments such as farmers, migrant workers and localised labourers, PVTGs are de-linked from digital public goods. The physical and digital distance makes reaching them doubly difficult. Hence, there is no other way but to do welfare work in the old-fashioned, village-to-village, door-to-door, fashion. This could not have come a day sooner.
Some of the problems associated with this distancing can be seen in another recent effort of the Modi government. In February this year, the Centre launched the Vibrant Village Programme (VVP) geared towards providing basic infrastructure in villages in 46 blocks of 19 districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and the Union territory of Ladakh. The programme has a strategic intent as these districts abut the northern border with China. These villages and communities were lagging in development, especially, infrastructure. Interestingly, a majority of these villages and blocks are populated with indigenous communities. In April, Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Kibithoo, a village near the border with China in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. Shah described Kibithoo as India’s “first village”. But in terms of basic facilities, Kibithoo until recently had virtually nothing to show. These challenges of physical distance were never really addressed in a meaningful manner. The danger in such situations is that physical distance is often exploited. That, in turn, creates disaffection. It is incumbent on any government to ensure that such problems do not acquire a politically malevolent form.
The absence of development and letting such vulnerable tribal groups ‘fend for themselves’ is a recipe for trouble. The PM PVTG Development Mission can play an important role. All the ‘basic facilities’ are important in ensuring that misadventures don’t take place among these people
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Chilphi Ghati is a well-frequented resort at the edge of Kabirdham district in Chhattisgarh. The place boasts picturesque and scenic hills and is a favourite among tourists in this part of the country. Just across the border, in Madhya Pradesh, lie the vast forested areas of Balaghat district. Both Balaghat and Kabirdham are home to the Baiga indigenous people who fall under the PVTGs listed by the Centre. These are remote areas where development has barely begun to percolate. Literacy, connectivity, healthcare and most other developmental indicators are all low when compared to national measures. Kabirdham and Balaghat also happen to be districts affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE).
Unlike other indigenous groups like the Gonds, there are literally no reports of the Baiga being associated with Maoist groups. But the absence of development and letting such vulnerable tribal groups “fend for themselves” is a recipe for trouble. It is here that missions like the PM PVTG Development Mission can play an important ameliorative role. All the “basic facilities” listed under the Mission such as safe housing, clean drinking water and sanitation, improved access to education, health and nutrition, road and telecom connectivity, and sustainable livelihood opportunities are important in ensuring that misadventures don’t take place among these people who live in remote and vulnerable districts of India.
This is just one example of a vulnerable group located in a remote area. There are many other groups that may not be in imperilled regions but their needs are no less important. With PVTGs spread across the length and breadth of India, a special programme focused on this particular segment of Adivasis is essential from a developmental perspective.
At one time, say in the 1950s and 1960s, India lacked the necessary resources to undertake the development of PVTGs and areas where such communities lived. But over time, this acquired a form of generalised disinterest. Governments came and went, but such communities were left to fend for themselves. The situation persisted even after India acquired sufficient financial and economic resources to address these challenges. In those decades, the usual process of writing reports and then filing them on such vulnerable groups was all that constituted ‘development’. Not only was this unfortunate as the most underprivileged section of citizens was deprived of development but it was also counterproductive in a political sense.
The PVTG Development Mission may turn out to be a model programme whereby such groups are provided the necessary help to move forward in life in the form of education, healthcare and livelihood. The challenge is to ensure constant attention and devotion to resources over a period of time. These problems of deprivation are unlikely to disappear in a couple of years. Apart from direct help to such groups, it is also important that the districts where these groups live be developed in terms of infrastructure and other facilities. Both approaches are necessary to ensure success in this crucial developmental venture.