India's indigenous people still out in the cold

UN official says the country's 104 million indigenous people will continue to suffer until they are officially recognised
India's indigenous people still out in the cold

Phoolman Chaudhary addresses the seminar of indigenous people at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi on Feb. 17. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/

A decade after the United Nations made a declaration on the rights of indigenous people, India has yet to recognize its tribal people as indigenous, effectively depriving mostly impoverished people of their basic rights.

But India needs no new laws and its legal systems are enough to protect the rights of its 104 million indigenous people, who are locally called tribal or adivasis (original inhabitants), according to UN official Phoolman Chaudhary.

The UN general assembly in 2007 adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples however India has yet to recognize tribal people as indigenous, said Chaudhary, vice-chairman and Asia representative on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

"Until and unless the country recognizes the tribal communities as indigenous peoples, the tribal population will continue to suffer as their rights can't be ensured according to the UN declaration," he told a Feb. 16-17 seminar involving tribal leaders in New Delhi.

The first meeting of 40 medical doctors and 20 lawyers discussed issues like sustainable health care and the constitutional rights of tribal communities in India. Two tribal bodies based in New Delhi — Adivasi Ekta Parisad (indigenous unity forum) and Adivasi Samanweye Front, Bharat (indigenous coordination front, India) — organized the event.

Chaudhary, also chairman of the Asian Indigenous International Network, said India should first recognize tribal people as indigenous to effectively implement the UN declaration.

He told that the UN declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument as it establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples.

Chaudhary said he could not comment on why India failed to recognize tribal people as indigenous but said India will have to update its progress in July at UN headquarters.

Ashok Bhai Chaudhari, an organizer of the seminar, said they decided to discuss the legal and health rights of tribal people because "ignorance of tribal people on these two has cost them much."

He said the doctor-lawyer team will work to widen their network at national as well as state level and meet when convenient to "sensitize themselves" about tribal rights.

They also plan to improve understanding among government officials, teachers and political leaders about tribal rights.

Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' Commission for Tribal Affairs, told that hundreds of cases are "pending against tribal people in courts … even petty cases because of lack of legal awareness."

The Oraon tribal priest added: "This forum will have a great impact as tribal lawyers have agreed to work closely for the welfare of tribal people."

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