A tribal dance at the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples celebration in New Delhi in August 2016. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj/ucanews.com)
Half of India's indigenous people are among the poorest in the country, according to a recent federal government survey, raising questions about the government spending millions on their welfare schemes.
Some 50 percent of India's 104 million indigenous people, locally called adivasis or original inhabitants, are in the lowest wealth bracket, the latest National Family Health Survey revealed.
"The findings of the survey do not surprise us," said Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian bishops' Commission for Tribal Affairs.
"But the bigger question is this: why do adivasis live in poverty despite the government spending millions on their welfare since India gained independence from the British 70 years ago?"
Wealth brackets are based on the number and kind of consumer goods owned such as bicycles or cars. Markers such as sources of drinking water, toilet facilities and flooring materials used in homes also count in the rankings.
Father Barla accused successive federal and state governments of sloppy implementation of welfare schemes. "No government has shown any interest in their development," he said.
"They [indigenous people] were cheated in the name of development as governments took their land for industries such as mining. They were displaced from their natural habitat, and without jobs many of them live in poverty in the slums of cities and towns," the priest said.
The latest federal budget allocated US$50 million, and similar amounts have been allocated in each annual budget, for schemes meant to provide welfare for tribal people. The funds aim to improve education, establish income-generating projects and provide basic amenities like drinking water and toilets.
"Despite the funds and schemes, adivasis continue in poverty," Father Barla said, noting that other poorer groups fared better in the survey.
While 45.9 percent of adivasis are in the lowest wealth bracket, only 26 percent of the socially poor Dalit people are in the poorest category. While 18.3 percent of other caste people are among the poorest, only 9.7 percent of other castes are in the same category, the survey showed.
Father Ranjit Tigga, who heads the department of tribal studies at the Indian Social Institute, said the Indian constitution has several provisions to ensure the welfare of tribal people "but no governments tried to implement them, purely because there is no political will."
Father Tigga, himself an Oraon tribal, said "some of the government policies are anti-tribal and are not in favor of the development of the tribal people, especially those related to natural resources such as land, forests and water."
Mukti Prakash Tirkey, editor of a weekly newspaper on tribal affairs published in New Delhi, said political parties take tribal people for granted.
"They are remembered only when an election is on the cards," he said.
"Tribal people know only farming and are dependent on forest products. They are uneducated and unskilled labor, so easily targeted for exploitation," said Tirkey, a tribal Catholic.
Unlike Dalit castes, tribal people are reserved and unaware of their rights while other groups move forward because they aggressively assert their rights, he said.