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National Conference on Tribes, State Policies and NGOs


National Conference on Tribes, State Policies and NGOs

26th – 27th March 2004
India International Centre
New Delhi


NGOs have come to occupy an important role in development and advocacy activities. In welfare programmes, development oriented initiatives, empowering women and weaker sections, protecting the rights of marginalized segments, protecting the environment, spreading literacy etc, participation of NGO sector has been crucial and impressive. Tribals are the most marginalized section of our population. NGOs working in tribal areas come in direct contact with people and they are often in a much better position to understand and deal with their problems. Besides providing participatory measures in development initiatives, they have been voicing their concerns through a variety of ways. NGOs also have to deal with state machinery, local politics and agendas of funding agencies. These negotiations are complex and get articulated in socially significant ways.

With this background in view a conference was hosted by the Indian Anthropological Association on “Tribes, State Policies and NGOs” on 26th and 27th March 2004 at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

The conference aimed at generating a meaningful dialogue among agencies and individuals concerned with the empowerment and welfare of the tribals and other marginalized sections of Indian society.

The conference was host to participants from various backgrounds (both academic and non-academic)- universities, social workers, grass root level organizations, NGOs, International funding organizations and bureaucrats from various Indian states like Orissa, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal, etc. The conference sought to understand the potentials and limitations of the NGO sector in working with marginalized sections. This dialogue aimed to clarify the issues faced in the development sector and achieve better coordination among various stakeholders. The issues put on the platform are not only important for research purposes but also in terms of exploring how best these can serve as lessons for the NGO sector.


The Conference was divided into five sessions spread over the two days, namely

Session I: Fieldwork and Methodological Issues
Session II: Special Session on Draft National Policy on Tribes
Session III: NGOs and Development Initiatives
Session IV: Gender Issues
Session V: Tribal Health and Population Dynamics

On this occasion, the IAA took a step forward and organised the First J.S. Bhandari Memorial lecture in memory of the much-accomplished anthropologist. Prof. R.K. Jain who was a close friend of Dr. Bhandari as well as his contemporary and is an accomplished name himself delivered the lecture.



The IAA Conference began early with the Welcome address delivered by Dr. S.M. Patnaik, the President of the IAA.

A brief outline of the different sessions along with the discussions, thematic outline of the papers, the important questions raised and the solutions/realisations/suggestions offered follows.


The Conference was graced by the presence of Prof. Leela Dube, the Chief Guest and Prof. T.N. Madan was the Guest of Honour. Prof. B.K. Roy Burman delivered the keynote address and Prof. B.S. Baviskar chaired the session.

Dr. S.M. Patnaik initiated proceedings by highlighting the need for a meaningful dialogue on development experiences with special reference to tribes and the marginalised groups among various stakeholders. The other important function of the conference was to renew and rejuvenate the ‘associational’ relationship among the members of the IAA. With the changes brought out by forces of Globalisation, the tribal communities are entering into a different social space and posing fresh challenges to those who study them or are working with them in development pursuits. The sphere of tribal studies is no longer the sole prerogative of the anthropologist. With the withdrawal of the state from significant domains of tribal life civil society institutions have come to play an important role. The formulation of the draft National policy on Tribes thus provides much scope for debate and discussion. The idea of the conference is to transcend the professional biases and limitations imposed by the disciplinarian understandings of the tribal issues.

Prof. Baviskar, as the Chairperson of the session, applauded the effort of the IAA in organising the conference on tribal issues. Stating the need to reconsider the issues in tribal development, he highlighted the fact that inspite of the debates on tribal policy since the Nehruvian days there have been little effort on the part of the Government to formalise its intentions into a law.

Professor B. K. Roy Burman, the doyen of tribal studies in India, dwelled on the core issues of the conference. He was of the view that in order to clearly understand the issues at hand a little rephrasing of the words is needed. The important issues the conference could deliberate on could be restated as

Role of NGOs in the context of state policies and their functioning among the tribal people.
Role of NGOs with respect to the tribes in the context of state policy for the tribals.
Perception of the tribes about the state policies as well as about the role of NGOs working among them.

Prof. Dube commended the move to make the association an active and vibrant organization through the medium of such conferences. She mused on the questions of interdisciplinarity and how to remain conscious of one’s identity at the same time. She stated that perhaps one could still preserve consciousness of a certain identity of anthropology particularly regarding what anthropology has been and is contributing to knowledge and to the good of humankind. Ethnography has opened new avenues in the past and continues to do so.

Prof. T.N. Madan, in his address talked of the identity of tribals and how in the last fifty years all that has been accomplished in the name of tribal development is the positive discrimination policy. All such notions of development and the very notion of “tribe” need reassessment and thinking on our part. All the three aspects of the debate need attention- Tribes, state Policies and NGOs but at the same time care should be taken that there is not an over emphasis on NGOs and civil society during the course of the discussions.


The session on fieldwork and methodological issues centered on the issue of relative merits and demerits of the techniques followed by anthropologists and the NGO professionals- long ethnographic fieldwork vs. the anthropological “quickies” –  Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Focused Group Discussion (FGD) etc. The focus was on how the two techniques could be converged so as to find a path that is beneficial to followers of both methodologies. There is a need to operationalize ethnographic fieldwork. Prof. R. S. Mann chairperson of the session pointed that methodology as a part of theoretical baggage is essential in order to relate what exists at the level of ideas to what exists at the level of the field. Prof. V. K. Srivastava in his presentation talked of the different and sometimes extreme perceptions that NGOs and academicians have of each other. These differences need sorting out via dialogues and discussions that bring the two together. Dr. Nilika Mehrotra and Dr. S. M. Patnaik in their paper highlighted the importance of NGOs in ethnographic research. They delved into the methodological issues and problems anthropologists encounter in working with NGOs and working through NGOs.

Another important point of discussion was the point of convergence between the NGO sector and the anthropological scholars. It was felt that there is a need to bring the two together more often so as to initiate a continuous dialogue between the two. Such a dialogue would be beneficial for both in the long run. It was pointed out that the methods followed by NGOs stemmed from a different point of orientation than those followed by researchers. The motivations were different so the methodologies that flowed would obviously vary. Dr. Rabindra Ray espoused the need for a commonsensical understanding of the subjects – sociology and social anthropology and emphasizing the study of people from their own viewpoint. Prof. Mann reiterated the need for ‘relational methodology’ and ‘operational research’. Dr. Avanish Kumar from Development Alternatives stimulated the discussion by explaining that the NGOs unlike social scientists look at solutions and not at methods. They are mostly implementers and not researchers. Therefore, while a commonality of approach is needed the differences need to be understood as well. Dr. Subhadra Channa pointed out that the discussions lacked a review of the power equation. Anthropologists work among tribes but NGOs work for them. Another strategy needs to be developed wherein the anthropologist could build upon policy research. Mr. Narendra, an NGO activist from Vasudeva Kutumbakam stressed on the locality of the tribe since it is what defines their attitude, behaviour, and perceptions. Terminology like, development, sustainability etc. has become passé. Dr.Rabindra Ray brought attention to the split between the “westernizers” and the “Nativizors”, those who see development as a move towards the western culture and those who look at it from the point of the natives. Dr. Srivastava opined that implementation should be informed by social research.


The session was co-sponsored by the Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, Lucknow.

The special session was convened to discuss the merits and demerits of the draft National Policy on Tribes. The policy is a major source of concern among the anthropological community as it falls short on almost all fronts! It was felt that right from the reason for introducing the policy to the goals it seeks to achieve, the document is a case in blunder. The government is not clear in its objectives and opaque in its statements. All the panellists could not find much to cheer about in the document.

The main points that flowed out of the discussion were - the issues of the welfare, governance and development approaches to tribes are what need attention in the policies. The need for such a policy and its essential goals was questioned. It was pointed out that tribal participation has not been looked into. The tribes are treated as a ‘class’ or as a ‘whole’. There is a need to distinguish between the different strata among tribes. The policy divides tribes into two groups- primitive and other tribes, which is meaningless. There is no mention of the criteria that term a group as tribal. The policy mentions the provision of Health institutions, but lacks focus on the provision of basic infrastructure in tribal areas. The level of administration in tribal areas needs to be raised. Then again, the displacement issue has not been given its proper due. There are no proper displacement laws or a particular agency looking at the issue in the country. All this goes to suggest that there is no comprehensive thinking behind the document. Even if the policy is adopted adequate monitoring and enforcement of its tenets is needed. The document should include steps to be taken instead of being a general document on what needs to be done.

Prof. Xaxa preferred the word ‘programme’, instead of ‘policy’ in referring to the document. It is more a statement in what should be done rather than what a policy document should be. The document begins with controversial terminology like “mainstreaming” and ends with “assimilation” of tribes. It does not account for the changing scenario in tribal societies, which is essential and should go into the formulation of policies. There are a lot of omissions- there is no talk of reservation, there is no reanalysis of the situation in the last 50 years, important things like alienation have not been dwelled upon, gender issues have not been looked at and an important aspect that needs to be included is the financial allocation. The policy should clearly define what percentage of national income goes into tribal welfare. Further, any references to the 73rd amendment, the Gram Sabha and its implications for tribal welfare are missing. What is also missing is the relation between centre and state governments with regards to tribals. Synchronisation of state and central government policies and efforts is essential. There is no talk of language and culture etc.

Dr. C B Tripathi said that this is not the first national policy on tribes citing the Dhebar commission, 1960 and Shivram committee as examples. The numbers (of tribes) given in the document are faulty- the report states there are 698 scheduled tribes in India; whereas the Ministry of law lists 300 tribes, Anthropological Survey of India gives a different figure. Orissa has 62 tribes not 68 as the document claims. Prof. I.S. Marwah opined that the tribes’ dependence on forests should be weaned by diversification of occupational activities not by spurning their rights over the resource and evicting them from their homelands. There should be some interface between the government and tribes and NGOs fill this gap. He pointed out that the word tribe and scheduled tribe have been used interchangeably in the document, this should not be the case. Prof. Roy Burman talked of the relevance of the forest policy and its importance in the formulation of such documents like the Tribal policy. Dr. Ram Prasad Mitra talked about how the approach of the policy is “for the tribals” not “with the tribals”. The policy does not talk of participation of tribals in the development process at any stage. Empowerment issues have not been touched at all.


The 3rd session of the conference debated, deepened and enriched the understanding of the role of NGOs in development at the grassroots level. It emphasized the need and the role of people’s participation in their own development. It served to highlight the important issues like problems faced by NGOs, their success stories, their intervention strategies, how the fruits of development fail to reach the needy and how NGOs have become implementers of programmes in many ways. Issues in development like mobilising grassroots worker, training them, role of SHGs, withdrawal of NGOs from the field were dwelled upon. Acceptance of new technology, role of NGOs as mediators, questions of identity, integrity, influence of political leaders, sustainability issue etc. also formed the core of the session.

Dr. A. K. Kapoor, the Chairperson, highlighted the role of NGOs working at the grassroots level in fostering change in a group/community or people. They have several constraints during the implementation of programmes like labourpower shortage, fund shortage etc. Dr. Neeti Mahanti discussed the situation in which the NGOs are working in relation to grassroots levels. She highlighted the lack of infrastructural facilities in tribal areas in terms of education and that the content, medium of education and syllabi should be constructed keeping in mind the culture of the area.

Dr. Debal K. SinghaRoy discussed the problems of marginalised tribal peasants in the context of Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh and the Naxalite hit areas of West Bengal. His paper emphasized that NGOs can play an effective role not only in the implementation of state sponsored development initiatives but also articulate the alternatives for development of the marginalised. Ramnath Nayak evaluated the functioning of the Tribal Sub-Plan(TSP) in the Koraput district and its failure because of the lack of commitment on part of the villagers that was a result of the neglect of issues of tribal exploitation by the programme. Ujjal Kumar Sarma traced the evolution of Forest Policy in India. Through his case study of the Kaziranga National Park he highlighted the issues and problems of tribal communities living on the fringes of protected areas in the country.

On the other hand Dr. Rajlakshmi Rath presented a successful case of people’s participation through SHGs (Self Help Groups) and other village level volunteers in the protection and rejuvenation of forests and to develop forest resources in the village. Saroj Kumar Dhal focussed on the role of NGOs in development and how the NGOs have produced an alternative to the development strategies of the government. Sarbeshwar Sahoo brought out the issue of displacement and the little attention paid to rehabilitation of communities.

The issue of displacement and the little attention paid to rehabilitation of communities was discussed energetically. As was the evolution of Forest Policy in India and people’s participation in the protection of resources. The link between the NGOs and the Government was explored and dwelled upon as fruitful in the long run. The session was brought to a close by Dr. Nita Mathur who emphasized on what development means to the people and give due importance to indigenous knowledge.


This session emphasised the need for more gender sensitive studies in the field of Tribal development. The concerns raised by gender studies are very much different from the dominant male perspectives and would go a long way in making the programmes more successful in the long run. The case studies discussed in the sessions served to highlight the problems that surface whenever the needs of women are not addressed at the policy level- empowerment issues, fertility decisions, effect of patriarchal setup, etc. Very often the civil society serves to highlight the lack of concern for gender issues and NGOs have been an important medium of festering change in this regard. The status and role of women in tribal societies is different than that in the dominant cultures. These differences need to be taken into consideration at the policy level so as to foster a change in the development paradigms and serve people (read tribals) better.

Vinita Singh in her paper dealt with the ethical issues in gender and development with respect to the permanent nature of the out-migration of the tribal women in Jharkhand with serious consequences for the societal structure and identity of their traditional tribal life. Archana Shukla espoused the impact of NGO intervention on women in both positive and negative terms by taking up the case of an NGO that dealt with women empowerment issues and helped them in cases of divorce, separation etc. It sought justice for these women but the tide turned when this justice lead to the alienation of these women from their communities as the rates of divorce increased. The whole notion of development was looked at critically through the eyes of the women Haria sellers in Jharkhand by Kali Nath Jha. Empirical data has been used to analyze the role of the state in the welfare of women. Since, the policies are framed under the influence of the streams in the dominant culture which are male centered, there is a need of understanding for gender needs and concerns at the policy level and otherwise. Women are often excluded by way of policy from receiving benefits and stress on cohabitation as well as ‘family centred ‘policies lead to the dependence of women on their male counterparts.

Other important issues under discussion were the multifarious activities that the NGOs indulge in and the various sources they tap that may cause problems for them when it comes to appeasing certain people who hold power- locally as well as the higher levels. It was felt that state and civil society should interact closely without compromising on criticality. The important role of women in the household as well as the community and the importance of recognising this by the various agencies working for their welfare was analysed. The voluntary agencies that are mushrooming up these days should understand that in order to empower women their economic opportunities need to be expanded. Dr. Nilika Mehrotra as the discussant said that the gender component is a part of most voluntary organisations today and gender issues are no longer restricted to women’s groups. This is a statement on the increasing realisation of the importance of women’s studies informed perspectives. The role of NGOs in development has to be looked at more critically and the empowerment notion should be questioned. To this, Dr. Rabindra Ray added that ‘empowerment’ is a delusion like liberty and equality.


Through the first J.S. Bhandari memorial lecture the IAA sought to honour the memory of Prof. Bhandari to whom many of the people present had an emotional attachment- as a teacher, a friend, an academician and a wonderful person. Dr. T.  N. Madan chaired the session. He had taught Prof. Bhandari which made the event even more memorable for him. Prof. Jain was a contemporary and a good friend of Prof. Bhandari. Before beginning his lecture Prof. Jain reminisced the intense passion of Prof. Bhandari for the subject of anthropology that still inspires many people. He stated that Prof. Bhandari had mastered the art of easy, untrampled transition from theoretical to the practical. His communication and interactions with others were always a source of inspiration and strength.

The lecture INDIAN DIASPORA, OLD AND NEW: CULTURE, CLASS AND MOBILITY given by Prof. R. K. Jain aimed at exploring the connections between old and new Indian diaspora, viz., the labour diaspora of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the ‘knowledge worker’ diaspora to industrially developed countries from the mid-twentieth century onwards and continuing to this day. The connection is sought in three dimensions, namely, culture, class and mobility in the diaspora space. The continuities and discontinuities are delineated with specific reference to the diaspora experiences of South Indians in Malaysia (a population gaining mobility most recently through a partial dismantling of the plantation system), the East Indians in Trinidad (a population beginning to gain mobility from the status of plantation labour to a class of cane-farmers in the early twentieth century) and Information Technology workers from India into Australia from the 1980s onwards.

The relationship between the variables of culture, on the one hand, and class and mobility, on the other, is analysed in the dual framework of ‘networks’ and ‘the diasporic imaginary’. The hiatus between the longing and belonging in this group as well as the affilial ties with the parent country have been investigated. The paper looks at the conflicts resultant from the intermingling of cultures in the three settings and how ‘Indian’ culture is used for maintenance of separate identities. The paper ends by pinpointing the substantive and conceptual problematic in this area of studies. In pursuance of this last concluding observation, illustrations have been drawn from the entire globalized Indian diasporic field in addition to the three locations selected for detailed examination. Time- space specific instances are what the paper has and it shows a concern for the contemporary spatial-temporal pattern of study. The paper adopts a comparative perspective keeping in view the differences in space, time and circumstances of the three studies.


The final session of the conference saw an array of issues raised from status of tribal health, report on population studies, and health care policies to the changes in the field of tribal medicine and health and the related population dynamics. These issues form an important part of any discussion on tribes and society and have far reaching consequences for the people. The emphasis on modern systems of medicine in the health care programmes has led to the undermining of traditional knowledge and working of the traditional systems of medicine. Tribal areas often suffer from a lack of infrastructure that is required to maintain the modern systems of medicine. Further the emphasis on curative medicine has reduced the use of preventive, traditional medicine with serious ill effects. Nutrition and health have often not been linked in the policies or during implementation. This lacuna on part of the government and civil society has proved to be the undoing of the good measures that these agencies sought to adopt. Population dynamics are directly related to health aspects and this link was analyzed through case studies.

Prof. Aneeta Minocha, as the Chairperson for the session, stressed on the need for population and health studies among the tribal communities as these areas seldom receive their due at public/ popular forums. There is a need to take the problems in this sphere out of the academic circles into the common people’s palate. Sunita Reddy rightly pointed out through her paper that the National health policy has to be evolved within a fully integrated planning framework which seeks to provide universal, comprehensive primary health care services, relevant to the actual needs and priorities of the community at a cost which people can afford. Madhumala Chattopadhyay talked of the mostly detrimental changes in the population of the Andaman Islanders due to frequent encounter with the colonizers of the territory, introduction of venereal disease and the other diseases through convicts, breakout of epidemic (measles, influenza etc.) The tribes are still struggling for survival despite the various measures of the Government to protect them. Samhita Das reflected on the health services in Bengal by looking at the problems of accessibility to modern health care for tribals, lack of focus on primary health, costs etc. Inspite of well meaning policies the tribals especially women do not get the benefits due to the lacunas in the field of education, and lack of proper exposure, training and guidance. While the government does its bit to reach out to the people, the NGOs fill the void between the policy makers and the common man as they work closely with communities and are well aware of the situations on the ground. The changing face of NGOs in the light of the changing scenario in the country served as the befitting end to a great session.


Summarising the discussions over the two days Prof. Srivastava noted that the conference had played its role to the hilt in enriching the knowledge of the participants as well as the guests. He was keen on the state of contemporary Anthropology and its contributions. Dr. Channa raised the classical questions of whom are we addressing, what questions can we really use and how do we select our modes of conduct? How we conceptualise tribe dictates how we treat them. She mentioned the lack of debate on the identity of the state. The talk on internal diversity is very crucial as it directly impinges on identity and other important issues. Again, debate on national vs. people’s interest has to be dwelt upon as well. There is also the question of Academic vs. pragmatic interest. The NGOs have largely taken up the humanistic approach. Dr. Channa pointed out that our reflections on issues are an important issue in itself. She also emphasized the goals of NGOs, state and others. Dr. Ramesh Chandra took the discussion further by stressing the need to reformulate the definition of tribe in which anthropologists have a role to play. A move from welfare to empowerment approach in contemporary era has become a necessity. Dr. C.B. Tripathi intervened by saying that there can be no universal definition of a tribe but working definitions like that given by Majumdar may be used. Prof. Srivastava reiterated that anthropologists are moving towards the study of institutions, they should not compromise on fieldwork. Regarding the National Draft policy on Tribes, 2004 the theoretical and conceptual debates that have ensued should be worked into the policy. He supported the notion of ‘diffused power in society’. Pressing for a need to reorient the subject of anthropology he envisioned a great future for the subject as well as the IAA.


The conference brought forth a large number of issues that served to enhance the understanding of NGOs as organisations and the academic process and its practical utilities. Things like developing a common platform for civil society and academicians, what the difficulties that NGOs face while interacting with university professionals and vice versa, the question of accountability of the two, issues of sustainability, empowerment etc were raised and discussed threadbare. While university professionals were felt to be more theory oriented, NGOs have a micro perspective. NGOs deal everyday with the realities of life, the nexus of power structures and issues of sustainability of projects. Therefore, their intervention strategies need to be culturally bound and appropriate. The role of caste, class and regional differences in the formulation of policies and in the development work has not been give due recognition by the government. This was a major point of debate. It was suggested that such issue be brought to the limelight via the medium of public forums like the conference wherein different parts of society can meet and discuss issues of relevance. NGOs have produced an alternative to the development strategies of the government and at the same time, supplemented the programmes of the government.

The list of recommendations emerging out of the discussion is a long one. The important ones are as follows

  • Relational and practical methods are the need of the hour and implementation should be enriched by research.

  • Study of tribes and local communities from their point of view is important for a better understanding and thus for formulating better policies and development programmes.

  • More common spaces have to be carved out for the meeting of the different spheres within society.

  • For ethnographers the contributions of NGOs as facilitators and as professional organisations are difficult to ignore. NGOs also need to adopt a similar attitude to research.

  • A review of the power equation, attitude of the so called ‘mainstream’ towards tribes as a passive subject, issues of the welfare, governance, development, empowerment and approaches to tribes are what need attention in the policies formulated for them.

  • The draft policy for needs to be reviewed in light of anthropological knowledge.

  • Participation of the tribals in the process of development and in the formulation of policies is very important.

  • The national policy on tribes should specifically mention the steps that the state plans to adopt for the upliftment of tribal community.

  • NGOs play an important role in mobilising people by creating awareness among them to protest against the systemic fallouts in situations of displacement and rehabilitation. This role of the NGOs needs to be developed.

  • Women’s issues need to be concretized into steps for their empowerment through economic development and public forums for them to opine on.

  • In terms of health and population dynamics many a time traditional knowledge is crushed on the pretext of primitiveness. National health policy has to be evolved within a fully integrated planning framework that seeks to provide universal, comprehensive primary health care services, relevant to the actual needs and priorities of the local communities at a cost that people can afford.

  • Finally, the debates around the national policy should be worked into the document and this responsibility lies as much with the people as with the government. Tribal issues need to be kept away from politics and its petty games of power and economic benefit.

All in all, it was a learning experience for all those present. The general feeling was that all those working for the welfare of the tribals should come together more often as it is a great way of getting at the various points of view in the field and looking at the differences to incorporate them and move towards a better, more integrative approach to Tribal issues. The conference also served to bring together parts of society that were/ are considered separate entities and to prepare base for closer cooperation and exchange of ideas between those involved.