Indigenous issues

Who Are Indigenous People And What Makes Them Different?

There does not seem to be one definitive definition of indigenous people, but generally indigenous people are those that have historically belonged to a particular region or country, before its colonization or transformation into a nation state, and may have different—often unique—cultural, linguistic, traditional, and other characteristics to those of the dominant culture of that region or state. (For more details, see this fact sheet from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues PDF formatted document (UNPFII).) In some parts of the world, they are very few indigenous people, while in other parts, they may number into the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Over the years, many groups of people have been wiped out, either by diseases of colonizing peoples, or through policies of extermination.

Indigenous peoples in India
In India, 461 ethnic groups are recognized as Scheduled Tribes. These are considered to be India’s indigenous peoples. In mainland India, the Scheduled Tribes are usually referred to as Adivasis. With an estimated population of 84.3 million, they comprise 8.2% of the total population. There are, however, many more ethnic groups that would qualify for Scheduled Tribe status but which are not officially recognized. Estimates of the total number of tribal groups are as high as 635. The largest concentrations of indigenous peoples are found in the seven states of north-east India, and the so-called “central tribal belt” stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal. India has a long history of indigenous peoples’ movements aimed at asserting their rights.
Legislation Concerning Indigenous Peoples
India has several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for mainland India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, which recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-governance. The laws aimed at protecting indigenous peoples have, however, numerous shortcomings and their implementation is far from satisfactory. The Indian government voted in favour of the UNDRIP in the UN General Assembly. However, it does not consider the concept of “indigenous peoples”, and thus the UNDRIP, applicable to India.

Indigenous issues

Indigenous people the world over are caught in the throes of transition. Should they blink, cross over to mainstream society and abandon their cultural heritage and their responsibility and ownership of forests and biodiversity reserves or should they dig their feet in and stay put resisting change being brought about by global media at frenetic pace? unnamed (22)
Logging and mining companies pillage tribal terrain forcing them into a vault of transformation they are not quite equipped or prepared to face, exploited by the cunning politician as well as the clever mining mafia the hapless indigenous peoples are caught between the tiger and the unscrupulous politician who is sworn to “protect” them.
Should they retain their rich cultural heritage at the cost of civic rights and electoral privileges? Or should they heed anthropologists, stay put in their rich forest terrain sustaining themselves below the poverty line on forest resources which some say are meant for wild animals? By sustaining themselves wholly in forest wealth and showing disdain to a corrupt system of governance that favours few, the indigenous people are certainly making a statement – even if a weak one – about the futility of a costly experiment in democracy.
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Indigenous people in the Amazon Basin, still untouched by modernity are in so much synchronicity with their agro-meteorological and bio-diverse environment that the “human civilisation” is utterly alien to them.  Questions remain if egalitarianism should encompass them or not? What about their health quotient? Interesting, intriguing plausibilities stare at the Media’s responsibility arm. We owe it to our fellow citizens of the world today…
In my 25 years of reporting I have had occasion to meet several indigenous people and have reported on their existential issues. There are by no means easy answers. The crossroads they face certainly merits a robust media engagement to be able to come to an evolved credible, robust reasonable and plausible solution. The role of the Media thus becomes critical.  So is the responsibility of the Media personnel. The Media – by treading on the proverbial middle path can atleast objectively report. The most that we as media professionals can do is to summarise such credible reporting and present to the lawmakers requesting for legislation. Done transparently and credibly it can be a game changer indeed. But can the alert media prevent poaching and exploitation of indigenous people at all?
Further, indigenous people are accused by wildlife conservationists of being hand in glove in wildlife poaching and smuggling of forest produce. They willingly point to the Sariska slaughter of 22 tigers in 2004 – 05.;;;;unnamed (24)
While indigenous people decide, activists and lobbyists are staring at an equally challenging mosaic. There are some activists who vow that indigenous people are exploited by isolationists for their own narrow ends of sustaining funding. There are others who say ‘give the indigenous people an informed choice about integration’…
Multinational trade bodies like WTO make no bones about documenting traditional wisdom for pharmaceutical industry. Then there are those who indulge in bio prospecting the genetic material of endangered tribes, heaven knows for what purpose… How then can the Media take sides? The issues are so complex. We need to arrive at a sane and sensible solution.


Malini Shankar,




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