Among the highlights of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman’s budget was the allocation of Rs 85000 crore for the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes, and Rs 53700 crore for the Scheduled Tribes. The budget of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE) has been increased from Rs 8885 crore in 2019-2020 to Rs 10103.57 crore in 2020-21; however this is still only a marginal increase compared to the 2018-19 budget.
Although the Denotified Tribes (DNTs), Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes can console themselves with the separate budget heads for them, the amounts set aside for them are negligible. They fall into the categories of Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Castes (OBC) or Minorities. Those who fall under SCs and STs are Constitutionally entitled to reservations, while a chunk of them who fall under OBCs and Minorities are not. In addition to being marginalized for centuries, the DNTs were further marginalized when the British introduced a law to declare them criminals – their fault being they had always been on the move and they didn’t own any land. These traditionally nomadic tribes are thus at the margins of the margins.
M. Subbarao, convenor of the DNT Political Front, has long been demanding the recognition of these doubly marginalized tribes in the Constitution, which, he believes, would put an end to most of their troubles. For him, the most glaring absence in the budget has been that of a committee that the government announced last year to identify such tribes that still remain uncategorized.
Days before the 2019 General Elections were announced, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had notified in February last year: “While most DNTs are spread across the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories, some DNTs are not covered in any of the SC, ST or OBC categories. It has, therefore, approved the setting up of a Committee under the chairpersonship of Vice-Chairman, NITI Aayog which will complete the process of identification of the Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities (DNCs) that have not yet been formally classified.”
There is however no mention of this committee either under the allocation for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment or that for the Ministry of Planning. Subbarao had even been asked by certain people in the know in August last year to send his CV to be considered for work for the committee in Andhra Pradesh. When he sent his CV, the “middleman” replied, “Let me know your tribe name please”. Subbarao answered the all-important question but then he never heard back.
The “Development and Welfare Board for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities”, approved by the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February last year, has been assigned Rs 1.24 crore. The notification issued to this effect had said: “The Commission recommended for the setting up a Permanent Commission for these communities. Since most of the DNTs are covered in SC, ST or OBC, constitution of a Permanent Commission will not be very effective in implementing development programmes, rather it will look at grievance redressal and will therefore be in conflict with mandate of existing commissions for SCs (National Commission for Scheduled Castes), STs (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes) and OBCs (National Commission for Backward Classes). The Government has therefore decided to set up a Development and Welfare Board under the Societies Registration Act, 1860 under the aegis of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for the purpose of implementing development and welfare programmes for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Communities.” But the question that arises is how this “Development and Welfare Board” will be effective without the committee that is supposed to identify the yet-to-be-classified communities doing its job.
The MoSJE budget lists the ‘Scheme for Development of Denotified Nomadic Tribes’, which has been assigned Rs 10 crore. This is a paltry sum considering the population of these tribes is around 20 crore in M. Subbarao’s estimate – in other words, a princely 50 paise per person.