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Representation of Tribal communities in India

The tribal communities in India have developed their identity in close vicinity to the natural resources around which they have developed their cultural traditions, economy, social life, religious myths and techniques of production. With the passage of time they have developed a symbiotic relation with their local environment. For them land is not merely a source of livelihood rather a representation of their cultural identity and existence.

Tribal people have suffered a lot, even in post-colonial India they have not only been alienated from the development processes, but even from their own dwellings. As the main developmental processes went on to create social spaces of inequality, tribal communities have faced marginalisation virtually in every sphere of social life. Most of them are malnourished, two thirds continue to be illiterate and live below the poverty line. With the introduction of globalisation the role of media has been redefined. Because of this, their long-standing social position, which is �self-representation� has become a question mark. This has actually made them kind of disappear from mainstream society. In turn, this has brought a question on their indigenous identity.

With the above background, I have tried to explore �how the media represents tribal communities in India� and �how tribal people want themselves to be represented� in this article.

Whenever we think about tribal people the first thing that comes to our mind is the picture of half - naked men and women with some kind of weapon like arrows and spears in their hand and speaking in a cryptic language. When the majority of the community of the world kept pace with progress of the world there were communities still living in peace with nature with their traditional values, customs and beliefs. In India, tribal people are mostly referred as Adivasis. They have been the most vulnerable community in India. Tribals are backward and poor and are mostly devoid of the common facilities like health, education etc.

Since tribal communities in India have been materially backward and economically poor, some attempts have been made by the Government to develop them. Media also plays an important role in representing tribal communities. Since its inception it has played a central role because it is the single system through which public opinion could be stimulated. It also has a greater discourse that affects the policy-making process in a democracy. Despite that, tribal communities are still incredibly underrepresented in the media.

The Changing Role Of Media

In the era of globalisation, the use of social media has drawn a significant role. Some people live with a highly tech media life, while some still live with a traditional media life. However, it is believed that media life has affected irrespective of social groups in every part of the world, though the divide between the information rich and the information poor has grown exponentially.

There are two forms of media in India, namely, traditional media and contemporary media (i.e. mainstream media). Former includes folk dance, song, storytelling, poetry, plays and puppet shows, etc. They are mainly found in rural and suburban sectors and are performed for communication and entertainment; many a times, they are used to convey messages relating to contemporary socio-political issues. Along with the traditional media, contemporary media like print media, audio-visual media (film, radio and TV shows, and voice-based platforms), and internet-based social media have also emerged in the mediascape of India.

Whenever we talk about tribal communities and media we certainly refer to actual issues encountered by tribal communities in modern day context that needs to be focused in the media. However, with the passage of time the changes and transitions of various components of media are also to be kept in mind. With globalization, there has been a drastic change in the character of traditional media too i.e. from being a �service to the society� industry to a �profit-making industry�.

Recently, a drastic shift of the advertisement industry from print to electronic and digital media made it difficult for the print media to survive. This is immensely impacting the representation of the genuine issues not only of tribal communities but people�s issues as a whole that needs to be addressed.

Truth Of Tribal Representation In India

In a democracy, the media works on social reach which is nothing but the social and cultural resources acquired by the upper caste over the years. They provide jobs and also give awards and scholarships to the people from their own caste, and sometimes there even exist a pattern of generational journalists working in the same area. On the other hand, tribal communities do not have enough social resources in the field of media. As a result, their struggle to secure a desired space for representation of their own issues becomes more difficult. They, therefore, are absent in news media, particularly in leadership roles which determine who gets to occupy such spaces.

The main problem with the reportage of news that comes from journalists from tribal communities is that they never get to become a part of mainstream media. Their work is very less known. They do not get a platform or a desired space for the exposure of their ground reporting. There are mainly two types of journalists: the one who wants to deal with tribal affairs and their problems which should be brought before the general public and the other who is disinterested and feels the editors and management will not encourage this, hence, risk factors stop them to do any coverage on tribals.

According to the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity (DAVP), Government of India, in 2011, two newspapers were published in Tribal languages in the central indigenous belt.[1] Those were Johar Sahiya (now discontinued), a monthly newspaper in the Nagpuri language and Disom Khobor, a fortnightly newspaper in the Santali language with circulation figures of 5317 and 6669 copies respectively. Both of them focus on contemporary Tribal issues and primarily create awareness and solidarity for bringing about economic, political and social justice.

Despite their sincere efforts, many Tribal publications, funded by local Tribal groups, are facing various difficulties such as poor distribution network, poor marketing infrastructures, and limited financial resources. As a result, publication of many Tribal newspapers, such as Bij Biinko and Dhumkuria, published in the Kurukh language, have been stopped.

Media has become a corporate entity that works under profit making business. In the race to make profit, it has forgotten to report the stories of vulnerable sections (like tribal communities), their difficulties, and maltreatment by the majority, the government and corporate intrusions leading to gross infringement of human rights and so forth. Media should be socially responsible to do checks and balances on power mainly on the abuse of power.

Not Focusing On The Real Issues Of Tribal Communities

It is often argued that there is a gap between the way the issues of tribal communities have been focused in the media, and the way people at the grassroots want their issues to be focused. Media being a vital part of democracy needs to be examined, specially, in the context of reflection of social realities. The literature by various researchers state that tribals are being secluded and live in the interior parts or on hilly areas, it is very inconvenient to report any news about them. Being indigenous, tribal people feel insecure about other civilians getting on to their private areas. However, this is not the case every time.

It is considered that the tribal people are very good hosts and they include outsiders if they trust the person concerned.
If we talk about issues of a tribal society, we must consider that the media at large have failed to reflect the real issues of life and livelihood of common people regardless of tribes and communities. Even if certain issues are being highlighted, it fails to create an awareness or impact policy making.

According to Assam Human Development Report (ASHDR) in four districts of Bodoland Territorial Area District area only 11.2 percent houses are Pucca, 46.27 are kutcha, and 42.75 are semi pucca. In two hills districts only 6.3 houses are pucca, 81 per cent houses are Kutcha and only 12.4 per cent are semi-pucca.

The corresponding statistics for the entire state is 22.7, 43.7 and 33.6 per cent. After having a look at the sanitation facilities we get to see that 76.8 percent houses do not have toilets at home. In two hills districts 88 per cent houses do not have toilet facilities at home. Only 69.9 per cent houses in Assam have toilet facilities. The report also reveals that Assam�s poverty ratio is the highest among the scheduled tribes which is 40.5% for all the tribes and in two hills districts it is 44.7%. [2]

These above discussed statistics and the realities behind such situations rarely find space in the mainstream media When the media dedicates a lot of its space to focus on tribal festivals or ethnic delicacies, it often ignores such hard realities as revealed by ASHDR data. It is the tribal way of life, in which they have been able to preserve unique cultural features in the face of massive aggression of a market driven economy.

Problems Faced By Tribal Media

Despite having some distinctive features, tribal media is constantly facing various issues that pose considerable challenges to its existence and operations. Poor marketing and distribution networks and deficient financial resources are some of them. For instance, as most of the newspaper publications are funded by individuals or small groups, lack of adequate funding is one of the issues most of the tribal print media are currently facing. Because of the limited funding and limited infrastructure, the distribution and circulation of many of the tribal print media get affected; some of them (such as Johar Sahiya) have stopped their publication permanently.

As tribal peoples are some of the most economically backward communities of India, they have to face two key barriers to access or to participate in new media spaces. Affordability is one of them, owing to poor purchase power, their access to audio, audiovisual, and computer-enabled media is limited.

Also, because of lack of availability of communicative and technological resources, such as poor or no access to electricity or broadband facilities, many of the tribal people are unable to access various media platforms. From an educational and computer-literacy point of view, these people are one of the most underprivileged communities in India. As a result, only a handful of them can communicate in mainstream languages and run computer programs. Hence, most of them have remained information-poor in this era of digital divide.

Collectively, the tribal people are facing two more barriers; namely, semantic and policy barriers. As of now, none of the tribal languages are used in the government offices for administrative or judicial purposes in the central indigenous belt, and many of them have not been recognized as scripts. Although some of the tribal print media are constantly fighting for the issue of language recognition, it has never got serious attention in the mainstream because of the inability of non-tribal people to read tribal scripts such as the ol-chiki script.

Also, owing to existing government policies and related barriers, the reach and promotion of tribal media are affected. For example, according to the current regulations, community radios are to be operated within the limited transmission power and lower range; such restrictions limit the reach of those radios. As a result, a large number of tribal people never get the chance to listen to or participate in the community radio programs.

Tribal Community : Working Their Way Through

Regardless of the changes and transitions of a modern world, various features of a traditional society are still visible in the tribal communities. Surprisingly, these tribal communities have been able to keep unique features of their culture such as language, songs and dances, festivals, religion, dress-habits etc. almost intact in the face of a global market driven economy that pushed them into a crisis situation to a very great extent.

Unemployment, land grabbing and lack of education have forced them to migrate to different places of the country in search of greener pastures. Series of cultural clashes between different traditional communities have uprooted them from their original villages. Despite these threats and crisis, basic features of these tribal communities have remained almost intact.

Currently, in India there is no dedicated radio or television channel for Tribal people at the national or regional level. In some of the regions, a few non-prime TV and Radio time-slot(s) were provided for broadcasting Tribal cultural programs and performances such as folk dance and songs. Apart from that, some indigenous and exogenous organizations and individuals broadcast Tribal matters/programs via electronic media like community radios, voice- based platforms, and documentary films.

Most of the tribals of India are found in rural areas and are semi-literate; as a result, they are going through with the issue of digital divide. Research suggests that urban tribal youth have more access to the internet and social media resources as compared to the other age group. Moreover, tribal communities and organizations have their own Facebook, Twitter pages, websites, and YouTube channels; these resources are used for sharing news and thoughts on tribal lives and contemporary issues.

Tribal media is expressively meaningful and relevant in the underserved contexts because of its unique strengths.

Firstly, it is produced locally, and its contents are oftentimes decided and controlled by the tribal people. While doing so, it actively chooses relevant local issues and formats, which ensures that the mediated outputs are culturally apt.

Secondly, contemporary media platforms allow tribal people to produce and share media products in their local languages and local dialects (e.g., films, audio-visual and text messages). It opens up a meaningful path for them to overcome semantic and literacy barriers, particularly for those communities whose languages are lesser known and/or do not have formal scripts.

Thirdly, tribal media is credible and powerful since the community insiders create and share them; in other words, these mediated contents are basically emerging from within the community.

Finally, tribal media is now embracing newer media options in creating interactive spaces in socially mediated platforms. Such mediated activities yield many opportunities to discuss, analyze, critique and promote contemporary tribal issues with a wider audience.

In the era of globalization and the digital divide, it is vital for tribal population as well as the non-tribal population of India to bridge the representation gap in order to ensure appropriate legitimation of tribal voices, identities, culture, collective human rights and contextual issues. As India is ambitious to become a developed country, it needs to rethink and redefine its definition of development to incorporate the discourse of inclusive development. This undoubtedly includes the welfare of marginalised tribal society as well. Tribal resentment is widening the trust deficit between the tribal communities and the government.

It should also be taken into consideration that the gap in the representation of a tribal society in the mainstream media and lack of sensitivity have come largely out of the ignorance of a journalist. A journalist is required to have adequate education on tribal societies, their values and norms to report the real tribal issues. Hence, it is crucial to include tribal people in the mainstream media so that their real issues could be known widely.

  • Annual Report (2011-2012) [1]
  • A Study Of Human Development In Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), Assam (Apr, 04, 2020) [2]

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