Participants of the Tata Steel Tribal Leadership Conclave at Panchgani, Maharashtra

The Tata Steel Tribal Leadership Conclave helps India’s tribal youth make a difference to society and to the economic progress of their communities

Kailash Kurkute, a 33-yearold from the Kukna tribe in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, has been working to persuade people in his community to earn a living through locally available resources. The initiative is beginning to show positive results.

When most males from the tribe leave home for six-seven months every year looking for work, the village women stay behind and have little to do. Thanks to Mr Kurkute’s efforts at skilling them, the women now lead financially empowered lives pickling seasonal vegetables and fruits, producing the famed ‘warli’ artefacts of the region, and engaging in organic farming. “The issues that tribals face are not new. These have been around for a very long time, whether it is exploitation, displacement, loss of natural habitat or erosion of their culture,” says Biren Bhuta, chief, corporate social responsibility, Tata Steel.

“Tribals are at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. They are probably the last custodians of indigenous wisdom and sustainability.”

Biren Bhuta, chief, corporate social responsibility, Tata Steel

Mr Bhuta is right. And while there have been a spate of interventions to address these issues, a larger problem remains unaddressed. India’s tribal communities have, for long, been under-represented on a variety of fronts, especially when it comes to positions of leadership and influence in mainstream society.

A more sweeping change, therefore, has long been overdue. Backed by a century-old history of working with tribal groups in India, Tata Steel’s recent initiative in this area has been Samvaad, an annual tribal conclave for tribal communities to voice their issues. Having mobilised and brought together tribal communities from all corners of the country with Samvaad, Tata Steel has now set out another mission: creating tribal leaders for the future. With this objective, it has initiated the Tata Steel Tribal Leadership Conclave, a leadership training platform for tribal youth. “Tribals are at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. They are probably the last custodians of indigenous wisdom and sustainability. Many core human values, which they live by, could be lost if we don’t do something to protect and preserve them. Tribals need respect and recognition, and the world needs to learn from them,” says Mr Bhuta.

Leadership rooted in tradition

The first in this series of planned leadership conclaves for tribal youth took place recently in the picturesque hill town of Panchgani in Maharashtra. Youth representing 55 tribes from across the country participated in a seven-day residential leadership programme designed to groom conscientious social leaders for the future.

Participants perform a traditional tribal dance and showcase their culture as part of the programme
Youth representing 55 tribes from across the country participated in a seven-day residential leadership programme

The Tata Steel Tribal Leadership Conclave focuses on capacity building in these future tribal leaders while encouraging them to delve into their socio-cultural roots for answers that could help solve modern-day issues and crises.

This introspective approach to capacity building is supported by Initiatives of Change (IofC), a global network that works towards addressing global needs through personal transformation. IofC has been associated with Tata Steel since 2011 and Asia Plateau, its sprawling campus in Panchgani, was the venue for the conclave. IofC also conducted training sessions that helped participants learn how to listen to their inner voice, and get to the root cause of the problems they were seeking to solve.

The programme is meant to reach not just those in Tata Steel’s areas of operation, but all tribes in India. Given that 8.6% of the population of India is tribal (as per the 2011 census) and nearly 90% among them live in rural areas, it wasn’t easy reaching out to people from such geographically diverse and disconnected regions. Tata Steel worked with local partner organisations to identify and shortlist potential candidates.

As a result, the inaugural conclave saw 93 delegates — men, women, and persons with disability — in the age group of 21-35 years, hailing from 19 Indian states and 55 tribes, including the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). Among the participants were students, doctorate holders, filmmakers, agriculturalists and rights activists, who brought a diversity of perspectives, experiences and voices to the programme.

The conclave brought a diversity of tribal perspectives, experiences and voices to the fore through discussions

Real solutions for real problems

Niketu Iralu, a noted Naga social worker and human resource development practitioner, observes that with barely any legacy of tribal leaders in mainstream society, youth from India’s tribes have little by way of role models to learn from or emulate. Education, skilling, employment and migration to urban locations are other challenges that tribal youth have to navigate as their society evolves in response to the context around them.

The Tata Steel initiative seeks to address this situation by grooming leaders amongst tribal youth at the grassroots level. "The answers can only come from the tribals' own context. They will need to drive solutions for these problems. And that can happen only if we build leadership skills in them," says Mr Bhuta.

Another issue that confronts certain tribal communities, especially the more patriarchal ones, is the deep gender divide created by traditional practices and attitudes. “Farming has traditionally been an occupation that tribal populations engage in. In our country, whenever you think about a farmer, the image that comes to your mind is that of a man. Why is that? And why isn’t there a word in the vocabulary for a female farmer?” asks Ushaben Vasava from Gujarat’s Bhil tribe. By participating in the conclave, Ms Vasava says she wants to learn to be a better leader. Her goal is to help other tribal women become more independent, besides making them aware of their rights and responsibilities.

Tribal youth delve into their socio-cultural roots for innovative answers to modern day issues and crisis

The conclave also aims to encourage tribal youth to think of innovative solutions that are rooted in their context, identity and traditional wisdom. One way is to bring children closer to their roots and to nature. Twenty-one-year-old Ipupu Mena from the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh is working on a similar mission. An engineer by profession, she admits to being troubled by the fact that tribal children, under increasing modern and urban influences, are slowly losing contact with nature.

Ms Mena decided to connect the children of her tribe with experts in the field of nature conservation, thus creating opportunities for children to interact with nature. Her greatest joy, she explains, is to see tribal children enthusiastically learn about different kinds of butterflies or how to use a binocular correctly for bird watching.

By helping bring such ideas to the fore, the Tata Steel Tribal Leadership Conclave has encouraged greater discussion and sharing of stories among young tribal leaders. The hope is that they will be able to get their voices heard in the mainstream, and eventually influence policy and decisions around tribal development. When that happens, we will see development that is truly inclusive and holisitic.

— Namrata Narasimhan