Sudarshan Bhagat, Union Minister of State for Tribal Affairs in the Modi Government, is known for his simplicity and honesty. Born and brought up in a remote area of Naxalite- affected Tangardih in Jharkhand, Bhagat had no political godfather during his journey to Lutyens’ Delhi.

Entering Parliament or becoming a minister was not in his wildest dreams when he used to walk miles to reach school. His political career began after he joined student politics and became state joint secretary of ABVP and was actively associated himself with Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram for the uplift of tribals in Jharkhand.

Later he joined the movement for a separate Jharkhand state. In 2000, he was elected MLA in the Jharkhand assembly and became the youngest minister in the Babulal Marandi Government. In 2009 he was first elected to the Lok Sabha and then again in 2014. He was picked as Union Minister of state for Social Justice and Empowerment, Rural Development, and later as Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in the Modi government. In 2017 he was given the portfolio of Tribal Affairs.

In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, Bhagat spoke on what the government has done for the uplift of tribals and the government’s roadmap to bring them into the national mainstream. Excerpts:

Q: Tribal areas have been neglected in the country for long. Development work hardly reached them since independence when compared with urban areas. What has the Modi government done to bring them into the national mainstream?

A: It would not be right to say that not much has been done for tribal areas by the previous governments. Every government has tried to do its best. However, it is also a fact that all that had been done did not suffice. The major boost to the tribal sector came in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government when he formed a separate Ministry for Tribal Affairs. It proved to be a game changer, a concerted thrust was given to tribals since then. Ever since the Modi government came to power it ensured special emphasis was laid on tribal areas. The budget of the ministry increased from Rs 3,832 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 6,000 crore in 2018-19. Similarly, budget by various Union ministries for SCs and STs has increased from Rs 19,437 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 37,802.94 crore in 2018-19, an increase of 94 per cent. The government has also ensured that the money allotted to tribal areas reaches beneficiaries. The government wants to inculcate a sense of pride among tribals and bring them into the mainstream.

Q: There is a huge gap in literacy rate between tribal and non-tribal areas. What has the government proposed to bridge this gap?

A: There is no denying the fact that education levels in tribal areas are not satisfactory and a lot needs to be done in this sector. Considering these facts, the government has stressed on quality education and skill development programmes in tribal areas. Merely giving them education is not enough. What our government believes is they should be given quality education to make them employable in the private sector as well as develop their skills. The idea is they could get jobs in industries or could start their own small business. And the results speak for themselves since the government started residential Ekalavya Model residential schools. In 2017-18, passing rate was 90 per cent out of which 53 per cent students passed with first division. Similarly, in 12th standard, the passing rate was 81 per cent, out of which 61 per cent passed in first division. Seeing its success, the government is planning to set up 462 more residential schools in tribal areas by 2022, making the strength 681 schools from the present 219 model schools for tribal people.

Q: The health situation is bad in tribal areas. The mortality and malnutrition rates are very high among tribals.

A: Health situation in tribal areas is a cause of serious concern. Small diseases which can be easily prevented like anemia are very prevalent among tribals. Secondly, we have to accept the fact that unlike urban areas or areas near urban cities, tribal areas being remote and hilly are not easily accessible, therefore ensuring medical facilities has been a challenge. Government is working in two ways, first educating tribal people, mainly women on the importance of hygiene and health, trying to shed their superstitious beliefs, and making available essential medical healthcare and nutritious meals. Once it is implemented totally, half the problem would be over. Then it comes to giving quality health care to tribal people. Government through various schemes is trying to make available quality health care. Efforts are being made to speed things up.

Q: Not much has been done for the economic development of tribal community in the country and as a result they remained neglected. What has the Modi government done to empower them socially and economically?

A: It is a fact that no community can grow until they are empowered socially and economically. Government is targeting to uplift them economically and socially and bring them in the mainstream. That is one reason why PM Modi started Skill Development Programme (PMKVY~ Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojna). Tribal people would be benefited a lot through this as the government would give them skill training, and through micro-financing help them set up businesses. Government is also promoting self-help groups in tribal areas mainly run by women so that they learn to manage their small businesses. Priority is given to tribal entrepreneurs in subsidized, centrally-sponsored business loans. Other than inculcating entrepreneurship among tribals, government has introduced Minimum Support Prime for minor forest produce on the line of MSP of agriculture produce. It was started in 2013-14 with 10 minor forest products (MFP), and today 49 forest products have been added in MFP. Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development Federation of India (TRIFED) has been asked to keep a close watch on the market price of MFP and recommend introduction of new items from time to time. The move would help tribal people get best prices for their forest produce. TRIFED is also developing infrastructure for storage and marketing of forest produce. Union Government is giving central assistance for developing marketing and storage capacity in tribal areas. In a nutshell, the Modi government has a three-pronged strategy to assist tribals. First to give them quality education and skill training, improve their health, and then assist them in becoming entrepreneurs by giving easy and affordable priority loans.

Q: What else do you think needs to be done for tribals?

A: We believe the tribal community has a great role in nation building and national integration. Unfortunately, this aspect has not been highlighted. Our government has taken up a special initiative to highlight the contribution of tribal heroes in nation building. We are building museums of tribal heroes and their heritage so that they have a sense of pride and other people come to know the contribution of the tribal community to nation building. Then comes their traditional art and handicrafts, this is unique in many ways. Once promoted and highlighted, the world will recognise and appreciate Indian tribal culture and art. An economically empowered educated tribal certainly would lead India to new heights.