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Dalit Rights

70 years ago India took several steps to transform itself from a colonised state to a free and independent nation. This transformation required every citizen to take great risk in some manner or the other. Today, 72 years after Independence we are reaping the benefits of the hard work and sacrifice. It is my belief and the belief of the Congress party that since every Indian shared the risk, they must also share the reward. It is the right of every Indian to have equal access, opportunity and freedom - no matter creed, caste or tribe. What makes India unique and what makes it strong is the wonderful diversity of our people and our cultures. We need to protect this diversity and ensure it continues to shine.

In order to achieve this, we need to ensure the protection of every citizen. The Adivasi's of our country have the right to live freely, without fear of harm, of eviction, of displacement with no notice at the whims and fancies of a chosen few. The governmen's role is to protect these rights and to ease their way to achieving more for their families and communities.

It is the responsibility of the government machinery to provide proper and specialised representation to the Adivasis. We believe in the need to set up a targeted tribal affairs department - besides the Scheduled Caste department - that will have the sole purpose of protecting Adivasi interests. Through such a department we need to implement methods to protect their land and ensure it is not misused by other interested stakeholders. In cases where obtaining forest land is necessary for mining, we must create a mechanism that makes Adivasis shareholders in development.

I am of the view that we have much to learn from these communities. The Adivasis of our nation understand one of our greatest natural resources — our forests — much better than others would. They have lived in and learned from our forests a lesson that the rest of the world has just started to realise — how to live harmoniously with nature. These communities need resources to sustain and grow themselves, not to be ill-treated and talked down to.

We strongly believe it is imperative to ensure the Forest Right Act is implemented to the letter of the law. The Act grants legal recognition to traditional forest dwelling communities, correcting the injustice caused by previous forest laws. It gives these communities a voice in forest and wildlife conservation and clearly designates what constitutes a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe. This is vital for distributing land and land rights. Under the law even if the tribe doesn't have the proper paperwork to prove the land belongs to them, they can have access to 4 hectares of land so long as they cultivating it on their own. The land cannot be sold or transferred to anyone except through inheritance. Most importantly, the law gives the right to protect and conserve forest land to the community. This is vital for thousands of village communities who are protecting the forest and wildlife against threats from forest mafias, industries and land grabbers.

In honour of our Constitution, we believe it is imperative that all individuals are treated equally. We must empower Adivasi's — especially Adivasi youth — by promoting developmental schemes, skill building workshops, and access to platforms that promote knowledge sharing. We must ensure they are given the same opportunities and access as the majority of Indians get.

Every citizen of this nation has the right to live freely and fully in the journey to achieving their dreams. We are not a nation that can claim to be fully free until every citizen is empowered — not just a few, not almost everyone, but every single one. This especially holds true for the most marginalised in our country. If we are unable to protect and empower our most vulnerable people, can we truly claim to be a just and equitable society that gives everyone a chance to succeed?

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