Droupadi Murmu is the first-ever tribal woman to become president in India. Murmu belongs to the Santhal tribe of Odisha, which is India’s third-largest scheduled tribe (socio-economically disadvantaged group). Murmu started as a teacher before beginning her political career as a legislator in 2000 and again in 2009. The candidate then elevated her political career to become the first-ever female governor of the state, Jharkhand, in 2015 and held that position until 2021. Making history, Murmu’s political astuteness helped her spear through the 2022 presidential elections with approximately 68% of the votes. Her rise to the presidency highlighted the struggles of many marginalized communities in India.
In a 2020 interview on the show ‘Ek Mulakat’, Murmu stated, “I come from the poorest of poor families and never expected I will take up politics.” Murmu also stated that “I come from a society that is very rigid when it comes to perceptions about women and they would raise questions about any woman stepping outside the confines of their homes.”
Poverty In Tribal India
In India, five out of six impoverished people are from lower tribes or castes. For many tribes, ownership and access to forests and land are critical to their way of life. On the other hand, the rapid urbanization in India is proving difficult for tribal communities to do so as amendments to legislation including the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, which protected the rights of tribal land, weakened their claims to their lands. As such, development projects in the past decade have displaced millions of Indians and 40% of the displaced were indigenous people as their poverty makes them easy prey for moneylenders, exploiters and traders.
Displaced indigenous people in urban areas often live in slums. In particular, women are disproportionately more affected. They are faced with domestic violence as men in households become alcoholics. Women also face health conditions that take a toll due to a lack of family planning and child spacing capabilities, many women do not have autonomy over their reproductive healthcare. The women have little opportunity to gain employment, forcing them to seek work in unorganized sectors, which are not regulated by the government, as wage laborers or even prostitutes.
Additionally, the lack of infrastructure and sanitation negatively impacts the livelihoods of tribal India. In Jharkhand, tribal populations do not have access to piped water because of the lack of proper infrastructure and the process of getting piped connections is too complex for poor communities to follow. Tribal women in Kashmir also can’t afford sanitary pads during their periods, highlighting the case of period poverty in tribal India.
India’s Future With Droupadi Murmu
Murmu’s ascension to the presidency is a trailblazer for tribal communities across India. In the districts of Alluri Sitaramaraju and Anakapalli, representatives of tribes assembled under the leadership of Professor Murru Mutyala Naidu in June to support the victory of Murmu.
Years before her political career kick-started, Murmu fought for her rights as an indigenous woman by convincing a local lawmaker to sponsor her education since higher education provisions were not available in her native village. Murmu then worked as an assistant in the State Irrigation and Power Department from 1979 to 1983.
During her political career in 2017, Governor Murmu made the bold decision to stand her ground against the controversial amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, both of which restricted the rights of indigenous people. She asked how these amendments would benefit her state’s tribal population and forwarded 192 petitions against the amendments to the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, highlighting her ardent advocacy of tribal welfare.
A Look Ahead
With Droupadi Murmu earning her spot as the 15th president of India, she can be a catalyst for change for many tribal communities, which have long been neglected in India. While it may be challenging to reverse the government policies that restrict the rights of indigenous people, Droupadi Murmu’s rise from her poverty-stricken past to one of the highest government posts in India can empower and signify the inclusion of many tribal members.
– Samyukta Gaddam
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