Friday, January 06, 2006

India's Scheduled Tribes

India might well have the largest "tribal" population in the world. The scheduled tribes in India constituted 8.2% of India's population in 2001. This translates into 82 million people. There are 698 scheduled tribes in India. However, these numbers might be inflated. Reports suggest an increase of 148% in the scheduled tribe population in Maharashtra between 1971 and 1991 due to the inclusion of others for reasons of reservation.

The word "scheduled tribe" is an administrative term used for purposes of administering constitutional privileges, protection and benefits in independent India. The colonial authorities had introduced the term "criminal tribe" through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which designated 150 tribal communities as "inherantly criminal". Independent India repealed this hideous piece of legislation in 1952 but unfortunately replaced it with the Habitual Offenders Act instead.

Colonial administrative boundaries paid scant attention to tribal linguistic identity. As in Africa where ancient tribes found themselves divided by arbitrary colonial boundaries, the scheduled tribes in India live across states notwithstanding common language. The historical Jharkhand (not to be confused with the modern state) straddles across Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. The Gond region extends across Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa. The Bhils inhabit a region that stretches from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The Nagas live in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

The tribal imprint is clearly visible in the Hindu tradition. Much of Hindu civilization has tribal antecedents. The tribal element helped define the Sanskritic inheritance as the Arthashastra, the Mahabharata and Ramayana indicate. And yet due to reasons of geography, colonial history and incompetence in the post-independence era, the scheduled tribes have been marginalized and impoverished. India will need to remedy this through long term investments in health, education and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Government has chosen quick and easy populist measures such as reservations in private unaided universities and the corporate sector that are not likely to succeed.

The scheduled tribes collectively owned property in keeping with their tradition. The colonial authorities introduced a land regime where others encroached into traditional tribal lands on the grounds that such land were "terra nullius" i.e. land that belongs to none. This led to a series of tribal revolts against colonial rule. I refer to the Malpahariya uprising in 1772, the unrest in Kutch in 1815 and 1832, the Bhil revolt of 1818, the uprising of the Mers in Rajputana in 1820, the rebellion of the Hos in Chote Nagpur in 1831, the uprising of the Khonds in Orissa in 1846 and the Santhal revolt in Bihar in 1855. Heroes like Birsa Munda, Kanhu Santhal and Tantya Bhil stand out in the annals of Indian nationalism. The underlying causes of these revolts have not been addressed in independent India as yet, a factor that explains in part the continuing Maoist ferment in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Telengana.

The scheduled tribes account for 55% of the total displaced population in India. Their lands have been appropriated, the traditional right to forests denied, and they are a source of cheap and bonded labor.

It is reported that 8.5 million tribals have been displaced by the construction of hydro-electric dams, heavy industry, coal mines, highways and steel plants. These development projects have failed to meet the needs of the scheduled tribes. Though over 3,000 dams are located in tribal areas, only 20% of the tribal lands were irrigated in 1981 as compared to 46% of agricultural land overall. Tribal lands account for 56% of the total mineral revenue in India. 3,500 mines out of the 4,175 mines in India are in tribal areas. And yet the tribes have not benefited from the extraction of bauxite, coal, graphite, iron and manganese. The incidents this week in Orissa with the proposed establishment of a steel plant illustrate this vividly.

The total forest cover in India is reported to be 295,000 square miles. 71% of this is populated by tribal communities. The Forest Act of 1864, the Indian Forest Act of 1927, the Forest Policy of 1952, the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972, and the Forest Conservation Acts of 1980 and 1988 inadvertently sidelined the scheduled tribes under the guise of environmental conservation. The legislation treats the tribes as encroachers rather than an integral part of the forest environment. Many have been denied access to their traditional forest lands.

The Fifth and Sixth Schedules under Article 244 in 1950 provided for self-governance in designated tribal majority areas. The BJP-led administration issued a draft National Policy on Tribals in 1999 to meet the development needs of the tribal population. The emphasis was on education, forestry, health care, land rights, language policy and resettlement. Efforts were made to recognize tribal languages such as Bodo, Gond and Santhali. The then Government established a Ministry of Tribal Affairs. It carved out the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in recognition of tribal sentiment. The subsequent Congress-led administration drafted the controversial Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill in 2005 to address their needs. The bill was later shelved due to objections by the environmental lobby that it would legitimize encroachments on forest lands. However, India will need to follow up on these efforts to empower its tribal citizens.

For those interested to delve deeper into the subject, I recommend Sandhya Jain's "Adi Deo Arya Devata: A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface", New Delhi: Rupa and Co, 2004; B.B. Kumar, "The Tribal Societies of India: A Macro Perception", New Delhi: Omsons Publications, 1998; and G.S. Ghurye, "The Scheduled Tribes", Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1963.


Red said...

Mahesh Rangarajan has an excellent book on how the creation of national parks and wildlife reserves have displaced local populaces. Importing development models rarely work.

doubtinggaurav said...


good post,

One of the reasons that Tribes are so opposed to leave their traditional lands is that it is the their only source of livelihood.
Paying money as compensation is not enough as they do not have alternative skill to earn income.
Imparting skill will go a long way in making tribals socially mobile.
This , however is easier said than done.

Kaunteya said...

Sorry - Of the topic:

This is how NTDV works. Check this news item on their web site.

BJP MLA in net for demanding bribe

Another of the classic hit-and-run cases by NDTV. (Thats the general tactics used by the Pinkos)
If you read further you realise , its just an allegation made by the leader of the Opposition of Madhya Pradesh. (Which is so routine in Indian politics)

But the last line is the master-stroke. The article concludes quite conviniently that the said MLA is corrupt already. So no investigation, no inquiry , no nothing. Just a hearsay and we are done.

NDTV, i have seen generally sets the tone of National debates. It decides what is news and what is not.

Its time forums like these aggressively expose these so called "news networks" which are nothing but Sonia/Basu run organisations.

Apollo said...

The NDTV follows classic propaganda tactics.they had a report on rural indebtedness where they first mention that someone in the city can buy a mercedes at a bank interest rate of 6% whereas the villager has to pay 15% interest rate for a loan.

then once u r all emotional n cursing the unfair world. they quietly mention that 11% of loans are taken for marriages, 22% for medical care and no mention of for what purpose the remaining 67% of the loans is being taken.

even in cities if u take a personal loan u pay a 15% interest rate. this never got mentioned in the report. excellent people really.must really give them the "Goebbels propaganda award"

Apollo said...

This is really a good post about the plight of indian tribals.hope we treat them like our brethren and really do something concrete for them instead of cynical attempts like reservation etc.. we should make education and health care accessible to them and concentrate on job oriented courses for these people. once the first generation finds employement it can support the next generation to go for higher makes more sense to take a little step first and then leap rather then jump of a cliff

kuffir said...

excellent post. i'd like to add that among tribal revolts you missed out the gond rebellion led by komuram bheem in the early 1900s. and please's telangana and not telengana.

Jaffna said...


Point well taken. I guess my Jaffna pronunciation stood in the way :-)

Guarav: good thought. Thanks.

Red said...


I hate to use this for personal correspondence but have to resort to it in the absence of an email id. I was wondering what your Sri Lankan connection was. I spent two stints interning in Sri Lanka as well and both times my planned trips to Jaffna were foiled due to overzealous hosts :). I will make sure I go the next time.

pennathur said...

The co-existence of 'tribes' or people of ancient cultures with very diverse urban and modern-rural communities for a few millenia is unique to the Indian sub-continent pre-1947 and post-independent India. There must be some historic connection between the urbanised communities and the richly drawn characters of the tradiotnal communities in our epics (starting with the Adi Kavi Valmiki himself) through Ekalavya, Hidimba(i), Ghatotkacha, Uloopi, Alli (our own Amazonian) and many others.

Jaffna said...


I agree with you. The relationship between ancient urban settlements, peasant society and tribal culture was a symbiotic one, right from the start of Indic civilization.

The ancient republics in the Gangetic plains (e.g. the Vrijjis, the Licchavis) had tribal antecedents. Each segment of Indian society profoundly influenced the other.

This is visible in contemporary Hinduism as well. I refer to the shrines of Puri, Tirupati and Vithoba as examples.


Anonymous said...

could you get me data regarding how tribes became alien people in their own land.Is it by a legislation by British or by a forest act by independent India?

Alternative Media Movement said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Good write up Jaffna,

Here is a new book:
A Peep into the Tribalscape:
Travelogue by Philipose Vaidyar, a people group researcher and developmental journalist.
44 Pages
38 black and white pictures
15 colour pictures
Full colour art cover and full coverage of 10 real-life stories
Donation: Rs.50 only, towards more research and publications.


Anonymous said...

Jaffna that is a wonderful post and it is even more interesting to me becoz i am just starting a research project on the very same topic of indian tribals being displaced due to wildlife reserves. there is a possible solution to this in the form of a software developed by out lab which is being used all ovet the world. But i am in australia now and lack information and data. can you please forward to me as much information as you have. i need solid citations/references to base my paper upon.i saw the book titles that u have mentioned but i cannot lay my hands on them coz of gepgraphy. is there anyway u can help me??? please contact me on my student id

thank you very much!!


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