Indian Tribes after Sixty Years – A Study

November 27, 2008

By Walter Fernandes. This paper first apeared in Counterviews Webzine, Feb 2008.

15th August 2007 and the days that followed witnessed much celebration to mark sixty years of independence. Now that the country has settled down to the routine once again, one can sit back and see what these six decades have meant to the subalterns.

This paper will take a look at what the Indian tribal and indigenous peoples have lived through during these decades.

To understand the impact on the subalterns one has to begin with the five year plans launched in 1951. The planners assumed that their fruits would reach every Indian and would thus fulfil the dream of B. R. Ambedkar. While presenting the Constitution to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949, he hoped that it would be the beginning of social transformation because it had ensured political democracy but economic and social democracy had to follow. To achieve it the country had to combine social with economic growth.

Today the 86 million tribals and 180 million Dalits of India feel that they have not realised this dream.

Tribals and Land – Basic Statistics

Of the 86 million tribals who are 8.4 percent of the population, 80 percent live in the Middle India belt of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Northern Maharashtra and Southern Gujarat. Around 12 percent or 10.2 millions live in the Northeast. The rest are spread over the remaining States (2001 census CDs).

Most tribes in Middle India come under the Fifth Schedule that accords protection to their land and culture. Some tribes in the Northeast come under the Sixth Schedule that grants them greater autonomy than their Middle India counterparts have. In response to their nationalist struggles, the Parliament amended the Constitution to allow the tribes of Nagaland and Mizoram to run their civil affairs according to their customary law. Most others do not have any special protection other than the laws preventing tribal land alienation (Barooah 2002).

It has not prevented land alienation, some of it legally through the Land Acquisition Act 1894 and the rest through devious means.

Tribal displacement due to refugee rehabilitation

In West Bengal and the Northeast it began with the Partition when East Pakistani Hindu refugees either occupied or were rehabilitated on much land that the tribal communities owned according to their customary law. In West Bengal at least 230,000 hectares were used for refugee rehabilitation, 80,000 ha of it predominantly tribal common property resources (CPRs) that are considered State property according to the colonial land laws that continue to be in vogue in India. They recognise only individual ownership. So the CPR dependants are not even compensated for the land they lose (Fernandes et al. 2006: 57). In Assam not less than 140,000 ha have been used for refugee rehabilitation, all but 6,600 ha of it predominantly tribal CPRs (Fernandes and Bharali 2006: 77). Similar figures can be given from Meghalaya. The Chakma refugees displaced by the Kaptai dam in East Pakistan in the mid-1960s were resettled in Arunachal Pradesh. Much tribal land was used for refugee rehabilitation also in the Koraput district of Orissa, Bastar of Chhattisgarh and in Jharkhand.

Displacement in Tripura due to refugee rehabilitation

Tripura in the Northeast is the worst hit.

After the first influx of refugees came the Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants. The State enacted the Tripura Land and Land Revenue Act 1960 that stipulated that only registered land would be recognised. Most tribals being illiterate did not register the community land they were living on for a thousand years according to their customary law (Bhattacharyya 1988: 97-98). So they were declared encroachers on the land that was their habitat for hundreds of years.

The land that was alienated from them was used to resettle the Hindu East Pakistani immigrants whose influx continues till today. Because of the influx, its tribal proportion has come down from 58 percent in 1951 (Sen 1993: 13) to 31 percent in 2001 (Census CDs 2001). The tribes have lost more than 60 percent of their land to the immigrants.

That is at the basis of the tribal insurgency in the State (Bhaumik 2003: 84-85).

Though most States have legal provisions to protect tribal land, the loss of individual land too has been high because in the fifth schedule as well as in non-scheduled tribal areas, those who control the political and administrative systems manipulate the land records in their own favour. As a result, by official count 753,435 (40.77%) of a total of 1,848,000 acres of land in the tribal districts of AP were in non-tribal hands in the early 1990s. Studies put it at more than 50 percent (Laya 1998). Similar is the case in Orissa (Pradhan and Stanley 1999), Madhya Pradhesh (Mander 1998) and other States. In Assam because of changes in laws, the number of tribal blocks from which land cannot be alienated to nontribals has come down from 35 in 1947 to 25 in 2005 (Shimray 2006: 12).

Development-Induced Displacement

The legal way is the Land Acquisition Act 1894 that supersedes all other legislation and makes it possible for the State to acquire land under a public purpose that is yet to be defined. It recognises only individual ownership. What does not have an individual patta is State property (Ramanathan 1999: 20). It facilitates acquisition of tribal revenue and forest CPRs without even a notification and with no compensation. Many of their dependants are not even counted among the displaced (DP) and others deprived of livelihood without physical relocation (PAP). In Assam, for example, the State counts only 3.4 lakh DPs when the reality is more than 19 lakhs (Table-II). Those excluded are CPR dependants, more than 50 percent of them tribal.


Tables 1 and 2 (click twice for enlarged size)

Studies on development-induced displacement 1951-1995 in Kerala, AP, Jharkhand and Orissa, 1965-95 in Goa and 1947-2004 in Gujarat show that more than 2 million ha of forests have been lost in these States. However, only 60 percent of the projects could be studied in Kerala, Jharkhand and Orissa and 80 percent in AP. The common revenue land could not be separated from forests in Assam and West Bengal. So much more has been lost in these States. Besides, States like Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and MP with large forest areas and a big tribal population have not been studied. Once they are studied and the figures for others like AP, Orissa and Jharkhand are updated, the total of forests lost in the whole of India will go up to at least 10 million ha (Table-I). Most forests and much of the revenue CPRs lost are tribal habitat.

Needless to say, tribal displacement too is high. According to Table 2 only 29.15% of all the DP/PAPs are tribal but they are 34.5% of the 16,729,392 persons whose caste-tribe is known. There are indications that around 50% of the DP/PAPs of Assam and 30% of West Bengal whose caste/tribe is not known are tribals.

Studies have not been done in Chhattisgarh, MP and Maharashtra that have a big number of tribal DP/PAPs. The caste/tribe of the DP/PAPs in Kerala and Goa was not got. The biggest past projects like Idukki and other dams in Kerala are in its tribal areas. So more than 10% of its DP/PAPs are bound to be tribals who are around 1% of its population. Also the Athirapally dam that the Centre has just sanctioned has a large number of tribals (Dutta 2007). Once all of them are counted, the tribal proportion for the whole of India is expected to reach 40%.

Tribals pay the highest price of national development because their regions are resource rich. 90 percent of all coal and around 50 percent of the remaining minerals are in their regions (Areeparampil 1996: 6). Also the forest, water and other sources abound in their habitat. Because of the extent of CPRs acquired, some (e.g. Singh 1989: 96) even think that in order to reduce its cost the project authorities deliberately choose the administratively neglected backward areas because their CPR component is high and compensation for their private land is low. The project cannot compromise on the technical components and on staff salaries. So it reduces the cost through this means.

Ensuring Availability without Access

The reason why the tribals and Dalits have not realised the hope of Dr Ambedkar is the economic growth based development paradigm and the neglect of the social sector. India has made much progress. The middle class has grown from around 30 millions at independence to more than 250 millions today (Desrochers 1997: 201-202). The country has developed a good industrial base and produces every item that it imported before independence. Literacy has grown from 14 percent to 64 percent. Its birth rate has declined from 49 to 32 and child mortality from 250 to 82. Life expectancy has gone up from 40 to 65 years (2001 census CDs).

On the other side, at least 350 million Indians go to bed hungry. They include a majority of the tribals and Dalits. One cannot deny that many positive measures have been taken in their favour. They are entitled to free education up to the university level. 7.5 percent of jobs in the government and in public sector enterprises and seats in the legislature are reserved for the tribals and 15 percent for Dalits. Special economic programmes and sub-plans are prepared for them. But that has not changed the situation of a majority of them because this approach only ensures that schools, hospitals and legal support are made available but they are not accessible to them. Access requires a social infrastructure of education and financial autonomy. It does not exist.

Their poverty prevents them from making use of these benefits (Kurien 1996: 26 28).

The contrast can be best understood by looking at the Asian Tigers who are presented to the world only as a success story of capitalism and Mainland China as socialist success. In reality their success lies to a great extent in their effort to combine the economic with the social sector. For economic benefits to reach the masses not less that 10% of the GNP has to be invested in the social sector i.e. education, health, nutrition and hygiene. That is what South and North Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia under Soekarno, Singapore and the two Chinas did. On the one hand, the State supported the building of an industrial infrastructure through the public sector or by supporting private investors. On the other, they invested 8 to 15% of their GDP on the social components. It is possible that in countries like South Korea and Taiwan it was a way of creating a class of consumers but it also prepared the masses for jobs in the system and to access the benefits of economic development (Colonel-Ferer 1998).

In Mainland China the endeavor was to lift the masses from misery to poverty. In Malaysia the Bhumiputra policy of reservations for the Malays went far beyond the Indian approach. The Malay leaders extended the reservations both to the public and private sectors at every level. They also made massive investments in the education, health, nutrition and hygiene of the Malays thus preparing them for jobs and to be consumers.

India, on the contrary, stopped at reservations in the public sector. Those who can enter a school get free education. Those who complete their studies can hope to get a job in the public sector. But no effort is made to create the social infrastructure required for them to gain access to schools or to remain in them when they enter. Thus, only a small minority has got its benefits. That can turn reservations into a vested interest of the elite and a political tool of the ruling parties. They were meant to be a tool of social transformation. That cannot happen with this approach.

The Development Paradigm

A large number of them have been impoverished during the last six decades because most planners view development only as economic growth and neglect the social components of education, health, nutrition and hygiene. The choice of the development paradigm is crucial to this contradiction. The colonial regime had robbed the country of its resources and had left it undeveloped and impoverished. However, when India launched its five-year plans it forgot that the development of the West was possible only because of the exploitation of the working class at home and of the colonies abroad. The colonialists turned the colonies into suppliers of raw materials and capital for the industrial revolution in Europe and captive markets for its finished products. That impoverished the colonies.

Newly independent countries that followed this path were bound to impoverish some of their own communities for the benefit of their middle class since they did not have colonies to exploit. Indian planners were convinced that western development resulted from technology alone and chose precisely this path (Vyasulu 1998).

Its result is seen in its impact on most tribes who live in the resource rich backward regions. Their resources have been exploited in the name of national development and people have been displaced in order to acquire land for projects. As a result, India has made economic progress but it has paid very little attention to the subalterns in general and the DP/PAPs in particular.

Deforestation too has been high for industries and other development projects. Its net result is tribal impoverishment. More than half of them are malnourished, two thirds continue to be illiterate and live below the poverty line. Today globalisation adds to their woes. More land than in the past is being acquired to encourage investment by the Indian and foreign private sector which is eyeing mining land in Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Thus, there will be more displacement than in the last 60 years, much of it tribal for mining in Middle India and dams in the Northeast (IW-GIA: 2004: 314). A list of 168 dams has been prepared for the Northeast. 48 of them are under active consideration of the Government of India (Menon et al. 2003), all of them in the tribal areas where the community owns land according to their customary law. Thus displacement will grow but they may not even be compensated for what they lose since the land laws that have come down from the colonial regime do not recognise their CPRs as their sustenance.

Attack on Tribal Culture

The focus till now has been land loss and impoverishment. To the tribals land and forests are not merely economic commodities but are also the centre of their culture and identity.

They have built their economic, social and political systems and have developed sustainable management systems around them. Basic to their culture is equity i.e. ensuring that every family gets enough for its needs. Secondly, the resources are treated as renewable i.e. used according to need and preserved for posterity. Thirdly, as long as land and forests are community owned, the woman has some say in their management. All the tribes are patriarchal. So she is only has a higher social status than women do in other communities do but she is not equal to men. Her relatively high status depends on community ownership of their resources. These values are basic to tribal identity (Menon 1995: 101).

All of them come under attack and a total crisis enters their life when the resource is alienated from them. Once land alienation or deforestation causes a shortage of resources they fall in the hands of moneylenders. For sheer survival they abandon their tradition, absorb a new culture and begin to destroy forests and other resources that they had preserved till then for posterity. That causes more shortages, individualism enters their communities and equity that is central to their culture gets weak.

Because they destroy the resource for survival, the middle class that begins the vicious circle of their destruction, calls them enemies of nature (Bharali 2007). Poverty also forces many of them to fill the urban slums from which they are evicted in order to keep the city beautiful. During 2006 evictions took place in Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai and other cities. Most of its victims are Dalits who are 65 percent of the slum dwellers in the major cities. But today there are also many tribals whom deforestation and displacement have impoverished and forced to fill the slums (Fernandes 2007: 46).

Also the relatively high women’s status, the third base of their identity, gets weak. The whole tribe loses out but women and children suffer more than men do. The tribal woman’s relatively high status as a productive member of the family depends on her work in the community owned land and forests and her role as the main decision-maker in the family. The man was in charge of society. Once these resources are lost, she ceases to be an economic asset. If jobs and land are given, they are in the name of men. So power passes from her to the man and to his son. She is reduced to being only a housewife. With it also her social status suffers (Menon 1995: 102-103). One of the tribal reactions is to internalize the male culture of the dominant society according to which her place is in the kitchen and she is not intelligent enough to take up other work. Children too suffer. Child labour increases among them. For example, because of impoverishment 56 percent of the families studied in Assam and 49 percent in West Bengal pulled their children out of school to turn them into child labourers.

Tribal Reaction

Many tribes have reacted to their exploitation, some of them peacefully and others violently. In the Northeast violent reaction began with Nagaland demanding sovereignty already before 1947. Mahatma Gandhi seems to have been sympathetic to their demand of self-rule but other national leaders did not understand the aspirations of Northeast India where most tribes belong to the Mongoloid stock. So the Naga leaders declared independence on 14th August 1947, a day before Indian independence (Sanyu 1996: 115-126). The nationalist struggle that began with it continues to this day. An agreement was reached in 1963 to create the State of Nagaland and recognise their customary law. Not much has happened after it. A cease fire is in place for a decade but negotiations do not seem to make progress. The positions have remained almost unchanged for sixty years. Neither the Naga leaders nor the Indian State seem to be ready for a compromise. The struggle has spread from them to some other tribes of the Northeast. The Mizo who made the same demand in the 1960s gained a State of their own and recognition of their customary law. That is where they stop.

Two major issues dogging tribal identity are the indigenous status and sovereignty. Those who demand sovereignty have not defined it till today. The State and those opposed to it interpret sovereignty and selfdetermination as independence and secession. That is the main reason why India has not signed Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation that speaks of the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples. Very few consider it its main or only meaning. A few demand independence but most interpret it as high autonomy whose nature is yet to be defined. So the stalemate continues (Karlsson 2006: 25-26).

Some tribes of Middle India who demand sovereignty interpret it as control over their economy and administration because their struggles are by and large for the protection of their land and forests. This issue is dominant in most struggles be it against the Narmada dam in Gujarat, Koel Karo and the Netarhat test firing range in Jharkhand, Kashipur and Kalinga Nagar Orissa or against uranium mining at Domiasiat in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya.

Most tribal leaders are aware that acceptance of this status can be a step in protecting their land and culture but have not developed a viable definition of either. Some like the tribes struggling against the Koel-Karo dam and the test firing range in Jharkhand have succeeded in stopping the projects. Others have been less successful. For example, many tribals who have been opposing land acquisition for copper mining at Kashipur in Orissa have been jailed. Some have been killed in police firing. Also the tribes who demanded a better deal when 6,500 hectares were acquired at Kalinga Nagar in Orissa were suppressed. Twelve of them died when the armed police opened fire on 2nd January 2006.

On the other side, the Fifth Schedule area won a major victory in 1996 by getting the Parliament to enact a law on their self-rule at the village level. It respects their traditional political systems and stipulates that the villagers be consulted before land acquisition. It is a beginning and much more has to be done.

One can probably end this section by quoting the Austrian anthropologist Haimendorf (1980: 1) who did a study of the tribals in the 1940s. After a second study of the same tribes in the 1970s he asked “How do you explain the fact that their communities that were self-reliant thirty years ago today need State subsidies? Their women had a high status three decades ago. How have they lost it today?”.

The question is not about development but about its type. One is left with the impression that the colonial system continues in a new form. A resource and capital intensive form of development was attempted in a former colony. In this system the tribal and other resource rich areas came to be treated only as suppliers of raw materials whose benefits reached the urban middle class and the rural upper classes just as the colony was turned into a supplier capital and raw materials for the European Industrial Revolution and a captive market for its finished products. It was bound to impoverish the tribals and other rural poor to the benefit of another class.


The effort in this paper has been to look at the tribal situation in the context of their aspirations at independence. The development paradigm ignored these aspirations and that has resulted in greater inequalities. One sees signs of internal colonialism in the sense that the resource rich tribal regions are used as sources of raw material to the benefit of another class. This contradiction has got intensified after globalisation with the Indian and foreign private sector wanting more of their land and other resources.

None of those who get its benefits question the development paradigm that causes inequalities. But those interested in the their progress have to search for the type that combines economic growth with the development of every human community. This search has to begin with the tribal communities themselves. The rest can only support them. That does not seem to be happening. Many tribal alliances are formed but unity of all the tribes is yet to come. That is essential if as a group they are to demand their right to be human and equal.