We, the Adivasi People of India


That the tribal communities of India have been left behind in the march of progress is a well-known fact. Prof. R.K. Mutatkar presents a case study in Maharashtra to prove that this need not be the case especially if community members and non-governmental agencies are actively involved.

The tribal communities in India, listed in the Indian Constitution as Scheduled Tribes or STs, constitute about 8 percent of India’s population. These communities listed as Indigenous People in U.N. terminology, are branded as Adivasi, Vanvasi and Janjati in India. Indian Constitution provides special provisions to facilitate their development and to bring them into the mainstream of society, using the principle of equity. The objective has been to fill the developmental gap caused by geographical isolation of the tribes in the forests and hills since historical times. Abundant references to Adivasis are found in Ramayan and Mahabharat. For instance, the epics narrate the exploitation of Eklavya, the life and times of Shabari, and Lord Rama becoming a forest dweller on exile from Ayodhya.

Tribal communities lived their lives in their small kingdoms, such as the Bhils, the Gonds and the Santhals, and in the North East, which are today known as seven sister states of India. Their lives were disturbed by expanding empires of the Mughals and later by the British. Martyrs like Birsa Munda and Tantya Bhil who fought the British were honoured by naming the respective jails in Ranchi and Khandwa after them.

Commercial exploitation of the forests by the British continued after independence by the forest departments. This disturbed the livelihood of tribal communities, forcing them into poverty and starvation. Traditionally, tribal people have collected food only as per their need from the forests and have never been producers of marketable surplus food.

Inspiring tribal customs

It is worth examining the other, finer nuances of the tribal society. No tribal woman is ever molested or raped by a tribal man. In a reverse custom, parents of the bride are paid a ‘bride price’! A tribal woman has the freedom to
divorce a man citing incompatibility, or even infertility, whereby a part of the bride price is returned, as decided by the traditional judicial Panchayat. Traditionally, cows are not milked since cow’s milk is meant for the calf. Thus we can see that tribal culture is in tune with nature.

The tribal people as Indian citizens, have equal voting rights. Legislative and statutory seats are reserved for them at all levels from village Gram Panchayat, all the way to Parliament. There is a provision for reservations in public employment and in educational institutions. As a result, attempts are often made by non-tribal communities to acquire ST status using the political bargaining techniques of vote-bank. Such attempts as frequently reported in the mass media in Maharashtra have included the claims of shepherds (Dhangars), fisherfolk (Koli), Halba Koshti (Weavers) and Gujjars in Rajasthan.

There is a Tribal Sub Plan to address the needs of tribal areas and communities for speedy development. The governance of tribal areas and tribal communities in the North- East and so-called ‘Mainland India’ are addressed differently in the Indian Constitution.

Taking examples from Maharashtra, almost 9 percent of the tribal people have been living in isolated and exclusive geographical areas in such districts as Pune, Nasik, Ahmednagar, Thane (recently on 15th August 2014, a new tribal-dominant 36th district of Palghar has been carved out), Raigarh, Nandurbar (carved out from Dhule district), Amravati, Yavatmal and Gadchiroli (carved out from Chandrapur). Nandurbar which has 75 percent tribal rural population continues to be the lowest ranked district in Maharashtra according to the Human Development Report of the government both in 2002 and 2013, inspite of the Tribal Sub Plan. Melghat area comprising Dharni and Chikhaldara taluks in Amravati district are frequently reported to be suffering from malnutrition and child deaths. Gadchiroli district in Naxal afflicted area, bordering Bastar in Chhattisgarh, and Jawhar and Mokhada tribal taluks in Thane (now Palghar), next to Mumbai megapolis, also suffer from acute malnutrition and water scarcity. Karjat taluk in Raigad district, again next to Mumbai, have tribal communities living in hamlets, surrounded by farm houses of affluent city owners. Tribal people are the most deprived people in Indian society.

The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi had incorporated the Adivasis as part of his 18 constructive programmes. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru had advocated five principles focusing on tribal development along the lines of their culture, single window administration, developing their skills and using the local human resources.

The movements for tribal amelioration

Many voluntary organisations in Maharashtra and Gujarat spearheaded spread of education among the tribals, prominent social workers among them being Thakkar Bappa, B.G. Kher (first Chief Minister of Bombay according to 1935 Act), Acharya Bhise, Dadasaheb Bidkar, Tarabai Vartak, Anutai Wagh and so on. The communist leader Smt. Godavari Parulekar spearheaded the revolt of Warli tribes along the western coast, against their landlords. Within tribal communities in Maharashtra, there are ethnic disparities in socio-economic levels. The Mahadeo Koli, Kokna, Raj Gonds, and Andh are closer to peasant communities such as Kunbi, while the Katkari are the most deprived and educationally backward. The government has identified Madia Gonds, Kolams and Katkari as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) with a view to focus on special facilities and schemes for their development.

Despite the Tribal Sub Plan administered by the Tribal Development Department with a budgetary provision of 9 percent of State budget commensurate with the 9 percent S.T. population in Maharashtra, the major problem of malnutrition and child mortality persists. To address these issues, a joint project was offered by the Government of Maharashtra to the two voluntary organisations – Maharashtra Association of Anthropological Sciences (MAAS), Pune and Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), Jamkhed, during 2005-2013, under the leadership of Dr.R.S. Arole, Mr. Padmabhushan, and Prof. R.K.Mutatkar, anthropologist, and the author of this article.

A case study: project on tribal malnutrition

We had the privilege of undertaking an experiment in practicing anthropology through our voluntary agency, MAAS, established in 1976, to conduct interventions in about 250 tribal villages in seven districts and nine tehsils of Maharashtra. It covered a population of about 1,70,000 tribal people. The intervention was wholly funded by the state government and primarily aimed, as per the government order, at bringing down malnutrition of tribal children in response to a suo motu injunction of Mumbai High Court.

Objectives of the project

  • To develop a sustainable model to reduce malnutrition and related neonatal, infant and under-five child mortality and morbidity among tribal children.
  • To identify the means to develop sustainable interventions for development in the field of health, education, livelihood, training and capacity building, community development, and to develop ways to maintain cultural tribal identity.
  • To develop leadership qualities among tribal men and women volunteers.
  • To work in partnership with government to understand and work towards bridging the gaps in implementation of government’s tribal development plan.

We launched a project entitled “Comprehensive and Sustainable Human Development of the Tribal People of Maharashtra”. Using the anthropological theory of holism and functionalism, our initial inputs were in the area of health. But as per the concept of functional integration of culture, we also provided inputs in education, in community organisation, such as empowering the Gram Panchayats and Mahila Mandals, intersectoral coordination, involving the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and health department functionaries. We also introduced puppetry to supplement traditional art forms to generate awareness. We aimed at raising the self-confidence and self-esteem of the tribal people. The programme was implemented by about 250 male and 250 female volunteers from the tribal villages and hamlets. They were paid Rs. 250 per month as an honorarium for the voluntary work. The traditional health care providers such as the Dai and the local healer were involved.

Some of the approaches included keeping a medicine box for common ailments with every volunteer, distribution of seeds for kitchen garden, distribution of clothing to new born to protect against respiratory infections and providing supplementary food fortified with Ayurvedic herbs to lactating women, and ready to eat, pre-cooked ‘Sattu’ powder to children under three years of age. Pregnant women were given a cooked meal once a day in the second and hird trimesters at the volunteer’s home.

There was a measurable impact on the birth weight of new borns, and reduction of malnutrition as per the Anganwadi scale. Due to ‘capacity building’ exercises conducted, these 500 volunteers are now empowered to undertake programmes of similar nature in their respective villages. They have also understood the cause effect relationship of weight and malnutrition, since the children were weighed every fortnight and charting of weight and other documentation was done by the volunteers. Dai huts were constructed in the villages as a sanitary place for institutional delivery by the Dai. Training in birthing practices was given to female volunteers as also to Dais to upscale their skills.

To put it briefly, anthropological approach has been practised to understand processes of human development and to address the needs of the people. It was found necessary to understand the functioning of the government system with regard to tribal development. This programme has also provided a model of Government-NGO Partnership by installing the joint monitoring system at the State and Block level.

As anthropologists, we have learnt the necessity to widen the definition of holism, going beyond the ethnography of a tribal community as if it were an isolate. We have to understand the interaction between the macro decisions and issues of micro level implementation. Vision development of volunteers motivated them to work for their own communities which enhanced their self-esteem and self-confidence, bestowing on some of them formal positions of authority and employment, such as becoming members of Gram Panchayats or anganwadi sevika.

The 500 male and female volunteers were presented in person at a media briefing which was also attended by a Tribal Cabinet Minister and the Tribal Commissioner of Maharashtra, at Nasik on 22 November 2012. Some of them articulated their experiences about the skills and empowerment they received from the programme. The tribal women who had not travelled beyond 20 kms, were very happy with this opportunity to travel and interact with tribals from other ethnic groups. The Government of Maharashtra has since sanctioned a Phase- II of this project extending over three years to utilise and upscale the knowledge of these volunteers. To conclude, I quote from the speech by the Hon‘ble President of India Pranab Mukherjee, at the inauguration of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Tribal Research and Training Institute (TRTI), Pune, on 28 December 2013: “At a time when the entire country is gripped by concerns about women’s safety and security as well as by moral challenges, a peek into the gender behaviour and relations in tribal communities hold significant lessons for the society at large. As much as we ought to learn from tribal people, we have a duty to empower plural tribal streams and contribute to that guiding spirit of our Constitution – “We the People of India”.


Prof. R.K. Mutatkar

The writer is Chairman, Confederation of Anthropology Associations in India. He established the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pune in 1963 and started Medical Anthropology in India in 1974. He was also Chairman, Curriculum Development Committee of Anthropology, UGC, 2002.