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Status of Indigenous people in India: An Analysis

Published: 20th Dec, 2018

  • Recently, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has said that projects seeking to divert forest lands do not need to comply with forest rights act (FRA) for initial clearance.
  • The decision has side-lined the concerns of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and raises concerns that FRA provisions will be diluted.



  • Recently, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has said that projects seeking to divert forest lands do not need to comply with forest rights act (FRA) for initial clearance.
  • The decision has side-lined the concerns of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and raises concerns that FRA provisions will be diluted.


  • The recent decision of the Environment Ministry was regarding several coal mining projects of Western Coalfields Ltd (WCL) “being stalled at various levels” of the state’s forest department. WCL, a subsidiary of the Union Ministry of Coal, sought to divert forest land under for the projects.
  • The decision also clarifies that compliance with the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) is not required for initial stage of forest conservation (FC) approval.
  • The FC process, according to the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980, is carried out in two stages—Stage I, the in-principle approval, and Stage II, the final approval. The rules amended in 2016 made FRA-compliance a prerequisite for diverting forest land. But the stage in which it is to be done has become a bone of contention.
  • The decision has also brought the limelight to the plight of indigenous people in India and the struggle they face to protect their rights.


Who are Indigenous people?

  • Indigenous people, also known as aboriginal peoples or native peoples are ethnic groups who are the original settlers of a given region; they maintain traditions or other aspects of an early culture that is associated with a given region.
  • They may be settled in a given region or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but they are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.


    • Adivasi is the collective term for the indigenous peoples of mainland South Asia. According to the 2011 census, Adivasi make up 6% of India's population, and a large percentage of the Nepalese population.
    • Adivasi societies are particularly prominent in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, and some north-eastern states, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.


Indigenous people in India: An overview

  • India is home to the largest population of indigenous peoples of any country in the world. The country is home to about 700 tribal groups with a population of 104 million, as per 2011 census. These are scattered across India, their numbers a staggering diversity of ethnicities, cultures and socio-economic situations.
  • They range from some of the last un-contacted indigenous communities in the world, like the Sentinelese of the Andamans, to some of the largest, such as the Gonds and Santhals of central India.
  • The largest concentrations of indigenous people are found in the seven north-eastern states of India, and in the "central tribal belt" that stretches from Rajasthan to West Bengal.
  • They include not only communities who live under conditions of extreme destitution, but also communities with social indicators well above the national average.
  • But across circumstances and areas, like other indigenous communities around the world, India’s indigenous peoples do share one characteristic – social, political and economic marginalisation.
  • In recognition of this fact and reflecting more than a century and a half of continuous struggles by indigenous people, India has many laws, policies and Constitutional provisions aimed at protecting the rights of such communities.

Challenges for Indigenous groups in India

  • Problem of Geographic Separation: The tribals of India are geographically separated from the rest of the population. Some of them are living in the unapproachable physical areas such as deep valleys, dense forests, hills, mountains, etc. It is difficult for them to establish relations with others, and hence, socially they are far away from the civilized world.
  • Cultural Problems: The tribal culture is entirely different from the way of life of the civilized people. The tribals are sensitive of their customs and traditions and remain suspicious towards the civilized people. The cultural gap between the civilized and the tribal people is coming in the way of the assimilation and integration of the tribal people into the mainstream of the national life of India.
  • Social Problems: Tribals are traditional and custom-bound and have become the victims of superstitious beliefs, meaningless practices and harmful habits. Child marriage, infanticide, homicide, black magic and other harmful practices are still found among them. They believe in ghosts and spirits and have keen desire to maintain all these practices.
  • Economic Problem: The tribal people are economically the poorest people of India. Majority of them live below the poverty line. The tribal economy is based on agriculture of the crudest type.
    • Exploitation: The innocence, illiteracy and helplessness of the tribals are exploited by the outsiders. The British policy, in particular, had led to ruthless exploitation of the tribals in various ways as it favoured the zamindars, landlords, money-lenders and police officials.
    • Unprofitable Agriculture: About 90% of the tribals are engaged in cultivation and most of them are landless and practice shifting cultivation. They need to be helped in adopting new methods of cultivation.
    • Unemployment and Underemployment: A large number of tribal young men and women are either unemployed or underemployed. They need to be helped in finding secondary source of income by developing animal husbandry, poultry farming, handicrafts, handloom weaving, etc.
    • Non-Availability of Banking Facilities: Banking facilities in the tribal areas are so inadequate that the tribal shave to depend on the money-lenders who exploit them.
  • Educational Problems: More than 80% of them are illiterate. Since most of the tribals are poor, education appears to be a luxury or can be said “not in reach” for them. The illiterate parents do not consider it as their primary responsibility to give education to their children.
  • Health and Sanitation: Due to illiteracy and ignorance, the tribals are not able to appreciate modern concept of health and sanitation. They believe that diseases are caused by hostile spirits and ghosts. Good number of them fall a prey to the diseases such as skin disease, forest fever, typhoid, T.B., malaria, etc.

Other Challenges

  • According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2016 report, crimes against tribals in India shows a substantial decrease. However, the reported cases do not include cases of human rights violations by the security forces against indigenous people. In areas affected by armed conflicts, indigenous peoples are caught between armed opposition groups and security forces.
  • Right to the land of indigenous peoples: There are many laws that prohibit the sale or transfer of tribal lands to non-Indians. However, these laws are still ineffective. A large number of tribes that lived in the forests are denied their rights and the tribes continue to live under the threat of an eviction in the name of forest and animal conservation.
  • The situation of tribal women and girls in India remains very worrying, as they are deprived of many rights. Sexual violence, trafficking, killing, and the impact of development-induced displacement, etc. remain important issues.

Way Forward

  • There is a need to take up massive awareness creation activities among the tribal to make them realise their development potential.
  • Area based approach should be adopted to create infrastructure and road connectivity.
  • Effective monitoring of the funds meant for various tribal development activities is necessary.
  • Comprehensive skill development programs customised to the local tribal markets and local consumers have assured future for the tribal youth. The entrepreneurship programmes has to be designed in such a way to adapt for the primitive skills of the tribals.
  • Informal education through village institutions and Self Help Groups need to be intensified in the tribal areas by focused approach.
  • Every district has to have a tribal resource information centre where the tribal youths can get the required information on the career and livelihood opportunities in a single window.
  • The direct benefit transfer in the tribal areas is still an incomplete exercise due to incomplete mobile connectivity; it has to be strengthened with the help of ‘universal service obligation’ funds. The institutional finance to tribals needs to be implemented scrupulously.
  • The low performance of health indicators in the tribal areas is due to remoteness and distance from health institutions. The health facilities and health services in tribal belts have to be provided based on the area based approach instead of population based approach.
  • The land and community rights of tribals have to be upgraded to next level to link it to the institutional finance and income generation activities.
  • Exploitation of tribals by the non tribals and foreigners has to be checked The statutory provisions and legislations meant for the protection of tribal and safeguard the tribal life and livelihood has to be implemented in letter and spirit.


  • The true spirit of development of tribals lies in making them to realise their rights and ensuring that the rights are protected through institutional means.
  • There are ample numbers of state government and central government schemes under which the funds flow to the tribal welfare. But, still the basic facilities like health, education, accessibility and livelihood has remained the major challenge in the tribal areas.
  • Lack of exposure to mainstream society, superstitions, and inaccessibility has been a major hurdle to bring them to main stream. Creating enabling environment to realise their developmental potential is the way forward for the tribal development.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

Recently there have been several reports of exploitation of tribals. Discuss the status of tribals in India. Examine the challenges they face and suggest way forward.


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