Tribe in anthropology refers to human social group. In the Indian subcontinent, however, the word tribe refers to the aborigines or Adivasis living in forests or hilly areas. These people belong to around 698 communities and constitute about 8.6% of India’s population (84 million) and reside in 15% of the country’s area according to 2011 census. Around 75 of these groups are called primitive tribal groups due to pre-agricultural level of knowledge, extreme backwardness and a dwindling population. Indian tribals primarily reside in various ecological and geo-climatic conditions ranging from plains, forests, hills and inaccessible areas, scattered throughout India.
Contribution of tribal community to Indian culture –
The early Buddhist Sanghas were modelled on the tribal pattern of social interaction that stressed on gender equality and respect for all members. Members of the Sanghas sought to emulate their egalitarian outlook and democratic functioning. Adivasi society was built on a foundation of equality with respect for all life forms including plants and trees. There was a deep recognition of mutual dependence in nature and human society. The widespread
Indian practice of fasting also has Adivasi origins. Mahashweta Devi has shown that both Shiva and Kali have tribal origins as do Krishna and Ganesh. Ganesh owes its origin to a powerful tribe of elephant trainers whose incorporation into the Hindu society was
achieved through the deification of their elephant totem. According to a study on Brahmin lineages in Maharashtra, many Gotras such as Kashyapa arose from tribal totems such as Kachhapa (tortoise). India’s regional languages such as Oriya, Marathi and Bengali developed as a result of the fusion of tribal languages with Sanskrit or Pali and all the Indian languages have incorporated words from the vocabulary of Adivasi languages.
Adivasis who developed an intimate knowledge of various plants and their medicinal uses played an invaluable role in the development of Ayurvedic
medicines. In a recent study, the All India Coordinated Research Project credits Adivasi communities with the knowledge of 9000 plant species of which 7500 have uses in
human and veterinary health care. Adivasis also played an important role in the development of agricultural practises – such as rotational cropping. Adivasis of Orissa were instrumental in developing a variety of strains of rice. Adivasi musical instruments such as the bansuri (flute) and dhol (drum), folk-tales, dances and seasonal celebrations found their way into Indian traditions as did their art and metallurgical skills.
In India’s central belt, Adivasi communities rose to considerable prominence and developed their own ruling clans.
Tribal struggles during British-Raj –
The colonial administration ended the relative isolation of tribes and brought them fully within the ambit of colonialism. It recognized tribal chiefs as Zamindars and introduced a new system of land revenue and taxation of tribal products. It encouraged the influx of Christian missionaries into the tribal areas who started destroying their art, dances, weaving and their whole culture. Above all, it introduced a large number of outsiders like money lenders and traders as middlemen among tribals who took possession of tribal lands and ensnared the tribals in a web of debt and expanded the system of beggar- unpaid labour. Colonial government discouraged Jhum cultivation and usurped the forest lands. These led to numerous wars between tribals and British though the warfare was highly unequal. On one side were drilled regiments armed with the latest weapons and on the other were men and women fighting in roving bands with primitive weapons such as stones, axes, spears and bows and arrows, believing in the magical powers of their commanders. The tribals died in lakhs. Among the numerous revolts, the most massive ones were Santhal rebellion, Kol rebellion and ulgulan of Munda tribes under Birsa Munda.
Tribal struggles in independent India –
The task of integrating the tribals into the mainstream was extremely complex, given the varied conditions under which they lived in different parts of the country, and their different languages and distinct cultures. The makers of constitution added Article 46 that the state should promote with special care the educational and economic interests of tribal people and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation through special legislation. Tribal Advisory Counsils and Commissioners for Scheduled Tribes were appointed by the President to safeguard the tribals.
As the first Prime Minister of India, Nehru pursued a policy of rapid industrialisation and national development, largely equated with economic growth and surplus. He once said that dams are the temples of modern India and claimed that big dams would address India’s hunger and poverty. However, such development agenda also created much pain and suffering for the owners/users of land sacrificed in the public interest, mostly the Adivasis. Nehru’s well-sounding development concept of Panchsheel, the ‘Five Pillars of Tribal Development’, did not work for the Adivasis and largely ruined their own efforts to secure sustainable development. A total of 1.64 crore people have been displaced by the construction of dams during 1951-1990.
Tribal areas produce most of the country’s coal, mica, bauxite and other minerals. Due to rapid industrialization in tribal areas, 13.3 lakh tribals have been displaced due to mining operations.
Struggles of Tribals in present day Bharat-
In many parts of India tribal population suffers from chronic infections and life threatening water borne diseases. The most common diseases seen among tribals are respiratory tract infections and diarrheal disorders. 21% of children suffer at least two bouts of diarrhea every year and 22% suffer from at least two attacks of respiratory infections. Tribals account for 25% of all malaria cases occurring in India and 15% of all falciparum cases. Intestinal helminthiasis is widely prevalent among tribal children (up to 50% in Orissa and 75% in MP). Skin infections such as tinea and scabies are seen among tribals due to poor personal hygiene. Sexually transmitted diseases are relatively more common (7.2% prevalence of syphilis among Kolli hills tribals of Tamil Nadu). The prevalence of tuberculosis is high, especially in Orissa.</h5
The Himalayan tribes suffer from goiter due to lack of iodine. Malnutrition is common and has affected the general health of the tribal children as it lowers the ability to resist infection, leads to chronic illness and sometimes leads to brain impairment. The ecological imbalance like cutting of trees have increased the distances between villages and the forest areas thus forcing tribal women to walk longer distances in search of forest produce and firewood. According to the NFHS-3 survey, 47% of tribal women are having chronic energy deficiency (CED) compared to 35% among the general population. The prevalence of tobacco use is 44.9% among tribal men and 24% among tribal women.
Educationally the tribal population is at different levels of development but overall the formal education has made very little impact on tribal groups. Superstitions and myths play an important role in rejecting education.
Concept of Private Property –
The advent of the concept of private property in land has also adversely affected tribals whose community-based forms of collective ownership were placed at a disadvantage in the new system. Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest’s Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 popularly known as Forest Rights Act, 2006 tried to restore this status quo and ownership of the tribals but its implementation is not up to the mark.
Cultural Problems –
Due to contact with other cultures, the tribal culture is undergoing a revolutionary change. Due to influence of Christian missionaries the problem of bilingualism has developed which led to indifference towards tribal language. The tribal people are imitating western culture in different aspects of their social life and leaving their own culture. It has led to degeneration of tribal life and tribal arts such as dance, music and different types of craft.
Traditional knowledge –
Traditional knowledge is not so-called because of its antiquity. It is a living body of knowledge that is developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity. As such, it is not easily protected by the current intellectual property system, which typically grants protection for a limited period to inventions and original works by named individuals or companies. Its living nature also means that “traditional” knowledge is not easy to define.
Administrative Problems –
In spite of constitutional safeguards and the efforts of the central and state governments, the progress and welfare of Adivasis has been slow and dismal. The problem lies in weak execution and divergent policies of state and central governments.Quite often fund allocated for tribal welfare are not spent or are spent without corresponding results or are even misappropriated. Tribal Advisory Councils have become inefficient.
Way forward –
Although in tribal areas the government has provided for the establishment of primary health centers for every 20,000 population and sub-centers for every 3000 population, health care is not available to the majority of the tribals. It is suggested that the population covered by the primary health centers and the sub-centers should be slashed down to 5000 and 1000, respectively, from the present norms of 20,000 and 3000. This is imperative given the difficult terrain and environment of the tribal topography.
Schooling and education have to be developed fully utilizing the help of anthropologists and non-governmental organizations to inculcate the habit of universal education at the primary, middle, and higher secondary levels. The areas that need to be addressed are the inadequacy of the school buildings, both in number and in facilities, the lack of education in the mother language or dialect in primary classes, ignorance of non-tribals teachers about tribal languages and ethos, and the delay in the distribution of scholarships, textbooks, and uniforms.
Forceful conversion of Tribals by missionaries should be checked. Public Distribution of food grains should be made corruption proof.