Tribal People in India: Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Areas and Tribal Self-Rule

Exclusion and Marginalization of Tribal People

Victims of Development

There are two principal colonial causes of tribal disaffection and their exploitation — the failure to recognize community propriety rights over land of tribal communities in the Indian Forests Act, 1927 that rendered them encroachers on their own land and the highly unjust and oppressive features of the 19th century Land Acquisition Act. All talk of their welfare is futile without amending these two laws.

In last few decades, tribal communities have to step forward and raise their voices against injustice being perpetrated on them; this voice of injustice only became louder since the mid nineties. The so-called economic reforms unleashed by the Union government have reduced them to the status of “targeted” people. The incompetent governments at the center never bothered to reach them since 1947 when Indian elites (Nehru dynasty) started ruling India. It speaks for the caliber of governance of this family (largely Nehru and his daughter Indira) that by late eighties the Indian government was at the verge of bankruptcy. Thus, in 1991 the Indian government pledged gold with international money lenders and got money at their terms. Thus, the economic policies began changing in favor of the rich in the name of liberalization, privatization, and globalization.

Soon the government started the process of handing over natural resources, mineral mines, and water bodies along with land to corporate houses for “development” of industries and other projects. Incidentally, nearly all resources and other raw materials needed by the industrial houses lie in the tribal areas of remote hills and forests. The tribals living in these areas started seeing visitors and gathered that the governments are selling their lands, which meant serious trouble – loss of livelihood, displacement from ancestral lands, total disruption of their community based cooperative living, forced into undignified labor for rich outsiders and possible migration into outside society which has only exploited them since as long as they remembered. The land record bureaucrats never stopped fooling them in favor of the rich and powerful and deprived them of the only mean of survival. Moneylenders always appeared ready to extend help in crisis only to put them in bigger trouble later on.

Their areas were officially “excluded” by the White rulers until 1947 and have been unofficially “neglected” by the new rulers since then. The only interest the colonial British had in “excluded” areas was the mineral and other resources. The same tradition was followed by the Indian rulers. Forest officials were the face of government before 1947; that continued later too. Whenever they resisted the British, it was to protect their land and livelihood; they are doing the same now.

Maoists Violence

It is here the Maoist (also called Naxal or left-wing-extremist) movement in India becomes relevant. The helplessness and naivety of tribal people, their near-total exclusion from Indian mainstream, and their exploitation and harassment by state bureaucracy provides an ideal ground for them to propagate their ideology of armed-struggle to throw out the Indian state. The tribal community find some sympathetic voices among the Maoists who have often taken up their issues against the powerful landlords or helped them take revenge by supporting them. Thus, some tribals join their cadre to settle scores and others find the ideology attractive. Those who don’t agree don’t speak out for fear of the barbaric modes of Maoists punishments. (Read Maoist Violence: Defeat the ideology, not People)

By designs of their nature based living styles, they preserve land, forest, and natural resources which are owned by the community, not individuals. Now, all that they preserved for ages is open to loot by “developed people” who will make money as long as raw materials last, play havoc with the ecology, destroy forests and finally walk away with the booty; leaving behind examples of their “civilized” lifestyle. All this would raise GDP of India and some city-dwellers will find employment for some time. And, what happens to the poor and helpless tribals who lived and preserved everything?

These so called “developmental” activities, which do not confer any direct benefit to the tribals, merely leave them landless or without means for survival. Monetary benefits do not really count when the lifestyle for generations is changed irreparably. Displacement from their traditional habitations and community and families shattered, they are left to toiling as unskilled labor to survive in some unfamiliar hostile societies. It leaves them under acute trauma and uncertainty.

Tribal People:  The Biggest Victims of “Development”

Tribals have paid 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. Also the forest, water and other sources abound in their habitat. The indigenous/ tribal peoples who constituted 8% of the total population of India at 1991 census make up 55% of the total displaced persons due to development projects up to 1990. According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MTA) nearly 85 lakh tribals were displaced until 1990 on account of mega developmental projects like dams, mining, industries and conservation of forests etc. Lakhs of tribals have been displaced since mid 1990 without proper rehabilitation. Yet, no proper study has been conducted in regard to displacement and rehabilitation of tribals.

“Article 46 of the constitution places an obligation upon States to promote the interests of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. It must be mentioned that displacement of tribals from their lands amounts to violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution as it deprives them of control and ownership of natural resources and land essential for their way of life.”

Read a detailed report on Tribal Displacement

What are Scheduled Tribes

Excluded People of Colinial India

In India the tribes have been designated as “Scheduled Tribes” under the Constitution. There is a procedure for including tribal groups in the Scheduled list. Communities are notified as Scheduled Tribes under Article 342 of the Constitution based on the characteristics such as – primitive traits, geographically isolated, distinct culture, and shyness of contact with community at large, and economically backward. When labeled “scheduled tribe” the community becomes entitled for some constitutional protections and developmental programs designed to end their marginalization and help assimilate into mainstream society. A similar protection is available to Hindu “low-caste” communities which have historically faced discrimination and exclusion at the hands of “upper-caste” people. They are labeled “Scheduled Caste.”

India is among few nations in the world with a sizeable tribal population in different parts of the country. There are 573 different tribal communities spread all over India. As per official data, only 258 tribal communities speaking about 106 different languages are notified as “Scheduled Tribes”. About 80 percent of tribal populations are to be found along the Central India belt and the rest 20 percent are in the North‐Eastern States, Southern States and Island groups. The numerically strong Scheduled tribe groups include Santhals, Gonds, Bhil, and Oraon. Smaller tribal groups are to be found in A&N Islands (Andamanese, Onges) and Kerala‐Tamil Nadu (Paniyans and Kattunaickens). 75 tirbal groups have been categorized as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) (Earlier known as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG)) for special development assistance.

According to 2001 Census, the population of Scheduled Tribes in the country was 8.4 crore, constituting about 8.2 percent of the total population. The sex ratio of the Scheduled Tribe population was 978 females per thousand males; better than the national average and those of the Scheduled Castes.

Constitutional Protections to the Scheduled Tribes

Tribal people are simple, honest and naïve by any yardstick of modern society. Besides, they have traditionally lived in close contact with nature, in the hills and forests. In this sense they are different from rest of the mainstream people; they have historically tried to avoid contact with “outsiders” to preserve their traditional community based living in which they feel more secure.

Thus, with the dawn of independence and adoption of the Constitution of free India, the British policy of exclusion and isolation was replaced by the policies of integration and development. The Constitution of India provided several types of safeguards to the tribal communities. There are the Protective Provisions to protect them from all forms of social injustice and exploitation, the Developmental Provisions promote education and developmental activities, the Reservation Provisions ensure their representation in legislative bodies and government jobs, and the Administrative Provisions under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules provide for special administrative setup to provide autonomy of self governance according to their customary traditions.

Scheduled Areas

The tribal people live in contiguous areas unlike other communities. So, an area approach was adopted for administrative and developmental purposes. Under the Constitution “Scheduled Areas” are declared by the President after consultation with the State Governors. These Areas have been designated to protect the interests of Scheduled Tribes regarding their land and other social issues and are governed through provisions of either Fifth or Sixth Schedule. The Scheduled Areas of the North East are covered under the Sixth Schedule provisions; all other Scheduled Areas are covered by the Fifth Schedule laws. The administrative structure is different in the two Schedules.

It must also be noted that there are other areas (Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Goa, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Andaman, Nicobar Islands, etc) with sizeable tribal population in the country that are covered neither by the Fifth nor by the Sixth Schedules. Tribal living in the non-scheduled areas are more vulnerable in terms of losing their land ownership, control over the forest and natural resources. The process of scheduling was started in the fifties and resumed in the seventies, but remained incomplete largely due to lack of political will.

State Governors have a special constitutional protective role in all Scheduled Areas. They are empowered to make regulations prohibiting or restricting transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals and prevent exploitation the tribal communities. Since these Scheduled Areas are supposed to enjoy autonomy protected by the Constitution, the laws passed by parliament and the State legislatures do not automatically apply to them. Hence, the Constitution defines Governors’ powers to adapt laws to these areas.

Administrative Structure 

Sixth Schedule Areas

The Sixth Schedule provides for administration of certain tribal areas as autonomous entities. The administration of an autonomous district is to be vested in a District Council and of an autonomous region, in a Regional Council. These Councils are endowed with legislative, judicial, executive and financial powers. As a result, they work almost like “mini Parliaments.” They have complete freedom to preserve local bodies and allow them to function according to customary laws. Most Council consists of up to 30 members including few nominated members. (The newest Bodoland Territorial Council is an exception; it can have up to 46 members). These constitutionally mandated Councils oversee the traditional bodies of the local tribes such as the Syiemships and Dorbars of the Khasi hills of Meghalaya.

There is a significant degree of variation in the functions devolved to various Autonomous Councils.  For instance, the Bodoland Territorial Council has more power compared to the NC Hills Autonomous District Council though the latter has been in existence for decades before the former. This resulted in other areas also demanding further powers and greater autonomy.

At present, the 6th Scheduled Areas exist only in four North‐Eastern States: 1) Assam, 2) Meghalaya, 3) Mizoram, and 4) Tripura. These Areas are administered through Autonomous Districts / Regional Councils. Except Meghalaya, other three states have only certain selected areas covered under the 6th Schedule. The Sixth Schedule areas underwent a drastic reorganization in 1971-72 which largely resulted in the present status.

Fifth Schedule Areas

A distinguishing feature is the provision for Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) at the state level. Each State with Scheduled Areas should setup a TAC. It may also be established in any State having Scheduled Tribes population with no Scheduled Areas. A TAC consists of not more than twenty members, of which roughly three-fourth should be representatives of Scheduled Tribes in the Legislative Assembly of the State. TAC’s role is to advise the State Government on matters of welfare and development of the Scheduled Tribes in the State. In reality, however, the state governments either did not constitute TACs or if constituted, did not function properly. Therefore, in the seventies Indira Gandhi government introduced what is known as Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) in the planning process, earmarking a portion of funds for tribal development, but again the money seldom reached the tribals.

Unlike the Sixth Schedule areas, there are no institutional autonomous bodies in the Fifth Schedule areas. However, the PESA Act of 1996 has empowered the local village level Panchayats, particularly the Gram Sabhas in the Fifth Schedule tribal areas to act as local bodies of self-governance. But they lack the protective umbrella of a district level body (like the District Council of the Sixth Schedule areas); as a result, their decisions are routinely ignored or overruled by the state officials.

PESA – The Panchayat Act in the Fifth Schedule Areas

We Need a Voice

The Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (or simply the PESA Act, 1996) made it mandatory for the Fifth Schedule areas to make legislative provisions in order to give wide-ranging powers to the tribals on matters relating to decision-making and development of their communities. Politically, it gives radical governance power to the tribal communities and recognizes their traditional community rights over local natural resources. It not only accepts the validity of “customary law, social and religious practices, and traditional management practices of community resources”, but also directs the state governments not to make any law which interfere with these. Accepting a clear-cut role for the community, it gives wide-ranging powers to Gram Sabhas, at least on paper.

“The spirit of PESA is to strengthen the role of the tribal community by empowering Gram Sabhas so that the tribal community land is not taken away without the informed consent of the community.”

Probably the most progressive law for tribal people after Independence, the PESA Act empowers the Gram Sabha (the council of village adults) and the Gram Panchayat to take charge of village administration. It empowered them to protect community resources, control social sector functionaries, own minor forest produce, manage water bodies, give recommendations for mining lease, be consulted for land acquisition, enforce prohibition, identify beneficiaries for poverty alleviation and other government programs and have a decisive say in all development projects in the villages.

Status of Governance in the Scheduled Areas

Sixth Schedule Areas

Many changes have taken place since 1952 and the roles and functioning of these Councils have been studies and evaluated. There is an urgent need to review the performance of the ADCs under the Sixth Schedule in today’s context because situation is no longer the same as it was fifty years ago. There is a significant change in the demography.

Women and youth representation is another issue. Since the tribal traditions do not normally recognize role of women in social politics, the autonomous councils as well as local bodies in the Sixth Schedule areas are male dominated; women representatives are seen as exceptions rather than rule.

Most autonomous councils have neither nurtured the village level bodies nor institutionalized intermediary bodies covering groups of villages, but instead ended up keeping all power to them only. This concentration of power in the councils ultimately ends up in few officer bearers. This has negated the democratic voice to the ordinary poor tribals and the idea of grass-root democracy got distorted as dictatorship of few top council members. This has obviously made corruption and inefficiency widespread in the councils. Hence, the Sixth Schedule areas failed to move towards participatory or inclusive democracy.

The developmental role of the autonomous District Councils has remained badly constraints due to financial dependency on the state governments. Besides, state government departments have been functioning independently and taking up developmental activities. This has led to significant confusion, corruption and lack of accountability; thus, hurting the development of these areas.

Thus, the Sixth Schedule setup did protect land and local traditions of the tribes but could not institutionalize grass-root or participatory democracy and coupled with financial dependency and corruption the developmental activities have been badly hampered. Therefore, now there are talks of adopting the PRI system in some modified form in certain autonomous regions.

Fifth Schedule Areas

Lack of political will power to properly implement PESA provisions by almost all state governments has rendered it to the status of a paper-tiger. An inherent hurdle in the effective implementation of the PESA Act is the way it is handled at the Central level. Its implementation is vested in two different ministries of the Union Government – the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs – which virtually function in isolation.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle comes from the forest department officials who have historically derived power from the Indian Forest Act of 1927, which puts them in the twin roles of police and landlords. Thus, they are at pains to see the ownership of minor forest produce go into the hands of “encroachers”, as they have always seen the tribal community living “unauthorized” on the forest lands “owned” by the State.

Besides the PESA Act, forest czars are also pained by the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that expects them to hand back forest lands to the “encroaching tribal community” that were taken from them even in the distant past. It clearly is an assault on their traditional “landlord ship.”

PESA provisions have failed to provide any sense of security and relief to the tribal community living on the lands that abound in minerals and other precious raw materials eyed by the corporate sector. The provisions of the outdated colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 are invoked to take away tribals’ individual and community lands by state officials only to be handed over to private companies for mega projects ruining completely the traditional living style and culture of the tribal communities.

A former Chief Minister explained the mindful neglect of PESA: “Its implementation would put an end to mining projects.” Therefore, tribal communities will have to bear the brunt of this blatant mining/industrialization process because its immense profitability skews the political and administrative agenda in favor of industry, and away from protective laws like PESA. Thus there is great financial incentive to ignore the PESA law, the Samata judgment, and ensure that they do not get in the way.

You may also like to read: Non Implementation of the PESA Act


The tribal people have paid and are still paying the biggest price for development in India. They are subsidizing the cost of development through sacrifice of their land, traditions and cultures so that the urban elites can enjoy comfortable lifestyle.

If you liked this page, you may also want to read The Sorry State of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and a detailed report on the Status of Governance in the Sixth Schedule Areas

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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17 Responses to Tribal People in India: Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Areas and Tribal Self-Rule

  1. Thank you for the information but just a little correction, in Administration of Schedule Areas TAC stands for Tribes Advisory council instead of Tribal Advisory Council as mentioned here.
    Congratulation for your wonderful work and Thanks again..:)

  2. dikshita mehta says:

    but what is the conclusion? is it good to develop the tribalism or not?

    • Goodpal says:

      What is tribalism in your opinion? Protecting greenery and land is tribalism? Living peaceful in intimate contact with the nature is tribalism? Do you think destroying forests and handing them over to industry is “development?” What makes you think that GDP growth alone is meaningful development?

    • Buggi says:

      Yes, we should keep develop tribalism, u still don’t understand the its importance. the medicines that u taking, the beauty products u r using daily, all these coming from these innocents tribal’s homes who are protecting them from years. u should thank them..

  3. Vishwajit Kowase says:

    Very insightful piece !!! But the only way the tribal could fight injustice is by education. So that their voice is heard loud and clear. Govt. must give special emphasis on tribes education seriously.

  4. Goodpal says:

    Thanks Vishwajit for sharing.

    What we call ‘education’ today which is given in schools will not help. They need specialized education cum counseling so that get familiar with modern ways of life. This is possible by combining govt programs with NGO efforts. Throwing money or creating policies have no real meanings in their context.

  5. Padmaja Srivastava says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. Why does the government not use barren tracts of land for development.Most of our country is become barren by cutting the forest.There is so much hinterland that can be used for industrialisation .Why should we cut the forests, dislocate the tribals and force them to work as daily wagers in road construction or building sites.They loose their identity and join the main stream and get completely disoriented and disillusioned.In my opinion we should let the tribals lead their own simple life and promote their ethnicity.Once it is lost then its difficult to retrieve it again.

  6. AS Hemrom says:

    Many thanks for posting information and isses related to the Adivasi world. Also thanks for the tireless efforts in researching and presenting which requires a painful task rarely braved out by Adivasi intellectuals.
    please send me your pubications through my email ID. I would be happy to have them as part of my resource materials.
    Bishop AS Hemrom

  7. Goodpal says:

    Thanks Herman. I am glad that you found my articles useful. I have special feelings for Tribal people and always wish them well. Do keep sharing your views.

  8. Jayanth says:

    Very nice

  9. Jayanth says:

    Not good information

  10. Gureswar Bhoi says:

    First of all ,as a tribal youth I would like to thank you for publishing useful article regarding tribal life .Really tribal people in this country are facing a number of problems. Nobody is there to pay attention on these issues.Government of this country is not seriously looking into the matters. Men like you are the hope of us .Please help us to express our concerns through this kind of articles.

  11. savera reddy says:

    thank you… it is really helpful.

  12. Bagul says:

    Tribalism is the ultimate way to live in peace. It is eco-friendly and have no side effects.

  13. Pingback: Blog – Tribal

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