Updated: January 18, 2011 12:02 IST

Focus on issues that affect the livelihood of tribes

Vinay Kumar Srivastava
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Dedicated to the memory of Satish Saberwal, anthropologist, this book has two objectives. The first is to understand the sustainable subsistence systems in two villages of eastern Gujarat, inhabited by people known as ‘Rathwa', ‘Naikda', and ‘Dhanak'. The second is to discuss, in the light of this study, the issues affecting the survival of tribes in general.

The history of tribespersons, classified into about 650 communities and comprising 8.2 per cent of India's population, is a veritable saga of marginalisation and depression into the strata of landless agricultural workers and urban proletariat. Much of their impoverishment can be checked if the alienation of their land — whether by non-tribal land-grabbers or in the name of state-sponsored development projects — is put an end to.

The book argues convincingly that “modest land allocations” should be made to tribal households so that they could eke out their livelihood by adopting their time-tested traditional methods of cultivation. As Verrier Elwin said, the tribes should be left alone rather than the government imposing on them development schemes that bear no relevance to or are out of sync with the ground reality. Tribes should progress, Jawaharlal Nehru said, according to their own genius. Today these ideas constitute the design of endogenous, holistic, and culturally rooted development, which is sustainable and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, the protagonists of planned and directed change (the ‘development-walas', as the author calls them) are neither sympathetic to the concerns of the people nor do they have a sound knowledge of the diverse ways of life in rural and tribal contexts. The assumption is that their knowledge is superior to that of the local populace. So, when an externally crafted innovation meets with a lukewarm response, the urban-bred planners tend to see it as a consequence of the target group's “inherent backwardness,” because of which it fails to appreciate the benefits that would flow from the initiative. Therefore, for them, educating the ‘passive' villagers becomes the primary duty.

In most cases, the external experts decide what is good for the people instead of working through their cultures and visions of life. Since habitats and cultures vary from one society to another, development models have necessarily to be different. The book endeavours to dispel the notion that the same model can be uniformly applied across different societies. What we need is micro-level planning, which takes due note of the ground reality with all its socio-cultural nuances.


Many fallacies about tribal people are making the rounds. One is that they adopt a certain type of farming practice, called ‘shifting (or slash-and-burn) cultivation', which is considered regressive because it entailed massive destruction of forests. The colonial rulers thought the ‘wild men' indulging in this practice need to be goaded to take the route to civilisation by training them, even if forcibly, in plough cultivation. The British administrators strictly prohibited ‘shifting cultivation'. The forest, which was the very soul of life for the communities living therein, became a public property, subject to state control. The result is that, over time, the people's hold over, and access to, their lifeline resources got substantially reduced, thanks to an array of forest-related enactments and government policies. ‘Masters' became ‘serfs' and the forests, a commercial property.

This work demolishes the myth that ‘shifting cultivation' is “essential to being tribal.” Just 25 per cent of tribespersons practice it and a majority of them are settled agriculturists. In many cases, both the methods of cultivation go together. And, productivity from a slash-and-burnt field is not lower. From the myth about ‘shifting cultivation' emerged several notions about tribes — for instance, they are unfit to wield the plough; they cannot keep the livestock; they are ‘primitive'; and they do not store or save, or produce a surplus. These erroneous conceptions have persisted over generations of scholars.

The book argues persuasively that people, tribal or non-tribal, go by the quality and nature of the habitat in choosing the method of cultivation and they are equally concerned about regenerating natural resources.

Historically evolved

In a chapter that provides a sensitive account of the institutions and practices of the people, the author rebuts several typecasts and shows that tribes have historically evolved ‘safety nets'. Kinship and marriage ties are among them. Neighbours join hands and form informal groups to help a person in carrying out a task, and the recipient reciprocates by pitching in with his effort on a different occasion. This makes for solidarity among the people. This, however, does not mean that the world of tribes is closed. They do interact with the market, but do not acquire from there objects they need for their living. Their economy is not oriented towards ‘producing for the market', and this gives the tribespersons autonomy and robustness. The book is aptly titled and, refreshingly, it not only acknowledges its key respondent profusely but also carries his photograph.

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