Short Essay on the economic system of Indian tribes

Tribals all over the country are at various stages of development. There are food gatherers, pastorals and agriculturalists. The Bhotias, a tribal group of Himalayan foothills, practice animal husbandry. Dur­ing the winter season, they climb down to the plains and return when the winter is over.

They continue to deal in spices. The women make money by weaving woolen shawls. The Todas of Nilgiri hills place great emphasis on the buffalo. One, who owns a large herd of buffa­loes, wields a lot of status and power. Besides keeping buffaloes, wherever possible, they practise agriculture also.

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The practice of shifting cultivation is now banned all over the country. It was known by different names. At some places it is called jhoom agriculture; the Mairyays call it penda it is called pondu among Khands and Baigas call it be war.

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Verrier Elwin calls it axe cultivation. The forest trees are put to axe, and when the fallen trees dry, the tribals set it ablaze. The seed is broadcast, and yields are quite good.

It is reported that till 1867 the tribals of Madhya Pradesh practiced axe cultivation without any hindrance. But soon after independence the practice was put to an end. However, it is reported that even today among some tribals of the north-east, shifting cultivation is practiced.

It seems that the tribals today have not reached any uniform stage of development. Despite variations in the stages of development, the fact remains that the subsistence economy of tribals has now been di­versified. They have reservation in governing services. A part of them have taken up a variety of jobs.


They are increasingly migrating to the nearby industrial towns and cities. Ranchi has drawn a substantial number of tribals from different parts of Bihar to work in its indus­tries. Tribals here are industry-oriented. The tribals from the neighbourhood of metropolitan cities like Calcutta and Mumbai have also come for jobs.

A general trend in the tribal migration is that they flock to cities. They create slums. Smaller cities like Indore, Ahmadabad, Bhopal and Patna have now become centers of tribal habitations.

K.S. Singh, in People of India (POI), has taken stock of the Sched­uled Tribes in the country as a whole. According to him, “the tribes are mainly a landholding community.

However, the incidence of landlessness is encountered among them, and almost the entire tribal economy is in the vortex of market forces. Whether it is the Nicobarese or the Cholanaickens or the Birhors, all are dependent on the market and the middlemen.”


Singh also makes certain broad generalizations about the change coming up in the tribal economy. He says that there is a marked change in the occupational patterns of the tribals.

They have taken to new occupations. The findings of POI are also supported by the 1981 census, according to which, more than 87 per cent of the tribal work­ers are engaged in the primary sector of the economy and of which a majority are cultivators (54.43 per cent), followed by agricultural la­bourers (32.67 per cent). Of the remaining workers only 2.73 per cent are engaged in livestock, forestry, fishing, hunting, etc.

In a nutshell, the POI project gives its findings as below:

An interesting finding of our study has been the shift among the tribal communities from the traditional to the new occupations. For instance, the number of communities practicing hunting and gather­ing has declined nearly 24.8 per cent as forests have disappeared and wildlife has diminished.

Ecological degradation has severely curtailed the related traditional occupations of the tribal communities. For ex­ample, the trapping of birds and animals has declined by 36.84 per cent, pastoral activities by 12.5 per cent and shifting cultivation by 18.14 per cent.

The data given above very clearly indicate that there is a conspicu­ous fall in the tribal traditional occupations. Mostly, it is due to ecological degradation. But, the POI further reveals that the tribals have taken up certain new occupations like horticulture, terrace culti­vation and settled cultivation, which are unconventional for them, but are also allied with their traditional occupations.

The POI reports that “there is a sharp rise in the number of tribals employed in government and private services, self-employment, etc. Many of the traditional crafts have disappeared and spinning, in particular, has suffered.

Re­lated activities such as weaving, dyeing and printing have similarly suffered. Stone carving has declined. But, the number of tribals em­ployed in mining and masonry has gone up steeply which suggests a new mobility.”


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