The United Nations observes International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9,  every year to promote the rights of the world’s indigenous populations.

In India the indigenous people are called ‘Adivasis’ or ‘tribal’ people and comprise nearly 8% (8 million) of our billion population. This makes India, the country with the largest indigenous population in the world. The Indian constitution categorizes the tribal people as ‘Scheduled Tribes’. India is home to nearly 645 distinct tribes. Government of India has tasked the Ministry of Tribal Affairs with looking after the affairs of the tribal communities. The map below depicts the tribal population across various states and union territories in India. Number in parentheses denotes the percentage of the overall population.

Tribal population in states and union territories. Image source:http://tribal.nic.in

For generations, tribal people have lived in pristine locations, with abundant natural resources: forests, minerals, water, and plants, and animals. Their communities are ideal examples of sustainable practices. Living in harmony with nature, they are scientists and custodians of unique knowledge about the land, the plants, and the animals. They have diverse cultures, occupations, social structures, rituals, languages, religions, and art forms. What binds them is their aspiration to maintain their identity.

The Government has formulated and implemented many developmental schemes to assist the tribal communities. But, since most of these schemes lack a careful analysis of the tribal communities’ perspective, their intended impact has been drastically reduced.

In India, where 25% of the population lives below the poverty line, among indigenous people the figure shoots up to 45%. Source:  Carolyn Stephens, ‘Indigenous health 4, Disappearing, displaced and undervalued’, The Lancet, 17 June 2006.

Today, the millions of tribal people in India are united by their survival predicament. They are threatened by various manifestations of globalization. Their natural resources are endangered by mining, irrigation projects, and deforestation. With the Government and the corporate sector in India engrossed in counting their foreign direct investment coffers, it is apparent the tribal people are paying a hefty price for India’s ‘development’.

Without immediate positive action aimed at improving their lives and livelihood, the tribal communities may become extinct. And they would take with them, their rich culture, knowledge, and a hope of preserving the world in its natural state.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples will be just another day in the lives of the millions of tribal people in India.  Our Government needs to adopt policies from a perspective that would allow the various tribal communities to lead productive lives in accordance with their needs.