Scheduled Tribes are classified as a community of indigenous or tribal people by the Constitution who are also deemed as socially disadvantaged. Out of Scheduled Tribes, the tribal groups least affected by modern processes of development, i.e. Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) in India are characterized by being geographically isolated and relatively cut off from mainstream culture, and can exhibit backwardness in terms of socio-economic and educational parameters.
About 15 per cent of land area in India is occupied by tribal communities, with a wide variety of geographical landscapes, ranging from forest areas to arid regions, mountainous regions to plains and from islands and coastal areas to the interiors of landmasses. Out of more than 500 tribal groups in India which can exist at various stages of socio-economic and educational development, it is estimated that there are around 75 Primitive Tribal Groups in India who can have a level of technological ability of the pre-agricultural level, low literacy, economically backward, and a stagnant or declining population (NIC, undated). In looking at the vulnerabilities of Primitive Tribal Groups in India many parameters can be considered that may harm these groups. However, in looking at the possibilities for the extinction of some particularly threatened groups, the chief characteristic that can be considered is their extremely low and/or declining population.
Although Scheduled Tribes in India are protected legally by the Constitution of India, in the case of Primitive Tribal Groups in India, many a time these groups might reside in areas or have a lifestyle that might set them at a distance from the percolation of official policy. In many such instances in last mile delivery, especially in remote regions, agency is routed on the ground by actors such that the prerogative of established policy is often bypassed in favour of more immediate concerns. This places many Primitive Tribal Groups in India in the quandary that although there might be legal prerogatives to limit or validate their rights, much can become dependent on agency routed on the ground that places people with superior resources in an interaction with Primitive Tribal Groups in India.
For example, although government policy acts to protect the Jarawa tribes in the Andaman & Nicobar islands against encroachment from people from the mainstream, roads that pass through their territories often consist of tourists. The tourists passing through these territories can often purposefully and inadvertently interfere with their secluded status. Policy level protection is provided to tribes such as these because they are considered vulnerable or threatened by encroachment by mainstream communities in the form of the introduction of acute problems such as displacement, socio-economic deprivation, the introduction of diseases and alien invasive species, and so on. This can take such groups out of their previously pristine lives and introduce them to many degrading effects of mainstream civilization where they are usually placed at an acute disadvantage.
Anthropological knowledge of primitive tribal groups, other than humane reasons for preserving their way of life, should be preserved as part of human and national cultural heritage. Nothing conclusive can be said about the heritage of a location without also studying and preserving the culture of peoples occupying the place. Although many stipulations can be considered in terms of identifying a primitive tribal group, such as looking at their level of literacy, and technological and economic progress, one definite marker of identifying a vulnerable primitive tribal group can be their population. If a tribal group’s population slips to critical levels, they can be said to in acute danger of becoming extinct as a tribal group.
In the following we will identify 10 such Primitive Tribal Groups in India based on population data from the Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India, 2013 prepared by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. Their statistical data is based on data gathered from the Census 2011 which was the last Census survey that occurred in India. The 10 Primitive Tribal Groups in India mentioned here are listed as vulnerable in the aforementioned document and can be seen as examples of how these groups can be vulnerable and threatened and how less their proportion is compared to numerous other communities in India. Many members of some of these tribal communities may be educated and have a learned understanding of contemporary society, and thus might seek to reject the tag primitive when describing their community. Many communities might also be semi-assimilated in the sense that their tribe might be in the process of being assimilated into contemporary society.
Tribal Groups in India
The Sentinelese Tribe (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
Population – 15
Not much can be known about the Sentinelese, who live a completely isolated life in a small forested island called North Sentinel in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Sentinelese tribe behaves in a manner with an outsider that involves absolutely no contact and they take to violence at the mere sight of any outside contact. Contact with the Sentinelese tribe is so limited that it is not even known as to what the Sentinelese tribesmen call their tribe. An expedition in the late 19th Century led by M. V. Portman took some Sentinelese to Port Blair with the point of view of academic interest, but the tribesmen died of diseases soon after (Survival International, 2018). Most gifts left on the island by the outside world are disposed off by the islanders who attack any visitor from the outside world. The Sentinelese are known to be almost completely pristine and have absolutely no contact with the outside world.
The Great Andamanese Tribe (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
Population – 44
The Great Andamanese tribe once comprised the largest tribal group on the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, but their numbers have reduced in contemporary times to such an extent that for a long period they have been considered an endangered tribe in immediate threat of extinction. The Great Andamanese are among the oldest tribes in the world and along with the Sentinelese, the Jarawa and the Onge tribes of the Andaman are of a rare race called the Negrito, and are originally thought to have migrated from Africa. Originally numbering more than 10,000 in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, since the 19th Century, hundreds of tribesmen from the Great Andamanese have died as they defended their territories against the British. These deaths were accompanied with the spread of numerous diseases such as influenza, measles and so on due to the impacts of foreign contacts. Today very few of the Great Andamanese are left on the islands and they are marked as among the most critically endangered Primitive Tribal Groups in India and the world.
The Onge Tribe (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
Population – 101
The Onge tribe is one of four Negrito tribal groups of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and are a critically endangered tribe who have greatly suffered displacement due to foreign contact. Like the Great Andamanese, many Onge tribesmen lost their lives fighting British occupation of the islands and to diseases introduced due to foreign occupation. The British also acted to destroy ecological habitats for the Onge combined with the foreign extraction of forest resources. Since then many foreign settlers have been living in Little Andaman, where the Onge live. The habitats for the Onge have been greatly altered due to activities by foreign settlers such as decline in wildlife and deforestation. The Onge still depend on their foraging lifestyle for food (Survival International, 2018). The Onge population has greatly suffered due to foreign settlement.
The Jarawa Tribe (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
Population – 380
The Jarawa are facing one of the burdens of being a secluded Primitive Tribal Group in India in the sense that they have become tourist attractions in the modern age. Although secluded from outside contact, the Jarawa are less hostile than the Sentinelese but object to certain insinuations such as the clicking of photos by tourists. Although the Jarawa are primitive in lifestyle, they are not completely cut off from the outside world, and exclusive wards exist for the Jarawas at government run Primary Health Centres and hospitals wherein non-tribals are not allowed to visit. Conservation of the Jarawa tribe is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more development occurs in the Andamans alongside the Jarawas becoming a popular tourist attraction.
The Kamar Tribe (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh)
Population – 666
The Kamar tribe is witnessing a sharp drop in population from 20,565 in 1991 to 666 in the 2011 Census. A study by the Tribal Research Institute (TRI) in 1990 had estimated the trend in a fall in population to be due to malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and high infant mortality or the mortality of children from these communities (Singh, 1990). However, the fact that post 1990, the population of the Kamar tribe is still falling requires that redoubled efforts be made to identify the cause of the decline in the Kamar population, identified as a primitive tribal group.
The Kadar Tribe (Kerala)
Population – 2,949
The Kadar tribe is a small tribe residing in the hilly region near Cochin and live on the forests without practicing agriculture. Rather than completely subsist on foraging and other such methods of food gathering, they frequently obtain rice through trade or as wages. They obtain most of their needs such as cardamom and honey from the forests although many Kadar men work as labourers (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018).
The Kurumba Tribe (Kerala and Tamil Nadu)
Population – 9,409
The Kurumba Tribe chiefly resides in the Nilgiri Hills and were originally pastoralists. However, after the fall of the Pallava Dynasty in the 8th Century, the ancestors of the Kurumba dispersed and many took to hunting and gathering in the forests. In contemporary times, the Kurumba are facing acute poverty and many are working as labourers or as sellers of forest produce (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018).
The Birhor Tribe (Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh & Odisha)
Population – 11,751
The Birhor people usually are forest dwellers and live a nomadic life. Their name itself implies jungle people and have are short with a broad nose. They live a nomadic hunter-gatherer’s life and collect forest produce such as honey or sell ropes made from jungle vines in local markets. Their racial characteristics are proto Austroloid and they speak the Birhor language. Members of the nomadic Birhor tribe claim that they are descendents of the Sun.
The Bondo Tribe (Odisha)
Population – 12,231
Attractively dressed, the Bondo, or Bonda tribes living primarily in the highlands of Odisha inhabit a picturesque and ecologically diverse territory. Although outsiders call them Bonda, they call themselves Remo – the man, although in terms of attire, the women’s attire is more remarkable. The Bondo live on hill tops or high on hill slopes usually with good access to resources. Their villages can be small hamlets or large villages. Given their idyllic environment, with a largely mild climate in the hills, it is easy to assume an idyllic life for the Bondo. However, this is far from the case, and the Bondo have to toil hard for resources and subsistence living. However, the hardworking routine, especially for Bondo women, earns them respect in their society. The Bondo practise shifting cultivation and can sometimes be observed as engaging in settled cultivation (SCSTRTI, undated).
The Dongria Khond Tribe in Odisha (Odisha)
Population – 6,306 (in Odisha) + 103,290 (Andhra Pradesh)
The Dongria Khond tribe living in the Niyamgiri Hills range in the state of Odisha is included in the list as a special mention to provide a contemporary example of dislocation of a Primitive Tribal Group in India because of harmful developmental activity. Although the tribe exists in huge numbers in the neighbouring territory of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the Dongria Khond living in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha are particularly threatened by bauxite mining in their habitats.
The Niyamgiri Hills are deeply forested and have many streams running through them. The Dongria Kondh worship the mountain God Niyam Raja and are Dravidian in language. The Dongria Kondh tribe, distinguished by their attractive attire, especially in the case of women, live in villages scattered throughout the hills and farm these slopes and draw resources from the nearby forests and streams. However, the Niyamgiri Hills are rich in bauxite, and before receiving permission to mine, the mining company Vedanta built a refinery in Lanjigarh town and started work on a conveyor belt. The government approved the refinery on the condition that not forest would be used. However, Vedanta annexed 60 ha of lands that were originally village forests.
The refinery badly affected the Dongria Kondh village of Kinnari and displaced its people. Other than displacement, the refinery has also polluted the forests and streams in the hills and crop damage is reported. This led to widespread protests among the Dongria Kondh in the form of roadblocks, arson, forming human chains around what they called the Mountain of Law and so on (Survival International, 2018). The refinery represents an example of how extractive development projects can colonise and discriminate against Primitive Tribal Groups in India.
The worst aspect of the diminishing numbers of certain Primitive Tribal Groups in India is that development can be a continuous process wherein these groups are at a disadvantage while at the same time many of these groups might be obscured from public culture. Many a time, dislocations among these groups or a fall in population can occur without the general public taking notice of the facts. The plight of Primitive Tribal Groups in India must be made more noticeable in the public sphere and their rights discussed in an atmosphere of social justice. A potent atmosphere of debate should also exist in the public sphere over tribal peculiarism versus tribal assimilation. This debate must also take into account the interests and tendencies of Primitive Tribal Groups in India in terms of their inalienable rights over aspects of their life and livelihood. If we can act to protect heritage structures in India, we can also act to protect certain bearers of India’s rich heritage.