March 5, 2022

Good morning. Every Saturday, we write about one specific right that you possess as a citizen in our country. In today’s edition of “Know Your Rights”, we look at the rights of Adivasis in India.


Rights of Adivasis

Under the broad category of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in India, Adivasis are among the most talked-about and oppressed. They are considered indigenous or have indigenous ancestry to places within India. ‘Adi’ means earliest times and ‘Vasi’ means inhabitant. It’s a term coined in the 1930s in the wake of a political movement among indigenous people to gain some sense of identity.   

They aren’t a homogeneous group. They consist of over 200 distinct people speaking more than 100 languages. Per the 2011 census, there are approximately 104.3 million Adivasis in India. 

It was in 1950 that some progress was made concerning their rights. Under the constitution, Adivasis were subject to special protective provisions. The first amendment to the constitution passed in 1951 allowed the state to grant special provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes.

Land rights

For Adivasis, land has been more than just an economic concern, it has been a social justice one. It has historical precedence in rebellions and struggles across central India. The reasons why land rights are considered vital for Adivasis are two-fold; demands for recognition as a unique identity and redistribution of resources. What currently stands is the Land Transfer Regulation, which prohibits the transfer of any type of land to anyone but an Adivasi person. It includes forest land owned by the government.

For Adivasis, the fight for their land has even reached the Supreme Court. In 2019, the court ruled on a petition from various wildlife conservations groups wanting the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) invalid. The Act gives forest-dwelling people the right to their ancestral lands, even in protected areas within wildlife parks and sanctuaries. The court ordered the eviction of more than 1 lakh forest-dwelling households across 16 states.

However, the effectiveness of the Act has come under criticism. Not many people have been able to access the rights it has promised, as Sujeet Kumar from the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU, wrote. A 2018 report by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MTA) showed most states were slow in recognising and settling the rights under the FRA. As Kumar states, Himachal Pradesh is one example with only 136 settlements with more than 2,200 claims.

Another criticism of the law is that it isn’t flexible enough. It’s tied to settling claims as well. The prerogative on claiming a forest or land area lies with the tribal head. However, the government usually issues deadlines for completing this process. They ignore the rights of the gram sabha to decide on this, as PhD student Roshi Kutty wrote, criticising the Modi government’s interpretation of the FRA.

Right to self-govern

In 1992, India did something historic regarding fiscal federalism through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution. A three-tier local self-government was introduced. It recognised rural local self-government institutions and enabled decentralised governance through the Panchayat Raj. However, their powers and functions were left to state legislatures. 

Following a high-level committee under Dileep Singh Bhuria’s recommendation, the 73rd amendment was extended to include Scheduled Areas. The Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA) made it mandatory for states to give wide-ranging powers to tribals on decision making for their development. The gram sabhas were meant to be empowered. However, this became a myth, as Abhijit Mohanty, a development professional, wrote

The ground reality differs from the provisions of the PESA. Gram sabhas rarely have much autonomy, and the power they have been accorded is rarely recognised. They are convened at the panchayat level and not consulted on the planning and implementation of government schemes. Mohanty quoted development researcher and social activist Rahul Banerjee, who said macro policies have eroded the “traditional communitarian practices of Adivasis”. 

Right to education 

Post-independence, the constitution and subsequent policies emphasised education as a bridge for Adivasis to catch up with the rest of the country. However, the reality is a majority of Adivasi children either don’t attend school or leave at an early stage. Per the 2011 census, the literacy rate of STs is 59%. Given the sub-standard quality of education and infrastructure in many tribal areas, Adivasi students continue to experience exclusion in various segments of education. 

Education for Adivasis goes back to the 19th century when Christian missionaries shouldered the responsibility to educate them. Educational institutions like ‘tols’ and ‘patshalas’ cater to upper-caste Hindus and Madrasas to Muslims. There was no formal system of education for Adivasis. What’s left is for states to implement literacy initiatives for Adivasis. In Kerala, for example, the Attappadi Literacy Equivalency Programme has helped improve the literacy rate among Adivasis, with a majority of the beneficiaries being women.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, resulted in many private schools popping up across the country. For Adivasi students, these aren’t accessible. There are several other issues concerning the education of Adivasis. One of them is the medium of instruction. Many students may not know regional languages, let alone English. However, the National Education Policy has emphasised the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Another issue is more cultural. For many Adivasis, they face discrimination in schools and colleges. As PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, Richard Hemraj Toppo wrote, educational institutions must be sensitive to cultural differences to prevent positioning Adivasis as inferior.   

The onset of the pandemic exposed India’s digital divide as schools opted for online classes. For Adivasis, this was another hurdle in an already exclusionary education system. Many tribal areas don’t have electricity, let alone the tools necessary to attend online classes. Again, in Kerala, for example, the government recognised this and began conducting classes through the state-owned KITE Victers TV channel. However, for many Adivasi students, this wasn’t accessible either. They made their voices heard through protests.


Since independence, governments have spent a lot of money on affirmative action programmes for the protection and welfare of Adivasis. However, most of them work in the informal sector, farms, tea gardens, forest areas, mining, etc. They’re mainly an invisible workforce where labour rights seldom apply. Many of them move away from their homes for employment and become migrant workers.

The recent farm laws, for example, were seen as detrimental to Adivasis. They are intrinsically tied with the government’s failure to respect their rights under the FRA. The laws, according to activists, would’ve pushed Adivasis further into poverty as private entities would capitalise on the land and natural resources. As Madhuri Krishnaswamy of the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) stated, the laws would’ve been the final blow as Adivasis have been demanding fair mandis.     

Another important point concerning employment is protection, rather lack thereof. Many Adivasi workers aren’t paid a minimum living wage and are subject to exploitation and bonded labour. As Madhuri Xalxo, an advocate on anti-human trafficking issues wrote, tribals are often lured to work in labour-intensive units. She cited a UN report that showed “a clear link between forced labour and long-standing patterns of discrimination”.   

Long way to go still

The struggle of Adivasis has been long-standing and is likely to continue for some time. That struggle, in all its aspects, is tied to their history and identity in India. The systems in place in all sectors haven’t been of much benefit, even if the intended purpose was to help uplift Adivasis across India. Mainstream development programmes have only added to their woes as their lives are uprooted in the name of development. For all the talk of a green future, Adivasis can play a central role. As Bharati Chaturvedi of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group wrote, it would be to our detriment to ignore their invaluable wisdom, knowledge, and skills.