Adivasi Women: Issues of Forest, Land, and Livelihood

Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal

Adivasi constitutes 8.8 percent of the total population and 12 percent of the rural population. There are more than 705 Adivasi groups spread across the country, however, they are largely concentrated in the north-eastern parts of the country. Different nomenclature is being used for them and they are termed as indigenous, vanvaasi, aborigines, adam jaati, and many more to name a few.

In this light, Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC) at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI),  GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation and Delhi Post News organised a joint talk on “Adivasi women: Issues of Forest, Land and Livelihood” with Prof Indra MunshiRetired Professor, University of Mumbai where she raised concern on the exclusion of these communities from the mainstream population.

Prof Munshi highlighted 200 years old history of adivasis when forest department was set up and forest policy was introduced to bring transformation into the economics and organization. Many adivasis have lived in isolated places and practiced shifting cultivation in forests and collected other necessities of life like timber, firewood, grasses, small animals, vegetables, nuts, fruits, weeds, bamboo roots to survive.

Prof Munshi says, “by a slay of the legal hand the forest department transformed their rights into privileges and then into concessions”.

Adivasis women have suffered the most. Their responsibilities range from collecting everything from the forest for running their households and hence she calls the forest a women’s maternal household. Forests are spaces where they had outings to spend time in the open and enjoying themselves.  The rapid commercialization of forest, as well as land during the colonial period, gave birth to new regimes in the form of money lenders, landlords, shopkeepers, and government officials.

Many adivasi communities said that the women were treated as property by the dominant groups. She argued that gender inequality did exist in most adivasi communities in spheres of rituals, decision making and hunting, but women enjoyed relative equality freedom in major areas of their life as compared to their non-adivasi counterparts. This freedom was seen in their body language as well, but this certainly changed with the dispossession and their incorporation into the colonial sort of capitalism and hence they became subjected to the worst forms of patriarchy.

Forced migration and displacement and the more aggressive spread of Hindutva in adivasi areas have taken the community and especially the freedom of the women away and are forced to become good modest Hindu women. Overall, the neoliberal economic policy and rapid privatization have opened these rich natural areas to corporates for industry work. Capitalism is depleting the natural resources for construction and mining work. And, according to David Harvey, “These are the two aggressive activities of capitalism”.

The costs of capitalism include environmental cost and human cost. Human cost includes the migration of entire families or seasonal migration of men and women to cities. The jobs in cities include work on construction sites especially in brick kill kilns in swan manufacturing areas where they are paid less than men and they live in makeshift shelters. These shelters are characterized with not only no availability of water, fuel, and sanitation facilities but also, there is minimal space where they have to manage the children, cook for the family, do other domestic chores.

And, the worst part is that they also sometimes face sexual harassment from their contractors and supervisors. Still, they back their families with incomes since sales from forest produce have declined. Moreover, in the absence of cooperatives, they are even being exploited by the traders.

The miseries inflicted upon adivasis women by pandemic has intensified their lower standards of living. For instance, people in Odisha used to sell a bunch of leaf for Rs 20 before lockdown whereas after lockdown the same price reduced to Rs 5 and hence, were forced to sell their produce at very low prices. Similarly, adivasis from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka also faced the same situation. Women have been restricted to access the sanctuaries and wildlife in the fear of spreading infection.

Even the necessities of life such as vegetables and fruits were snatched from them because of the implementation of various rules regarding the movement in forests by the forest department. This even led to hindrances in organizing the protests by the Adivasis political activists as the reserves are being guarded.

In Maharashtra, few lands in which agricultural products were sowed was bought by the government to generate revenue. This adversely affected the nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes as they were given commission to look after these lands earlier. These nomadic tribes are not only deprived of health facilities but are also denied to have privacy privileges and even to call a place as their home. Despite having Identity cards, they are not provided with basic necessities and humane facilities. This has led to women to become beggars.

Prof Munshi concluded her lecture by talking about the three points which we should focus on:

  • There is a need to respect the existence of adivasi communities, and especially women in these communities, who can lead to a better forest management system in the country which would be both participatory and democratic.
  • We need to not only take the skills and knowledge of these people seriously but also inculcate them in our forest management system.
  • The life skills which Adivasi women possess should be protected and taught to others as well to have a more systematic approach towards life and the work.

The lecture was followed by discussant remarks. Prof Virginius Xaxa says colonial history has adversely impacted the tribals including their forest policies. This has continued in the post-independence era as well. Though there has been a shift of forest rights in colonial India it was worse in the post-independence period. 

For instance, the forest policy of 1952 mandated to have 33 percent of land under forest but due to shortage of land, government starts encroaching upon the land of tribals. Some organizations (such as RSS) ideas are being transmitted in a society where women are being subjugated and dominated. He emphasized that there is a need to identify the relationship between non-tribal population, state, and political economy.

Talking about the history of tribal people, Prof Xaxa says that during the colonial period tribals were perceived as practicing a distinct unknown religion but during the post-colonial period, tribals fell into the residual category and were considered as Hindus. Moving forward to the contemporary period, not only these tribals are educated and are spread across different parts of the country but they have also formed student associations. But the development of tribals especially in the fifth schedule areas has not taken place because of disposition and displacement which has ravaged their life.

He stated that political economy won’t help unless tribal people have a say in the process of development. Even the affirmative action programs have not worked very well as indicated with the high levels of poverty in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh where socio-economic indicators are worse. Eastern-India is very much worse which is home to more industries and is more integrated with the rest of India. Thus, more political, and economic integration will have adverse impacts.

Talking about northeast India, he stated that there is still large land which is in the control of tribals even in the presence of non-tribal states. The minorities are very strong in the northeast and thus have a high level of social indicators as evident in data where northeastern states averages are above the Indian average.

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Picture Courtesy: The Guardian


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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