The Adivasis of India

India is a largely populated country with many different kinds of people. There are variations in culture, traditions, language, food, etc. But more importantly, there are people with different origins and roots. Some such people are the ‘Adivasis’ who we more commonly refer to as the ‘Tribes’ or ‘Tribal People’ of India. The word Adivasi comes from the Sanskrit term meaning ‘original inhabitants’ (Adi= original/from the beginning, Vasi= inhabitant/resident). Therefore, when we use the term Adivasi or categorize a group as Adivasis, it is generally understood to mean that they are the inhabitants of that area from the very beginning. It is a blanket term used to refer to the indigenous people and groups of India, and helps forge a sense of identity for them. Sometimes you may hear the term ‘Scheduled Tribes’ being used in a legal or constitutional sense, but this differs from State to State and may exclude some groups which may be considered indigenous.


Adivasis make up a substantial minority of the Indian population, comprising about 8% of the total population. They are of great numbers especially in the states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. They are said to have arrived in India during the great human migration from Africa, and are believed to have been living in India from as early as 2000 BCE.  As the name suggest, their presence pre-dates even the Dravidians and Aryans in our country, and they were the original hunter-gatherer, foragers and agriculturists of these lands. But today, they hold little to no political power and most of them are below the poverty line. They have seen a relegation of their status in the country, with a loss of land, wealth and political presence and representation. The Adivasis have been conferred a classification of tribes or tribal communities under Article 366 (25) of the Indian constitution, the criteria for this being ‘geographical isolation, backwardness, and having a distinct culture, religion and ‘shyness of contact’.

Examples of Adivasis or tribes in India are communities like the Bhil, Chenchu, Korwa, Lodha, and Bonda. Perhaps the most well-known tribes are those of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, like the Jarawa, Onge and Sentinels, who have remained mostly untouched by modern civilization and continue to live like primitive tribes.

Modern Day Situation

Most of us today when we hear the word ‘Adivasi’ do not think of the people who first populated Indian territories and who possess ancient cultures and traditions tied to these lands. Instead, we think of those people living in rural and underdeveloped areas, living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. While larger and more prominent tribal groups may survive as result of numbers, the destruction of their environmental and economic base will not allow them to continue their traditional way of life and may result in their cultural extinction. The primary reason for the Adivasis socioeconomic problems is that they have gradually been displaced from all their land and are constantly being denied land ownership. Today they are in a constant battle just to retain their economic and social identity. Today’s India is all about modernization and progress, and even government schemes only aim at integrating these tribes into normal society rather than allowing them to continue living by their distinctive way of life. Attempt are constantly being made to bring these tribes into mainstream Indian culture and integrate them into the national identity, disregarding their own unique and age-old cultures. Although they have been given schemes for reservation, the impact of the quota system upon Adivasis has remained negligible up until now. Also, many smaller tribal groups are quite sensitive to ecological degradation caused by modernization, and so government policies on forest reservation have also affected Adivasis profoundly. The 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted to secure the rights of Adivasis to their customary lands and forests, but they are still subject to encroachments on forest area.


It can be concluded that the Adivasis or tribal people of India represent an important cultural group of our country, but their modern-day situation is not good and not respected. The tribes in India are now under the impact of ‘mobility and change’. They have been subject to things like the caste system, and religions like Christianity and Hinduism which have transformed them completely. They have basically joined the ranks of peasantry in modern times, and have become wage-laborer’s in industries, plantations and mining. Hence, they are at the lowest point of the socioeconomic indicator, and are also subject to prejudice and oppression in mainstream Indian society. Furthermore, their issues are generally under reported, neglected or trivialized. We must try to change this situation for their betterment, and we as citizens must educate ourselves on who these people are and what they represent.