Illustrations From the Indigenous Communities: Status, Rights, Issues

This three-blog series maps the lives of indigenous communities. It attempts to learn about their culture and everyday life challenges that may not be visible to everyone. The first blog explores the rights, demography and issues that tribal individuals face. The second blog presents the on-field activities by my AIF Clinton Fellowship host organization, Seba Jagat in Odisha. The third blog portrays the lived experiences and aspirations of the tribal communities.

Two tribal women from Araku Valley, Andhra Pradesh, India, are wearing their traditional sarees, they seem to be taking a break from work and smiling at someone or something afar.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, stands by the indigenous peoples’ right to freely determine their political status and decide what course of economic, social and cultural development they wish to adopt. Photo: Ganta Srinivas.

It is difficult to spot indigenous people as lead in films, TV serials, news channels or even over-the-top shows. What is the reason behind this disconnect between them and the mainstream society? One can hardly find a one-size fits all definition of tribal people given their diversity. Instead of defining them, it is better to recognize how they ‘self-identify’ themselves. According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the indigenous people are connected to land and natural resources, they have unique language and cultural practices, they are a non-dominant community and inclined to preserving sacred natural endowments.

Rights and Entitlements

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, recognizes the dignity, worth and well-being of tribal people; reprimands discrimination, exploitation and forced eviction from traditional lands. Their unique culture calls for self-determination and creation of their own social-political institutions and pursuit of development in their chosen manner. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledges to leave no one behind, thus, the historical wrongs done to the millions of indigenous people around the world causing their further marginalization and exclusion can be addressed through a rights-based approach. Some of the sustainable development goals that account for the interests of the indigenous people are as follows:

  • SDG 1: No Poverty
  • SDG 2 Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3 Good Health and Well Being
  • SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities
Status and Legal Recognition

In more than 70 countries reside over 370 million tribal people making up around 5 per cent of the total population and representing 15 per cent of the world poor. In India, as per the draft National Policy on Tribals (2006) there are 67.8 million Scheduled Tribes that account for about 8 per cent of India’s total population. There are 698 tribes, residing in 15 per cent of the total area of India.

In the Indian context, the indigenous people or ethnic minorities are commonly referred to as ‘adivasis’ and for the purpose of governance, they constitute the ‘Scheduled Tribes’; they are called so because the Constitution of India has 12 Schedules, of which Schedules 5 and 6 concern administration of scheduled areas and the tribal people. Under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution, the President of India after consultation with state governments and Governors, notifies the Parliament which tribes are to be added to list.

Having this political recognition entitles the people to exercise the Fundamental Rights and get safeguarded by various provisions under the Constitution. Under Part 4, the Directive Principles of State Policy, the State is advised to make provisions to promote educational and economic interests of the Scheduled Tribes. To exercise these rights such as public employment, a tribal individual needs to have an identity card issued by the government or a public authority. Some examples are, Aadhaar card, a 12-digit unique identity number with biometric verification; a voter ID card; or a savings account in a bank.

Herein, a problem may arise if how a person pronounces the name of his/her/their tribe differs from that written in the official government records. In his critically acclaimed book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Magsaysay Award winner, P. Sainath presents a case story from Odisha where a man is unable to prove that he belongs to his tribe and thus, is denied an identity card, while his father and brother are registered; this confusion cropped up because of a spelling mistake in one of his identity cards that differed from official list of tribes.

An elderly tribal man is sculpting a terracotta figurine of an elephant while a girl child looks on from behind.
The local art forms reflect the rich art and culture of tribal communities, which also serves as a source of livelihood. Photo: Ganta Srinivas.
Common Issues

The tribal communities mainly live in hilly regions, close to forests. These communities lack basic infrastructure such as road connectivity, public transportation, access to health services, provision of nutritious food, education and social security. This maybe because they mainly live in topographically tough terrains; and perhaps, since they are small in number, the private service providers may not be able to recover the costs incurred, compared to higher profits and much higher demand in amply populated urban and rural areas.

Owing to their close proximity to the environment, they are the first ones to be affected by natural disasters such as flash floods, drought, earthquakes, cyclones and so on. These calamities have a negative impact on their agricultural productivity. Due to lack of opportunities for livelihoods, they are pushed to poverty, work on big landlords’ agricultural lands, take up bonded labour and either lose access or get deteriorated natural resources that are unfit for use.

In this respect, the civil society rises up to the occasion and works in tandem with the communities as well as the State government and district administration to ensure last mile delivery of social welfare services to people. They work in various domains such as education, poverty eradication, health, financial inclusion, economic empowerment and sustainable living. The next part of this series shall explore various on-field activities undertaken by Seba Jagat in Kalahandi, Odisha in the fields of sanitation and public health.

P.S.: To learn more about the various indigenous communities of India, please check out the Main Bhi Bharat by Rajya Sabha TV channel.


Xaxa, Prof. Virginius. Report of the High Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India. Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, May 2014,

“Sustainable Development Goals: Indigenous Peoples in Focus.” ILO, 26 July 2016,–en/index.htm.

Sainath, Palagummi. Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Penguin Books India, 1996.

Anushri is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Seba Jagat in Kalahandi, Odisha. For her fellowship project, she is developing a case study to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the community by identifying innovative practices and traditional health related practices, documenting processes, analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, and measuring indicators. Anushri is a passionate development professional who has completed her double Masters in Social Work and Political Science from the University of Delhi. She is excited to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Seba Jagat in one of the most underdeveloped districts of India - Kalahandi, Odisha. For her fellowship project, she will be engaging in project management of their ongoing effort to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the community and in the implementation of the Sampurna and rural sanitation programme aiming to reduce infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate in the area. Anushri has interned at the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Plastic Waste Management Programme where she worked on the Financial Inclusion of the waste picker community. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she registered domestic workers in the Public Distribution System to receive rations guaranteed by the government. She also made video-stories for Delhi-based and Rajasthan-based Community based Organisations to generate awareness about their work and to raise resources to continue their work. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, she will be venturing into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of working at a place with immense scope to learn and bring about change. She hopes to be an asset to her host organization and achieve their objectives through dedicated efforts. She envisions building skills in project planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation by the completion of her fellowship.

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