FAO Investment Centre
Socio-economic and Production Systems Studies

  Le Centre d'investissement
de la FAO
tudes des systmes socio-conomiques et productifs

El Centro de Inversiones de la FAO
Estudios de los sistemas socioeconmicos y productivos




Study Objectives and Methodology

This study was carried out by the FAO Investment Centre on the socio-economic situation of tribal communities and livelihoods in selected areas in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Some of the key livelihood issues looked at were: below subsistence production; declining availability and control over common property and forest resources; deficit-induced indebtedness leading to loss of control over private resources; insecure or lack of land tenure among some of the poorest groups, and dependence on low return seasonal labour migration. It also considered specific development concerns of tribal women.

The information presented is based on the data collected in 1997 by formulation missions to Madhya Pradesh and Bihar and other studies undertaken for the present reformulation mission, including Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRAs) studies done in both states. This has been complemented by additional information gathered by this reformulation mission from village women and men, different Government offices and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).




The household consumer expenditure (HCE) survey conducted during 1993/94 showed that India had slightly less than 40% of the population, or over 325 million people, under the officially defined poverty line. Of these, over 280 million lived in rural areas. In other words, 35% of the households and about 40% of the population in rural areas live below the poverty line.

In the first two and a half decades after independence, the incidence of poverty fluctuated but showed no sustained decline. Since 1977/78, however, the proportion of poor has been declining. Available statistics show that this trend became particularly visible during 1983-1993/94, when the proportion of the poor as measured by headcount ratio (HCR) decreased by 16%, the depth of poverty as measured by the poverty gap index (PGI) by 30%, and the severity of poverty as measured by the relative squared poverty gap by 45%.

The rate of decrease in the proportion of the poor, however, is slow, at about 2% per annum in the 1980s, and poverty remains widespread. In absolute terms, the number of poor in India increased from about 164 million in 1951 to over 325 million in 1993. Of the estimated 1.3 billion poor in the world, about 27% are in India. Given that India's share of world population is only about 15%, it has a disproportionately higher share of the world's poor.

The key features of the rural poverty in India are as follows:

In the last quarter of a century, Indian women have significantly improved their overall well being. Yet women in India remain one of the most disadvantaged groups in society. The sex ratio has been in more or less constant decline since 1901 (when it was 944) and has dropped to 927. Only 39% of women are literate (against 64% for men) and only 34% of births are attended by trained health personnel. The maternal mortality rate is high, and India accounts for about one fourth of total maternity-related deaths in the world. The death rate for female children under five is 29 per thousand, against 25 among male children of the same age group. Of the 324 million illiterates enumerated in the 1991 census, 61% were women and girls. Some 39% of the girls drop out before completing primary education and 57% before completing upper primary. The average age at marriage has increased but is still low at 19.5 years, and some 30% of the girls are married between 15 and 19.

Over 90% of rural women workers are unskilled and about 90% of women are engaged in the informal/unorganized sector. Wage rates in agriculture are on average 30-50% less than for men. Women shoulder the entire burden of household activities and child-care responsibilities and 58% of women's work time is spent in such activities. Female casual labourers in rural India show the highest incidence of poverty of any occupational category, male or female. A disproportionate burden of poverty is suffered by female-headed households. At the same time, the delivery structures of credit, technical advice, etc., do not reach them, because institutions are slow to recognize women as heads of households.

National Tribal Policy

India has about 532 scheduled tribes (STs) speaking over 100 different languages, with each tribe having its own ethnic and cultural identity. According to the 1991 census, the population of STs in the country was 67.8 million constituting around 8% of the total population. Over half the tribal population is concentrated in five states - Madhya Pradesh (15.4 million), Bihar (6.6 million), Orissa (7.0 million), Andhra Pradesh (4.2 million) and West Bengal (3.8 million). Madhya Pradesh accounts for 23% and Bihar 9.7% of the total tribal population in the country.

Historically, tribal communities were characterized by a lifestyle distinct from agrarian communities. They subsisted on different combinations of shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering of forest products: all activities closely linked with forests. Their cultures celebrated and fostered this close bond with nature while also emphasizing communal ownership and consumption, closely-knit kinship structures, and minimal hierarchies.

The British colonial rule either appropriated their forests or drastically curtailed their access to them while suppressing shifting cultivation. It also imposed a system of revenue collection, which, while re-constructing natural communities into administrative 'revenue villages', also opened the doors for exploitative non-tribal moneylenders and traders to start settling in tribal areas. Tribal rebellions, both against State interventions curtailing their access to local natural resources and exploitation by outsiders, resulted in special laws being framed for many tribal areas in recognition of the unique self-regulatory cultural traits of tribal communities.

The Scheduled District Act promulgated in 1874 delineated tribal areas as 'scheduled areas'. The Government of India Act of 1935 further classified these areas into two categories, i.e. the northeastern tribal region and other backward tribal regions. The former was totally excluded from the ambit of major Indian laws, whereas the latter were partially excluded.

After Independence, the tribals were accorded special rights and protection under Article 342 of the Constitution with the Government of India's tribal development policy aiming to bring them the benefits of economic development without eroding their traditional culture and identity. Independent India has continued with the 'scheduling' of tribal areas and tribes introduced by the British.

Tribal areas outside the northeastern region, including the study area, come under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The State Governor, or a Tribal Advisory Council Chair, can make special provisions for the administration of Schedule Five areas besides waiving or amending any existing law considered detrimental to tribal interests or in conflict with their traditional values and culture. The Fifth Schedule also makes the states responsible for promoting the educational and economic interests of the tribals and to protect them from social injustice and exploitation. The Central Government provides special financial assistance to the states under Article 275 for implementing schemes for the development of scheduled tribes.

Tribal development policy under the Eighth Plan (1992-97) and the approach paper for the Ninth Five Year Plan stress people's initiative and participation as key elements in the development process and in protecting the interests of the tribals. High priority has been accorded to elimination of their exploitation and removal of all forms of oppression.

Today, the tribal majority areas, which overlap with the country's major forest areas, are also areas with the highest concentrations of poverty.

Demographic Trends

Madhya Pradesh. MP has the largest tribal population in the country with the STs comprising 23.27% of the state's population in 1991. The percentage of both the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste population in MP has increased during the last two decades (from 20.1% in 1971 to 23.3 in 1991 for the ST population, and 13.1% to 14.5% for the SC population) due to their relatively higher fertility rates. In 1991, the fertility rate of the state's SC population was 4.71, of the ST population 4.05 and that of the remaining population 3.76.

No separate data is available on key demographic parameters for the tribal population. Average life expectancy in Surguja district is 51.9 years. The crude birth rate ranges from 32 to 36 per thousand females in the two districts.

Bihar. According to the 1991 census, the total tribal population in Bihar was 6,616,914 (7.7% of the state population). 91% of the state's tribal population is concentrated in the 18 districts of south Bihar out of which the tribals constitute the majority only in 3 districts - Gumla, Lohardaga and West Singhbhum. The tribals are predominantly rural (93%) in spite of the fact that the level of urbanization in the region is 20.3% compared to 13% for the state as a whole. The density of population of the state as a whole is 497 whereas the density of population of the ST areas is 273.

In contrast to Madhya Pradesh, the fertility rate of the tribal population in Bihar at 3.42 is the lowest in the state compared to that of 3.95 among the SCs and 4.06 among the general population. The proportion of the ST population declined by over one full percentage point in 20 years.



The area studied in both the states has a combination of a variety of tribes and occupational artisan castes which have lived in a symbiotic relationship for a few hundred years. The tribes in the area belong to two linguistic groups. One group speaks the Austro-Asiatic or Mundari group of languages and includes the Santhal, Ho and Munda. The other group of tribes speaks a language of the Dravidian group - this includes the Oraon, Chero and Gond. The tribes themselves range from surviving remnants of almost pure hunter-gatherers among the 'Primitive Tribal Groups' (PTGs) to the settled agriculturist tribes like the Santhal, Ho, Munda, Oraon and Gond. However, until today, even the agricultural tribes do a considerable amount of gathering and all tribes share a historically strong collectivism in economic activities.

Madhya Pradesh. No recent data are available on the population by tribe for the programme blocks in MP. However, according to the 1961 census data, three main tribes, namely Gond, Oraon and Kanwar predominate in the three districts, accounting for more than 80% of their total tribal population. The main tribal groups in the three districts are:

- Raigarh/Jashpur: Oraon, Kanwar, Gond, Nagwanshi, Sawara, Kharia, Korwa, Baiga and Birhor

- Surguja: Gond, Oraon, Kanwar, Nagesia, Korwa, Baiga, Binjhwar

Bihar. 30 tribes have been notified as scheduled tribes in Bihar. The most numerous STs are the Santhal, Oraon, Munda, Ho, Kharwar, Kharia and Bhumij which constitute about 86% of the total tribal population of the state. The major STs in the Bihar programme districts are:

- Ranchi: Oraon, Munda, Bhumij, Bedia (in Angara Block only), Mahali, Lohra and Kharia;

- East and West Singhbum: Santhal, Ho, Bhumij, Bathudi, Munda and Oraon.

Primitive Tribal Groups

Madhya Pradesh. 7 Scheduled Tribes have been recognized as `Primitive Tribal Groups' in MP These are : Pahari Korwa, Baiga, Avujhmariya, Bhariya, Kamar, Sahariya and Birhor. The MP government has set up separate development agencies, registered as autonomous societies, for each of the PTGs excepting the Birhors. The PTG development agencies devote funds, in addition to those available for STs in general, exclusively for the PTGs. Their basic strategy for promoting more focused development of the PTGs is to form clusters of 4 to 5 PTG villages and make teams of officials from the revenue, rural development, education and the tribal welfare departments responsible for each cluster.

Bihar. Nine scheduled tribes have been classified as PTGs in Bihar: Asur, Birhor, Birjia, Korwa, Parhaiya, Savar, Hill Kharia, Mal Paharia and Sauria Paharia. Their total population is estimated at about 190,000 persons. The Birhor population in the study area is only 210 of which 190 live in only two villages in Angara block. There is no separate development agency for the PTGs in Bihar.


Madhya Pradesh. Information collected by this mission, as well as by the PRAs and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) marketing study, suggests very low rates of migration from some of the programme blocks in MP. According to the BDO of Dharamjaigarh block for example, barely 50 families from the entire block migrate seasonally due to the availability of different NTFPs from the forests most of the year. This was despite the fact that out of the 24,000 families below the poverty line in the 1996-97 survey, as many as 7000 (29%) were landless. In Odgi block, however, all the able-bodied persons in some villages migrate and return only just prior to the onset of the rains. The more general pattern in the block is that one or several members of half to one-third of the households in each village migrate for 3 to 4 months in the dry season.

Bihar. Although no precise information is available for the study area, the Chotanagpur Plateau is known to have high rates of migration, including to distant states such as Punjab and to Delhi. The PRAs done in Bihar came across seasonal migration particularly among the PTGs1.

Sex Ratios

Madhya Pradesh. A striking demographic feature of the study area is the significantly higher female to male ratio compared to the all India ratio of 927 and the MP state ratio of 931 females per 1000 males (see Table below). Sex ratios among the STs in the programme blocks in Surguja district range from 950 (Odgi) to 985-6 (Mainpat, Lundra and Udaipur). The relatively low sex ratio among the tribals in Odgi block is surprising due to the reportedly high levels of migration from the block. In Raigarh/Jaspur districts, all the programme blocks have over 1000 females per 1000 males ranging from 1003 (Bagicha) to 1028 (Manora). With almost no migration from Dharamjaigarh block, a female to male ratio of 1016 is again striking probably indicating the superior status of tribal women in the area.

Table. Sex Ratio (Females/1000 Males) in the Study Area in MP



Sex Ratio (females/1000 males)


Total Population


































































All India




(Source: 1991 Census data)

Bihar. The female-male ratio among the tribal population in Bihar is again quite favourable compared to that for the state as a whole reflecting the relatively better status of women in tribal society. However, there was a significant decline even in the tribal sex ratio during the last decade as evident from the following Table.

Table. Female-Male Ratio in Bihar (Females/1000 males)


Total Population














Source: Bihar Formulation report, taken from Basu, S.K, Health Status of Tribal Women in Social Change 23(4) p22.

In the study area in Bihar, excepting for Angara block, which has a lower sex ratio of 966 than the state ratio of 971 for the ST population, the ST sex ratio in all the other blocks is higher than the state average. Excepting for Goelkera block with 974 females/1000 males, the sex ratio in the other 4 blocks in West Singhbhum ranges from 1002 (Sonua) to 1033 in Khuntpani. Unlike the study area in MP, the male adverse sex ratio in these 4 blocks could partly be due to their having a higher rate of male migration.


Madhya Pradesh. Literacy rates among the tribal population in the study area are very low, particularly among women. Overall, both ST male and female literacy rates in Raigarh/Jaspur districts are significantly higher than the literacy rates in Surguja district. ST male literacy in the programme blocks ranges from 17% (Odgi and Mainpat) to 39% (Manora). ST female literacy ranges from as low as 4.3% (Odgi) to 23% (Manora). (see Table below). Literacy rates among the PTGs are even lower - barely 5% among the Pahari Korwas and almost nil amongst the women. Although the government has built residential schools for them, Pahari Korwa children tend to leave them and run away.

Table. Literacy Rates in the Study Area - MP

Name of Dist/Block




No. of House-holds

Average size household









Raigarh District/Jaspur2













































District Surguja































































Source: 1991 Census Data

Bihar. Literacy among the tribal population at 23.6% in 1991 continues to be less than half that of for the total population of the state (52.2%) although it has increased fourfold over the last four decades (see Table below). While the state male literacy is 64.1%, the tribal male literacy is 32.5%. The tribal female literacy rate is particularly low at 14.5% compared to 29.3% for the total female population.

Table. Literacy Rates in Bihar


Total Population

Tribal Population




































Source: Bihar formulation report.

Both the male and female literacy rates in all the programme blocks are significantly lower than the literacy rates for the state as a whole. Male literacy in all but 2 of the programme blocks (Tonto 24.7%, Goelkera 29%) is higher than the state ST male literacy of 32.5%. Rajnagar block has the highest male literacy (44.2%). Female literacy, however, is lower than the state ST female literacy rate of 14.5% in all the programme blocks ranging from 5.9% (Tonto) to 13.9% (Rajnagar) (see Table below).

Table. Literacy and Sex Ratio in the Programme Blocks in Bihar


Literacy rate

Sex Ratio






ST Population













West Singhbhum































East Singhbhum







Source: 1991 Census Data.

Literacy rates also vary among different tribes. In 1981, the Kharias had the highest literacy rate among the STs followed by the Oraons and the Mundas. These tribal groups have also adopted Christianity to a greater extent. Literacy among the PTGs was the lowest, ranging from 5.7% among the Birhors to 7.6% among the Mal Maharias. Literacy among the PTG female population in 1981 was about 2.5%.

Health Status

The most common diseases among tribal communities are parasitic infections, diarrhoea, dysentery, skin diseases, respiratory infections, whooping cough and measles. Serious diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and malaria are also common in the study areas. Health facilities do not reach them because the norms prescribed by the State Governments for establishing Primary Health Centres and Health Sub-Centres are inappropriate for a dispersed population in small settlements in inaccessible areas. When health facilities happen to be available, most tribal villagers can neither pay the doctor nor pay for the medicines.

Tribal women's health is at risk during their reproductive years. Around 68 % of pregnant and lactating women suffer from anemia. Around 72 % of all births are attended by untrained traditional birth attendants (dais). Of particular interest, the maternal mortality rate is reported to be around 2 per 1000 live births compared to the national average of 4.4 per 1000 live births3.

In interior villages with good forest cover, the communities rely on their traditional herbal medicine practices. In mixed villages, adoption of allopathic treatment has become a major source of indebtedness. Women members of Self Help Groups reported that they borrow from their savings group for health care; others obtained loans from money lenders.

The prevalent nutritional disorders are anemia and avitaminosis with the associated common deficiency diseases of a) angular conjunctivitis and angular stomatitis and pellagra, all assumed to be caused by riboflavin deficiency; b) night blindness and skin dryness or roughness attributed to vitamin A deficiency; c) endemic goitre, the principal aetiological factor of which is iodine deficiency.

The children portray a classic picture of chronic malnutrition with lower size, weight and height, for their age. This is undoubtedly related to the poor nutritional status of women, with an inter-generation transmission of malnutrition resulting in the very high incidence of low birth weight in India. 60% of the pre-school children are underweight and 25% severely underweight4. Pre-school children are the weakest section of the population. Mortality rates for ST children under five was 136 in Bihar and 167 in MP.

Settlement Patterns

Topography, socio-cultural characteristics, livelihood systems and to some extent, historical factors have shaped the settlement patterns in the study area. In terms of size and density, the settlements may be characterized as (i) small and scattered (only 10 to 15 houses), (ii) medium sized compact or dispersed (up to 100 houses in 1 to 3 or 4 hamlets) and (iii) larger usually more compact settlements.

Revenue villages in Bihar tend to be smaller than those in MP: 67% of the villages in the former have less than 500 inhabitants, compared to 39% in MP, where 56% of the population lives in villages of 500 to 2 000 inhabitants. The more compact and larger settlements tend to be in the plains and are inhabited by the more agriculturally advanced tribes. A revenue village may have between 2 to 7-8 `natural' villages consisting of settlements at considerable distance from each other. Most revenue villages do not represent social units of organization nor do they function as collective units of decision-making.

PTG settlements are primarily found in remote, forested and hilly tracts with some villages having only 10 to 15 houses5. The Birhors make their tandas in isolated patches with large gaps between two tandas to ensure that each community has adequate forest area for hunting and gathering. Pahari Korwa settlements often lack permanency as the entire settlement is abandoned if a number of deaths take place in the same neighbourhood6. The settlements may be of a single ethnic group or of several STs and castes. Traditional PTG settlements were uni-ethnic but subsequent to their resettlement outside forest areas, they often comprise hamlets within larger, mixed villages.

Local Level Institutions

Traditional Institutions. The settled tribes in the study area have at least two levels of traditional leadership - within the village and for a cluster of villages of the clan for dealing with inter-village issues and disputes. Some of them also have a third and higher leadership level for addressing issues confronting the larger community. In almost all the settled tribes, the posts of the traditional leaders are hereditary often reserved for the male lineage of the `original reclaimers' of the land. The traditional village assembly has virtually been an all-male institution with women provided access only under highly exceptional circumstances.

PTGs. By virtue of their dependence on foraging, and the nature of collectivism and cooperation it requires, the social institutions of PTGs are the least hierarchical to facilitate consensual decision-making. In the absence of any attachment to private property, gender relations have been particularly egalitarian among the PTGs. Birhor settlements have traditionally had a council of elders composed of all elders of the group, both male and female. Regular political participation by women in the village council has also been reported in the case of the Korwa, a tribe that has only recently come into settled agriculture.

An overview of the present status of traditional village institutions in the study area in both states indicates the following patterns:

Modern Institutions. By far the single most pervasive modern village institution introduced in post independence India has been the Gram Panchayat as the lowest rung of local government. Intended to put into practice Mahatma Gandhi's vision of gram swaraj (village self rule) the Gram Panchayat effectively reconstructed the village for administrative convenience. Superimposition of statutory Panchayats in tribal areas has had many adverse impacts on their self governing traditional institutions. Concentration of power in the elected Panchayat Pradhans, combined with a lack of transparency and accountability in their functioning, slowly converted many panchayats into centres of corruption, political manipulation and factional rivalry.

During the last 10 to 15 years, with increasing recognition of the importance of people's participation for increasing the effectiveness of development interventions, an extensive array of `people's' institutions have been created in the villages for the implementation of sectoral programmes. These include joint forest management (JFM) committees being set up by the Forest Department, education committees by the Education Department, watershed associations and committees by the DRDA, water and health committees by the Public Health Department, water users association by the Irrigation Department, and Mahila Mandals (women's associations) by the Women and Child Department. Under a number of special programmes such as the Bihar Education Programme, selected village women are trained as animators to organize women not only for accessing literacy but also for dealing with their other problems.

New Institutions Promoted by NGOs. Many NGOs have also been promoting a variety of new institutions within villages. Their nature and tenor varies with the ideology and perspective of the concerned NGO. Some NGO-promoted village institutions have traits similar to those promoted by government departments while others focus on leadership development and community mobilization. Some NGOs are also providing support to self-initiated forest protection associations of the villagers. Training and supporting cadres of village animators for organizing and mobilizing predominantly male youth groups is another NGO focus.

Among the more dynamic new institutions being promoted by NGOs, although on a limited scale and only by a few NGOs, are women's associations for advocacy and local action on issues affecting women's lives and self-help groups (SHGs) engaged in savings and credit and/or income generation activities12.



Livelihood systems in the study area are primarily dependent on various combinations of agriculture, forests and labour. Livestock and fish rearing are closely integrated in the farming systems. There are also a number of artisanal castes and tribal groups who depend either on providing services to the community or on small-scale processing and marketing. The traditional livelihood system of the PTGs consisted of shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering forest foods and other produce. They are undergoing a painful process of enforced transition to settled cultivation outside the forests. Although many still depend to some extent on hunting and forest products, these are no longer their main source of livelihood. Instead they are grappling with survival on poor quality non-forest lands without agricultural implements. Women's work is regarded as crucial for the survival of tribal households in terms of provisioning for food, income earning, as well as management of resources.

Typology of Livelihood Systems

The tribal livelihood systems identified in the study area can be classified according to the degree of dependence on forest resources.

Forest dependent upland systems, usually located in upper watersheds where most PTG Villages are also located, are estimated to represent about 20% of the study area. Communities in these watersheds live in small, scattered settlements located near or within reserve or protected forests. PTGs in such areas are under transition from pure forest dependence to a mixed forest/agriculture/wage labour system due to resettlement, and declining forest productivity. Characteristics include a continuing dependence, often unsustainable, on harvesting of firewood and some NTFPs such as roots/tubers, bamboo, tendu, sal leaves and fibre collected for consumption or sale. Limited permanent or shifting cultivation is practiced within a defined village forest territory, providing food security for 2 to 4 months. Small stock consists of poultry, pigs and goats which are sold when cash is needed. In Bihar, there is substantial reliance on seasonal migration for wage work outside the village (in brick kilns, mining or road construction) to supplement incomes. Headloading is often an important source of income, particularly for women: according to the PRA study in Bihar, 90% of the households in such villages were practicing headloading as a survival strategy, an activity primarily undertaken by women.

Mixed systems, located in middle watersheds, comprise about 65% of the study area. These are partially hilly areas with communities having lesser dependence on forest than the former and in place of this there is added reliance on agriculture. Farming is mainly single crop with some paddy and vegetable cultivation. Some farmers may own bullocks and use manure for maintaining soil fertility. Food security extends to 3 to 4 months. Access is interrupted at certain times of the year and so market orientation is somewhat limited with a greater focus on subsistence production. Migration can involve up to 50% of households in this system.

Lowland systems, located in lower watersheds and covering about 15% of the study area. These communities extend into the lower plains and may have relatively little forest access. They tend to be more multi-ethnic, have smaller but more intensively farmed landholdings and own more bullocks. Double cropping is more common and, where irrigation is available, even a third crop may be grown. There is a greater reliance on paddy, vegetable cultivation occurs year round and overall food security can extend to 5 to 7 months. A much greater market orientation is present due to year-round market access. Many fields may already be bunded as the terrain is generally flatter and there is better information about water management techniques. In general, farming has been carried out for a longer period and this is demonstrated in greater productivity per hectare. Distant migration may be less prevalent with greater availability of wage work locally.

Components of Livelihood Systems

Land Holding Patterns. In Bihar 56% of the farmers operate an average of 0.4 ha whilst 71% of the holdings are less then 2 ha; the average of holdings with less than 2 ha is 0.6 ha. In Madhya Pradesh about 51% of the cultivators are marginal farmers (average holding 0.4 ha), accounting for only 11% of the cultivated area. About 20% of the farmers are small farmers with an average size of 1.5 ha accounting for 16% of the cultivated area. The rest of the farmers (23%) cultivate 73% of the land. These figures, however, refer to all holdings in the study blocks, including those of non-tribals. Broadly speaking, holding patterns of tribals tend to be more egalitarian and holding sizes smaller. About 75% of the tribal households have firm title to their land. Land tenure issues mainly concern `encroached' forest land. Information about the extent of landlessness is not readily available except for the PTGs in Surguja district.

PTGs. 55.3% of Pahari Korwas in the study blocks are landless. As the PTGs never had titles to the forests in which they traditionally subsisted, `landlessness' among them is a product of delegitimization of their traditional livelihood system. Although the government is allotting them non-forest land, it is normally unproductive and many remain landless or lack proper land titles. Even if they have titles, the actual possession is often in the hands of other tribals or non-tribals with the land owners working as labourers on their own land. Many PTGs sell off the land allotted to them to people of other tribes at low rates and revert to their traditional life style of living in the forest.

Agricultural Production Patterns. Agriculture in the study area is predominantly rainfed and monocropped: only about 8% of the cultivated land in the Bihar study area and 4% in MP is under irrigation. Less than 25% of the gross-cropped area is double cropped. Paddy is the major crop accounting for about 60 to 70% of the cultivated land during the kharif season, with productivity ranging from 450 kg to 1100 kg/ha. The other crops are maize, a variety of millets13 sorghum, wheat, barley, pulses and oil seeds. Food grains occupy about 95% of the cropped area. Paddy, maize, millets, arhar, niger and groundnut are the important kharif crops while the main crops grown in the rabi season are wheat, oilseeds (rapeseed, mustard, linseed, groundnut, pigeon pea and niger), pulses (lentil and gram), and vegetables. Horticulture is little developed in the study area with the present area under fruits, vegetables, and spices accounting for only about 2.5% of the cultivated area. Vegetable cultivation is picking up very fast. These are preferably grown on Bari land (homestead). Women participate in all agricultural operations excepting ploughing and sowing of rice seed, contributing between 70 to 80% of the total labour.

Household Food Security. The extent to which the tribals are able to meet their food requirements from agriculture is determined by the type of land they own, the size of the holdings and the size of the household. The PRAs as well as the seasonality analysis done by the mission agronomists, indicate a declining role of agriculture in household food security which lasts for 2 to 6 months of the year for the majority of farming households. It is estimated that average households in upland systems are only able to meet 20 to 40% of their food requirements; those in the middle system 30 to 40% and those in lowland systems between 50 to 70% of their needs. Food insecurity peaks in the post-sowing monsoon period (August-September) and again around March when the kharif harvest has been exhausted. In the past, most tribals were able to cover most of the shortfall with foods gathered from the forests. Forest degradation and curtailed forest access has reduced the availability of natural foods on which they depended compelling the tribals, especially those in the upland and mixed systems, to depend more and more on purchased foods to meet their minimum survival needs. Impoverished villagers have to choose between migrating for wage work or resorting to unsustainable harvesting of firewood for survival income14. Many tribals have become caught in a debt trap because of the precariousness of their food security situation.

Forests in the Livelihood System. In extent, forests cover approximately 28% of the geographical area of the program districts in Bihar and 46% in MP. Forests supply timber, fodder, fuelwood and a large number of Non-Timber Forest Products. Despite forest degradation, NTFPs contribute significantly to the economy of the study area. Almost all households living in the forest belt depend upon collection of NTFPs for consumption and sale. Mahua and tendu leaf are economically the two most important items, both primarily collected by women. According to the NTFP study done in MP for the reformulation mission, as many as 50 NTFPs are still gathered from the forests in the study area. Income per household (including an allowance for the value of non-marketed NTFPs) ranges from just over Rs.2000 to more than Rs.5000 and includes collection activities (e.g. edible plants, tendu leaf, seeds, etc.) and processing activities (e.g. basket-making, rope-making, de-seeding, etc.). This is in addition to the value of grazing, firewood and timber for house construction derived from the forests.

Gender Roles in Forest Use

Among the PTGs such as Birhor, Pahari Korwa and Savar, women play important roles in (a) food gathering from the forests; (b) rope-making from the bark of trees and sabai grass (Birhor); (c) honey collection; (d) herbal medicinal plant collection and processing, sale; (e) hunting and trapping; (f) basket-making; (g) shifting cultivation; (h) labour; and (i) fishing. Among the Birhors, sale or barter of rope in exchange for cash or grain is the exclusive work of women.

Food gathering is a vital economic activity even for women of the settled tribes. Various types of roots, stems, leaves, fruits, flowers and mushrooms are collected through the year. Roots and stems are the most important forest foods which constitute a major part of their diet. Leaves, vegetables and mushrooms are often consumed as complete meals.

The extent of women's income from NTFPs in the study area can be gauged from the fact that in Surguja district, Rs.14 crores are paid as wages for Tendu leaf collection annually, a product primarily gathered by women. In Surguja's east forest division in which 3 of the programme blocks (Kusmi, Lundra and Shankargarh) fall, Rs.4 crores are paid as wages for Tendu leaf collection and Rs.2 crores for Sal seed collection annually. Another Rs.2 to 3 crores are earned annually through the collection of other NTFPs in the unorganized sector.


Livestock raising is an important component of the tribal culture and of the production systems and is fully integrated with crop production. Cattle and buffaloes provide draft power, manure, play an important role in threshing operations and livestock constitutes a cash reserve for times of distress. Traditionally, livestock is grazed on common and wasteland and also in the forest during the monsoon season. Once produce is harvested, the stubbles and volunteer grasses become the main grazing areas throughout the rest of the year. Overall 70-90% of households in the programme districts in MP own livestock excluding poultry (mainly cattle and pigs) and the proportion increases to over 90% if poultry is included. Livestock is mostly of local breed. Tribal communities generally do not milk the cattle and milk is not a traditional part of their diet.

Dependence on Labour

Most tribal households depend on wage labour to eke out a living. Dependence on wage labour is much higher in villages away from forests, (for over half the year) when food from their own lands is not available. Wage work is done both within the village and in neighbouring towns. Within the village, it is mostly agricultural work whereas outside, the villagers work in brick kilns and as unskilled construction labour.

Women's participation in wage work is equal to that of the men. However, agricultural wages paid to women are almost always lower than those paid to men. (refer Table below15). Landless SC women are often the poorest and most dependent on wages. In many tribal villages, agricultural wage-rates are fixed in Gram Sabha meetings based on the paying capacity of the landowners. The tradition of keeping women's wages lower than those of men, while sustaining the low return agricultural economy, also means that it relies heavily on poor women's cheap labour.

Table. Range of Women and Men's Wage Rates in the Study Area


Women (Rs.)

Men (Rs)

Agricultural wages, local


Ambikapur block



Kusmi block



Dharamjaigarh (Rathia Kanwar)

4 tami rice + 1 meal

same as for women

Pathalgaon block (Gond Majhi)



Pathalgaon block (mixed)



Tonto block (Ho)

12+2 snacks

20+2 snacks

Government wage rates


Forest Dept.(MP)



JRY, Surguja dist.



Indebtedness. According to the rural financial sector study conducted for this mission, 58% of the tribal households in Bihar and 47% in Madhya Pradesh were indebted: the estimated average debt per indebted household was INR 2917 in Bihar and INR 5918 in Madhya Pradesh. Degree of indebtedness was found highest amongst marginal farmers in Bihar (75% of the sample) and landless labourers in MP (52%). In MP, around 67% of borrowing was for productive purposes and 33% for consumption. Borrowing for repayment of old debt was also a major feature of borrowing for non-productive purposes. Of the total borrowings, about 67% in Bihar and 50% in MP was from informal sources.

Availing of loans. A major reason for women not being able to avail IRDP loans is their not having any land or property which can be used as collateral by the banks. Even the studies done on rural finance for the mission found that women had next to no access to the formal credit institutions. In the study area in Madhya Pradesh, only about 13% of the sample households and in Bihar, only 11% households had availed of loans from formal credit institutions in women's names.



Gender Relations in Tribal Culture

It is widely recognized that tribal women enjoy a better status within their own communities than women in mainstream Indian society. There are few restrictions on their mobility. Women have considerable freedom of choice in the selection of marriage partners and tribal cultures have liberal norms related to divorce and remarriage by women. Due to their important role in the agriculture-cum-forest based tribal economies, women have traditionally enjoyed respect as economically-valued members of their communities. This is reflected in the tradition of bride price instead of dowry among most tribal communities. A major indicator of tribal women's better status even in the study area is the highly favourable tribal female to male ratio in almost all the blocks compared to those of other communities.

Among the settled agricultural tribes, however, there have been two crucial areas of gender inequality by tradition - property rights and political participation. Among most agricultural tribes in the study area, property, particularly land, passes through the male lineage and under customary law, women do not have inheritance rights to land. Under Section 3 of the Indian Succession Act of 1925, the State Government of Bihar has exempted most STs in the state from the purview of normal succession laws. Matters of inheritance and rights to property among these tribes are governed by their customary laws.. The second important area of gender inequality among the settled tribes has been that of political participation with women being excluded from traditional community institutions. The second important area of gender inequality among the settled tribes has been that of political participation with women being excluded from traditional community institutions.

Women of even settled tribes, however, have traditionally had control over their own income from wages or the sale or processing of NTFPs that they collect from common lands and forests. To some extent, this has countered the gender inequality in property rights by providing women a certain degree of economic independence and greater control over household food security. However, as discussed below, this position of tribal women is under threat of rapid erosion.



The majority of labour for agricultural production (between 70-80% by different estimates) in the study area is provided by women (see Table below for rice cultivation), yet government, and even most NGO interventions in the agricultural sector are generally blind to women's role in the farming system. Demonstrations and training in new technology, distribution of seeds and fertilizer as well as loans and subsidies are being targeted only at men16. The same is the case with the schemes of the horticulture and animal husbandry departments with all fruit plants, ducks, goats and chicken being distributed primarily to men.

Such an acute gender imbalance in access to new agricultural knowledge and resources created by such interventions is tending to undermine women's traditionally respected role in the production system. There is not a single woman agricultural extension worker in the programme districts in MP. A recent directive of the state government, however, has reserved one-third of future recruitment of agricultural extension workers for women.

Table. Gender Roles in Rice Cultivation


Performed by






Carrying manure to the fields







Ploughing is forbidden for women.

Breaking mud clods




Sowing rice



Women are forbidden from sowing rice seed.













Carrying to threshing ground




Threshing with bullocks




Cleaning the threshed crop




Packing main crop for storage



Seed selection and storage




Selling (if surplus available)



Small quantities may be sold by women. Sale of larger quantities is either done through consultation or by the men.

Age-old taboos also forbid women to perform certain tasks. These include ploughing, sowing the seed of the main rice crop17 (although the backbreaking work of transplanting paddy is considered exclusively women's work) and tiling the roof of a house. The women are liable to social punishment if they violate any of the three taboos. In essence, these prevent women from gaining independent capability in agricultural production or in acquiring shelter.

There were no such taboos for women of the foraging tribes. Seed broadcasting under shifting cultivation was done by women and women participated equally in house construction. Ploughing was absent in any case. With many of the PTGs shifting to settled agriculture, their women are rapidly internalizing the gender roles and practices of the settled tribes.

Changing Attitudes to Women's Political Participation

Considerable attitudinal changes towards women's traditional exclusion from political participation at both the community and higher levels are evident among the settled tribes. Three major processes have contributed to such change. Perhaps the most significant ones have been the political struggles of the tribals themselves. During the most dynamic phase of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's movement in the mid-1970s in the Chotanagpur plateau, women were encouraged to form women's associations in every village to fight against the `internal' enemies of polygamy and rampant alcoholism among men to revitalize tribal society. Large numbers of women were active participants in this struggle.

Secondly, under the ambit of different government programmes, mahila mandals (women's associations) have been formed in many villages as forums for reaching development inputs to women. Women's associations were also formed during the total literacy campaign for increasing literacy among women. Under the Bihar Education Programme, which is now being extended to all districts of the state, trained women animators organize women's associations for literacy and dealing with their other problems. Under the Government of India's DWCRA (Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas) scheme, women's groups are being organized in many villages for income generation activities. The reservation of one third seats for women in PRIs has had a visible impact in MP. Due to no panchayat elections having been held in Bihar for 19 years, such impact is less evident in Bihar. Other government programmes, such as JFM and Watershed Development, under which new village institutions are being promoted, are also encouraging women's participation in community affairs.

Lastly, there have been many NGO initiatives to organize and mobilize women. These include women's savings and credit groups, and advocacy groups for women's rights and against domestic violence.

Although uneven, the cumulative impact of all these interventions has increased acceptance of women's participation in government or NGO promoted groups and community institutions. The traditional male-only village assembly has either learnt to co-exist with such new institutions or has started to transform by accepting women in its ambit. Women still do not attend the traditional male gatherings unless specifically invited. When invited by the male leaders, they often turn up in large numbers. In the context of the continuing high levels of illiteracy among tribals, educated tribal women enjoy special respect in their communities and are gaining acceptance in leadership roles.

Trends of Change in Women's Rights

Despite women not having inheritance rights to land under customary law among most settled tribes, various social arrangements have existed to ensure adequate care of women in situations of widowhood, breakdown of marriage, single women and for families having only daughters.

Thus, widowed women acquired use rights to their husband's property for maintenance for life. On their death, the property passed into the hands of the husband's nearest male relatives. Both unmarried daughters and daughters who returned to their paternal homes due to breakdown of marriage, similarly acquired use rights in their paternal property for life maintenance. In the case of families having only daughters, sons-in-law could inherit their parental property if they agreed to settle in their wife's paternal village. Severe social sanctions for violation of these norms reduced the vulnerability of women in such situations.

The weakening of traditional institutions has reduced such traditional social protection enjoyed by tribal women. The rising value and scarcity of land are leading to a breakdown in women's maintenance rights. Several incidents of women inheriting land being labelled witches and being hounded out (occasionally even killed) by male relatives to grab the land, have been reported from the Jharkhand area. The worst sufferers in this category are widowed women in the age group of 55 and above.

During the field visits, it was found that unmarried daughters of Ho families are now allocated only one acre of their paternal land for life maintenance, while the rest is divided equally among the brothers, irrespective of the total size. Given the taboos against women ploughing, sowing and building roofs, such women remain dependent on their male relatives both for cultivating the land and for shelter. With many such women continuing to live with one of the brothers after the parents' death, their status and condition within such households needs to be understood better. There were also indications that the number of daughters remaining unmarried may be increasing for a variety of reasons.

Women Headed and Women Supported Households

In most of the villages visited, an effort was made to identify the number of women headed and women supported households to understand their status and food security situation. In the limited time available it was difficult to communicate the concept of women supported households (with the man either away, sick or prone to excessive drinking), due to which the villagers only estimated the widows in their villages. Between 7 to 10% of the households appeared to be headed by widowed women. The percentage of women supported households must be considerably higher in villages with rampant alcoholism and male migration. While in the case of some widows, land ownership had been transferred to their names, in others it had been transferred to their sons. Among the Gond Manjhi tribe in Pathalgaon, the widows now receive only 50% of their husband's land, the other half going to the woman's younger brother-in-law. In a mixed Oraon-Dehadi Korwa village, the tradition had changed to no land being transferred to the widow's name with all of it being given to the sons. In most cases, daughters inherited land only when there were no sons.

Control Over Income and Agricultural Produce

Traditionally, ownership and control over income earned through one's labour from non-private property strictly belonged to the person who expended the labour. Thus income from collection and processing/sale of NTFPs from forest lands belonged to the man, woman or child who had invested the labour in the activity.

In the case of produce or income from private land owned by the men, by and large the ownership rested with the land owner. This is most strictly observed among the Munda. Among the other tribes, although the ownership generally rests with the male `head' of the household, its management and control were shared by husband and wife. Due to tribal women's major role in trade and marketing, and having primary responsibility for household provisioning, they have also been the effective `managers' of household income and agricultural produce.

Threats to Women's Income and Status

Women in all the villages visited, categorically stated that they kept and controlled their own income (usually from wages, NTFPs and petty processing/ trading). As far as the husband's income was concerned, while some said that even the husbands handed over their incomes to their wives for household maintenance, in other cases, it either depended on individual husbands or the men kept their income in their own hands (see Table below).

Table. Women's Control Over Income Within the Household



Management and Control Over Income

Charhat Nala (Kusmi block)


Women keep their earnings; Men keep theirs.

Barhnijharia (Ambikapur block)


Women keep their earnings. Men also give theirs to the women for management.

Sunna (Bagicha block)

Oraon, Nagesia, S.C.

Women keep their earnings; Men also may hand theirs to the women.

Karmi Tikra (Pathalgaon block)

Gond Majhi

Women keep their earnings. Men also give theirs to the women.

Ramsai (Tonto block)


Women keep their earnings, men also give theirs to them. Either can sell agricultural produce for meeting household expenses.

Women's ability to retain control over their incomes and their traditional status are being increasingly threatened by some of the following factors:

State Government Policies for Women

MP is one of the few Indian states which has framed a state policy for women. Among other things, the policy advocates women's empowerment through increasing their access, ownership and control over productive assets, skills and resources and increasing their presence and participation in institutions at managerial and decision-making levels. Due to the important role of forests in local livelihood systems, the policy has a specific section on women and forests. This advocates ensuring that payment for NTFPs such as tendu leaf18 must be made directly to the women collectors, and that their membership of primary Tendu Leaf Cooperative Societies and representation in their managing committees should be increased and the proportion of women phad munshis19 increased to 50% by the turn of the century. New 'community' institutions also promoted by government have had some beneficial impact on creating space for women's participation in community affairs.



Typology of Households

For this study, households were subdivided into four socio-economic strata:

Perception of Poverty and Well Being

During the PRA exercise, an attempt was made to understand, from the perspectives of tribal women and men, the dimensions of poverty and well being. Independently of the tribe, caste or gender, landlessness (or very small holdings), followed by dependency on wage labour emerged as the main indicators of poverty. Subsidiary ones, in descending order, were lack of (or few) livestock, not enough food from the farm, no access to drinking water and low levels of literacy.

Indicators of well being for men from settled tribes were: (i) assured source of water though construction of tanks, water management, and/or lift irrigation (ii) access to good supply of improved seeds, (iii) regular monthly income and ( iv) having a school in the village. Settled women's perception of well being were: (i) food self-sufficiency, (ii) access to health and education, and (iii) having a large number of livestock.

Indicators of well being of men from PTG's were: (i) permanent rights to land, (ii) protection of crops from wild animals and (iii) easy access to NTFPs. For PTG women (i) having access to food throughout the year, (ii) good housing conditions and (iii) no consumption of alcohol by men emerged as indicators of well being.

Priorities at Village and Household Level

According to the PRA exercise, water management (construction/rehabilitation of tanks and construction of check dams and other forms of community irrigation), emerged as the overwhelming priority of all sample villages. Land development support for the uplands and better roads were the other priority for males of settled tribes.

Priorities for women were: (i) availability and proximity of fuelwood and water, (ii) availability of good quality seeds, (iii) education and (iv) proximity of a public distribution shop.

Priorities for men from PTGs were: (i) permanent title to land; (ii) license to collect NTFP, (iii) availability of good quality seeds and (iv) bullocks for ploughing. For women from PTG tribes, priorities were: (i) local employment opportunities; (ii) education for children; (iii) access to a public distribution shop; (iv) availability of seeds, and (v) construction of a causeway on the stream to allow passage of people during the rainy season.

1 In a Birhor village in Angara block for example, the majority of households were found dependent on seasonal migration for several months each year.

2 The relatively higher literacy rates among the ST population in Raigarh/Jaspur districts compared to those in Surguja district are attributed to the work of Christian missionary organizations.

3 All information on health and nutrition is based on the 1992-93 NFHS (National Family Health Survey).

4 Underweight prevalence among pre-school children in Kerala is 28.5 % compared to 62.6 % in Bihar.

5 Poor nutrition, excessive alcohol consumption and the lack of safe drinking water and health facilities in their settlements due to their small, scattered and remote nature, makes the situation grave for the PTGs if they become afflicted by an infectious disease.

6 By tradition, the Pahari Korwas also abandon the house in which a death has taken place.

7 In the interior Mutu village in Manora block, the tradition of both the women and the men getting together to discuss village affairs was found to be intact. In addition, groups of neighbours were continuing to work collectively on each others' private lands for agricultural operations.

8 In a Ho village in Tonto block, a number of younger men, not related to the traditional leadership, had heard about the movement for tribal self rule (TSR) and had taken the initiative to form a village association to organize the villagers. 2 of the 9 members of the managing committee they had formed were women.

9 In a mixed tribal and caste village in Bagicha block, although the community spirit was still alive, considerable socio-economic stratification had developed within the village. Ghasi Scheduled Caste members of the community were landless and the poorest while four Muslim traders were engaged in money lending and an Oraon teacher had accumulated 50 acres of land.

10 In Dharamjaigarh block of Raigarh district, a `Samaj Panchayat' of 23 villages of the Rathia Kanwar community was being held. The woman chairperson of a village forest committee (VFC) had gone there to raise the issue of her daughter, married into another village, being made to do what she considered an unreasonably high amount of work by her in-laws.

11 The decision about the Lo Bir Sendra (annual hunt) among the Santhals, about transplanting and wage rates among the Hos and seasonal management of cattle grazing among most communities, continue to be taken in Gram Sabha meetings.

12 One NGO working in the study area in Bihar, has been facilitating the development of such village women's associations which take up cases related to women's land rights, promote collective action against alcoholism and domestic violence, support income generation through NTFP processing and increase awareness among women about the legislation related to tribal self rule. Interestingly, initially they encountered strong resistance from traditional male leaders to women's active participation in the Gram Sabhas on grounds of its being against tribal `cultural traditions'.

13 Ragi (finger millet), Marua (Eleusine), Gundli (Panicum milare), pearl millet, other minor millets.

14 In the four villages within or near forests where PRAs were done in Bihar, as many as 91% of the total households were found dependent on collection and sale of firewood from the forests, an activity primarily done by women.

15 The mission came across only a couple of cases where the local wage rate for women and men was the same.

16 In Raigarh district, the only women beneficiaries were the minuscule minority of female landowners. The participation of women even in village-based training programmes was 1-5%. Only 3.5% of the beneficiaries of tank leases for fisheries in Raigarh district were women.

17 In the case of maize, however, the woman sows the seed walking behind the man on the plough. Women can also sow vegetables possibly due to vegetable cultivation being a recent introduction to the local cropping pattern.

18 Leaves of the Tendu tree, primarily collected by women and used for rolling cheap Indian cigarettes called Bidis are one of the economically most important NTFP in the study area. The annual turnover of the trade runs into many Rupees.

19 Local agents appointed for collecting tendu leaves on a commission basis.