Development Lessons from Practice

A Better Life for the Scheduled Tribes

Lessons from Gadchiroli (Maharashtra)

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A Better Life for the Scheduled Tribes
Lessons from Gadchiroli (Maharashtra)

By: V Santhakumar and Subrat Mishra

1. Introduction

The Scheduled Tribes (STs) are at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI) in India. Based on the assessments of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP, Factsheet 2011), human development indicators of the STs are 54% lower than that of the other communities in India. According to this estimate, more than three-fourths of the ST population can be deemed multi-dimensionally poor. This is reflected in their educational achievements too. There is almost a 14%-point gap between the literacy rates of STs and others in India, based on the 2011 census. Nearly 50% of children from this social group drop out while transitioning from primary to secondary grades (based on the educational status recorded in the same census). Nearly 80% of them drop out when they are in grade X and so, only 20% appear for the high-school examination.

This deprivation prevails despite the inherent strength and many forward-thinking and positive characteristics of their way of life. The gender norms prevalent among them are more progressive than those among the mainstream society. This is reflected in a number of attributes including sex ratio, which is relatively favourable towards women compared to other groups in India. Interactions within the community are more vibrant and less hierarchical. Structural fragmentation like that between the owners of property and the landless-workers is rare. They also have an indigenous knowledge-base that enables them to survive in harsh natural conditions, and which can be valuable for humans everywhere.

 1.1 The overall improvement in the HDI of a state may not address the relative backwardness of the STs
This is evident from the situation in the state of Kerala, which ranks highest among all Indian states in terms of human development indicators. In spite of this, the rural poverty among the STs in Kerala remains more than two-and-a-half times than that of the state’s total rural population below the poverty line, which was 9.4 % in 2005 (HDR 2005). An assessment of a composite index of deprivation for different social groups of the state shows that the index is 115 % higher for STs compared to the non-SC/ST population. The STs in a district where there is the maximum concentration of them, are at the highest level of deprivation. The educational achievements of the ST population in Kerala are also poorer compared to the rest of the state’s population. There was a 15% difference in the illiteracy rates between them and the others. All these figures indicate that the relative backwardness of the STs may not disappear through the overall development of the state and it will require special efforts.

1.2 The tribal identity need not be a barrier to human development
The life of STs in certain regions of India are relatively better, as in Mizoram and other states in North-East India. Mizoram with more than 80% of its population belonging to the STs, is second in terms of literacy rate – 91.6% against 74% literacy in the country (HDR 2013). According to the State Human Development Report (2013:27), `the state is far ahead of the nation as a whole, especially in terms of upper primary enrolment’.

In Mizoram, as in other areas where the ST population is concentrated, the forests are the major natural resource with 90% of the land area covered by it. Community ownership of land and slash-and-burn cultivation are prevalent, though these may be seen as disincentives for enhancing private investment in agriculture. In essence, the tribal identity, forest dependence, or community ownership of natural resources may not be severe constraints in improving human development indicators as evident in North-East India. Hence, the underdevelopment of the STs in other parts of India may be due to other factors.

1.3 Parts of Central India with relatively better development status of STs
The northern blocks of the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra are an example of this. This area is at the eastern end of Maharashtra and is around 170 km from Nagpur. A major part of the land in the district is covered by forests. This district has nearly 45% of the population belonging to the STs. The dominant tribe is Gond, and there were elite sections or kings within this tribe. The total literacy rate in the district is 70.6% (based on the 2011 census), and the Gross Enrolment Ratio in schools is 80.7% (2011-12, Maharashtra Human Development Report, 2012). The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) has declined from 64 per 1000 in 2003 to 36 in 2010. The relatively improved situation of Gadichiroli becomes clearer when we note that the adjoining districts of Dantewada and Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh have literacy rates of 30.2% and 43.9 % respectively when Gadchiroli has a literacy rate of 60.1% (based on 2001 census).

2. Scheduled Tribes in the Northern Blocks of Gadchiroli

Our limited fieldwork in the northern blocks of Gadchiroli district (Kurkheda and Korchi) in December 2017 indicates a relatively better standard of living there. The tribal families living in this area use traditional methods to construct clean and comfortable houses. They have access to electricity and drinking water. All households have access to toilets and there are no visible signs of open defecation. Almost all children go to primary schools (mostly located within the village), though many drop out after completing grade X. There are boys and girls from these hamlets who pursue graduate and post-graduate education. A number of students from the ST families study in local colleges. Discussions with people there confirm that there is no serious issue of food poverty, which could be due to the access to land, and also the functioning of the public distribution system. Almost all households have land of reasonable sizes, ranging from three to five hectares. Since these hamlets are surrounded by forests, the agricultural land is fertile and can be used for one crop of paddy cultivation every year. However, their main source of income of these households is through the collection and sale of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), facilitated through the community rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). This and some other factors that have impacted the lives of the STs there are discussed in greater detail in the following sections.

2.1 Community rights over Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP)
Through the implementation of the FRA, the STs have community rights over NTFP from a specific area of forest around their settlement. These products include bamboo, Tendu patta (used for making beedies), Mahua flowers (which is fermented for making local alcohol), and honey. Though these people have been collecting these products even before the implementation of the FRA, their rights were not safeguarded and they had to sell these products mandatorily to the Forest Department. The forest officers regularly harassed them for bribes and commissions. With the implementation of the FRA, this exploitation has been done away with. The collection and sale of NTFP are not carried out by individuals but is mediated through the community. The communities auction the products that they collect from forests and sell to those who pay the highest price, which has enhanced their revenues.

We could see each household getting a substantial income (in relation to their other sources of subsistence) of around one lakh rupees or more annually through the sale of these products. There are settlements which have fewer households (10-11) where it is not unusual for each of them to get around a million rupees annually through the sale of these products. We saw that at the Grama Sabhas, the income that each household has received through the sale of NTFP has been displayed. This practice ensures transparency. So, people get a significant amount of cash income through the sale of NTFP, and food from the cultivation of private land, which may include a field for cultivating paddy and a backyard for the cultivation of vegetables and fruits.

2.1.1 Community rights vs individual rights
There are various reasons which make community rights better than individual rights over the use of forest resources. First, it would be difficult to allocate and enforce individual/ private rights over the use of certain forest resources like honey and bamboo. Also, a geographical area of forest around a human settlement can be earmarked (these days by using Global Positioning System – GPS) for its use. Such division of area among households or individuals would be much more complex.

Currently, there are two sources of revenue for each tribal household from the use of a particular forest resource such as bamboo. The first is the wage for collecting the item, and; the second is the royalty (revenue minus cost –wages and other items – divided by the number of households based on pre-defined criteria). This system ensures that even those households which cannot participate in the extraction or collection due to reasons, like illness will get a certain amount of revenue. In the case of individual rights, revenue for non-collecting households would come only through the transfer of their rights to others or through the employment of workers, and these may have other implications on the long-term use of these resources.

The enforcement of community rights also ensures some degree of control and discipline over individuals who may indulge in illegal and harmful practices like the cutting down of a growing tree. In case of any illegal activity, it will be the community that is answerable to the forest department and so they are more vigilant of the actions of its members. In the case of individual rights, communities cannot exert such peer pressure and individuals may indulge in trading these rights – formally or illegally – with external (probably non-tribal) people who cannot be controlled by tribal communities.

Community rights also help in the protection of forests as the tribal settlements are located within forests and the tribals who are familiar with the terrain move around in the forest for the collection of items assigned to them. This helps in reducing the overall cost of forest-protection.

Community rights also reduce the intra-community inequality and facilitate the strengthening of communitarian feelings among tribal households. Families that may be facing exigency situations, such as illness or demise of the head of the family, receive support from the sharing of the financial burden and resources.

2.2 Social and political activism
This area has witnessed different forms of social mobilization under leaders from tribal communities. There was an agitation and struggle (andolan) for land-use (land-encroachment) rights by the tribal population under the banner ‘Jabarn Jot Andolan’ (agitation for land encroachment rights) led by the socialist tribal leader, Late Shri Narayan Simha Uikey. He was five times the MLA from the Sangathana Socialist Party. Shri Uikey was active between 1952–1972, later the struggle was led by Late Shri Sukhadeobabu Uikey between 1977–2015. Besides leading the andolan to regularise the land ownership, these men also worked for jungle bachao andolan (save forests movement), sharab mukti andolan (freedom from alcohol) and rozgar (employment) guarantee.

2.3 Non-governmental organizations such as the AAA’s role
The organisation, Amhi Amchya Arogryasadhi (AAA) (meaning, we help our health) was founded by Satish Gogulwar1, a medical doctor and Subhada Deshmukh, a trained social worker. They were influenced by the `Agitation for Total Revolution’- a movement spearheaded by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and were active members of the Chatra Yuva Sangharsha Vahini (CSYV) – the youth organisation established by JP. Inspired by the ideas of JP to combine `Righteous Struggles’ and `Constructive Work’, Gogulwar and Deshmukh decided to bring these into practice in the northern parts of Gadchiroli district in the early eighties.

They joined the work started by Mohan Hirabai Hiralal and Late Shri Sukhdeobabu Uikey. Initially, they worked to support the agitation by the tribal population against land encroachment through the Jagruk Adivasi Sangathan (organization of awakened tribals) Their initial struggle along with the social movements led to the establishment of land-holding rights and consequently, the foundation of the organization in 1984.

An Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) was in place in Maharashtra during that time. However, the implementation of the program despite periods of seasonal unemployment and poverty in the Gadchiroli district was poor due to the lack of awareness among the people. The AAA began creating awareness of the EGS and encouraging people to demand the implementation of the scheme.

The AAA stayed connected with all the andolans supported by people’s organisations that were promoted by Late Shri N S Uikey. These organisations include the Bandhakam aur Lakud Kamgar Sangathan (Building and Wood Worker Association), and the Jagruk Adivasi Sangathan. Dr Satish Gogulwar was associated with Shri Uikey till 1984.

A message displayed in the AAA office

 2.3.1 Integrated approach towards health
Though Dr Gogulwari, the founder, is a medical doctor, interested in improving the health status of the population, he believed in an integrated approach towards health, which requires improvement in livelihood, water, sanitation, etc. The organization adopted the self-help approach reflected in their name towards better health for everyone. For example, the organization tried to address the deficiency in iron through the backyard cultivation and consumption of vegetables.

The Gadchiroli district also witnessed other notable initiatives to improve the health status of rural people who may not have access to advanced and institutionalised medical care. The spread of home-based neonatal care by the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH), an organisation founded in Gadchiroli in 1986 by two doctors Abhay and Rani Bang, is well known. There were systematic field trials of home-based neonatal care (Bang and Bang, 2005). They organized training programs for village health workers and traditional birth attendants. The initial phase of the activities of SEARCH was among the non-tribal population within the district. The AAA and other organisations have extended these activities among the tribal settlements. Through these efforts, the neonatal mortality has come down in the Korchi block of the Gadchiroli district.

Other programs by the AAA to improve the health status of the tribal population in the northern parts of the Gadchiroli district are:

  • Formation and strengthening of the functioning of Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committees (VHNSC) that come under the Primary Healthcare Centres (PHC) and sub-centres of these blocks under the community-based monitoring and planning in health. Different committees are formed at the PHC, taluk and district levels.
  • Promotion of neonatal homecare and providing health education to married women and adolescent girls.
  • Selection and training of a village-level health worker, in addition to one appointed by the government.
  • Operating mobile health clinics that benefit 75 villages in two northern blocks of the district with the goal to deliver health-care to the poorest and marginalised sections of the society. Mobile health clinics also facilitate health education.
  • Community-based rehabilitation of people with disabilities. Around 650 people receive support from the AAA under this program. With the support of the AAA and the local community, some of these beneficiaries have started small businesses. The organisation helps them in getting the online certificate of disability which is important for receiving benefits from the government. The AAA has formed self-help groups among people with disabilities and encourages them to safeguard their own rights.

2.3.2 Promoting sustainable use of Community Forest Rights
The efforts of AAA towards an effective and sustainable use of community forest rights are notable. They work to strengthen the tribal community organisations, the grama sabhas for the effective enforcement of community forest rights in six villages in the Korchi block of the district covering around 560 families. These areas are inhabited by the Gond and Kanwar tribes. The efforts were aimed at strengthening livelihood opportunities through sustainable harvesting, and the cultivation of local forest, agricultural plants, and trees.

GPS-based marking of community forest area was carried out for the selected villages. A biodiversity register was prepared for each village, and efforts were made to develop nurseries within the village to enhance the biodiversity in the forest area allocated to it. Centralised nurseries were developed to cater to the needs of different villages.

Bamboo plantations were cultivated through collective action in the community forest area, in about 100 hectares covering five villages. Bamboo is an important source of income for the tribal population and harvesting without replantation can result in the loss of an otherwise sustainable source of income.  Hence, the planning and implementation of a sustainable system for bamboo harvesting and cultivation are important for the welfare of the population dependent on it. There are successful cases where tribal communities have executed this with the help from the AAA.

Planting bamboo in the forests

2.3.3 Enhancing food security
To enhance the food security of the community, landholders are encouraged to strengthen the agricultural practices in the village. The traditional rice varieties and minor millets, like Ragi, Kodo, and Kutki, which have been conventionally used by these communities are being popularised.

Other farming activities strengthened by the AAA include the cultivation of crops that can provide a richer diet (oilseeds, pulses, carbohydrates); growing of Multi-level Backyard Garden (MBG) for tubers, creepers, vegetables and fodder; use of innovative low-cost micro-irrigation technologies (Steady Flow Pitchers, Bottle Drip, Gravity Tanks); recycling of the farm, backyard garden and cattle waste for manure and pest control; use of biological-mechanical-organic pest control mechanisms, and low-external-input-agriculture (indigenous seed banks, manure and pesticide from locally available resources).

Cultivation of plants and trees underway

2.3.4 Implementation of the NREGS
The implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) was a priority with the AAA since its inception. Towards this objective, they have worked with the local governments in this area to plan, implement and monitor this scheme. Some of the work carried out under NREGS also facilitates the sustainable use of land and forest resources. They have mobilized women and enhanced their access to credit through self-help groups (SHGs). The repayment rate of loans is around 96 %, which is a clear indication of the effectiveness of peer pressure within the SHGs.

In summary, relatively better human development indicators of the tribal population in the northern bock of the Gadchiroli district seem to have been achieved by the social and political activism of the tribal leaders and the constructive work and capacity building by organisations, such as the AAA. This hypothesis needs to be confirmed by considering the potential impact of a few other possible factors.

2.4 Ruling out the potential impact of other significant factors

2.4.1 Influence of Maoist forces
There is a presence of Naxalite (or Maoist) forces in a number of districts in this region, spread over the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra. There is no visible development in the lives of the STs in most of these districts and there is no clear indication that the presence of these extreme leftist forces has empowered the STs in any significant manner. Though the provision of land rights is an agenda of this political activism2, their success in this regard is not apparent. The FRA which legally accorded certain rights to the STs has not been implemented in letter and spirit in most of these districts other than those in Maharashtra but the implementation of FRA or the spread of education does not seem to be a priority demand on the part of Maoist forces.

2.4.2 Unique geographical features
The relative improvement of the development indicators of Gadchiroli may not be due to its unique geographical features because the districts which are neighbouring Gadchiroli but are under the state of Chhattisgarh that have not experienced similar development. Dantewada and Bastar districts of Chattisgarh also have a terrain and land-cover similar to that of Gadchiroli and have a substantial share of the tribal population.

The southern blocks of Gadchiroli too seem to be relatively backward in terms of human development indicators compared to the northern blocks where the AAA operates.

Table 1: Development indicators: North versus South Gadchiroli

  North Gadchiroli  South Gadchiroli  

1Rural Electrification63.36%40.03%68.82%18.31%23.81%46.71%
2Gross Irrigated Area6601 Hector3391 Hector8669 Hector539 Hector1779 Hector1597 Hector
3Number of Land Holding of a Family (Less than 1 Hectare)29878184287057
4No Land37172214249342214
5Total Persons working under MGNREGA220001400022000200035006000
6Percentage of Schools Fulfilling 10 Basic Norms RTE46.45%49.64%46.15%6.67%35.98%19.76%
7No of people who have migrated7.97%5.26%-17.24%10.63%8.63%
8Ranking of Blocks on Health Index7685911
9Banks Accounts Men86%75%52%68%66%-
10Banks Accounts Women90%75%53%62%58%-
11Literacy Rank Male
12Literacy Rank Women73.4565.4070.6745.6754.5062.45
13Percentage of Villages Connected by Roads60.8%37.6%74.7%27.3%29.1%35.2%
14Percentage of Household with Latrine Facility36.68%16.83%36.14%8.66%12.54%21.01%

There could be different factors behind this difference. There is an argument that the southern region was controlled by the elite sections (or kings) within the tribe and such a control was not conducive for the mobilisation of people at large. The movements, such as ‘Jabarn Jot Andolan’ (agitation for land encroachment rights) led by the socialist, tribal leaders Mr Narayansinmh and Sukhadeobabu Uikey, were not active in the region. The activities of the AAA were also focussed on the northern blocks and though it has attempted to extend its activities to the south, it did not receive the support it did in the northern blocks.

2.4.3 Policies and programs of the state
The relative improvement in the development status of the STs in the northern blocks of Gadchiroli is not solely due to the policies and programs of the state government of Maharashtra. The state of Maharashtra may have adopted progressive policies for the betterment of the Dalits and the tribal population ahead of its neighbours due to the political mobilisation among these sections there, however, this does not explain the improvement in the development indicators of STs in Gadchiroli district because of the difference that is evident in the development indicators between the northern and southern parts of Gadchiroli district. Hence the adoption of policies and programs by the state government, though important, may not be adequate to improve the development indicators of a set of people in the absence of their awareness and ability to demand and use public programs effectively. Local political/social mobilisation plays an important role in this. In addition, committed non-governmental organisations have an important role, especially in the capacity-building of people and their organisations.

2.4.4 Private ownership of land
Private ownership of land may not be the crucial factor enabling the development of the tribal population. This is evident from two facts. First, the per-capita land-holding of an ST household on an average is higher in Kerala compared not only to SCs but also to the upper caste Hindus. The Human Development Report of Kerala (2006: 65) notes that the average size of landholding among the STs is 0.68 acres, which is higher than that for the SCs (0.32 acres), OBCs (0.40 acres) and others (0.63 acres). Secondly, tribal households in Chhattisgarh and other districts of the region have also been allocated land by their state governments. The availability of land per se may not enhance the income or development status of the STs. Since they did not cultivate land traditionally, the lack of experience may take them longer to prosper through agriculture. The ownership of cultivable land or cultivation may not mitigate the vulnerability of the STs since farmers belonging to other social groups too face severe hardships in many parts of India. The experience in states, such as Kerala shows that a key determinant of the lower status of STs is the limited income that they get from non-agricultural work.

These discussions have indicated that the local, social activism and the work of organisations, such as the AAA have played an important role in the development status of the STs in the northern blocks of the Gadchiroli district. The tribal population there has benefitted from the implementation and effective use of community forest rights and local activism, and the NGO action has helped them in understanding, demanding and using their rights.

3. The Challenges That Persist

This description, however, should not give an impression that the STs of Gadchiroli district do not face any serious challenges regarding their welfare. Informal discussions indicate that the family sizes are large as the fertility rate (number of children per woman) continues to be more than three, and this may reduce the per-capita availability of land and other natural resources in future. There is the need to encourage them to control the family size, considering the improvement in life expectancy. This may require higher levels of education and engagement of younger women in skilled non-agricultural jobs.

Industrial development in the region is another important challenge. If the state governments allow private enterprises to extract mineral resources, they are bound to face resistance from the tribal population who suffer not only from having their share reduced but who also stand to lose these natural resources completely due to the unscrupulous ways employed by profit-driven enterprises. Models of sustainable extraction of resources and of sharing the benefits with local population must be implemented.

The youngsters will need jobs beyond their involvement in agriculture and the collection of NTFP. Opportunities to add value to the locally available natural resources must be explored for this purpose. High schools and higher education for the skill development for such value addition may be necessary. Interventions in the building of viable micro-enterprises by local people with the aim to enhance their productivity and income are needed. These may include the efforts to market local (farm and forest) products which are produced following organic methods.

4. The Need for a Continuing Role of AAA

The institution of community rights over forests, though necessary, is not adequate. There is no assurance that these communities will manage these resources in a sustainable manner. Harmful extraction of resources is likely when communities are undergoing transition and their people are interacting with the wider world in different ways (through the exchange of goods and services, migration, education and communication). Therefore, there is a need to consistently galvanize these communities to manage the resources available to them in a sustainable manner by strengthening community institutions with the help of external stakeholders (like non-governmental organisations). Efforts by the AAA to strengthen the grama sabhas so that they can persuade their members to follow good practices, are exemplary.

Fencing for the plantation in Bharritola village
Water stored for plants

The AAA has undertaken the implementation of projects, like the creation of bamboo plantations (and other such plants and trees) to replenish the resource base in the forests that have been undertaken. Their support will be vital in promoting innovations that can enhance the productivity of forest resources (like the use of biotechnology or tissue culture) and which do not require the use of external material inputs (like fertilisers) may be beneficial in this regard.

5. Lessons From Gadchiroli

The relative improvement in the human development indicators of the STs in the northern part of the Gadchiroli district of the state of Maharashtra could be due to a combination of enabling factors. Certain progressive policies implemented by the state of Maharashtra, which has a comparatively long history of Dalit and tribal activism, may have created an enabling environment. However, the realisation of the benefits of a state’s progressive policies and programs require local-level activism to generate the demand for the delivery and effective implementation of these. The local movements among the tribal population, such as those led by Late Narayansinmh and Late Sukhadeobabu Uikey, may have started that bottom-up process. Efforts by non-governmental organizations, such as that of the AAA may have enhanced the capacities of local people to improve their health status and to practice sustainable livelihoods based on natural resources. The AAA’s two-pronged approach has been to (1) empower people to demand public services and better implementation of government programs; (2) enhance their capacity to utilise local resources and enjoy a better quality of life.

The lessons from the Gadchiroli district can be summarised as follows:

  • Community rights over NTFP for the STs should be implemented as early as and as sincerely as possible.
  • There is a need to strengthen Grama Sabhas of the tribal communities so that they can mediate the collection and sale of, and the distribution of income from Non-Timber Forest Products.
  • The community institutions should be encouraged to use peer pressure and other ways to see that individuals do not extract forest resources in an ecologically harmful manner.
  • There may be innovative actions on the part of non-governmental organisations in collaborating with communities and forest department to strengthen the resource base (like the plantation of Bamboo and other such trees and plants) so that the incomes from NTFP do not decline in future.
  • There is a need to improve the quality of public services, especially education and healthcare by the government. However, this may require non-governmental actions too, firstly to try out innovative solutions by considering the specific characteristics of the region, such as low population density, distance to the cities, socio-cultural characteristics of the local people, and so on. Secondly, there is a continuous need to generate the demand for these services among these people. The average family size continues to be large and this can be addressed only through the spread of education among girls, delay of the age of marriage and access to better health-care.


V. Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University
Subrat Mishra, Program Manager, Field Practice and Students Affairs, Azim Premji University


This report is prepared by V Santhakumar and Subrat Mishra in collaboration with the founders and members of the AAA. Anant Gangola has facilitated this entire field study besides adding valuable suggestions to the initial drafts.


Bang AT, et al. 2018. Home-Based Neonatal Care: Summary And Applications Of The Field Trial In Rural Gadchiroli, India (1993 To 2003). Pubmed. NCBI. Ncbi.Nlm.Nih.Gov.
Dixit, Raman. 2018. Naxalite Movement In India: The State’s Response. Idsa.In.
Undp.Org. 2018. Human Development Report 2005.
Undp.Org. 2018. India Factsheet Gender And Social Exclusion Indicators.
Ihdindia.Org. 2018. Mizoram Human Development Report 2013.
Planningcommission.Nic.In. 2018. State Human Development Report Kerala 2005.
Subramanian, K S. 2018. State Response To Maoist Violence In India: A Critical Assessment. Economic & Political Weekly xlv (32): 23-26.



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