Indigenous People and Poverty

Thanggoulien Khongsai
Tribals and Poverty
Even though there are many areas of vagueness where it is quite difficult to differentiate “tribe” and “indigenous” as a group or as a concept, they are often used interchangeably. The commonly accepted definition of the indigenous peoples, as worked out by the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities, is as follows:
“Indigenous peoples are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the society now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems” (Martinez Cobo, 1986).

 Even though this definition is highly debatable, it highlights commonalities amongst the indigenous populations of the world (of which the tribals are the constituents, and not necessarily vice-versa) – original inhabitants of land, formation of distinct, non-dominant sectors of society, with unique ethnic identities and cultural systems; strong ties to land and territory; experience or threat of dispossession from their ancestral territory; the experience of living under outside, culturally foreign governance and institutional structures; and the threat of assimilation into dominant sectors of society and loss of distinctive identity (McNeish & Eversole, 2005; 6). It is in this light that the ambiguity of the terminologies ‘tribe’ and ‘indigenous’ arises. The tribals in many parts of the world, especially India, shared the commonalities as mentioned above.
Whether they are called ‘Adivasis’, or ‘so-called aborigines’ or ‘the autochthonous of India’ (both Ghurye’s term as mentioned in Xaxa, 1999; 3589 - 3590), the tribals are more or less regarded as ‘Indigenous’ in the anthropological and sociological writings, more so in the former. Even though the indigenousness of various tribals are highly debatable, there is no doubt about the tribals of India being the original settlers of the particular area where they presently reside (Xaxa, 1999; 3592).

At the international level, the United Nations estimates that there are at least 300 million people in the world who are indigenous - belonging to 5,000 indigenous groups in more than seventy countries (UN, 2002). It is true that not all the indigenous people are poor, and many are not, but, in country after country, region after region, the pattern repeats itself: people who are indigenous are much more likely to be poor than their non-indigenous counterparts. There is in the terminology of Psacharopoulos and Patrinos (1994), a ‘cost’ to being indigenous.

Even though their study was mostly in Latin America where they found a huge correlation between being indigenous and being below the poverty line, with less schooling and lower earnings – where, in Peru, the indigenous people were one and half times as likely to be below the economic poverty line, as non-indigenous Peruvians, and the indigenous Peruvians almost three times as likely to be extremely poor; where, in Guatemala, 38 percent of all households were extremely poor – but this being 61 percent for the indigenous households (ibid.: xviii), - there are lots of similarity with India.

In India, the Scheduled Tribes’ literacy rate of 47.1 in 2001 as against 29.6 in 1991, leading to a gap with the non-indigenous to as far as 21.71 percent and 28.09 percent in 2001 and 1991 respectively (see table below, for details).
Comparative Literacy Rates (1991 and 2001) (Per Cent)
     ST    SC    Other than ST/SC    Gap of Other to ST
1991    29.6    37.41    57.69    28.09
2001    47.1    54.69    68.81    21.71
Source: Planning Commission (2005):

For a more, intensive in-look, the drop-out rate, amongst others, for the Secondary school also points towards the same direction of the tribals’ dispossessment.
Secondary School Dropout Ratios (Percent)
Year    ST    All    Gap
1996-97    84.2    70.0    14.2
2003-04    80.3    62.6    17.7
Source: Planning Commission (2005): Table 2.4.

Other Indices
The Human Development Index measuring the literacy/ enrolment level, the health/ longetivity and the income status of the individuals, can be a crude but simple way of measuring the status differentials of the individuals, and in short, a group. Even when comparing the HDIs (1991) for the STs, with those of the other groups of India, it is easy to observe the deep chasm between them, which is in correspondence with findings of the different researches done on the indigenous populations of the world. The variation, within and across states, showed similar trends.

Human Development Index (1991)
State    HDI (All)    HDI (ST)    Rank of All in the HDI    Rank of All in the National HD Report    Relative Difference of HDI between All and ST
1    2    3    4    5    6

Andhra Pradesh    0.527    0.392    4    5    35
Assam    0.479    0.529    7    6    -9
Bihar    0.408         9    10   
Gujarat    0.593    0.472    1    2    26
Karnataka    0.539    0.426    3    3    27
Madhya Pradesh    0.398    0.281    8    9    42
Maharashtra    0.592    0.409    2    1    45
Orissa    0.365    0.260    10    8    41
Rajasthan    0.496    0.340    6    7    46
West Bengal    0.518    0.397    5    4    31
All India    0.504    0.383              32
Source: Columns 2, 3, 4 and 6 are calculated by Institute for Human Development (IHD) and column 5 from Planning Commission (2002).

The same goes for the Human Poverty Index. Even though the tribals constituted about 8 percent of the Indian population, 80 percent of them belongs to the below poverty line (USDS, 2002).

Human Poverty Index
State    HPI (All)    HPI (ST)    Relative Difference of HPI bet. All and ST (%)    Rank of All in the National HDReport HDI    Rank of All in the IHD HPI
1    2    3    4    5    6
Andhra Pradesh    39.50    49.56    25    5    6
Assam    44.68    47.64    7    9    8
Bihar    50.28              10    10
Gujarat    26.36    38.97    48    2    2
Karnataka    30.26              3    3
Madhya Pradesh    38.20    52.23    37    6    5
Maharashtra    24.25    35.98    48    1    1
Orissa    45.04    57.47    28    8    9
Rajasthan    42.50    55.30    30    7    7
West Bengal    36.80    52.82    44    4    4
All India    36.94    47.55    29        
Source: Columns 2, 3, 4, and 6 are calculated by IHD and column 5 from Planning Commission (2002).

In an international consultation in 1999, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation made the following observations about the status of indigenous peoples around the world:
Life expectancy at birth is 10 to 20 years less for the indigenous people than for the rest of the population. Infant mortality is 1.5 to 3 times greater than the national average. Malnutrition and communicable diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue, cholera and tuberculosis, continue to affect a large proportion of the indigenous peoples around the world...indigenous peoples are over-represented among the world’s poor. This doesn’t mean only that they have low incomes...Indigenous people are less likely to live in safe or adequate housing, more likely to be denied access to safe water and sanitation, more likely to be malnourished...(Brundtland, 1999).

In the table below, the percent difference of 58 between the STs and all of the others in the “Child Mortality” undoubtedly shows the lack of health infrastructure and other facilities for the STs in India.

Status of STs in Key Health Indicators (1998-99)
     ST    All    Percent difference bet ST and All
Infant Mortality    84.2    67.6    24.5
Neo-natal mortality    53.3    43.4    22.8
Child Mortality    46.3    29.3    58.0
Under-five mortality    126.6    94.9    33.4
ANC check-up    56.5    65.4    13.6
Percent institutional deliveries    17.1    33.6    49.1
Percent women with anaemia    64.9    51.8    25.2
Percent children undernourished (weight for age)    55.9    47.0    18.7
Full Immunisation    26.4    42.0    37.1
Source: NFHS (1998-99), quoted in Planning Commission (2005): Table 2.11.

Whether it is access to electricity, or to safe drinking water, the STs in India lagged behind their counterparts, as can be seen from the table shown below.

Percentage of Households Having Access to Electricity
Year     All     ST    Gap
1991    42.4    22.8    19.6
2001    55.8    36.5    19.3
Source: Planning Commission (2005): Table 2.15

Percentage of Households Having Improved Drinking Water Facility
Year    All    ST    Gap
1991    64.1    43.2    20.9
2001    79.2    61.7    17.5
Source: Planning Commission (2005): Table 2.18.

The low self-employment of the tribals in non-agricultural activities in rural areas as compared to their counterparts, in a way, shows the heavy reliance of the STs on those occupation directly or indirectly influenced by agriculture.

Percentage distribution of population across household types for each social group and sector
Social Group    Rural    Urban
    self-employed in non-agriculture    agricultural labour    other labour    Self-employed in agriculture    ‘others’    All    Self-employed    Regular wage /salary earning    Casual labour    Others    all
ST    6.7    33.6    11.6    42.3    5.6    100    27.4    42.5    22.0    7.9    100
SC    15.4    41.1    15.3    21.2    6.9    100    30.9    42.9    22.5    3.5    100
OBC    18.7    21.2    9.5    42.0    8.4    100    46.4    34.3    13.8    5.4    100
OTHE-RS    17.7    14.1    7.7    48.7    11.8    100    45.3    42.0    5.7    6.8    100
ALL    16.5    24.9    10.4    39.4    8.7    100    42.9    39.4    11.7    5.8    100
Source: Report No. 514(61/1.0/7), NSS 61st Round (July 2004 - June 2005)

Overall, as can be seen from the United Nations Working Group on the Indigenous Populations, “indigenous peoples worldwide continue by and large to be disadvantaged in every sphere of life” (Daes, 2000). In line with this argument or empirical observation, it is very interesting to note what Martinez Cobo also has to offer: indigenous people were “at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. They didn’t have the same opportunity for employment and the same access as the other groups to public services and/or protection in the fields of health, living conditions, culture, religion and the administration of justice. They couldn’t participate meaningfully in political life” (Martinez Cobo quoted in Daes, 2000).

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