Paharias The Struggle of a Tribe for Recognition

31 Aug 2008


A study of the socio-economic profile and  vulnerabilities of one of the most marginalized communities in  Orissa-- the Paharia -- that suggests measures to help improve their status and livelihoods.

In India, around eight percent of the population belongs to the category of Scheduled Tribes. The tribes inhabit areas spread over the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal and the Northeastern States of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh.

The term “tribes” were first included in the Government of India Act 1935. The term “Scheduled Castes” was used in this Act to define, “such castes, races or tribes or parts of groups within castes, races or tribes, which appear to His Majesty in Council to correspond to the classes of persons formerly known as the ‘Depressed Classes’, as His Majesty in Council may prefer.

After Independence, the Constituent Assembly of India reserved the prevailing definition of Scheduled Castes and Tribes and conferred the responsibility of compiling a full listing of castes and tribes and also the power to edit this later, on the President of India and the Governors of states.

Hence, ‘tribes’ were placed in a separate schedule in the schedules to the Presidential Order of 1950 and are today known as ‘Scheduled Tribes’. Article 342 of the Constitution of India defines a ‘tribe’ as “an endogamous group with an ethnic identity; who have retained their traditional cultural identity; they have a distinct language or dialect of their own; they are economically backward and live in seclusion, governed by their own social norms and largely having a self-contained economy.”

Other definitions for “tribes” also abound. The word ‘tribe’ is used for a “socially cohesive unit, associated with a territory, the members of which regard themselves as politically autonomous” (Mitchell 1979). The term ‘primitive tribes’ was first used by western anthropologists to represent, “a primary aggregate of peoples living in a primitive or barbarous condition under a headman or chief.” (Sills 1972).

A community that falls under these definitions but not under the Government of India’s Schedule is the primitive tribe of the Paharias of Orissa. The Paharias live in the Southwestern part of Orissa with their highest concentration in Nuapada district in Orissa. The community is also present in the adjoining districts of Kalahandi, Koraput, Bolangir, Bargarh, Nabrangpur and Rayagada. A survey conducted by NGOs Sajag and Sahabhagi Vikash Abhiyan (SVA) revealed that around 1500 Paharia families (4241 persons) live in the Nuapada, Kalahandi, Bolangir, and Bargarh districts. (see Swain and Majhi 2001:3). Although no official compilation of the total population of the Paharias is available, discussion with the leaders of the community has revealed that their strength numbers at around 7000.

The Paharias’ case is unique. They were recognized as a Scheduled Tribe during the British rule but lost this status with the formation of the state of Orissa in 1936. They are now officially categorized as a socially and educationally backward class/other backward classes (SEBC/OBC) in the state and are therefore excluded from the benefits of the various government policies and programmes for the development of the Scheduled Tribes.

For centuries they have also been known as Kamars in this region. The Kamars in Orissa are blacksmiths and are categorized as Other Backward Classes. However, the Paharias in Orissa, though also known as Kamars, have not taken up this profession and still follow primitive methods of living. They remain a tribe with features that are unique to them. Additionally, the Paharias share a high degree of commonality with other tribal groups in the region.

The neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh is also inhabited by the Kamars, a Scheduled Tribe that is the counterpart of the Paharias in Orissa. Studies have shown that the Kamars of Orissa are not in any manner (especially socially and culturally) affiliated with Kamars of other states. These intricacies have caused much confusion – primarily the mistaken identification of the Paharias of Orissa with the Kamars of the same state. The map below shows the geographical closeness of the Paharias of Orissa with the Kamars of Chhattisgarh.

Over the decades, the Paharias of Orissa have languished in extreme marginalization. The socio-economic profile of the Paharias reflects this exclusion: a literacy rate of 18.1 percent, which is half the literacy rate of the Scheduled Tribes in Orissa; only one man has studied upto the graduate level; only two men have passed the XIIth standard; and only four men and one woman have studied upto the Xth standard. All Paharia families of Orissa are below the poverty line set by the Government of India and most of them are either landless or have “encroached” on government land. All Paharia families are below the poverty line – their average annual family income is just Rs. 3750 and 75 percent of the families have an annual income below Rs. 4000.

This adverse effect on the community has not been lost on anthropologists, NGOs, development agencies and government officials. However, concrete steps for the upliftment of the Paharias could not be taken due to the lack of information and research on this community.

Against this backdrop the present study was carried out with the following objectives:

(i) Prepare a socio-economic profile of the Paharia community of Nuapada district and the adjoining areas of Orissa, and also analyse their human, financial, social, physical and natural capital base and specific vulnerabilities;

ii) Present historical factors and processes that caused denial of Scheduled Tribe status to the Paharia community and the impact of these conditions on their socio-economic status over time;

iii) Suggest immediate measures which can be taken up by the state government for (a) empowerment of the Paharia community, (b) enhancement of their active participation in the development processes, (c) strengthening of their livelihoods, and (d) improvement of their access to basic services.

The primary suggestion in this study is for the recognition of the Paharias as a Primitive Tribal Group by the Government of India. In 2005, the Orissa government had sent a request, to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, for the inclusion of the Paharia (Kamar) community in the Constitution (Scheduled Tribe) order in respect of the State of Orissa. The state government has issued the order, pending inclusion in the list, to bring the younger generation of Paharias into the mainstream by providing residential facilities students alongwith pre- and post-matric scholarships, and extending assistance to the community under the Dispersed Tribal Development Programme (DTDP). However, the Central government has not yet been able to accord the Paharias the status of Scheduled Tribes.

The primary occupation of the Paharias is bamboo crafts and secondary occupation is primitive agriculture. Besides bamboos they also collect other Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) to supplement their livelihood and income. However, most Paharia cultivators are considered “encroachers” of government land. Politically, they are weak as they lack awareness and representation. Provisions of basic services such as education, health, housing and clean drinking water are either absent or extremely poor in Paharia villages.

Given the extreme and multiple nature of deprivation of the Paharias, there is a need to adopt an integrated approach to promote their all-round development. It is essential that the government restore the lost scheduled tribe status, preferably the primitive tribal group status, so that the Paharias obtain access to benefits meant for them. However, not much progress can be made without an understanding of the Paharias as a people. Acute paucity of literature on the life of the Paharias has been a barrier to taking the first steps towards change.

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