The tribes themselves display a very high degree of diversity in their ethnic and linguistic characteristics. This diversity is evident from the fact that the Scheduled Tribes consist of 354 different communities. These tribes have some unique social and economic characteristics. These tribal communities normally live in areas which are by and large unfavourable for settled agriculture. Their occupations and way of life are intrinsically linked with the environmental setting of these areas.
Most of the tribal people are from the Negrito, Australoid and Mongoid stocks. The people belonging to these categories are engaged in primary activities of gathering forest products, hunting, fishing and traditional and shifting agriculture. It is believed that these people were pushed back into the areas of comparatively harsh environment with the growth of modern civilization.
All tribal people follow very ancient religious beliefs and practices and inhabit in forest and hilly regions cut off from modern civilization. In India after independence efforts have been made to develop these regions economically by setting up factories, roads, and railways on the basis of natural resources available in these region and to bring the tribal’s into the mainstream of national life.
The 1961 census recorded a population of little over 30 million persons as belonging to the category of Scheduled Tribes. They accounted for 6.87 per cent of the country total population.
By 1981 the numerical strength of the Scheduled Tribes rose to 51.6 million persons accounting for 7.76 per cent of the total population of India. In 2001 their strength was 84.3 million accounting for 8.02 percent of the total population of country. This happened because of natural growth of population and also because additions were made to the list of Scheduled Tribes time and again.
Patterns of Spatial Distribution:
There is depiction of highly uneven distribution of population of tribal groups between the States of India due to their strong tendencies of clusterng and concentration in the hilly and forested tracts of the country. The States and Union Territories with rich alluvial plains favourable to agriculture such as Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, UP and Chandigarh have either no tribal population or the proportion of tribal population is negligible. West Bengal and Assam lying in the plain are exception because they support sizeable number of tribal population. In fact, their share is equal to or a little higher than the national average of 8.08 percent.
There are three zones in India where tribal populations are concentrated (i) The Northern and North-Eastern region comprising of the hilly areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh etc. Some of the important tribes of this region include Angami, Lotha, Sema, Kuki, Khasi, Garo, Monpa, Sangtam, Lushai and Naga (ii) The Central region comprises of the forested and hilly areas of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Northern Maharashtra, Southern Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Orissa. The region extends mostly between the valleys of Narmada and Godavari rivers. The Kharia, Bhuia, Santhals, Bhil, Gond, Kol, Muria, Katkari etc. are the major tribes of this region, (iii) The Southern region extending over the Southern part of the Western Ghat includes the tribal areas of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. Some of the oldest tribes of the India live in this region. Toaa, Iruda, Chenchu, Yurva, Panian, Kanikar, Malvdan and Malpantram are the major tribes of this region.
Scheduled Tribes constitute largest proportion in the total population in Lakshadweep (94 percent), Mizoram (93 percent), Nagaland (84 percent) and Meghalaya (81 percent). Manipur and Tripura have a comparatively lower proportion—less than 30 percent.
As far as the total population of the Scheduled Tribes is concerned, the States of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and West Bengal together account for about 80 per cent of the entire tribal population of the country.
On the other hand the States and Union Territories with high tribal percentage have a far lesser share in the country’s total tribal population accounting for only one-twentieth part of the total tribal population.
Since tribal people live in areas having a low degree of accessibility and generally unfavourable for advanced forms of agriculture, but at the same time vast untapped natural resources are available for development. The need for exploiting these resources to the benefits of the nation has exposed the tribal areas during the last hundred years or so to the non-tribal groups skilled in superior techniques. However, these developments have brought about a dislocation and even destruction of the tribal forms of economy, way of life and culture.
The government has initiated the policies of socio-economic development of tribal and due consideration has been given to the problems of tribal areas created by their interaction with the non-tribal population.
The various separate programmes during the planning periods have been exclusively launched for tribal areas and their people for their cultural, social and economic development. It is further hoped that future planning for the social and economic uplift of the tribal areas will help these groups in sharing the fruits of economic growth without destroying good qualities of their culture and without forcing them lose their cultural identity.