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How My Christmas Vacation in India Helped Me Understand the Country’s Unsung and Unheard Adivasis

How My Christmas Vacation in India Helped Me Understand the Country’s Unsung and Unheard Adivasis

  • While there is still a long way to go to improve tribal populations in India, it is imperative to recognize that many attempts are being made to create a more equal society.

According to a World Bank brief, India’s “Adivasis,” otherwise known as the scheduled tribes, account for about 8.6% of India’s population (104 million as of the 2011 Census). However, what is more devastating is that they account for one-fourth of its people living in the poorest wealth quintile. Assigning sole numerical value to these statistics seems effortless. This is not only because these groups are the minority, but also unsung and unheard of. 

However, my Christmas vacation to India shed a fresh light, and these numbers soon started to flourish into the faces of the tribal peoples. 

December 28, 2022

As my family and I took underdeveloped routes to our resort in Attapadi, a northern hilly area in Kerala, I couldn’t help but notice the densely constructed houses built out of sticks intertwined together with stacks of hay as roofing to complete the shelter. As an urban dweller from an American city, I assumed and romanticized the simplicity and tranquility of their village life. I felt them as seeking refuge from the fast-paced urban lifestyle that my family and I acceded to.

However, all my misconceptions came to an end when I found out that they were scheduled tribes who were isolated by society, therefore, causing them to face problems unimaginable to people like me living in the U.S.. After this heart-breaking experience in Kerala, India, I decided to do some more research about these groups who are facing crises because of their inability to keep pace with India’s fast-moving urbanization.

I soon found out that the tribe I witnessed in Attapadi was the Irula tribe. They make up 84% of Attapadi’s tribal groups. Their traditional occupation is hunting and fishing, from which they derive their resources. There are at present about 104 Irula hamlets in Attapadi. Traditional Irula houses are made of bamboo, mud, and grass and are built in a row close to one another.

My research revealed that tribes in India are spread across the country, specifically in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and more. However, much like the tribes I saw in Attapadi, tribal populations across the country also face this issue.

The Problem: Health, Isolation, and Education

Indian tribal populations suffer from chronic illnesses and ailments, especially water-borne diseases. They are also afflicted with deficient disorders. Due to a shortage of iodine, Himalayan tribes suffer from goiter. Infant mortality was high in some communities. Malnutrition is also frequent and harms tribal children’s overall health because it reduces their capacity to resist infection. Additionally, because of ecological imbalances created by human interferences, such as tree cutting, the distance between settlements and forest regions has increased. This causes tribal women to traverse longer distances in search of forest produce and fuel, affecting the health of the tribal population and the availability of their resources.

The British strategy of “divide and rule” also caused significant harm to India’s tribal minority. The British imposed their systems on tribal areas, depriving the population of their traditional values and ways of engaging with the people. The British enacted the Criminal Tribes Act, which reinforced the notion that indigenous peoples were criminals, further alienating the population. This lasted long after India gained independence, with its effects still prevalent after 75 years of India’s independence.

Because many tribal populations fight to survive through economic exploitation, education becomes a secondary issue for most of these tribal communities. The Scheduled Tribes have literacy rates of merely 59%, which is much below India’s total literacy rate of 74%.

Limited infrastructure and transportation networks worsen the situation even further, as students must travel considerable distances to the nearest school, posing a substantial obstacle to regular attendance. Furthermore, language barriers hinder indigenous groups’ access to schooling. This lack of language inclusiveness impedes efficient communication and comprehension, resulting in educational inequalities.

The Current Progress and Situation

While there is still a long way to go to improve tribal populations in India, it is imperative to recognize that many attempts are being made to create a more equal society. For example, in Odisha, the Schedule Tribe’s overall literacy rate increased from 23.4% in 2001 to 41.2% in 2011. Government policies are also being enacted and organizations are working to build awareness throughout the country. 

However, one such triumph stands out and marks a pivotal point in history.

In 2022, Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman, was appointed India’s 22nd president. Born in Odisha, as a tribal woman, in the Uparbeda village, she is the first tribal woman to be elected as India’s president. President Murmu’s victory gives not only India but also many tribal communities hope for their future.

The Solution

While progress is being made today, ensuring that improvements are made at a fast pace, and tribal communities are truly benefitting from these situations, considering solutions for tribal betterment is crucial.

See Also

When it comes to improving the health of the tribal population, solutions should aim at developing local healthcare infrastructure. This involves the establishment of hospitals in tribal populations. After thorough research, Philanthropies in the US should partner with Non-Profit organizations in India to hold virtual sessions and educate the tribal population about health.

These initiatives must be given in local languages. Community health professionals (locally) can also play a significant role in spreading information and encouraging healthy practices. Through the help of social media, we can spread more awareness, resulting in action by the government. Some examples of initiatives by the government that have worked and should be continued at a faster pace are tribal health sub-centers, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program for maternal and child care, and the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) as well as the National Health Mission (NHM) to help allocate funds and resources to tribal areas.

The isolation of tribal communities from the general population can be mitigated by recognizing and valuing tribal cultures’ indigenous customs. It’s critical to support initiatives to document and promote their cultural history. Philanthropies in the U.S. and India can sponsor photographic teams to preserve artistic photography of tribal culture as well as advertise tribal art like singing and dancing. It is also crucial to introduce income-generating enterprises such as agroforestry, ecotourism, and handicrafts to economically empower indigenous inhabitants while protecting their traditional identity and natural resources.

A better education system can be built by improving local infrastructure through non-profit organizations and the recruitment of volunteers from schools and colleges. These volunteers can link themselves with similar students of tribal communities or volunteers from originations in India and create a curriculum from renowned institutions giving tribal communities the best learning opportunities. 

This curriculum must be in tribal languages and promote multi-lingual education, further helping the tribal communities to obtain the latest knowledge and opportunities without sacrificing the traditional languages and their identity.

As the largest democracy in the world and the 5th largest economy, I truly believe that the solution to these problems faced by the tribal community will be found through groups collaborating between the U.S. and India. And much like German Physicist, Max Mueller, quotes, “If I were asked under what sky has…most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India.”

(Top photo, a representative photo of Indian tribals, courtesy

This essay by Prerna Chakkingal was runner-up in the high school category of the 2023 Youth Essay Competition organized by the India Philanthropy Alliance (IPA), a U.S.-based coalition of 16 nonprofit, philanthropic, and charitable organizations focused on India. 

Prerna Chakkingal is an 11th grader in McDonald, Pennsylvania. She will be gifting her $500 award to The Highrange Rural Development Society. 

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