An interview with Abhijit Mohanty on “India’s Tribal Communities – the ancient guardians of heritage and biodiversity”

An interview with Abhijit Mohanty on “India’s Tribal Communities – the ancient guardians of heritage and biodiversity”

Photo: Kondh tribal women learning basic literacy, Hatipokhna village, Odisha, India. Photo credit – Abhijit Mohanty

[Tansi Godwill Tansi ] Could you tell me briefly about your work with India’s tribal communities, and their focus? Are certain tribes more your area of expertise than others? 

Abhijit Mohanty

I have worked with progressive philanthropic groups who primarily work with tribal communities. Over the years, I have promoted the model of ‘Eco-village’ among the tribal farmers in the South-western parts of Odisha. The model has enabled tribal communities to develop a model of reversal of ecological tradition of their lands and commons by combining traditional knowledge systems with agroecological farming. Major focus was placed on revival of traditional crops, addressing nutritional and food securities and ensuring crop diversification for better climatic adaptability.  I have also worked on addressing and preventing violence against women by promoting gender equity in the hinterlands of India. This was done by endorsing social transformation towards gender-equitable attitudes, including assertion and active resistance of violence against women.

Yes, there are certain tribal communities with whom I have worked very closely with. In Odisha they are the Paraja, Gond, Bonda, Soura, Dongria Kondh, Kutia Kondh. While in Himachal Pradesh they are the Kinnauri, Gaddi, and Gujjair. The Munda, Ho, Santhal and Kharia in Jharkhand. And the Tea-tribes in Assam.      

As someone who has worked with several tribal communities across India, I also write about human rights abuses, food insecurity, ecological and climate crises. My stories and photo essays attempt to debunk stereotypes and shift the victimization women face in the tribal communities. It also entails how they are building their resilience in the face of changing climates; how women are fighting against gender-based violence by negotiating peace and advocating for their invisible work. My clients include non-profits, international progress philanthropic groups, researchers and other change-makers.     

[Tansi Godwill Tansi] What effects of modernisation are ailing India’s remote tribes? How are their livelihoods, health, way of life, culture and perspectives being affected? 

Abhijit Mohanty

Development induced displacement is today a prime cause of discontent and impoverishment in India. In the case of vulnerable groups such as tribals, the burden and impact of displacement is perhaps most pronounced. The Indravati Hydro project in Kalahandi district has displaced around 18,000 forest dwellers, mainly the Kondh tribal communities and 11,000 hectares of virgin forest in Southern Odisha – one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in Asia. A total of 97 villages, including 44 villages from the undivided Koraput and 53 from the Kalahandi district, have been affected by the dam project. The tribal displaced villagers have neither the experience nor the temperament and culture to negotiate their lives amidst the ruins of their overturned existence. It has been also observed that many individuals cannot use their earlier skills at the new location; human capital is therefore lost or rendered obsolete. Economic marginalisation and a consequent drop in social status among the resettlers leads to a loss of confidence, in society and in themselves, fuelling a feeling of injustice and deepened vulnerability. The tribals are forced to live in juxtaposition with alien capitalist relations and cultures, with traumatic results. They are forced onto the ever-expanding low paid, insecure, transient and destitute labour market. For the people, the displacement is not merely from their lands, but also from their livelihoods, culture and the larger social environment. Compensation for land cannot compensate these deeper losses, making it imperative to derive an alternative attitude for development. 

[Tansi Godwill Tansi] Which remote tribes across India are suffering from loss of traditional resources and livelihoods? Could you give us some instances? How are state governments, non-profits and NGOs addressing this problem? 

Abhijit Mohanty

In Odisha the Dongria communities fought very hard to protect their Niyamgiri from VEDANTA – a London based MNC trying to exploit the hill range for its rich bauxite deposits. The Dongria had vehemently resisted the proposal from the very beginning, – Niyamgiri is their source of life. Thanks to the support and solidarity bestowed by community based organisations, civil societies, and international agencies, the Supreme Court unleashed a historic verdict in favour of the Dongria, consequently banning VEDANTA from mining Niyamgiri. 

Despite, the miraculous victory against the mighty VEDANTA, the Dongria have encountered several other problems. Traditional crops such as millets, pulses, roots, tubers which have sustained their food and nutritional security since millennia, are on the verge of extinction. The influx of outsiders has introduced hybrid crops, chemical inputs to their hinterland. Living Farm, an NGO head quartered at Rayagada district in Odisha, is working with the Dongria communities to revive traditional cultivation practices in order to cope with climate change, erosion, dryness, soil acidity and falling ground water levels. 

The overdrive for imposing development from the top has resulted in tremendous discontent among the tribals. There has been a real shrinkage of democratic space, as a consequence of which the tribals are no longer able to resolve their own issues of self-governance. The government brands every ‘tribal assertion’ an instigation. In the name of law and order, such assertions have been brutally suppressed. The numbers of cases, the number of prisoners in jail from schedule V areas are indicative of the state’s apathy. The Indian government takes pride in being one of the largest democratic countries in the world but has failed miserably in understanding the relationship that the Adivasis have with land, water and forest.

[Tansi Godwill Tansi] Could you provide us with instances of successful assimilation into mainstream society, if at all? If not, how can we assimilate these tribes into mainstream society? Are there any measures in place to enable this? 

Abhijit Mohanty 

Hmm… Do you think it is essential? I think there is a pressing need to redefine the meaning of ‘mainstream society’ for the tribal communities. I would like to begin with the words of Verrier Elwin, one of the eminent scholar of tribal studies in India, “Let us teach them that their (tribal’s) own culture, their own arts are the precious things, that we respect and need. When they feel that they can make a contribution to their country, they will feel part of it. It is therefore, an important aspect of their integration”. There is a need toincrease the ecological wellbeing of tribal communities, and the entire village resources system, thus leading to a positive self-image as self-reliance, and quality of life improve. The shift to a more ecologically balanced management of natural resources, and agricultural systems, will help improve production and income on a sustainable basis and in the process, will enhance indicators of socio-economic and political empowerment amongst the tribal communities. Science plays a very crucial role in ensuring holistic development in the tribal hinterlands. Training and capacity building should be provided to tribal youth, leaders and women on how to revive and sustain traditional wisdom while making improvements through modern science. 

The tribal are part of the Indian society, at the same time they are unique. Special policy and programmes are required to address and redress these differences especially in the context of globalisation. When we plan for tribal development, we have to regard these differences, take special note of their situations and capabilities and provide them facilities to develop in the direction they want to take. Outsiders cannot develop tribals; they can act as facilitators if they wish to do so. If they have to unfold from within, they must have participation in development decisions. Their felt needs should be transformed in development programmes. The tribals can participate in their development programmes only if they are considered to be equals and unique identities are respected.

[Tansi Godwill Tansi] Which remote tribes would you say are facing eradication because of urbanisation problems such as tourism, poaching, industrialisation, deforestation, etc.? 

Abhijit Mohanty

Over the past 20 years, large tracts of forest have been cleared in the mineral rich districts of Odisha to make space for mining industries. Apart from causing drastic climate change and a decline in wildlife, mining in Odisha has displaced and severely undermined the low-carbon-footprint lifestyle of hundreds of thousands of Adivasis and other marginalised communities. 

The case of bauxite mining by Utkal Aluminium International Limited (UAIL) in Baphlimali in Odisha is a classic example in this regard. This has severely affected the food and nutritional security of the various tribal communities like the Jhodia, Paraja, Penga and Kondh. The mining activity leaves a toxic residue known as ‘red mud’, a by-product of bauxite that percolates into the soil. Farmers complain that flash floods and rains bring red mud to their agricultural land, reducing its fertility. There is also a heavy loss of pristine natural vegetation due to the mining activity, which severely affects the local biodiversity. The plight of tribal women is worsening as they have reported an increase in domestic work hours since the disappearance of the forest, shrubs, bushes and contamination of water sources resulting from bauxite mining.

Despite the enormous benefits to the State and local populations, tourism also has many negative and destructive effects on ecosystem and local cultures of tribal communities. Take for instance of the Himachal Pradesh where there has been a paradigm shift from conservation and sustainability to commercialisation and consumerism. Cultural and social changes caused by tourism are affecting different aspects of social, economic and traditional relations, as well as severely affecting the communities’ sense of identity and dignity.  Additionally, changes in the conditions of the local ecosystem are having a direct impact on human health, through bacterial contamination of drinking water as well as farmland, and air pollution caused by burning of trash.  



Abhijit Mohanty

International development professional

[email protected]


Tansi Godwill Tansi

Founder and Chief Executive Director

ECoDAs Cameroon

[email protected]

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