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Tribal Demography

Tribal Demography Demographic Perspectives on India


Tribal Demography

Demographic Perspectives on India’s Tribes

by Arup Maharatna; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pp xx + 306, Rs 595.


ndia’s tribal population – as similar indigenous, minority or ethnic communities elsewhere – has been predominantly the subject of anthropological study, and Maharatna’s demographic study is a welcome complement to this. It focuses on India’s aggregate tribal population (that is scheduled tribes (STs) with a population of 84 million people in 2001); its distinctive characteristics vis-à-vis other groups, including scheduled castes (SCs). This distinctiveness is illustrated with chapters on the new state of Jharkhand and using primary research on the santhals in West Bengal. While largely a quantitative demographic study, the study does engage with anthropological and historical debates, including analyses of Sanskritisation processes as they presumably fairly directly influence demographic behaviour, the evolving definition of what tribes are and who are included under the categories.

The book starts with observations about the comparative growth rates of tribal and non-tribal populations, showing that longterm rates of growth have not been remarkably different. But significant variations to the general pattern exist, for example, between central and western states where growth rates among bhil, gond and munda have exceeded average growth rates, while those of santhals, oraons and mundas, for example, have been well below the averages. The book contains a detailed analysis of differential fertility as well as mortality rates across socio-cultural groups, their interaction, and how they have evolved over time. Taking up Kingsley Davis’ classic work of 1951, Maharatna emphasises the impact of historically higher female status and relative autonomy on the lower fertility rates among tribal women, late marriage norms, and relatively low tribal mortality levels – a trend that appears to have been reversed by the early 1980s.

The tribal population suffers from a range of various deprivations leading to poor health and education outcomes, impaired and poor access to facilities, generally low average standards of living, and their remote habitations – and I believe Maharatna is right that “systematic analyses of why they persist for so long, and how can they be remedied, have rarely been attempted” (p 55; the point is made with reference to education, but is of broader relevance). An interesting and important point in the book refers to the interaction between deprivation along tribal categories and gendered discrimination, how gender relations shape demographic outcomes, and how these have changed over time. Maharatna highlights the fact that sex ratios have not worsened as much as among other population groups (though use of under five ratios may have been more appropriate than those for men and women overall), as well as the higher workforce participation among tribal females. However, literacy data indicate significant gender gaps among tribal groups too, which according to Maharatna may be caused by the internalisation of anti-female biases that exist in mainstream society. Also, over time, changes in tribal marriage customs have occurred, “which could be a reflection of an ongoing emulation of the traditional Hindu ritual of marriage” (p 85), and an emerging trend in son preference among tribal groups has been noticeable.

‘Tribal’ as a Category

A couple of small points may be worth mentioning in this review. The different chapters could have been better integrated, as there is a fair amount of repetition throughout the book. At times, data could have been presented in a more reader-friendly way (e g, reducing numbers of decimals behind the comma), and some of the data is slightly outdated (inter alia leading to data on Bihar in 1991, where recent data of the bifurcated states ought to be available). Also, the analysis is strongly dataled, and the reader is often led uncertain about causes of quantitative trends, partly because of the absence of special largescale fertility surveys (p 154); moreover, the inability to differentiate between mortality and migration patterns as causes of unequal sex ratios (p 169) does limit the reader’s understanding of observed patterns. In the chapter on Jharkhand, where migration has been a significant phenomenon, the shortcomings in using census information to understand demographic patterns is particularly striking, and readily acknowledged by the author. Some of the categories used could be better explained, instead of as “not interested in education” as main explanation of educational deprivation of girls or “lack of faith in the medical system” as a main cause of untreated illness.

My main comment on the book however is with the uncritical use of the category “tribal”. While deeply rooted in administrative and academic languages, the book could have included a critical reflection on the importance of this homogenising category or use of expressions like “(an intrinsic) tribal socio-cultural pattern” (p 92). In fact, while presumably statistical tests of the importance of divergence within the group would be possible, a main contention of the book is that demographic behaviour among tribals as a whole is distinctive from that of other population groups (particularly scheduled castes). In fact, however, the book provides much evidence about diversity across tribal groups, including with reference to tribal mortality levels (p 160). The chapter on santhals is illustrative in this respect, as detailed fieldwork of migrant and nonmigrant households shows how demographic behaviour does change under the influence of socio-economic factors, in this case particularly seasonal migration. The study thus points to a very important research agenda, which would focus on the dynamics of demographic change, and how this interacts with aspects of deprivation of adivasi groups and gender relations among specific groups, which would in turn, highlight the differences as much as commonalities.



Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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