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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

’Who Is Civilised?’: In Praise of Tribal Traditions, Society, and Culture in India

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Arup Maharatna


There can be little dispute that the socio-cultural norms, practices, and rituals in the mainstream Hindu tradition subsume a deep ideological repugnance towards gender equality. But this contrasts with the country’s overall tribal culture and society. Indeed, the latter, which has for long been exterior to the patently patriarchal and caste-hierarchical Hindu socio-cultural orbit, is traditionally characterised by a high degree of gender equity with its many admirable demographic concomitants (for example, lower infant and child mortality and fertility). However, India’s tribal peoples have not exactly been insulated from the mainstream society and culture, and they have indeed been absorbing since long many of the mainstream socio-cultural features and values, particularly kinship patterns including gender inequities and biases. None can possibly doubt that this is a disturbing trend contrary to the oft-proclaimed goal of effacing India’s ‘infamous’ distinction of being a land of deep-rooted anti-female biases and discriminations. Ironically enough, as I argue here, it is some of the basic values and ideology imbibed in the traditional tribal socio-cultural milieus that should have been emulated and promoted amongst the non-tribal mainstream, not, as has been going on, the other way round.

The term ‘tribe’, as is widely known, subsumes enormous complexities—both anthropological and historical. However, the British India Censuses used to enumerate tribes as Animists until the 1931 Census, in which they were categorised as those practicing ‘Tribal Religion’. Thus, up to the 1941 Census, the criterion of primitive or tribal religion enabled the British census authorities to bypass many complex anthropological issues surrounding the notion of ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’.

Kingsley Davis, a celebrated authority on India’s demography, who pioneered the imaginative and meticulous use of British India’s Census information, calculated the number of children aged 0-4 years per 1000 women (this is called child-woman ratio, CWR for short) as a rough measure of human fertility, which turned to be the highest for the aggregate tribal people amongst all major religious groups in the early twentieth century. In explaining the fertility of overall tribes, whom Davis called ‘most prolific’, he invokes a notion of ‘aboriginals’ naturally high fertility’, coupled with the Indian tribes’ permissiveness of widow remarriage not permitted amongst the Hindus.

However, whether the fertility of the ‘aboriginal’ people is (and/or had been historically) parti-cularly high in the global context is far from conclusive.1 For example, there have been for long some fertility-suppressing features of the traditional tribal marriage system. Indeed India’s tribal females used to get married traditionally much later than their Hindu counterparts, apart from the former’s higher rate of celibacy. Besides, a higher CWR in a section of the population could also obtain if the relative mortality of children vis-à-vis adults was comparatively low in comparison with other section of the population and/or if vice versa. For instance, if the tribal maternal mortality were sufficiently high, a higher CWR in the tribal population could go hand in hand with a lower average number of children born per tribal woman. Indeed, the Report of the Census of 1911 on Central Provinces and Berar reported ‘more than proportionate death-rate of women in child-birth’. (Census of India 1911, vol. 10, Part I, p. 118) In the same vein, the Census of 1931 information shows that ‘while the proportion of aged people is comparatively small among the tribal people, that of children 0-5 years is decidedly higher than it is among the higher castes; among Hindus it is 15 per cent but among the tribal it is 19 per cent’. This is what researchers have sometimes called ‘phenomenal absence of aged people among the tribal people’.2

Thus, the relatively low infant and child mortality (vis-à-vis adults) in the tribal population, if true, could provide a clue simultaneously to their relatively high CWR on the one hand and a stability of their relative population size vis-à-vis a secular decline for the Hindus over the first half of the twentieth century on the other. In fact our own demographic estimates (based on an ‘indirect demographic technique’) show lower levels of both mortality and fertility among aggregate tribal people than those of the Hindus in the early last century India, reinforcing further doubts on Davis’ hypothesis of highest tribal fertility.3 A brief overall portrayal of an admirable demographic regime (that is, relatively low fertility and mortality) among India’s tribes sounds pretty vivid in the following remarks made as late as 1985 by C. von Fürer-Haimendorf, a celebrated authority on Indian tribes over the large part of the last century:

....only one or two generations ago many tribal communities enjoyed the advantages of a well-balanced ecology fully in tune with the natural resources of their environment and boast an overall quality of life superior in many ways to that of large sections of the Indian rural population. Adequate food-supplies, non-exploitative social structure, freedom from indebtedness and other forms of dependence on non-tribal outsiders, equality of the sexes and a remarkable tolerance in all interpersonal relations were outstanding characteristics of such tribal societies. Moreover there seems to be no reason to assume that their way of life could not have continued for the foreseeable future without requiring any aid from outside sources, particularly as in most tribal areas there was no excessive population growth threatening the ecological balance.4

NOTABLY, the existing—albeit scattered—survey findings on diverse individual tribes across India also do not posit tribal fertility as being essentially higher than that of their non-tribal counterparts.5 For instance, in the 1921 Census, the Gonds of Central Provinces and Berar registered the lowest average number of children ever born (and also the highest proportion surviving) to the couples who had completed respective reproductive career (that is, who have remained in the married state up to the age 44-49 years).6 Likewise, India’s historical anthropo-logical evidence also generally vindicates the lower levels of mortality among tribal infants and children—a fact which could have at least partly contributed to a relatively high CWR observed for the tribal population in the early twentieth century. A low-fertility-mortality regime has continued to be evident among the tribe people of the region in the 1950s and even later through the 1980s.7 Apart from the global literature of historical anthropology portraying a (comparatively) low-fertility-mortality regime amongst the tribal communities,8 it is not very far to seek several plausible reasons for a similar scenario to have been germane among many major tribes of India particularly in the historical past.

First, some leading anthropologists of British India reported about the (relatively) low fertility and also about their use of indigenous methods of birth control (including abortion) in some major tribal communities such as the Baiga, the Gonds of central India.9 Also, the traditional tribal custom of relatively late entry into marital union (vis-à-vis the Hindus) should also have been a contributory factor towards a lower tribal fertility. In the early twentieth century India, about fifty per cent Hindu females aged 10-14 years were found ‘married’ as against the corresponding tribal proportion of only twenty per cent. While ninety per cent of Hindu females in 15-19 year age group got married (in the Madras Presidency in 1921), about half of the tribal counterparts were found in the ‘never-married’ state (for example, in Central Provinces and Berar). The proportion of ‘unmarried’ women aged 20-24 years used to be about three times as large in overall tribal population as compared to that of their Hindu counterparts. For example, the average age of marriage of tribal females in Mysore was found to be 18.1 years in the 1901 Census, as against only 14 years among their Hindu counterparts.10 A typical tribal girl has traditionally been far more ‘liberated’ than her Hindu counterpart so as to choose the prospective groom through, as it were, pre-marital love affairs and somewhat free mixing with the prospective spouses.11

H.H. Risley, India’s Census Commissioner in the early twentieth century, wrote about Santhali girls getting ‘married as adults mostly to men of their own choice.. [while] high-caste Hindus marry their daughters between the ages eight and twelve’.12 Even in case of some tribes like Bondos, ‘girls prefer to marry younger boys’.13 Added to this was a much higher celibacy rate among the tribal females too. According to the Census information for 1911 and 1921 in such locations as Bihar, Orissa, Bombay, the proportion of never-married tribal women in their forties—though it was smaller than in historical Europe—has been much larger than (for example, three-four times) the figures for their Hindu counter-parts.14 This presumably has exerted a negative influence on the fertility of the tribal population (vis-à-vis that of the Hindus). However, the proportion of widowed women (who are outside the realm of conceptions) has generally been much less among tribals—a fact which, as was much emphasised by Davis, should have put an upward pressure on the tribal fertility (vis-à-vis that of Hindus).

However, the fertility-suppressing effects of the traditional tribal nuptial features (for example, relatively late marriage and high celibacy) seem to have been, on balance, no less—indeed somewhat greater—than those resulting from the Hindus’ social sanction against widow remarriage.6 This—in the absence of direct information on past fertility levels by social group—provides (at least) some indirect evidence of a lower—or (at least) not higher—tribal fertility than that of the Hindus as far back as the early last century.15

Tribal customs of relatively delayed female marriage resemble some of the typical European marriage patterns, wherein an adult male has to work and wait for marriage until he has accumulated enough savings for setting up his independent household (and in addition in case of tribal males, for often paying a bride price—albeit nominal and/or rather symbolic).16 It was not really rare among the Hos of Chhotanagpur for a tribal girl to wait till her mid-thirties before her prospective/chosen groom could save at least as much as to pay for the bride-price.17 Thus like large parts of historical Europe where fertility had been comparatively low owing to delayed marriage and high incidence of spinster-hood, Indian tribes, too, historically used to marry late with the result of their relatively low fertility.18 Even in the more recent past researchers have found (comparatively) low tribal fertility in various Indian locations, which is largely attributable to their traditional marriage patterns resembling those of historical Europe (that is, relatively delayed marriage and high proportion of never married).19

IT can be argued that that above-noted traditional tribal features of marriage reflect, and/or partly stem from, a greater female autonomy and status that have historically been the hallmarks of overall tribal culture and society in India. For example, the Report of the Census of India 1901 wrote about Santhali girls that ‘they generally married men of their own choice [and] sexual intercourse before marriage is tacitly recognised’.20 Indeed, the evidence—albeit scattered—of higher female status/autonomy in almost all walks of life (for example, decision-making, freedom of movement) in tribal societies abounds in the Indian anthropological literature. These traditional tribal features of marriage, consistent with and/or founded on a high degree of female autonomy and gender equity, reflect in turn a socio-cultural framework/structure which is conducive to producing (relatively) ‘superior’ demographic outcomes (for example, low fertility and infant and child mortality). The above argument is reaffirmed by a considerable contemporary evidence for the mainstream population showing a close inverse association between various indicators of female status/autonomy and major demographic outcomes such as fertility and infant and child mortality.21

Historically, the more patriarchal Hindu society—pretty distinct from the overall tribal traditional kinship features—has had inherent fertility-raising forces. First, in the former the control over fertility decisions typically rests with the older members, who can often derive disproportionately large benefits from a large family.22 Second, woman’s insecurity arising from her economic and social dependence on men, breeds a strong desire in her to produce as many sons as, and as soon as, possible as an insurance against the risk of events which threaten her wellbeing (such as loss of husband’s support). Various restrictions on female autonomy are often likely to suppress innovative behaviours favourable to reproductive regulation and control. Since a large part of the cost of child-bearing/rearing is borne by women (for example, captivity during pregnancy, risk of maternal complications and death), women’s inherent disincentives against frequent childbirth remain greatly suppressed by stark patriarchal subjugation.

Higher levels of population sex-ratio [that is, the number of females per 1000 males] and women’s participation in directly productive work are generally held to mirror higher degrees of gender equality and female autonomy. Historically, more balanced gender relations in the tribal communities (vis-à-vis the Hindu population) are amply testified by the former’s far more balanced sex-ratio. For instance, the Report of the Census of India 1931 read as follows: ‘[t]he general conclusion as to the sex ratios of India proper is therefore that in the aboriginal tribes the numbers of two sexes are approximately equal, whereas in the rest of the community males exceed females.’ (Government of India 1931: 200) Notwithstanding a certain degree of inter-regional and inter-tribal variations in sex-ratios, a higher level of gender equality among the overall tribal population has historically been borne out—albeit somewhat indirectly—by the latter’s much higher proportion of females in the total population than ever found for the mainstream Hindu population.

Also, relatively high levels of productive participation of tribal females are widely known.23 In fact, post-independence Census data clearly testify to this, and there can hardly be any reason why this should not have been the case in the early last century and even before.24 In fact, India’s historical ethnography and other kinds of evidence provide distinct (though somewhat scattered) indications of a high degree of work participation (or sharing) of tribal females —a fact which reflects and perhaps reinforces comparatively high levels of autonomy, equality, and social position of tribal women. As noted already, the latter should have had bearings favourable to the relatively low fertility of tribal women as compared to their Hindu counterparts. Indeed, contemporary statistical exercises—though undertaken generally for communities belonging to the non-tribal mainstream—show a strong negative association between female labour force participation and fertility level.25

Many overall tribal socio-cultural features have historically been favourable not only to relatively lower fertility, but to a comparatively lower mortality too, particularly among infants and children. First, the relatively long birth interval and low fertility—which are the tradi-tionally known features of the tribal community —are conducive to better survival chances of infants and children. Second, lesser gender biases in tribal societies should also be partly instru-mental to better survival outcomes, health, and wellbeing of infants and children.26 Moreover, tribal habitations generally have some healthy features such as less crowding and more intimate relationship with nature, apart from some of their traditional practices favourable to infant and child health, namely, prolonged breastfeeding and early food supplementation. Even in the more recent period the evidence of relatively longer breastfeeding and lower risk of conception has often been found among tribal women (vis-à-vis their non-tribal counterparts), who give ‘solid food to their infants after six months post-partum and most of them continue with breast feeding’.27 A relative mortality advantage of the tribal children is often discernible in more recent periods—albeit in an increasingly subdued form with time.6

A few other good features of infant and childcare practices among tribes include holding infants and children vertically during most of waking time and a closer physical contact with mothers.28 In contrast, many mainstream (non-tribal) customs during childbirth and afterwards are often reported to be inimical to the survival chances of the infant. In this context an illuminating excerpt from the Bengal Report of the Census of 1881 on the mortality advantage of tribal children vis-à-vis Hindus is worth noting (p. 120):

For the years of infant life from the beginning of the first to the end of the fourth complete year the percentage of living children to the whole population is higher among the aboriginal tribes [18.20] than among the followers of any other religion [14.03 for Hindus; 15.77 for Muslims]. …and the fact affords a fresh illustration of the well-known law that the productive powers of man are in inverse proportion to the standard of luxury which has reached; and that given a sufficient quantity of food without excessive hardships of climate, the off-spring of the primitive tribes is more numerous and more healthy than that of their more civilised neighbours. More particularly is this case in India, for it is impossible to conceive customs more prejudicial to the chances of survival than those which prevail both among Hindus and Mohamedans at the birth of a child [for example, suffocating atmosphere created by closed windows, smoke and overcrowd. (Italics added)

Furthermore, the absence on the whole of the child (and/or early) marriage practice among the majority of tribes particularly in the past was probably instrumental (partly) in ensuring a mortality advantage in infancy, as the risk of death is often higher among infants of very young mothers. The lower tribal fertility itself—to the extent it results from longer birth spacing and prolonged breastfeeding—could contribute to a lower infant and childhood mortality. Relatedly, a somewhat better nutritional level of the tribal children could also arise—in line with recent empirical studies of poorer households—from a greater female autonomy/command over resources in tribal households.29

Tribes, who generally inhabit relatively less crowded settlements and in close intimacy with natural environments, for example, forest and hill, are globally known to have fared better in mortality terms in the past.8 Insofar as this has have been particularly true prior to the age of mass scale use of antibiotics/antibodies and vaccines, this should have been a veritable scenario for the majority of Indian tribes too in the past, with indigenous healing methods and herbal medicines having been relatively effective in these societies ever more close to nature.30 Besides, the tribal people—partly because of these healthy aspects of their habitation, and partly due to their isolation from mainstream population—were probably relatively less inflicted by epidemics. Although evidence in support of this hypothesis in the Indian context is hard to find, there is some evidence elsewhere [for example, the mortality effect of the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 being relatively less pronounced among pygmies and bushmen of the Kalahari desert].31 Furthermore, the spread and transmission of disease and associated elevation of mortality among aggregate tribal population has often been viewed as one of the many negative fallouts of their increasing contact/assimilation with the mainstream (non-tribal) population.32

A few more plausible hypotheses relating to a relative mortality advantage among India’s tribal population in the past can also be adduced. For example, the malaria, which had remained almost the largest killer particularly during the period considered here, might have been less in tribal habitations in relatively high altitude and with greater dryness. Indeed the incidence of diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases might have been relatively less among the tribal people because of their greater dependence on spring waters and lesser density and crowding. As one eminent anthropologist, W. Handwerker, notes, ‘foraging societies experience relatively low levels of infant and child mortality due to synergistic effects of nutritional patterns yielding adequate growing and maintenance requirements and a relatively low incidence of infectious disease’.33 Apart from historical advantage in the mortality of Indian tribes as a whole, there are other good reasons (relating to, for example, marriage, gender relations and social organisation) to expect tribal fertility to have been lower than that amongst the Hindus in the historical past. Also, as noted already, the tribal people were familiar with some indigenous medicines (for example, herbal) and methods of prevention of conceptions (including abortion), apart from prolonged breastfeeding, longer birth intervals, and perhaps somewhat greater incidence of sterility and infertility—both primary and secondary—in tribal communities.34

The historic regime of comparatively low fertility and mortality among the overall tribal population continued to be echoed—albeit greatly subdued—in the contemporary periods. Alas, more lately much of this historic superiority in terms of demographic outcomes and the many commensurately admirable socio-cultural characteristics of the aggregate tribal world in India has withered away.35 This reversal, ironically, is not because the mainstream society has increasingly taken to admittedly admirable traditional socio-cultural/kinship/nuptial features of the tribes (for example, greater gender equity, female autonomy). On the contrary, increasing material benefits, ramifications, and socio-cultural spin-offs of the relentless flows of modern technology, comfort-enhancing commodities, and faster communications, which are over-whelmingly confined to the non-tribal mainstream, have placed the present tribal communities in a relatively stark material and demographic disadvantage. More damagingly, many tribes currently appear in an increasingly poor light in terms of their many socio-cultural parameters, which are otherwise just the metamorphosed outcomes of their longstanding infliction by the mainstream ideology, society, and culture. Thus, it is well-neigh a ‘tragedy’, surely one amongst many others in our ‘land of tamashas’, that ‘tribals are identified by non-tribal caste-structured society as culturally inferior and are referred to by pejoratives such as junglee (rowdy, jungle-man) and karparaj (nigger)’.36


1. See, for example, Carr-Saunders, A.M. (1922), The Population Problem (Oxford: Clarendon Press), Krzwicki, L. (1934), Primitive Society and Its Vital Statistics, London, and Lorimer, Frank (1954), Culture and Human Fertility (Paris: UNESCO); and also Nag, Moni (1962), Factors Affecting Human Fertility in Non-industrial Societies: A Cross-Cultural Study (Yale University Publications in Anthropology), No. 66.

2. Mamoria, C.B. (1958), Tribal Demography in India (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal), p. 111.

3. See Maharatna, Arup (2005), Demographic Perspectives on India’s Tribes (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), Chapter 3.

4. Fürer-Haimendorf, C. (1985), Tribal Population and Cultures of the Indian Subcontinent (Leiden-Koln: E.J. Brill).

5. See Nag, Moni (1973), ‘Tribal Non-Tribal Fertility Differential in India’, Demography India, vol.2, no. 1.

6. See Maharatna, Arup (2005), op.cit., chapter 3; Maharatna, A. (2000), ‘Fertility, Mortality and Gender Bias among Tribal Population: An Indian Perspective’, Social Science and Medicine, 50: 1333-51.

7. Driver, E.D. (1963), Differential Fertility in Central India (Princeton: Princeton University Press), Table 96:108; and Pandey G.D. (1989), ‘A Study of Couple Fertility in a Tribal Population of Madhya Pradesh’, in Singh S.N., M.K. Premi, P.S. Bhatia and A. Bose (eds.), Population Transition in India, Vol. 2 (New Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation); Pandey, G.D. and R.S. Tiwary, (1996), ‘Fertility in Hill Korwas, a Primitive Tribe of Madhya Pradesh’, Man In India, 76(4): 325-329.

8. Wirsing, R.L. (1985), ‘The Health of Traditional Societies and Effects on Acculturation’, Current Anthropology, 26(3): 303-22.

9. Elwin, Verrier (1939), The Baiga (London: John Murray), pp. 218-222; and Furer-Haimendorf, Christopher (1979), The Gonds of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Change in an Indian Tribe (London: George Allen and Unwin): 287-288.

10. Mandelbaum, D.G. (1954), ‘Fertility of Earlier Years of Marriage in India’, in K.M. Kapadia (ed.), Professor Ghurye Felicitation Volume (Bombay: Popular Book Depot).

11. See Elwin, Verrier (1943), ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Birth among the Tribesmen of the Maikal Hills’, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 9(4); Fuchs, S. (1973), The Aboriginal Tribes of India (New Delhi: Macmillan); Furer-Haimendorf, C. (1943), The Chenchus: Jungle Folk of the Deccan (London: Macmillan).

12. Census of India 1901, volume I, Ethnographic Appendices, Calcutta 1903: 145.

13. Garg, B.M. (1960), ‘Status of Women in Tribal Communities in India’, Indian Journal of Social Work, 21(2): 195.

14. For more recent evidence on relatively larger incidence of celibacy among tribal women in the North-Eastern region, see for example, Dey, S.K. (1969), ‘Fertility in Hill Districts of Assam’, Social Welfare, pp. 8-10.

15. In Africa, too, fertility differentials between ethnic groups are often found to be associated with differential marriage patterns (for example, monogamy being conducive to relatively large number of currently unmarried women, contributing to lower fertility); see Randall, Sara (1996), ‘Whose Reality? Local Perceptions of Fertility Versus Demographic Analysis’, Population Studies, 50(2): 221-34. For evidence on differential fertility levels associated with differences in marriage patterns, breastfeeding practices, and social organisation between diverse ethnic groups, see Hill, A.G. (1985), ‘The Resent Demographic Surveys in Mali and their main Findings’, in his edited volume, Population, Health and Nutrition in the Sahel: Issues in the Welfare of Selected West African Communities (London: KPI). As Hill concludes, ‘the very different life style of the different ethnic groups comprising the national population of any Sahelian country are likely to have characteristic patterns of mortality and fertility even though the physical environment may be roughly comparable between the groups’. (Ibid., pp. 62-63).

16. See, for example, Majumdar, D.N. (1947), The Matrix of Indian Culture, Nagpur University, p. 81.

17. Roy Burman, B.K. (1987), ‘Development and Tribal Women in India’, Mainstream, 19/20, November 25; and Majumdar, D.N. (1950), Affairs of a Tribe, Lucknow: Lucknow Universal. In Africa too, there is evidence of delayed female marriage among nomadic tribes, contributing to their relatively low fertility as compared to women of settled tribes, who generally marry earlier. Henin, R.A. (1969), ‘The Patterns and Census of Fertility Differentials in the Sudan’, Population Studies, 23(2): 171-98.

18. Like historical Europe where ‘men marry late because they cannot ‘afford’ to marry young’ Hajnal, J. (1965), Marriage Patterns in Perspective’, in Glass, D.V.D., E.C. Eversly (eds.), Population in History (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company), p. 133. Marriage in India’s tribal society is ‘usually late’ as young men cannot afford to pay bride-price ‘till late in life’; see Majumdar, D.N. (1947), The Matrix of Indian Culture, Nagpur University, p. 81. As Mazumdar writes: ‘Girls seldom marry before 18 and 20, and men seldom below 25 or even 30.’ (Ibid., p. 81) There is also scattered evidence of a higher proportion of ‘never married’ females among tribal societies as compared to the mainstream counterparts; see for example, Dey, S.K. (1969), op. cit., De, D.C. (1970), ‘A demographic Study of Onges of Little Andaman’, Bulletin of Anthropological Survey of India, 19(2), pp. 111-26.

19. Dey, S.K. (1969), Ibid.

20. Census of India 1901, Vol 1, p. 145.

21. See, for example, Caldwell, John (1978), ‘A Theory of Fertility: From High Plateau to Destabilisation’, Population and Development Review, 4(4); and Cain, Mead (1982), ‘Perspectives on Family and Fertility in Developing Countries’, Population Studies, 57(2): 198-215; and Dyson, Tim and Moore, Mike (1983), ‘On Kinship Structure, Female Autonomy and Demographic Behaviour in India’, Population and Development Review, p. 9; Basu, A.M. (1992), Culture, the Status of Women and Demographic Behaviour (Oxford: Clarendon Press); Morgan, P.S. and Niraula, B.B. (1995), ‘Gender Inequality and Fertility in Two Nepali Villages’, Population and Development Review; 21(3): 541-62; Malhotra, A., Vanneman, and S. Kishor (1995), ‘Fertility, Dimensions of Petriarchy, and Develop-ment in India’, Population and Development Review; 21(2): 281-306; Desai, S. (1994), India: Gender Inequalities and Demographic Behaviour (New York: Population Council) among others.

22. For a review of major perspectives on the relation-
ship between patriarchy/related gender inequalities
and fertility, see Koenig, M.A. and G.H.C. Foo (1992), ‘Patriarchy, Women’s Status, and Reproductive Behaviour in North India’, Demography India, 21(2): 145-66; also Desai, S. (1994), India: Gender Inequalities and Demographic Behaviour (New York: Population Council).

23. See Bhasin, V. (2007), ‘Status of Tribal Women in India’, Stud. Hom. Com. Sci, 1(1): 1-16.

24. As per the 1961 Census, about 52 per cent of India’s tribal women participated in economically ‘gainful’ activity, whereas the corresponding proportion was slightly less than 12 per cent for the general population; see Raza, Moonis and Aijazuddin Ahmed, (1990), An Atlas of Tribal India (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company), p. 370.

25. See, for example, Murthi, N., A. Guio, and J. Dreze (1995), ‘Mortality, Fertility and Gender Bias in India: A District-Level Analysis’, Population and Development Review; 21: 199-210.

26. See Murthi et al. (1995), ibid. For some recent evidence on a lesser extent of anti-female biases in childhood mortality in tribal societies; see also Bajkhaif Mohammed Omes and K. Mahadevan (1993), Infant Mortality of Indian Mulims: Determinants and Implications (Delhi: B.R. Publications), pp. 10-12; also Maharatna (2000), op.cit.

27. See, for example, Pakrasi, Kanti, and Samita Manna (1989), ‘Socio-Economic Factors Influencing Breast-Feeding and Weaning of Infants by Tribal Mothers in West Bengal’, Indian Journal of Physical Anthropology and Human Genetics, 15(182); see also Chandrasekhar, S. (1972), Infant Mortality, Population Growth and Family Planning in India (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 228-238.

28. Konner, Melvin (1976), ‘Maternal Care, Infant Behaviour and Development among the Kong’, in Lee, Richard B. and Irven De Vore, (1976), (eds.), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the Kung San and Their Neighbours (Cambridge: MA: Harward University Press).

29. Agarwal, B. (1994), A field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 29-30.

30. See, for example, Elwin, Verrier (1943), op. cit.; Mamoria, C.B. (1958), Tribal Demography in India, (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal): 112-115; for more contemporary evidence, see, for example, Mutharayappa, R. (1998), ‘Fertility and Family Planning among Jenu Koruba and Kadu Koruba Tribes of Karnataka’, Man in India, 78(1-2), pp. 123.

31. Dornan, S.S. (1975), Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari (Cape Town: C. Struik (PTY) Ltd.): p. 141.

32. Mamoria, C.B. (1958), Tribal Demography in India, (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal), p. 48; for other lamentable effects in socio-cultural fronts, see Sikdar, M. (2009), ‘Continuity and Change in Matrilineal Marriage System: A case study among the Garos of Pschim Bosti, Assam’, Stud. Tribes Tribals, 7(2): 125-130.

33. Handwerker, W. (1983), ‘The First Demographic Transition: An Analysis of Subsistence Choices and Reproductive Consequences’, American Anthropologist, 85, p. 15.

34. See, for example, Howell, Nancy (1976), ‘The Population of the Dobe Area Kung’, in: Lee and De Vore (1976), op.cit; Howell, Nancy (1979), Demography of the Dobe Kung (New York: Academic Press); and White, C.M.N. (1959), A Preliminary Survey of Luvale Rural Economy, The Rhodes-Livingstone Papers Series No. 29 (Manchester University Press) for relevant evidence in Africa and elsewhere. The finding of relatively low fertility of Kung! women is often attributed partly to their relatively less fat responsible for making them take longer to ovulate, and partly to the incidence of venereal diseases (Howell 1979, ibid., chapters 7-10). Indeed nutritional deficiency, excessive physical work, and relatively harsh livelihood patterns might have played a role among Indian tribes too. But separating out these effects on fertility from those of socio-cultural characteristics (including mobility patterns) is extremely difficult. For example, the question of how different is the energy expenditure pattern between tribal and non-tribal women has hardly been addressed systematically as yet. For discussions on the role of nutrition and physical work in fertility, see, for example, Frisch, Rose (1997), ‘Body Fat, Menarche, and Fertility’, in: Encyclopaedia of Human Biology, second edition, vol. 2 (New York: Academic Press), and Garenne, M.L., and Rose Frisch (1994), ‘Natural Fertility’, Study Design and Statistics for Infertility Research, 5(2): 259-81; also Krishnaji, N. (1992), Pauperising Agriculture: Studies in Agrarian Change and Demographic Structure (Bombay: Oxford University Press for Sameeksha Trust) especially Chapter 7.

35. See, for example, Pandey P.L., D.C. Jain, G.D. Panday, R. Chouley, and R.S. Tiwari (2000), ‘Some Aspects of Social Factors Affecting Fertility Behaviour of Gond Women’, Man in India 80 (3/4), among many other similar studies.

36. Jones, S. (1978), ‘Tribal Underdevelopment in India’, Development and Change, 9(1), p. 45.

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune.

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