People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 18, 2012




Adivasi Workers: Organisational

Challenges and Opportunities


Archana Prasad


THE category of the ‘adivasi’ worker does not exist in theory and practice of the communist led mass organisations. Conventional class based organisations have assumed that the ‘adivasi’ consciousness will transform itself into working class consciousness if the ‘adivasi’ is integrated into the democratic working class organisation and movement. Yet within the current polity, ‘adivasi’ continues to be the political consciousness of a distinct social group largely comprising the scheduled tribes who form an intrinsic part of the rural and urban working class. This reality is a legacy of the freedom movement where the Constitution of India has guaranteed certain protection and rights to the scheduled tribes who have faced a historical discrimination within the society and economy. These rights are largely political, social and cultural in their character. They also ensure that the government makes provisions for the employment and education of these social groups. However such guarantees have had a very limited role in stopping the processes of dispossession in natural resource rich areas in the post independence period. At best they can protect the land rights of a few land holding adivasis in the fifth and sixth schedule areas.


The intensification of the processes of dispossession has resulted in the formation of an ‘adivasi’ political consciousness which is contesting the dominant ruling classes and reminding them of their own failed promises in the contemporary political scenario. In many cases such a consciousness is used to mobilise the exploited masses by the adivasi political elite for their own ends. This elite driven consciousness does not have a working class basis but rather a communitarian non-class basis which yields a divisive identity politics. In contrast to this the communist led democratic adivasi consciousness can be built if it is based on the perspective that sees the adivasi as embedded within a larger working class unity. In this sense the ‘adivasi workers’ may be recognised as embodying certain general characteristics of the working class, but being a distinct social group which needs to be mobilised for its special political needs especially within a neo-liberal regime.




The developmental strategy of the last three decades has seen the burgeoning of a rural and urban labour force that has a strong presence of the dalit and adivasi people. Their entry into the labour force has largely been a result of the growth and expansion of corporate capitalism in the tribal regions where the contradiction between corporate capital and adivasis is intensifying. This is reflected in the multiple struggles against private mineral and power companies which have been granted projects in the scheduled areas where tribal land rights are to be protected. The sharp increase in landlessness and unemployment in the agricultural sector has led to important changes in the occupational structure of the adivasis and changed the character of the working class amongst this social group. In order to understand these changes it is essential first to understand the reasons for these workers to reproduce their sectional identities even while they participate in larger working class struggles.


The increasing control of natural resources by corporate capital has manifested itself in several macro trends that have led to the formation of a labouring class within the adivasis. Firstly, there is the growing land grab by corporate houses for whom land acquisition laws are being modified. This means that land holding adivasis are coming into direct competition with industry and do not get an adequate rehabilitation package because they can not provide adequate proof of their land rights. Though these dispossessed people were earlier doing seasonal labour in other peoples fields, they are now entering the  informal non-agrarian labour market and form a considerable portion of the migrant labour. Secondly, the livelihood of the adivasis dependent on non-farm occupations such as forestry has been impacted by diversion of common lands and forests (previously controlled by the State) to corporate houses through liberal environmental regulations. The resultant change in land use patterns is evident from the fact that almost 5.88 lakh hectares of forest lands have been diverted for non-forestry purposes since the beginning of the economic reforms. The rate of diversion has only increased from 56,419 hectares per year between 2000-2004 to 71,813 lakh hectares per annum between 2005-2008, ie., the second decade of the reforms. These two trends have resulted in the increasing landlessness of tribal people where the numbers of landless scheduled tribes have increased by almost 6 per cent between 1993-94 and 2004-05. But the interesting aspect of this is that there has been a decline in the percentage of land holders owning less than one hectare of land. This indicates an increase in benami holdings, where even corporate houses have begun to buy lands in tribal areas in the name of adivasi peasants.





This increasing contradiction between industry and labour has resulted in fundamental changes within the occupational structure of the adivasi worker. The post-green revolution period had led to the  emergence of the ‘adivasi’ as a rural worker. Most of the employment amongst the ‘adivasis’ was generated in agriculture where landless and marginal farmers worked only seasonally as labourers. They also migrated to the green revolution areas for agricultural work. But in the last two decades adivasis are becoming more and more dependent on urban and non-agricultural labour for their livelihoods. Hence about 80 per cent of the tribal people depend on either daily wage labour (in rural or urban areas) for their survival and only about half of them get one week’s work in the month. It is significant that the number of scheduled tribe household migrants living in the urban areas increased from 2.9 per cent to 6.2 per cent in the fifteen years between 1993 and 2008. At the same time the rural migration amongst the scheduled tribes decreased from 2.7 per cent to 1.9 per cent. This also lends credence to the conclusions of the provisional census of 2011 which points towards the greater concentration of population in the urban areas. Within this process of general proletarianisation of the peasantry, adivasi and dalit labourers have a special place as they form a bulk of the mobile and circulatory migratory labour.


The gender and industrial characteristics of this mobile labour force show certain specific features that need to be taken into account while organising the adivasi worker. It is well know that most of the adivasi workers find employment in the informal and unorganised sectors. This is reflected in the overall change in character of the tribal workforce in the first decade of the reforms where the number of tribal main workers (i.e people getting work for more than 180 days a year) declined from 85.2 to 69 per cent and in the same period the number of marginal workers increased from 14.8 to 31 per cent. As a field survey conducted by the Centre for Women’s Development Studies between 2008-2010 shows, the concentration of scheduled castes and tribes in this mass of general labour that circulates at the lower end of the productive economy, in which casual labour in agriculture, construction, brick making and urban domestic work are some avenues for them. In most of the cases the tribal migration has been short term and circulatory, which in itself reflects the marginality of work. Another remarkable character of such migration is its increasingly gendered character. Even though about 54 per cent of the adivasi women migrated in rural areas, their employment is not in agriculture but in construction work and brick kilns. The rapid expansion of corporate capital in the countryside is fast blurring the rural urban divide as the labour force is now seasonally employed in non-agricultural work in the rural areas itself. This has also opened up potential for class based mobilisations along sectional lines. The overlap between adivasi consciousness and class position has been engineered through a restructuring of the capitalist enterprise rather than an organised political effort or an alternative vision for resolving the problems of these oppressed social groups.




In this context it is important to explore the important question of why it is necessary to reproduce the adivasi consciousness in the wake of the increasing consolidation of working class formation. The answer to this question lies perhaps in the changing nature of State interventions in the designated tribal regions. The withdrawal of the State from social welfare has in fact jeopardised the survival of adivasis in at least two ways. First, the decreasing allocations and restructuring of the tribal sub plan has ensured that the adivasis can no longer expect any help from the neo-liberal State as far as basic necessities are concerned. Public funds for tribal development have largely dried up and ministries like rural development, education and health are allocating less and less for tribal specific schemes. Hence any limited attempt at redistribution of benefits and wealth through welfare schemes for ensuring the social and livelihood security of adivasis has been reversed under the current phase of capitalism in tribal areas. Second, the protective constitutional measures undertaken by the State for adivasi people are being diluted under the pressure of corporate capital. The dilution of the fifth and sixth schedules through repeated violations has only led to furthering the dispossession of adivasis. In this situation, the reproduction of the adivasi consciousness is essential to ensure that the legitimate rights of the adivasi worker are protected and defended against corporate capital.


Given this context the contemporary ‘adivasi’ needs to be recognised as a rural and urban worker who has certain unique historically developed characteristics that need to be taken into account in their organisation. Most of the rural adivasi workers have been working in sectors that cannot be primarily classified as ‘agricultural labour’. For most of them agricultural labour has only been a seasonal work. In the rest of the period they have also been dependant on occupations such as management of livestock, forest produce gathering and plantation work, collection and processing of medicinal plants, silk and lacquer for local and non-local markets. While these occupations may have important contributions to make to the peasant societies, they are not directly involved in control over land or peasant production. Rather many of them possess the skills and the knowledge which allows them to produce value and contribute to the larger natural resource based rural economy and industry. The opportunity for organising workers cooperatives in these sector can be explored as a way of accessing and improving the condition of adivasi workers.


The other challenge facing the democratic movement concerns the organisation of migrant adivasi workers who have a strong social basis in the rural as well as urban working class. An innovative form of organisation amongst them can potentially make them as link workers to facilitate a broadbased alliance between the peasantry and the rural/urban workers. This is largely because at least one part of the adivasi working class comes from the landholding adivasi peasantry and the rural working class whose livelihood is affected by the severe ongoing agrarian distress. This alliance is yet to be created through joint work by peasant, agricultural worker and trade union organisations that work together to resolve the contradictions within the working class. Such an organisation may be area based and may need to work in tandem with other mass organisations, especially amongst the adivasi women workers in domestic work, construction and brick kilns where they are increasingly getting seasonal casual labour and where the democratic movement has a small presence. Finally, the reproduction of adivasi consciousness is an inevitable and necessary process as it enables the movement to organise these social groups to protect the benefits and protection that they have acquired through their own struggles. In this sense, the protection of the land rights and right to social welfare and security are demands which have the potential to reduce the influence of corporate capital. Seen in this way the significance, social function and meaning of the adivasi political consciousness is derived from the class positions of its organisers and ideologues. But its potential for engineering social change will be determined by the way in which class based organisations respond to adivasi sectional interests and determine the place of the adivasi worker in their larger political strategy.