A Sociological Study of the Livelihoods of the Baigas in the Baiga-Chak Belt of Dindori, India — Introduction

The text and photographs on this page are copyright by Manish Gangwar and Pradeep Bose. Manish Gangwar is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Barkatulla University, Bhopal, India. Pradeep Bose is the Director of the Aaspur Rural Development Project, District of Dungarpur, PKP, Raj., India.


One of the reputed English writers from India, Nirad C. Chaudhary, wrote a book of essays, named The Continent of Circe, in 1965, wherein he predicted the utter dehumanizing destruction of the indigenous people from India. He wrote: "In an industrialized India the destruction of the aboriginal's life is as inevitable as the submergence of the Egyptian temples caused by the dams of the Nile... As things are going there can be no grandeur in the primitive's end. It will not be even simple extinction, which is not the worst of human destinies. It is to be feared that the aboriginal's last act will be squalid, instead of being tragic. What will be seen with most regret will be, not his disappearance, but his enslavement and degradation."

While Nirad C. Chaudhuri was still in India, during the final phase of the second World War and was probably thinking about repatriating to England, in case Churchill lost elections after the war and the new British labor government freed India, an Austro-Hungarian social scientist, Karl Polanyi, wrote a book entitled The Great Transformation, based on his experience of the US economy and followed this book with another book called The Livelihood of Man, which appeared 13 years after Polanyi's death, in 1977. It is the thought and substance contained in these two books by Polanyi that effectively answers the doom's day forecast of Nirad C. Chaudhari for the Indian aboriginals. Karl Polanyi, the father of economic sociology, writes, "There has been a great transformation in modern, post industrial society; whereas, the tribal community that still lives in a pre industrial era, but in the modern and post industrial times, will not have uniform market and demand-supply driven people." He says that there will be a great divide between the forces of barter and subsistence economy that govern the tribal community and the exchange and profit maximization-led market economy. Hence such a tribal community will constantly be adapting to mainstream itself with the larger society. A subsistence economy, to which the tribal community has historically been embedded and adjusted, like forest produce gathering, fishing, hunting and peasantry-based production of food, are based on the kinship-like well-known institutions and norms of using local natural resources for meeting basic needs. However, the market economy pushes them constantly towards such diverse institutions and monetary wants that are neither well-known nor well-understood by the tribal community. Therefore, the tribal community will always be choosing diverse livelihoods. Some of these shall be local resource based and others will be money, exchange and market-driven. Polanyi showed that there has always been contradiction between the market theory and how the people behaved. He said that the market's substantive features, particularly its institutions, included patterns for organizing man's livelihood that were quite different from the market ideal that had been prescribed by Adam Smith. These patterns included the reciprocity networks that dominated economic life among tribal and kinship groups; they also included channels of redistribution characteristic of ancient empires and — one might add parenthetically — of modern welfare states.

There are about 370 million indigenous people in 70 countries around the world [1]. India has 84.33 million indigenous people (Scheduled Tribes) who account for 22.79 percent of the total indigenous people of the world [2]. There are, in all, 698 indigenous groups in India. Of these 75 tribes have been identified as endangered by the Government of India [3] and Baiga community is also one of the endangered and most vulnerable tribal groups of India. Baigas have historically been a nomadic and roving forest tribe who lived within the precincts of dense forests in Central India. It is believed that the two words 'Baiga' and 'Bewar' are inextricably linked. Until 1953 these two words were used such as "Baigas are engaged in Bewar," where Bewar means shifting/podu/jhum/slash and burn cultivation [4] and Baigas is the name of the tribe that practices Bewar. However, with concerted efforts of district administration during the British occupation of India, between 1880 and 1940 Baigas also became sedentary cultivators.

Baigas are the forest dwellers and hunters who collect food from the forest and are dependent on forests for their subsistence and livelihood. They prefer hunting and fishing in forests. However, due to pressure on land, control of all forest resources by the government and diminishing forest area they were persuaded to cultivate agricultural and horticultural crops [5].

The connotation of Baiga has expanded over the years. Initially, say during the five medieval kingdoms of the Gonds, Baigas were hired by the Gond kings and landlords as priests for conducting puja. Hence they were known as the priests of all Gonds. Then, because of Baigas being very truthful and incorruptible, they were asked to attend panchayats of various communities and were entrusted to settle disputes among villagers. Besides, a Baiga youngster passed a rigorous period of about 12 years to learn eight different kinds of Baiga skills. A Baiga child had to learn tracking his prey, hunting with spears and arrows, fishing, working with various metals, particularly learning the skills of a blacksmith, a bamboo weaver and a carpenter. A Baiga child also learnt how to make wooden cots with niwar and munj ropes. Moreover, a Baiga had to learn about at least 50 locally growing herbs and their medicinal uses. Their knowledge about the rare herbs that work as contraceptives and knowledge of curing common ailments is phenomenal. A Baiga child was also taught how to conduct different kinds of puja (knowledge of conducting about 15 ways of puja-worships). A Baiga was also taught by his elders to identify at least 25 types of rare roots, flowers and fruits that occurred in the region's forests and were edible, so that they could survive any drought, flood or any other adversity. Finally, every Baiga child would learn how to dance in a group and how to pick up various rhythms and beats for their dances, like Saila, Karma and other such ethnically special events.

The Oxford Dictionary defines livelihood as "means of securing necessities of life." Another dictionary defines livelihood as "means to a living." There would be many interpretations of means, like financial means, to earn bread and butter, keep, sustenance, living, getting support and having a resource base to sustain for a long-term. However, this research topic being from the domain of economic sociology, we would try to define livelihood in relation to social science and neo-Polanyi connotations, which is stated below:

"Livelihoods encompass the concept of social and cultural origins and means. The command that an individual or a household of a social group has over an income or multiple sources of income or resources (reserve sources that can be tapped as and when needed) would determine livelihood of that individual or household." In other words, livelihoods provide complete, comprehensive and complex social dynamics of those series of diverse and multiple activities that the poor households and their earning members get engaged in for keeping up their survival and sustain themselves in the long-term, through subsistence, additional income and employment. Livelihoods of the tribal community should be perceived as various and multi-faceted rationally chosen activities that a tribe's people undertake to support themselves and not in urban or modern terms of employment, jobs, work-place or cash-income. Meanwhile, study of livelihood entails going deeper into all the elements and sub-elements that make an activity viable and favorable for a tribal household. The existing livelihoods of the Baigas that have been listed in this paper ought to be viewed as their sustainable livelihoods, because these have sustained (as against transitory) for at least one generation and may sustain for another or more generations. Hence, their relevant acquisition of knowledge and skill-sets for sustainable livelihoods are finite and dependent on the state of ecological equilibrium and are picked up by most of the community members, almost simultaneously, by identifying food security as their central basic need.

Besides Polanyi and adherents of neo-Polanyi thought there developed another school of thought that identified and defined livelihood in an alternate way. Chambers and Conway (1992) wrote: "A livelihood comprises capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for means of living." Chambers and Conway identified the issues of livelihood, within the hierarchy of a framework that covered poverty, vulnerabilities of the poor, access and command over resources and also on five types of capitals, viz. Human, Natural, Financial, Physical and Social. This school of thought, through its scholars, between 1981 and 2001, i.e. in about 20 years, got crystallized into a framework, called DFID's Sustainable Livelihoods Model, as depicted in Figure 1.

Despite many differences between the two schools of livelihood thoughts, there existed two common grounds that they both explored at length. The first commonality is that the livelihood strategies are a function of long-term change in the external environment, in this case the British Raj. The second commonality is about the role of social capital of the communities. Nan Lin (1999) said it was the set of resources that were embedded in an individual's and social being's networks, institutional memberships and associations which determined that individual's social capital. Whereas Inkeles (2001) proposed that there were four components of social capital at the community level. These are: (1) Social Institutions, (2) Cultural Pattern, (3) Modes of Communication and (4) Association between individuals and the collective. Munn (2000) studied social capital in relation to education and Rankin (2002) studied it in relation to self-help groups and micro-finance.

Keeping the focus on poverty reduction, the second school of livelihood-centered thought, mostly emerging from the United Kingdom, values action research based feedback and learning spirals. For example, Collin Murray, Faculty of Sociology, Manchester University, UK suggested in 2001 that one should not lose sight of the perspective of chronic poverty and learn to find ways for reducing poverty by examining the performance of those non-poor communities and people who were able to change and improve their livelihoods in various different situations and a long-term perspective should be promoted and not deadlines for alleviating poverty. He also recommends a 'dispersed intensive' method of livelihood analysis of communities. Finally, he concludes that simultaneous micro, meso and macro level studies should be conducted to determine the various implications of political economy. Keeping ideas of both the aforesaid schools in mind we developed the format shown in Figure 2 above, which presents the state of Baigas' social capital formation in the BCB.


[1] UNO's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Document, March 2008.

[2] According to the 2011 Census of India there are 84.33 million Scheduled Tribes. Scheduled Tribes' proportion is 8.2 percent of total population in India.

[3] Nanjunda, Kurane, Wind, Annapurna and Jyothi (2008) The Ignored Claims: A Focus on Tribal Education in India. p. 227

[4] RAI and Nath (2006) "Socio-economic and Livelihood Pattern of Ethnic Group Baiga." Journal of Tropical Forestry, 20, 3 & 4, July-December. "Podu cultivation in Telegu means the same as Bewar of the Baigas in central India and jhum cultivation of Indian's north east."

[5] Christoph Von Fürer-Haimendorf (1982-2004) Tribes of India: Struggle for Survival. University of California Press, E-Books Collection. p. 75.

Photography and text © 2012, Manish Gangwar and Pradeep Bose. All rights reserved.


Gangwar, M., and Bose, P. (2012), "A Sociological Study of the Livelihoods of the Baigas in Baiga-Chak Belt of Dindori, India." The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from The Peoples of the World Foundation.

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