Tribal Land: Use and Loss

Kundan Kumar

Land Use and ownership

Most tribes tend to follow a clan based land tenure system, which provides customary rights in land, trees, forests etc. Tribes like Kondhs, saoras, Parojas, Gadabas, Bondos, Juangs and Bhuyans traditionally carry out shifting cultivation along with paddy in valley lands. Most swiddening tribes broadly cultivated four types of land - valley bottom paddy lands or wetlands, homesteads/backyards, uplands and swidden or shifting cultivation fields.

   At an average 74% of the land in Scheduled areas of Orissa is categorized as state land, with forest land at 48% and non-forest land1 at 26%. Thus three-fourths of all land in the tribal dominated districts belong to the State. However, most of the tribals in these areas are either landless or marginal landowners, even though subsistence agriculture is the most important source of their livelihoods.

   A THRTI study taken up in 1978-80 in all tribal sub-plan areas showed that 22.84% of tribal households are landless whereas 40.46% owned less than 2.5 acres each. Another analysis of the Agriculture Survey data of 1995-96 in the tribal districts shows that the percentage of tribal landholders having less than one standard acre2 of land ranges from 41% in Malkangiri to 77% in Gajapati.

   Gajapati, a tribal dominated district, has just 14.82% of its total area under cultivators’ landholding, with the rest of the land belonging to the government. Approximately 93% of the rural households in this district have legal title on only 9% of the district's land area. Kondhmal is another tribal district where almost 86% of the land is owned by the State, with 75 % of the land categorized as forestlands. In this district 66% of the rural households own only 7% of the districts land. The situation is even worse in the remote areas inhabited by the Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs) in Orissa, where almost all the land is owned by the State' .

   The fact that most of the land in tribal districts is owned by the State reflects in the landholding patterns in these tribal dominated districts. For instance, the Scheduled tribe average holdings in Orissa works out to 1.12 standard acres as compared to 1.43 standard acres for general castes, even though the General castes mainly stay in plains areas with much lower proportion of state owned land and much higher population density. Scheduled tribe landowners categorized as marginal landowners comprise 14.8% of the landholdings of Orissa, but they own only 4.8% (in standard acres) of agricultural landholdings with an average holding of only 0.44 standard acres. More than 50% of the all scheduled tribe landowners in Orissa are marginal landholders and another 20% at least are landless.

   The key to this skewed land ownership lies in the fact that communal land ownership and swidden/shifting cultivation was never settled with respective tribal communities. The Forest Enquiry Committee Report of 1959 mentioned that 12,000 sq. miles (almost 30,720 sq. km.) of land in Orissa were under shifting cultivation (GOO, 1959) - very little of this vast area was settled with the tribals. These lands were settled either as forestland or as government revenue land. Thus paradoxically, even though three fourth of the land in tribal districts belong to government, most tribals remain landless or marginal landowners. In practice, much of the customary owned land is still under cultivation of the tribals, and is treated as encroachments. A study in two tribal hamlets illustrates this :


Cultivation on Government land in two tribal villages

Settlement Name

Land owned legally

Govt. land cultivated at present

Cultivated areas on Govt. land lost

Totally govt. land claimed customarily

Dekapar, Koraput

152 acres 

126 acres

142 acres due to govt. plantation

268 acres

Bangusahi, Gajapati

62.5 acres 

208 acres


208 acres

   The fact that much of the land customarily cultivated by tribals hasn't been settled with them has had major implications for their livelihoods. Combined with ineffectiveness of laws to prevent transfer of tribal patta land to non-tribals, this has led to loss of access to land and criminalization of customary land ownership systems. At the same time, the state government has found it very easy to divert customary tribal lands for development and conservation projects, as legally most of this land is government land.

Loss of tribal access to land and other natural resources

   There are a large number of processes through which tribals have lost access to land and forests essential for their survival and livelihoods. These don't only include alienation of land which is legally owned by the tribals through debt mortgaging and sale, but also loss of access to land through reservation of forests, loss of traditional shifting cultivation land through Survey and Settlement, displacement, unsuitable and unimplemented land reform laws etc. Over a period of time, all these processes have led to loss of control and access to livelihood support systems vital to existence, marginalizing and destituting tribal communities. Influx of non-tribals since the last two centuries, many of whom are more capable of negotiating state enforced legal and tenure systems, have pushed tribal communities to the bottom of the local power hierarchies, even in areas where they are in majorities. In areas where tribals are in minorities, their conditions, along with that of dalits, are even more miserable and powerless. Lack of ownership and claim over land and other factors of production are one of the fundamental reasons behind the current situation.

   Historically, land survey and settlements and cash land revenue monetized the economy and led to large-scale indebtedness amongst tribal societies. The princely rulers and British rulers also preferred to settle lands with non-tribals who carried out settled cultivation rather than shifting cultivation on hills. Slowly, non-tribal tenure holders in many areas replaced tribal intermediary tenure holders. In the Gangpur Princely State, most gaontias (intermediary tenure holders responsible for rent collection) were tribals in the early 1800s, but by 1890s there was a greater preference for non-tribal gaontias from Agharia and teli castes. Influx of non-tribal peasantry into tribal areas was actively encouraged and facilitated by the rulers, and opposition of tribals to this influx was suppressed by force wherever required. The process of loss of territory by tribals was aided by creation of intermediary tenure holders who were mostly non-tribals and had effective administrative control of the area under their jurisdiction.


Simultaneously, increasing importance of forest (timber) based revenue led the British rulers as well as the Princely estates to reserve or notify more and more areas as forests under various forest laws and rules, imposing restrictions upon the tribals using these forests. Restrictions on shifting cultivation on areas designated as forests were one of the key strategies for increasing the commercial value of these lands. The takeover of forested lands was based on non-recognition of customary tribal land rights over these areas by the state. Clan and lineage territories were not recognized in the forest settlement operations. Often such forest notifications were carried out without proper survey and settlement of even recognized rights of permanent cultivation.

   Thus tribals faced loss of land on two accounts in the pre independence era – the lowlands and paddy lands held under private ownership were lost due to influx of non-tribals, non-recognition of rights, indebtedness and inability to pay land revenue. The shifting cultivation swidden were lost due to notification of this land as forests or Government land. Both these processes were aided by the expansion of state and markets into the tribal areas. These trends have continued even after independence. The information below delineates some of the processes through which tribals have lost access to land in Orissa:

  • Loss of land through private transactions
  • Land mortgaging
  • Sale of land after permission
  • Illegal Sale of land
  • Encroachments by non tribals
  • Loss of land before Survey and Settlement
  • Land alienation through displacement
  • Loss of patta land through land acquisition
  • Loss of government land cultivated by the displaced
  • Loss of land through Survey and settlements
  • Permanent Cultivation land categorized as government land
  • Shifting cultivation land categorized as state owned land
  • Un-surveyed areas
  • Landlessness
  • Poor distribution of Government wastelands

  • Notification of forests
  • Encroachments eligible for regularization but not regularized
  • Forest Land where proper settlement has not taken place
  • Poor settlement of rights during reservation
  • Shifting cultivation areas categorized as forests
Note: 1.Non-forest state land was calculated by subtracting the forest land area and the total operational landholdings in the district from the total area of the district. this could be on the higher side and include areas under reservoirs etc.

            2.The Landholdings in standard acre were calculated on  the basis of the extent of irrigated and un-irrigated holdings. The irrigated holdings were assumed to be having two irrigated crops of paddy each year(Class I land one acre equals one standard acre) whereas un-irrigated lands were assumed to be equivalent to Class IV lands)(4.5 acres of Class IV lands is equivalent to one standard acre)