Need to Change Criteria for Scheduled Tribes

In recent times, there has been increasing demand for delisting of tribal communities, from the list of Scheduled tribes under Article 342 of Constitution, who have converted to other religions, primarily Christianity. This has raised debate over the criteria followed by the government to designate a community as a scheduled tribe.

Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs established a task force under the leadership of erstwhile Tribal Affairs secretary Hrushikesh Panda in 2014. Panda committee compiled a list of over 40 communities from India that should be included in Scheduled Tribe List on a priority basis. (26 Tea-tribes, 9 from Odisha, 8 from Chhattisgarh, few from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu).

Salient features of Tribes

An amalgam of the various traits ascribed to tribal groups include:

  • Tribes have a segmentary but egalitarian system.
  • They are not mutually inter-dependent, as are castes in a system of organic solidarity.
  • Absence of complex political structures
  • Endogamy
  • Strong and functional kinship bonds, cooperation
  • Territorial integrity
  • Cultural and linguistic distinctiveness
  • Lower levels of technology
  • Sustained by relatively primitive subsistence technology such as shifting cultivation, hunting, and gathering
  • Many tribes follow Animism as a form of religion
Communal ownership of resourcesIndividual ownership
Endogamy to preserve tribal identityEndogamy based on the purity-pollution principle


Existing criteria followed by the government for the specification of a community a scheduled tribe as defined by the Lokur committee (1965) are:

  • Indications of primitive traits,
  • Distinctive culture,
  • Geographical isolation,
  • Shyness of contact with the community at large, and
  • Backwardness.

These are not mentioned in the Constitution. 


STEP-1: Representations are received by State Governments or Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs for inclusion/exclusion of any community in/from the list of Scheduled Tribes of a State/UT under Article 342 of Constitution. 

STEP-2: State government or UT administration needs to first recommend and forward the proposal to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. If the State Government or UT Administration does not recommend the community’s case for inclusion will die down.

STEP-3: After State government/UT administration has recommended for inclusion of the community in ST list, Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs forwards the proposal to Registrar General of India (RGI). If the RGI is not satisfied, the case for inclusion ends.

STEP-4: If the RGI is satisfied with the proposal, the case for inclusion is forwarded to National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) for its recommendation. 

STEP-5: After the consent of the NCST recommendation, the proposal is taken to Union Cabinet for its consent. 

STEP-6: After the consent of the NCST, the matter is taken up by the Parliament in the form of a bill to amend the Presidential Order issued under Article 342 of the Constitution, which lists the scheduled tribes in each State and UT.


  • Transition and Acculturation: Over the period, tribal communities have been undergoing the processes of transition & acculturation due to impacts of planned change, modernization & globalization. Tribes do show some distinctness in their culture but the regional variations cannot be ruled out due to acculturation influence of adjoining populations. Most tribes got converted to mainstream religions like Hinduism and Christianity.
  • Issues with Isolation: Migrations in India were frequent for political, economic and ecological reasons. Even the most isolated groups were part of a wider network of economic relations. There are only a few tribes, which are isolated like the Jarawa and the Sentinelese in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • Problematic Idea of ‘Primitiveness’: The term “primitive” has been challenged as a value-loaded term indicating a condescending attitude by outsiders. Besides, the so-called primitivity is a stage in evolution of a community through which all communities have passed or passing. The tribals themselves resent being called primitive.
  • Reasons identified by Panda Committee why some communities are not included as STs:
  • Some existing communities who form sub-sets among the existing Scheduled Tribe have not got benefit of Scheduled Tribes.
  • Phonetic Variations: Some communities are known by names which have little phonetic or spelling differences with existing ST tribes.
  • Bifurcation of States: Few communities were left out when States were bifurcated i.e., they were included as ST in one state and left out of ST list in other state. 
  • Due to forced migration: There are communities who were denied inclusion in ST list, as they were forcibly taken away from their homelands as indentured labour to other states or were displaced due to industrialisation, where they were left out of the ST list. Thus, there is a need to differentiate between voluntary migration and forced displacement and thus, these communities should be included in ST List. Ex. Tea Tribes of Assam who were forcibly taken as indentured labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha to Assam. Tribes who have had to be resettled from one state to another due to hydropower and irrigation projects on Narmada River affected STs in Madhya Pradesh. 

If these outdated criteria are still going to be adopted, there may be hardly few communities to qualify for ST status and many of the existing ST communities will lose their ST status. Hence, there emerges the need to revisit the existing criteria so that apparent historical injustice can be addressed practically and contextually. A more flexible criterion should be adopted for this purpose, rather than following a rigid and dogmatic approach. 


  • Procedure for inclusion of communities defeats Constitution agenda for affirmative action and inclusion is cumbersome and time consuming. 
  • The proposal must get consent of States government/UT administration, Registrar General of India, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, Union Cabinet and Parliament. If the proposal is defeated at any one spot it is rejected. 
  • Office of Registrar General of India lacks expertise of Anthropologists and sociologists to comment on proposals for exclusion and inclusion of community into ST list.
  • Registrar General of India has not created a databank on tribes/castes based on ethnographic study/surveys. This limits the ability to do justice to identifying communities as STs.
  • RGI’s decision is based on census records. However, there are inconsistencies in the census records. For ex. Census 1891 listed tribes as ‘Tribal religion’, 1901 and 1911 census described them as ‘Tribal animists’, 1921 census included them under ‘Hill and forest tribes’, 1931 census described them as ‘primitive tribes’ and 1941 census as ‘tribes’. After Census 1951, they are under the constitutional category of Scheduled Tribes.


The following criteria points are proposed for consideration by National Commission for Scheduled Tribe and must be looked at from a holistic perspective, rather than as an isolated criterion. These criteria have been suggested by Hrushikesh Panda Committee. All the following criteria should be looked at holistically and none should take precedence over another. 

  • Common Community Names for Group Identity or may have different names such as sub-tribes/sections, synonyms/ phonetic variations or the name/names by which they identify themselves and the names by which their neighbours call them.
  • Distinct Language/Dialect which may or may not exist today. The community may be bilingual speaking own language among themselves and local/regional language to communicate with others.
  • Presence of a Core Culture relating to life cycle, songs, dances, paintings, folklore.
  • Endogamy or marital relationship primarily within their community & with other Scheduled Tribes.
  • Autonomous Religious Beliefs and Practices where traditional magico-religious functionaries are from the community, though practicing Hindu ‘way of life’ would not be a bar.
  • Traditional Institutions of Social Control relatively intact.
  • Low Level of Techno-Economy: Simple, less diversified, simple exchange of goods and services, mutual interdependence.
  • Relative Socio-Economic & Educational backwardness when compared to rest of population of the State.
  • Historical geographical isolation which may or may not exist today.
  • Reforming the procedure for inclusion: Office of RGI should merely be required to provide information available with it.

Reformed procedure: Panda Committee suggested a reformed procedure suggesting that once a proposal is received from a State government, it should be circulated simultaneously to NCST, RGI and Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), each of which needs to give their opinions in 6 months. After opinions of the above institutions should then be considered by a special committee on Scheduling of Communities which will be headed by Tribal Affairs Secretary, and representatives from NCST, RGI, AnSI, State Governments and State Tribal Research Institute.

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