Locating Adivasi Self within Environmental Justice - MHI




Locating Adivasi Self
within Environmental Justice

Politics of Adivasi identity,
Knowledge, and Care

Alice A. Barwa


Tejaswini Waghulde


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

Despite the Supreme Court’s historic judgement in 2011, which stated that “The ancestors of the present tribes or Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes), were the original inhabitants…”, the Indian government fails to recognise Adivasis as Indigenous people of India at international fora. This has further distanced Adivasis from the key dialogues, not just on the national but on the international level, which impact their ways of life. In this article, I have shared my personal negotiations with Adivasi identity, narrative struggles that delegitimise Adivasi knowledge and belief systems, and how it locates Adivasis within the larger environmental justice discourse.

Understanding ‘Adivasiyat’

As a second-generation migrant in a metropolitan city, identifying as an Adivasi has been a path riddled with questions about my Adivasiness, both from within the community and outside. It has often led to isolation whenever I failed to locate myself in either space. Unequal power structures within which Adivasi identity is located further contribute to this identity crisis. This prompted me to explore young Adivasis’ consciousness of their Adivasi identity and the role of formal education in framing it in my Master’s thesis. My research focused on young Adivasis from the age group of 15 to 25. Through thematic analysis, I identified that one of the prominent markers of identifying as an Adivasi for the participants was a notion of a native place, along with a sense of community, traditional practices, and language. The participants shared how they imagined their native place when they heard the word Adivasi, which also came with a sense of belonging as families and community introduced them to their imagined way of ‘Adivasiness’ or ‘Adivasiyat’, and how changing seasons, agricultural cycles, animals, and plants within their ecology have been central to the celebrations and traditional practices they follow as Adivasis. 

Jaipal Singh Munda (1952), an Adivasi writer, political leader, and sportsperson also repeatedly stated the significance of land to Adivasi identity while addressing the Constituent Assembly:

“…When we think of submerging a village, we think merely of the submersion of lands and the houses. But we forget that there are things that an Adivasi values very much…their Sarnas, the sal or other groves where most of the worship is done by them. They think very highly of their burial called Sasana…the Minister, has he any idea of the spiritual rehabilitation of the men I have spoken of? Of course, we can not reproduce the groves but we are going to destroy their worshipping places…believe me there is much that the rest of India has to learn from Adivasis in regard to the rhythm of life.”

Hence, the slogan “Jal-Jungle-Jameen” used by Adivasis not just asserts land sovereignty but autonomy, too. 

Narrative Struggle

Today, when we talk about environmental justice, we dismiss Adivasi knowledge systems, belief systems, and their histories of resilience – central to which is a way of life based on egalitarian principles, a continuum of nature, ancestors, and humans, and symbiosis between human and the animal kingdom. As opposed to the anthropocentric worldview, which is normative, here the world is a holistic creation of interdependent components. The absence of Adivasi voices is most apparent in the textual knowledge, where (upper) caste epistemologies and euro-western epistemologies continue to overshadow the Adivasi epistemologies. One need not look further than the school textbooks, which play a dominant role in what students learn. 

While reviewing my niece’s class seven English state book of Chhattisgarh, I came across a chapter titled “Dear Diary…”, which narrates from a child’s perspective their visit to Bastar, where the writer has reduced the people of Adivasi communities of Bastar to props on the roadside as they write, “…the Bastar tribes in their traditional costumes add to the natural beauty of the region.” The text provides no social or cultural context to the readers and reduces Adivasis to something exotic, which was one of the ways Adivasis were viewed by anthropologists during the colonial era. This act of “othering” often results in young Adivasis disassociating from their social identity. Growing up, it becomes a constant struggle to fit into the (upper) caste and euro-western norms of morality, mannerism, beliefs, and culture. This forced erasure of one’s Adivasi identity leaves young people feeling inferior, and with a loss of belongingness to a community. 

It is vital to look at the active role the Adivasi community plays in society and their contribution to sustaining the environment; the omission of the same from textbooks becomes part of the larger politics of knowledge that continues to delegitimise Adivasi epistemologies. Throughout history, Adivasis have struggled not just against the British but also the Dikus (outsiders), Zamindars, and Zamindari systems. The absence of resistance movements of Adivasis in history books is to invisibilise the Adivasi narrative that continues to challenge the colonial conservation practices, which are capitalist, classist, and casteist in nature. 

Similarly, their environmental struggles go beyond growing more trees or ‘No-Plastic’ campaigns as taught in environmental studies books. It’s resisting the coal mines, the building of dams, expansions of expressways, and entry of tourism (even eco-tourism) that are viewed as vital to the state’s developmental plans. Bacigal states, that in a settler-colonial society, degradation of the land is viewed as “normal”, necessary for the continued growth of wealth, and the effects on the Indigenous bodies as an “acceptable risk”. For Adivasis, freedom from oppressorsʼ greed is still further away.

Illustration by: Saheb Ram Tudu

Despite the recognition of Forest Rights Act, 2006, and Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA in Scheduled Areas of India, Adivasis continue to face brutal evacuation due to non-implementation or improper implementation of these constitutional rights. Non-recognition of Community Forest Resources (CFR) rights, uncertain rainfall, and an overall decline in agricultural output negatively impact the Adivasi peasant economy. Taking away Adivasis’ self-reliance and sense of identity limits Adivasisʼ options to choose, forcing them to take up low-paying jobs, migrate, and for women to work as domestic workers or even get trafficked. None of these come with any sense of security and safety, from financial to physical and mental well-being.

The resistance movements often come with a sense of helplessness as people in power keep getting away with false solutions and greenwashing. Even peaceful agitations, documentation, and virtual engagement come with constant anxiety as Adivasis continue to face the most brutal form of state oppression due to the imposed identity as a Naxalite which has been generalised to all Adivasis and Adivasi regions. Raising a voice has harsh consequences for Adivasis, who lack the social and economic capital to safeguard themselves. Amidst this, as vocal young Adivasi, we constantly negotiate between the fear of losing our land, culture, and language and the fear of being falsely incriminated and harassed by the oppressors, in real-time as well as on social media, for speaking up.
In the larger discourse, we face constant epistemic exploitation. The act of reliving our inter-generational traumas, and the responsibility to educate the privileged person about the nature of their oppression falls on us. Berenstain points out how epistemic exploitation results in unrecognised, uncompensated, emotionally taxing, and coerced epistemic labour. It’s tiring to stand in front of your oppressors and explain what is missing and wrong with the narrative. Under their (upper) caste and euro-western gaze, we have to face gaslighting and skepticism that results in overwhelming exhaustion, with little to no emotional support circles. 

Most learning and unlearning by privileged people are limited in theory and not extended in action when implementation and recognition of Adivasi rights are demanded. We are handed token representations, while we demand radical system change, within which the Adivasi voices are expected to be the perfect victims of oppression that takes away our chance at humanising ourselves away from the oppressors’ lens. This imperialising, hegemonising lens on Adivasi identity is imposed externally as well as internally, as we often forget that identities are fluid and are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power. This often leads to immense self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the sense of never being enough despite constantly and critically engaging with Adivasi discourses. 

Self-care amidst all this becomes a protest against the traumatic colonial, casteist, classist, and capitalist experiences we go through while reclaiming our rights to “Jal-Jungle-Jameen”, Adivasi knowledge and belief systems. Though even the protest, in its most literal sense, is a privilege reserved for people of certain caste, class, gender, race, and religion.

Cite this Article View all References


  • Apple, Micheal. W. Cultural politics and the text. Routledge. 2000. 181-195
  • Bacigal, Lindsey. What is Gender-Based Environmental Violence?. briarpatch. 2020. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/what-is-gender-based-environmental-violence. Accessed 29 June 2022.
  • Berenstain, Nora. Epistemic exploitation. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3 (2016).
  • Bhukya, Bhangya. The mapping of the Adivasi social: Colonial anthropology and Adivasis. Economic and Political Weekly. 2008. 103-109.
  • Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and crisis. No. 7. WW Norton & Company. 1968
  • Hall, Stuart. Cultural identity and diaspora. Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: a reader. Harvest Wheatsheaf. 1994. 227-237.
  • Kujur, Joseph Marianus and Vikas Jha. Tribal Women Domestic Workers in Delhi. Indian Social Institute. 2008.
  • Munda, Ram Dayal. Adi-dharam: Religious beliefs of the Adivasis of India. sarini, BIRSA & adivaani. 2014.
  • Poyam, Akash (ed.) Bodhi, s. r. Tribal and Adivasi Studies ‘Perspective from Within’: Social Work in India. Adivaani. 2016. 
  • Swamy, Stan. Supreme Court changes course on Adivasi rights. Citizens for Justice and Peace. 2019. https://cjp.org.in/supreme-court-changes-course-on-adivasi-rights/. Accessed 30 June. 2022.



R : Locating Adivasi Self within Environmental Jus...