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Rural Livelihoods of Indigenous Communities in Odisha – A Comprehensive Overview

In the eastern state of Odisha, India, lie the lands of indigenous communities whose livelihoods are deeply entwined with nature. This article sheds light on the rural livelihoods of these communities, emphasizing their reliance on natural farming, traditional cultivation practices, and the changing dynamics of their sustenance in the face of industrialization, population growth, and governmental interventions.

Understanding the Traditional Livelihoods of Indigenous Communities

Indigenous communities in Odisha traditionally rely on natural farming and shifting/jhum cultivation for their sustenance. Their main crops include paddy, minor millets, and commercial crops like Niger. Additionally, they collect Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) and engage in hunting and gathering. Historically, barter systems were prevalent for exchanging goods, highlighting their self-sufficient and community-centric approach to livelihoods.

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Impact of Historical and Colonial Influences

During the British period, these communities heavily depended on forest resources for their livelihoods. Forest products and fuel wood were vital components of their sustenance. However, the rise of industrialization, intervention from outsiders, and a growing population posed significant threats, leading to the degradation of these resources.

The Shift towards Diversification and Government Schemes

With the depletion of forests and inadequate land holdings for agriculture, the indigenous communities had to diversify their sources of livelihood. Agriculture became an alternative, although insufficient to meet their growing needs. They started engaging in small industries and began to rely on various government development schemes, entitlements, and benefits to sustain their households.

The Role of Indigenous Women and Changing Dynamics

Women play a crucial role in sustaining their families by engaging in both caregiving and income-generating activities. Over time, these communities have formed Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) to strengthen their position in the market. However, challenges persist, especially regarding negotiation skills and exploitation by middlemen.

Sustainable Development and the Path Forward

In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on sustainable development, considering the unique cultural fabric of tribal communities. The goal is communities while preserving their customs, values, and traditions. Various governmental and non-governmental efforts are being made to enhance sustainable livelihoods for tribal populations. These initiatives aim to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation, ensuring that the tribal way of life remains intact while progressing forward.

Conservation and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources

Traditionally, the tribal communities were the custodians of the natural resources they depended upon. They maintained a harmonious relationship with their environment, practicing sustainable use and conservation. Their intrinsic knowledge of local biodiversity enabled them to coexist with nature, preserving it for generations. However, modernization and external influences have disrupted this delicate balance.

Challenges to Livelihood and Sustainability

Modern challenges such as urbanization, industrialization, and privatization have drastically altered the tribal livelihood landscape. Forests, once a plentiful resource, have been exploited and depleted. Moreover, the unequal distribution of land and resources poses significant hurdles to the sustenance of indigenous communities. The need of the hour is to find sustainable solutions that empower these communities economically while safeguarding their cultural and environmental heritage.

The Importance of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs)

Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) have been a cornerstone of indigenous livelihoods. These products, ranging from fruits and seeds to fibers and medicinal plants, have been essential for both consumption and trade. Understanding their seasonal availability and maximizing their potential through value addition can significantly boost the income and sustainability of these communities.

Empowering Indigenous Women for Economic Growth

Efforts are being made to empower indigenous women, recognizing their pivotal role in sustaining households. This empowerment involves providing them with opportunities for skill development, access to education, and participation in decision-making processes. By enhancing their role in various economic activities and reducing gender disparities, we can foster a more inclusive and economically stable community.

Future Prospects and Collaborative Efforts

To enhance the livelihoods of indigenous communities in Odisha, a multi-faceted approach is needed. This includes promoting sustainable agricultural practices, providing access to modern technology, facilitating marketing linkages, and offering financial support through various government schemes. Collaborations between government bodies, NGOs, and local communities are crucial to achieving sustainable development goals and preserving the rich cultural heritage of these indigenous groups.


The livelihoods of indigenous communities in Odisha are deeply rooted in their unique relationship with nature. From traditional farming practices to the sustainable use of forest resources, these communities have a wealth of traditional knowledge that needs to be recognized and harnessed for sustainable development. By addressing their specific challenges, empowering women, and promoting environmentally conscious practices, we can work towards a future where these indigenous communities thrive while preserving their cultural identity and the environment.

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Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.

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