Tribal economy is characterised as subsistence oriented. The subsistence economy is based mainly on collecting, hunting and fishing (e.g., the Birhor, Hill Kharia), or a combination of hunting and collecting with shifting cultivation (e.g., the Juang,, Hill Bhuyan, Lanjia Saora, Kondh etc.) Even the so-called plough using agricultural tribes do often, wherever scope is available, supplement their economy with hunting and collecting. Subsistence economy is characterised by simple technology, simple division of labour, small-scale units of production and no investment of capital. The social unit of production, distribution and consumption is limited to the family and lineage. Subsistence economy is imposed by circumstances which are beyond the control of human beings, poverty of the physical environment, ignorance of efficient technique of exploiting natural resources and lack of capital for investment. It also implies existence of barter and lack of trade.
Considering the general features of their (i) eco-system, (ii) traditional economy, (iii) supernatural beliefs and practices, and (iv) recent “impacts of modernization”, the tribes of Odisha can be classified into six types, such as: (1) Hunting, collecting and gathering type, (2) Cattle-herder type, (3) Simple artisan type, (4) Hill and shifting cultivation type, (5) Settled agriculture type and (6) Industrial urban worker type.
Each type has a distinct style of life which could be best understood in the paradigm of nature, man and spirit complex, that is, on the basis of relationship with nature, fellow men and the supernatural.
(1) Tribes of the first type, namely Kharia, Mankidi, Mankidia and Birhor, live in the forests of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts, exclusively depend on forest resources for their livelihood by practising hunting, gathering and collecting. They live in tiny temporary huts made out of the materials found in the forest. Under constraints of their economic pursuit they live in isolated small bands or groups. With their primitive technology, limited skill and unflinching traditional and ritual practices, their entire style of life revolves round forest. Their world view is fully in consonance with the forest eco-system. The population of such tribes in Orissa though is small, yet their impact on the ever-depleting forest resources is very significant. Socio-politically they have remained inarticulate and therefore have remained in a relatively more primitive stage, and neglected too.
(2) The Koya which belongs to the Dravidian linguistic group, is the lone pastoral and cattle-breeder tribal community in Odisha. This tribe which inhabits the Malkangiri District has been facing crisis for lack of pasture.
(3) In Orissa Mahali and Kol-Lohara practise crafts like basketry and black-smithy respectively. The Loharas with their traditional skill and primitive tools manufacture iron and wooden tools for other neighbouring tribes and thereby eke out their existence. Similarly the Mahalis earn their living by making baskets for other communities. Both the tribes are now confronted with the problem of scarcity of raw materials. And further they are not able to compete with others, especially in the tribal markets where goods of other communities come for sale, because of their primitive technology.
(4) The tribes that practise hill and shifting cultivation are many. In northern Odisha the Juang and Bhuyan, and in southern Orissa the Kondh, Saora, Koya, Parenga, Didayi, Dharua and Bondo practise shifting cultivation. They supplement their economy by foodgathering and hunting as production in shifting cultivation is low. Shifting cultivation is essentially a regulated sequence of procedure designed to open up and bring under cultivation patches of forest lands, usually on hill slopes.
In shifting cultivation the practitioners follow a pattern of cycle of activities which are as follows: (i) Selection of a patch of hill slope or forest land and distribution or allotment of the same to intended practitioners (ii) Worshipping of concerned deities and making of sacrifices, (iii) Cutting of trees, bushes, ferns etc., existing on the land before summer months, (iv) Pilling up of logs, bushes and ferns on the land, (v) Burning of the withered logs, ferns and shrubs etc. to ashes on a suitable day, (vi) Cleaning of the patch of land before the on-set of monsoon and spreading of the ashes evenly on the land after a shower or two, (vii) Hoeing and showing of seeds with regular commencement of monsoon rains, (viii) Crude bunding and weeding activities follow after sprouting of seeds, (ix) Watching and protecting the crops, (x) Harvesting and collecting crops, (xi) Threshing and storing of corns, grains etc., and (xii) Merry-making. In these operations all the members of the family are involved in some way or the other. Work is distributed among the family members according to the ability of individual members. However, the head of the family assumes all the responsibilities in the practice and operation of shifting cultivation. The adult males, between 18 and 60 years of age under-take the strenuous work of cutting tree, ploughing and hoeing, and watching of the crops at night where as cutting the bushes and shrubs, cleaning of seeds for sowing and weeding are done by women.
Shifting cultivation is not only an economic pursuit of some tribal communities, but it accounts for their total way of life. Their social structure, economy, political organization and religion are all accountable to the practice of shifting cultivation.
In the past, land in the tribal areas had not been surveyed and settled. Therefore, the tribals freely practiced shifting cultivation in their respective habitats assuming that land, forest, water and other natural resources belonged to them. The pernicious, yet unavoidable practice of shifting cultivation continues unchecked and all attempts made to wean away the tribals from shifting cultivation have so far failed. The colonization scheme of the State Government has failed in spirit.
In certain hilly areas terraces are constructed along the slopes. It is believed to be a step towards settled agriculture. Terrace cultivation is practiced by the Saora, Kondh and Gadaba. The terraces are built on the slopes of hill with water streams.
(5) Several large tribes, such as, Santal, Munda, Ho, Bhumij, Oraon, Gond, Mirdha, Savara etc. are settled agriculturists, though they supplement their economy with hunting, gathering and collecting. Tribal agriculture in Odisha is characterised by unproductive and uneconomic holdings, land alienation indebtedness, lack of irrigation facilities in the undulating terrains, lack of easy or soft credit facilities as well as use of traditional skill and primitive implements. In general, they raise only one crop during the monsoon, and therefore have to supplement their economy by other types of subsidiary economic activities.
Tribal communities practicing settled agriculture also suffer from further problems, viz: (i) want of record of right for land under occupation, (ii) land alienation (iii) problems of indebtedness, (iv) lack of power for irrigation (v) absence of adequate roads and transport, (vi) seasonal migration to other places for wage-earning and (vii) lack of education and adequate scope for modernization.
(6) Sizable agglomeration of tribal population in Orissa has moved to mining, industrial and urban areas for earning a secured living through wage-labour. During the past three decades the process of industrial urbanization in the tribal belt of Orissa has been accelerated through the operation of mines and establishment of industries. Mostly persons from advanced tribal communities, such as Santal, Munda, Ho, Oraon, Kisan, Gond etc. have taken to this economic pursuit in order to relieve pressure from their limited land and other resources.
In some instances industrialization and mining operations have led to uprooting of tribal villages, and the displaced became industrial nomads. They lost their traditional occupation, agricultural land, houses and other immovable assets. They became unemployed and faced unfair competition with others in the labour market, Their aspiration – gradually escalated, although they invariably failed to achieve what they aspired for. Thus the net result was frustration.
The overall kinship system of the tribes may be label led as tempered classificatory. In terminology the emphasis lies on the unilinear principle, generation and age. Descent and inheritance are patrilineal and authority is patripotestal among all the tribal communities of Odisha.
Among the tribes there is very little specialization of social roles, with the exception of role differentiation in terms of kinship and sex and some specialization in crafts, the only other role specializations are Head-man, Priest, Shaman and the Haruspex.
There is very little rigid stratification in society. The tendency towards stratification is gaining momentum among several settled agricultural tribes under the impact of modernization. The tribes of Odisha are at different levels of socio-economic development.
The position of priest, village headman and the inter-village head-man are hereditary. The village headman is invariably from original settlers’ clan of the village, which is obviously dominant. Punishments or corrective measures are proportional to the gravity of the breach of set norms or crime, and the punishments range from simple oral admonition to other measures, such as corporal punishments, imposition of fines, payment of compensation, observance of prophylactic rites and excommunication from the community. Truth of an incident is determined by oath, ordeals and occult mechanism.
As regards the acquisition of brides for marriage, the most widely prevalent practice among the tribes of Odisha is through “capture”, although other practices, such as, elopement, purchase, service and negotiation are also there. With the passage of time negotiated type of marriage, which is considered prestigious, is being preferred more and more. Payment of bride-price is an inseparable part of tribal marriage, but this has changed to the system of dowry among the educated sections.
The religion of the Orissan tribes is an admixture of animism, animalism, nature-worship, fetishism, shamanism, anthropomorphism and ancestor worship. Religious beliefs and practices aim at ensuring personal security and happiness as well as community well-being and group solidarity. Their religious performances include life-crisis rites, cyclic community rites, ancestor and totemic rites and observance of taboos. Besides these, the tribals also resort to various types of occult practices. In order to tide over either a personal or a group crisis the tribals begin with occult practices, and if it does not yield any result the next recourse is supplication of the supernatural force.