The sources of subsistence and livelihood are varied so far the Indian tribals are concerned. Starting from the pure and simple parasitic habit of the nomadic hunters and food-gatherers who depend mostly on nature for the sources of subsistence to the settled agriculturists and the group of industrial laborers, we have the views of different economic set-up the Indian tribals. From this view point, we can classify the Indian tribals into six broad economic clusters:
- Food-gatherers and hunters: The nomadic primitive tribes like the Andamanese, Onge, Jarwa, Kadar, Kharia, Lodha, etc. are included in this category so far their subsistence economy is concerned. They usually live far away from rural-urban way of life and possess a simple type of social organization.
- Permanent Settled Cultivators: Like the cultivators of the advanced societies, some of the tribals in India are taking resort to permanent settled agriculture. The Oraon, Munda, Gond, Bhumij, Ho, Santal, are efficient cultivators at present. They practice wet cultivation by transplanting method. Artificial irrigation and application of compost manure are not unknown to them. Rotation of crops is within the knowledge of these cultivators. They work in their owned fields as well as in the fields of others as share-croppers (Bhag-Chasi). The major bulk of the tribal population work as agricultural laborers. In search of jobs, these landless agricultural laborers participate in seasonal migration to the neighboring states. The social and religious organizations of these settled agriculturist tribals are much developed and highly complex. The traditional council of elders (panchayet) has to perform significant role in maintaining societal norms.
- Pastoral people: The Bhotia of Almora and the Toda of the Nilgiri hills of South India live on pastoral economy. They do not practice agriculture, hunting, fishing, etc. They also live far away from the sophisticated modern world and possess a slightly developed but non-complicated social structure. Both of them, practice polyandrous marriage system. They rear buffaloes and cows, the milk-products are being exchanged to procure the commodities of day-to-day use.
- Shifting Hill cultivators: A section of the Gond, Naga, Kharia, Juang, Riang, Khasi, Garo, Savara practice such type of primitive cultivation by “slash and burn” method. It is known by different names in different areas. The Assam tribes call it Jhum, the Gond as Podu, etc. A hilly forested tract is selected for this purpose may have to be abandoned after three successive cultivating seasons as this soil likely to lose fertility. The plants, shrubs, and undergrowth’s are cut down and left for drying for a month or so. Then, they set fire to them. The ashes serve as auto-manure to the soil. On the onset of monsoon, the soil is slightly loosened by a simple digging stick or hoe. Seeds of different Kharif crops, millet’s like Bajra, Jowar, Kurthi, pulses, potato, tobacco, and sugar-cane are grown in this type of cultivation. It could support them partially but not wholly. They have to find out some other vocations as supporting source of subsistence.
- Manual laboring group: A substantial portion of the tribals has become landless laboring class owing to the economic hardship which they are facing at present. They earn their livelihood by selling their manual labor in different vocations.
- Craftsmen: Some of the tribals are still retaining their traditional crafts along with the principle sources of subsistence. The Naga and the Khasi are experts in coloured hand-loom products and the Lohar are traditional black smiths. With the marginal profit in their traditional specialized crafts, these tribals are at present, taking resort to other types of jobs. Their mixed pattern of economy reflects back adversely upon their social system.