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Tribal peoples constitute roughly 8 percent of the nation's total population, nearly 68 million people as recorded in the 1991 census. One concentration lives in a belt along the Himalayas, stratching through Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh in the west to Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, manipur, and Nagaland in the northeast.
Another concentration lives in the hilly areas of central India (Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and to a lesser extent, Andhra Pradesh). In this belt, which is bounded by the Narmada River to the north and the Godavari River to the southeast, tribal peoples occupy the slopes of the region's mountains. Other tribals, the Santals, live in Bihar and West Bengal. There are smaller numbers of tribal people in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, in western India in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and in the union territories of Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands
The extent to which a state's population is tribal varies considerably. In the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and nagaland, upward of 90 percent of the population is tribal. However, in the remaining northeast states of Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Tripura, tribal peoples form between 20 and 30 percent of the population. The largest tribes are found in central India, although the tribal population there accounts for only around 10 percent of the region's total population. Major concentrations of tribal people live in Maharashtra, Orissa, and West Bengal. In the south, about 1 percent of the populations of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are tribal, whereas about 6 percent of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are members of tribes.
There are some 573 communities recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes and, therefore, are eligible to receive special benefits and to compete for reserved seats in legislatures and schools. They range in size from the Gonds (roughly 7.4 million) and the Santals (approximately 4.2 million) to only eighteen Chaimals in the Andaman Islands. Central Indian states have the country's largest tribes, and taken as a whole, roughly 75 percent of the total tribal population live there.
Unlike castes, which are part of a complex and interrelated local economic exchange system, tribes tend to form self-sufficient economic units. Often they practice swidden farming - clearing a field by slash-and-burn methods, planting it for a number of seasons, and then abandoning it for a lengthy fallow period - rather than the intensive farming typical of most of rural India.
For most tribal people, land use rights traditionally derive simply from tribal membership. Tribal society tends to be egalitarian, its leadership being based on ties of kinship and personality rather than on hereditary status. Tribes typically consist of segmentary lineages whose extended families provide the basis for social organization and control. Unlike caste religion, which recognizes the hegemony of Brahman priests, tribal religion recognizes no authority outside the tribe.