Systematic evidence on the patterns of health deprivation among indigenous peoples remains scant in developing countries. We investigate the inequalities in mortality and substance use between indigenous and non-indigenous, and within indigenous, groups in India, with an aim to establishing the relative contribution of socioeconomic status in generating health inequalities.
Methods and Findings
Cross-sectional population-based data were obtained from the 1998–1999 Indian National Family Health Survey. Mortality, smoking, chewing tobacco use, and alcohol use were four separate binary outcomes in our analysis. Indigenous status in the context of India was operationalized through the Indian government category of scheduled tribes, or Adivasis, which refers to people living in tribal communities characterized by distinctive social, cultural, historical, and geographical circumstances.
Indigenous groups experience excess mortality compared to non-indigenous groups, even after adjusting for economic standard of living (odds ratio 1.22; 95% confidence interval 1.13–1.30). They are also more likely to smoke and (especially) drink alcohol, but the prevalence of chewing tobacco is not substantially different between indigenous and non-indigenous groups. There are substantial health variations within indigenous groups, such that indigenous peoples in the bottom quintile of the indigenous-peoples-specific standard of living index have an odds ratio for mortality of 1.61 (95% confidence interval 1.33–1.95) compared to indigenous peoples in the top fifth of the wealth distribution. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and chewing tobacco also show graded associations with socioeconomic status within indigenous groups.
Socioeconomic status differentials substantially account for the health inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous groups in India. However, a strong socioeconomic gradient in health is also evident within indigenous populations, reiterating the overall importance of socioeconomic status for reducing population-level health disparities, regardless of indigeneity.
Indigenous groups in India were found to have excess mortality rates compared with non-indigenous groups. A socioeconomic gradient within indigenous populations was also found.
In many parts of the world the majority of the population are the descendants of immigrants who arrived there within the last few hundred years. Living alongside of them, and in a minority, are the so-called indigenous (or aboriginal) people who are the descendants of people who lived there in more ancient times. It is estimated that there are 300 million indigenous people worldwide. They are frequently marginalized from the rest of the population, their human rights are often abused, and there are serious concerns about their health and welfare. The state of health of the indigenous people of developed countries such as the US and Australia has often been studied, and we have a fairly clear idea of the kinds of problems these people face. Most indigenous people, however, live in developing countries, and less is known about their health.
India is the second-most populous country in the world, with an estimated 1.1 billion inhabitants. An estimated 90 million indigenous people live in India, where they are often referred to as “scheduled tribes” or Adivasis. They live in many parts of the country but are much more numerous in some Indian states than in others.
Why Was This Study Done?
It has often been said that indigenous people in India have worse health than other Indians, though no figures have been compiled to confirm these claims. The researchers wanted to establish whether it is simply an issue of indigenous people being poorer than other Indians—poverty being well known as a cause of disease—or whether being indigenous is, in itself, a health risk. The researchers also wanted to establish whether there are health inequalities within indigenous groups, and if these differences also followed a socioeconomic patterning.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They used figures collected in the 1998–1999 Indian National Family Health Survey. When this survey was conducted, it was noted whether people were considered to be members of scheduled tribes. The researchers also knew, from the survey, about the income of the families, their death rates, and whether they drank alcohol or smoked or chewed tobacco. They found that indigenous people had higher death rates than other Indians. They made statistical calculations to account for differences in standard of living, and this substantially reduced the difference in death rate among indigenous groups, but an indigenous person was still 1.2 times more likely to die than a non-indigenous person with the same standard of living. Indigenous people were also more likely to drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, and here again, differences in standard of living accounted for a substantial portion of the differences. Importantly, the researchers' analysis showed a strong socioeconomic patterning of health inequalities within the indigenous population groups: the health differences between the poorest and richest indigenous groups were similar in scale to the differences between the poorest and richest non-indigenous groups.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The authors consider their finding that there is a socioeconomic gradient in mortality and health behaviors among indigenous people to be an important result from the study. The socioeconomic marginalization of indigenous people from the rest of Indian society does seem to increase their health risks, and so does their use of alcohol and tobacco. However, if their standard of living can be improved there would be major benefits for their health and welfare.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030421.
A useful discussion of the term “indigenous people” (with links to documents about international agreements intended to improve their human rights) may be found on Wikipedia. (Wikipedia is an internet encyclopedia that anyone can edit.)
Survival International is a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, helping them preserve their land and culture.
The charity Health Unlimited also works with indigenous people and its Web site includes links to recent studies and conferences.
A news item from the BBC describes a recent investigation into the health of indigenous people worldwide.
The World Health Organization has produced a number of reports on the health of indigenous people