Adaptive skilling

By Seema Purushothaman

Seema Purushothaman (biography)

How can tribal societies forge a healthy equilibrium wherein short-term gains in livelihoods can be achieved without permanent loss in quality and security of tribal life? Are there lessons beyond the developmental journeys of the marginalised to how societies can craft informed, deliberative and adaptive mechanisms to generate blended knowledge that links diverse systems of learning and practice?

We suggest that the answer lies in adaptive skilling (Purushothaman et al., 2022).

What is adaptive skilling?

The process of adaptive skilling is more than mere avoidance of deskilling or just ensuring the continuity of individual and social learning. It also differs from a ‘reskilling’ approach that brings back traditional skills or brings in alien and unsustainable skills. We offer a definition in the context of agriculture:

Adaptive skilling in agriculture can be described as continuous, need based evolution of skills and know-how for reliable and lasting agricultural productivity, balancing the need for nutritional autonomy and farm incomes. It aims at adaptive changes in the interface of people, agriculture and rural commons, towards a resilient social-ecological system that minimises sudden and extreme shifts in agro-ecology, livelihoods and wellbeing.

We explored agrarian adaptive skilling in tribal agriculture in forest fringes by Adivasi farmers in India.

Agrarian adaptive skilling

In the context of Adivasi farmers, the need for and process of agrarian adaptive skilling can be seen as aligned around four axes:

  1. The first axis is the visible dilemma and trade-offs entailed in the development experience between ‘individual’ and ‘community’ and between ‘livelihoods’ and the ‘social-ecological system’ of the tribal village. Adaptive skilling through action research can unmute the silence around these dilemmas through reflective and inclusive dialogues in open fora.
  2. The second axis is around the remnants of social-cultural-ecological norms of an ethnic community in transition for decades. Conventional wisdom in development circles is that tribal societies are waiting to be market driven and urbanized, to join a consumerist society and economy. There is, however, a notable though weak persistence of ethnic know-how and skills along with relevant norms, despite the prolonged and on-going transition efforts.
  3. The third axis is related to the two already described, namely individualization in villages within what used to be a relatively cohesive community. Such individualisation for development, say for the sake of obtaining welfare benefits in food, livelihoods, education and security of land tenure eventually erode ‘tribalness’ to varying degrees in different places and communities. Detribalization or erosion of cohesion and tribalness that weaken the socio-cultural fabric, and the silent dilemma in trading-off social-ecological resilience for short-term livelihoods, leads to the unstated outcome of turning Adivasis into an ecologically deskilled minority community. The fact that the development process has not yet completely individualized or totally isolated them from their social-ecological systems indicates the existing scope for reconfiguring and realigning development with informed and inclusive adaptive processes.
  4. The last axis is about how these ethnic margins of Indian society can co-evolve with a market-driven urbanizing society and move towards a dynamic equilibrium of their choice. If this appears demanding and idealistic, there are also unique gains in treading this unfamiliar path.

Initiating and sustaining a process of adaptive skilling

For a process of adaptive skilling to be set in train and sustained requires institutionalising an informed and inclusive process, with blended (formal-informal) social institutions.

Such institutions can be crafted at the interface between cultural-ecological know-how and constitutional provisions for local governance. These institutions can also play a buffering role in the event of divergence (driven by development interventions) between the tribal social-ecological systems and livelihood options.

Legitimate (recognized by law or regulatory / governance agencies) self-organizing institutions are key to the aspirational journey of tribal societies towards a dynamic equilibrium of their choice. A dynamic equilibrium is one that addresses emerging challenges and wherein progress in any one element doesn’t come at the cost of others crucial for enduring progress in wellbeing. Adaptive social institutions will be able to turn the cascading and often divergent development processes towards a durable and dynamic equilibrium.

These institutions do not aim primarily at economic prosperity, but rather the elastic social formations by and within the community that support and monitor informed developmental changes and self-governance. Norms (without sanctions), rules (with sanctions), their corresponding informal and formal governance mechanisms (for instance, tribal cultural institutions) as well as common and private property regimes (commons and private farm lands) are closely intertwined.

To imagine such an institutional platform, we could visualize an elastic group within a community that keeps updating their traditional know-how on sustainable foraging of forest produce informed by related rules and regulations, as also by changes in biodiversity, rainfall pattern, technology and the market. There could be similar groups focusing on various aspects of the socio-ecological system engaged in mutual sharing of new information, in a systematic pattern.

Building adaptive institutions entails another dimension – engaging with informed and committed external agents like the state and civil society. Apart from equipping tribal societies with appropriate know-how to align developmental processes with their social-ecological context, adaptive institutions will also inform them on the constitutional provisions and modern social norms so that the community can confidently deal with the political-economic interferences in their social-ecological system. Along with deliberative and informed institutions to trigger questions and make conscious choices, this will mark the advent of a new development equilibrium in tribal hamlets.

Broader implications

Agrarian adaptive skilling is slowly diffusing into planning and managing biodiversity, nutrition, healthcare, livelihoods and lifestyle. This suggests a larger opportunity embedded in pursuing the path of adaptive skilling. It pertains to what Adivasi society, being the last source (though weak and patchy) of agro-ecological know-how and self-governance on the Indian subcontinent offer to the mainstream society facing multiple uncertainties in the 21st century. Seen in this way, adaptive skilling does not limit itself as a development journey of the marginalized but becomes a civilisational necessity for all of us.

What do you think? Are you aware of other instances of adaptive skilling? Do you agree that there are lessons for wider society?

To find out more:

Seema Purushothaman, Sheetal Patil, Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri, Amit Kumar Singh, Bibhubanta Barad, Saurabh Singh, Jostine A and Mahendra Kumar Singh Patil. (2022). Towards a New Development Equilibrium among the Forest Dependent Adivasis of Central India – A Case for Agrarian Adaptive Skilling. Working Paper No. 25, Azim Premji University, Sarjapura, Bengaluru, India. (Online – open access):

Biography: Seema Purushothaman PhD is a professor in the School of Development at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India. Her interests are in the interface of society, development and ecosystems seen through the lenses of ecological economics, inclusive action research and advocacy. Geographically her engagements span across peri urban zones, production landscapes and forest peripheries.

9 thoughts on “Adaptive skilling”

  1. Very thought-provoking post by Seema Purushotaman!
    The proposal of an innovative concept (“adaptive skilling”) provides a light to the studies on how local communities, characterised by tribal traditions, can deal with the overwhelming imperative of the “modernisation” of their productive practices, with inevitable effects on their livelihoods.
    Which is the ideal mix between tradition and modernity? How to reconcile individual motivations with collective interests, in the context of traditional groups? And, not least, how to preserve the resilience of the culture of sustainable coexistence with the natural environment when facing utilitarian market pressures?
    I imagine that in the case of the Adivasi farmers in India all members of the community share the same values and beliefs. I wonder if the concept of adaptive skilling would be applicable in indigenous communities where collective behaviours are shaken by disruptions in their religious foundations. As an example, in riverside communities in the Amazon there has been a significant conversion of originally Catholic individuals to Neo-Pentecostal religions, which exalt individualism and material prosperity, to the detriment of collective values in the broad sense.

    • Thanks Marcel for your refreshing observations. In parts of tribal India too, collective behaviours are shaken by disruptions in their religious foundations. But the communities that were part of this particular project were not part of such groups. Along with invasion of markets, consumerism and mainstream social & educational systems, changing religious foundations also impacts the potential of Adaptive Skilling.

  2. Congratulations Seema for this insightful post! In one of my fieldworks in the Brazilian Amazon was related to my work for the first phase of the UK-DEFRA led “Low Carbon Agriculture Project’ in Brazil. As you did, we also asked what a “good life” meant to traditional rural communities from the Amazon and the Atlantic Forests. In our 70 participatory workshops, they all consistently pointed out at “family”, “union”, “solidarity”, “love/friendship” and “health” as the core of a good life. Economic factors only came at the end of the list, and were mostly expressed as: “access to work”, “dignity at work”, “a meaningful job’, as well as to the possibility of remaining in their ancestral lands along with their families and communities, and in direct contact with nature (see for instance our book ). So as you so rightly point out, “adaptive skilling” should not limit itself as a development journey of the marginalized but should become a civilisational necessity for all of us, learning from them, traditional communities and their values.

    • Thanks so much Gabriela, for sharing this info. Very interested in knowing more about this work of yours. Unfortunately, the link to the book didn’t work. If you can share a document that can be accessed, it will be very useful.

  3. Thoughtful piece, Seema. There are many examples of such adaptation taking place in rural (including adivasi) communities in India, including modifications in agriculture/pastoral practices, the addition of small-scale agro-industries, revival/innovations in craft, community-led ecotourism like homestays etc. Many stories appear on What is v. important is to help document these, spread them for others to learn from and create a base for appropriate policy shifts, and create platforms of inter-community exchange. Through the Vikalp Sangam and Vikalp Sutra processes we are trying to do some of this, as Seema is aware.

  4. Thank you Seema for this thought provoking abstract of your work. I was particularly attentive to your third ‘axis’ individualisation within the village context. I have observed that village or tribal coherence generated by eons of security and survival needs and experiences is seen by advocates of the market economy as their greatest obstacle in infiltrating traditional cultures. As a result the advocates promote individualisation as a personal road to security and as a means to breakdown coherence. Since the tribal coherence is informally created the villagers have no formal means for resisting. I have found that an adaptive skill through which a traditional community learns to ask the question of each other “what do you need from me, to live your communal life?” increases the resilience of coherent groups while they emerge a new pathway in their own time.

    • Thanks so much, Bruce. Yes, market economy and even state interventions make individualisation a necessity. Our first step was a collective deliberation on good life – what it means to each age wise group in the hamlet. Most groups, especially those communities that are yet to be fully marketized, prioritised community as central to good life. Yet, as you point out, lack of functional and adaptive institutions facilitate a cake walk for ‘development’ as individualisation.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: