Adibashi Day

Hurdles of Adibashi Education

Dr Shaila Sharmeen. Dr S M Arif Mahmud and Dr Mohammad Tareq Hasan

9 August, 2020 12:00 AM printer

On 9 August, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is observed worldwide. This day stands for a global pledge to develop the indigenous peoples/adibashis of the world. In this endeavour, ensuring formal education for the adibashi groups appeared as one the major areas of intervention. On this “Adibashi Day” we reflect on the hurdles of adibashi education in Bangladesh.

Education is considered one of the major thrust areas for sustaining Bangladesh’s impressive economic growth. Educational investment has thus received special policy-level attention. Our recent visit to the Barind region has raised some concerns about the ways adibashis, i.e., people at the margin experience institutional education and how initiatives for educating the marginal people fail to corroborate their aspirations in life. Of course, elimination of structural constraints such as availability, affordability, and accessibility of educational institutions ease their entry into formal education. The overall socio-economic environment hinders their drive in getting institutional education in the long run. It happens because the policy makers do not consider aspirations of adibashis or the marginalised population living in the country. The fact that current form of institutional education does not contribute much to their existing life is overlooked. There are spirals of interconnected loops that limit the development potentials of the marginal population.

Disparity in education

Certain segments of the population in Bangladesh are historically marginalised, and at least 30 million people are living with diverse marginality based on ethnicity, occupation, and religion. Once we consider the status of education among the people at the margin of our society, it becomes clear that the vision of our institutional education must be reassessed. A 2016 study by the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) revealed that the primary enrolment rate among marginalised communities is 69.30% compared to about 78.48% in the rural areas of the country. Similarly, the secondary enrolment rate is 58.67% among the marginalised communities compared to 72.28% among the poor households of the rural areas. Overall, the average literacy rate is 28.40% among the marginalised communities compared to the national literacy rate of 72.89%. These numbers reveal that the minority communities, including the adibashis are yet to substantially benefit from the existing educational model and indicate limited success of our existing education policies. Even though the overall trend is positive, we could achieve much more by adopting a holistic approach.

Education and adibashi life situations

We need to focus on the life situations of the marginalised, e.g., adibashi communities and develop an understanding of what does education mean to them. Policy makers always ignore the ways people make decisions reviewing existing conditions of life. If we do not consider what successful life means in a condition, for example to a Santal or Munda agriculture labourer, we could never ensure school retention of their children. Even if we do understand their need, if the education that the formal institutions give does not directly impact their lives or have very limited possibilities towards making a positive change, the initiatives are likely to fail. For instance, many people of these marginal communities think their children do not need more education than just writing and reading. These skills help them to prevent forgery in deeds/legal documents. Many do not want to “waste” time in education because they cannot convert the skills they acquire in schools to economic return.

Therefore, besides structural limitations in accessing education, what matters most is the life after few years of education. Parents we talked to repeatedly mentioned, they used to hope their children would get salaried employment through schooling. Over the years, as many from the locality have failed to reach their aspirations, hopelessness has graved in. They rather sometimes prefer their children to engage into household economic activities, at times economic vulnerability force them to drop out, and simultaneously many young people have just become disinterested in pursuing education.

Need for a holistic approach

The examples we cited above reverberate that we must initiate change in the holistic circumstances where there will be available, adequate, accessible, and affordable educational institutions and the education/skills transferred are appropriate to the existing life scenarios. We must look to devise appropriate and/or acceptable education catering to the specific local needs. Even if we get every adibashi child into educational institutes, the goal of not leaving anyone behind will not be achieved if they cannot convert their education into socio-economic benefits in the future. In the cost–benefit or opportunities–threats analysis they will always choose to drop out of school and engage into economic activities that appear advantageous from their perspectives. It is not that they do not have the aspirations of economic development rather aspirations of a good life provoke them to drop out. When it will be easier to get return from the time and resources invested in education, it will automatically increase the rate of higher education or decrease the dropout rates.

The United Nations in a 2016 publication has claimed that even after considering differences in age, education levels, and place of residence, generally ethnic minority people, i.e., adibashis are less likely to get non-manual occupations and conventional white-collar jobs. In the rural areas, marginal population are more likely to work in the agriculture sector compared to their counterparts. These highlight a need to redesign the educational model where there is a high concentration of marginal population. Evidences from around the world also suggest that conditional cash-transfer programmes have had reduced ethnic disparities in terms of school enrolment and educational attainment. However, improvements in student retention rates among ethnic minority (e.g., adibashi) students have not kept pace with enrolment.

Therefore, besides getting them enrolled or giving them education in their mother tongue, what we need is more easily convertible skills. We are not against any such initiatives rather we seek for an education system that will relate to their aspirations. Therefore, we cannot approach the goal of increasing levels of education separately. We must make education meaningful for the life they are living. Otherwise, all the policies will yield only limited results.

At present, in promoting education as basic right, it is argued that the government should focus on ensuring universal education and focus on evaluating student learning outcomes, not just enrolment, dropouts, and completion. This emphasis on quality is necessary, as the recent National Student Assessment (NSA) by the Directorate of Primary Education revealed that majority of the students that have passed primary education do not possess literacy and numeracy skills at a functional level. The lack of quality is caused by firstly, the lack of enough capable teachers and secondly, an examination system that forces students just to memorise guidebooks. These problems could be amended by introducing a renewed assessment system for students, teachers, and school. However, it will not address the concerns of the adibashi/marginal population of the country. To attract children of these communities to school and to retain them will require a more comprehensive approach. Only quality of teachers and a better assessment system will not solve the problem of the adibashi/marginal population.

Increasing the number of enrolments even when accompanied by cash transfers or curriculum in mother tongue will not automatically produce better long-term results. Promoting social inclusion at the margin of our society will require comprehensive economic and social policies. Thus, Bangladesh should consider adopting OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment for Development (PISA-D) which measures key knowledge and skills that are essential to function in contemporary societies across countries. Therefore, the educationists of the country should revise and introduce curriculum that would impart readily effective skills for the local, regional, national, and the global market. This strategy will also be effective for achieving Sustainable Development Goal of “quality education” and hence contribute to realise “decent work and economic growth” in Bangladesh.

If we do not change our outlook towards adibashi education, our efforts will become only pretence without substance. All the academicians including the adibashi scholars must work towards making education meaningful for the adibashis and people at the margin of the society. This will also uphold the pledges of the “Adibashi Day”.


The authors are anthropologists and teach at the University of Dhaka.