Tribal Education: The Rigidity of the Written Word

Hardnews Bureau

Efforts by the Maharashtra government to tackle language based exclusion are commendable but they are only one part of the solution

Could teaching adivasi children in their own native language help in keeping them in school and bridging learning deficits if any? This is the question that the Maharashtra government is trying to answer. It has introduced 12 educational books for primary school going children in 10 adivasi languages. The primary school dropout rate in India amongst Scheduled Tribe children is an astounding 31 percent. Compared to a national average of 20 percent, this figure is particularly stark. Another fact which merits attention is that adivasi children go to the school quite late. Many are admitted as late as 6 years old. The solution to this may not seem earth shattering to begin with but is a solution nevertheless. If children are able to learn in their own mother tongue then they can perhaps learn better. According to officials at the Maharashtra State Council of Education Research and Training in Pune, the books were published in March and are now being distributed in 15 districts for Adivasi children speaking Gondi, Warli, Bhili, Pavri, Korku, Nihali, Bhiroli, Mawachi, Kolami and Katkari.

According to a study published in EPW by Vimala Ramchandran and Taramani Naorem, language is an important site of exclusion. This is particularly evident when the teachers’ language or the state language is different from the mother tongue of the children. In Odisha, teachers from coastal districts do not know the tribal languages, and therefore, are unable to communicate with the children in these parts. Equally, Odiya, which is spoken in the coastal areas, is considered as the standard official language and is used in books and for classroom transactions. As a result, students from rural western Odisha and tribal students (who speak a different dialect) usually face difficulties. Therefore, language is an important caste marker in Odisha. In other states, language is a big exclusionary issue for migrant children. For example, Assamese is the main medium of instruction in Assam, which is very different from the mother tongue of tea garden workers or of workers who come from Hindi speaking areas of the country. Similarly, in the border areas of AP, the medium of instruction is different from the mother tongue of the children. In Rajasthan, local dialects vary with each district and the children may not be familiar with the standardised Hindi used in schools.

In light of this, Maharashtra’s attempts to break down this barrier is a commendable effort. Take Orissa for example. The Orissa government has taken care to appoint Adivasi teachers in their schools so they can teach bilingually. The effort has been a successful one. Dropout rates have fallen by a staggering 12 percent.

It is a widely acknowledged fact that the schooling experience of children from impoverished tribal backgrounds is not a positive experience. There have been a large number of press reports about caste-discrimination and community specific exclusion that State sponsored schools have not been able to combat. The ability of children to grow in a school, access education and make meaningful connections in learning are not just hindered just by a language barrier but by socio-economic factors as well. Tackling the language problem is just one part of the solution. Its nevertheless an important part.

Pic:  Courtesy Cornell.edu