An education programme for children from 62 tribal groups: Enabling “Bhasa Sikshak” language teachers to combine children’s mother tongue with Odia and English – Odisha

In the Similipal hills of Odisha, a young man teaches tribal children, using their mother tongue Ho to bridge their world and the world of mainstream education in Odia and English. | To  read the full story, click here >>

[…] Shanti is wearing her school uniform, a comfortable blue frock that is a little too long for her. She is an 11-year-old Kolha tribal child, whose mother tongue is Ho.

Shanti’s soft singsong voice is the sound of change in this community. In her home on the outskirts of the Similipal National Park in Mayurbhanj district, education has a central place in family life. For a while, the child is wrapped in her own world, reading aloud from an Odia textbook, a language she has newly learnt to read and write in.

“Where do you see your daughter a few years from now?” I ask Shanti’s father, Manik Sing Boipoi. “She will complete school, she may go to Udala for high school and if she studies well, she will go to college,” he says. “I will send her to the University in Bhubaneshwar.”

Shanti’s mother has just returned from the fields after a day’s work. Her toddler peers at us from behind her sari pallu. We are joined by a young man who smiles with his entire face. His name is Kulai Sing Sundi and he is Shanti’s schoolteacher.

Both Kulai and Manik are Bhasa Sikshaks or language teachers, who work alongside primary school teachers in government schools in Odisha’s tribal areas. These language teachers drawn from the tribal community, and trained to teach children in their mother tongue first and later introduce Odia and English as they go to senior classes, helping make school a familiar, supportive space. They are key to the success of Odisha’s multi-lingual education programme that seeks to transition children from over 62 tribal groups into the mainstream education system. […]

“The introduction of language teachers has facilitated enrolment, retention as well as robust attendance,” says Jitendra Kumar Rath, who leads Oxfam India’s intervention to improve the quality of education and the functioning of government schools in Odisha’s tribal belt. “Teachers like Kulai and Manik hand-hold primary school children as they transition from speaking only Ho, their mother tongue, to learning to be fluent in Odia, which is the medium of instruction in schools. As a result, schools with language teachers have almost 100 per cent enrolment.”

Odisha is unique from many perspectives — 40 per cent of the tribal population of India lives in Odisha. Almost 23 per cent of its population consists of over 62 tribal communities who speak 29 different languages. The State has a robust lineage of many educationists who have documented their efforts to create an alternative educational framework that meets the needs of Odisha’s multi-lingual population. […]

The chance of a girl born into a poor Dalit or tribal family in a remote village ever achieving material equivalence with someone from a middle-income upper-caste family raised in a metro city is infinitely small. The multi-lingual education programme is the best way to create a bridge between communities and the school system.” […]

It is the collective stories of individuals like these that create the fabric of progress that we want to see.

Natasha Badhwar is a filmmaker, writer and media trainer.

Source: Bhasa Sikshaks who teach tribal children in Odisha innovatively by Natasha Badhwar, The Hindu (Magazine), 23 April 2016
Date Visited: 9 August 2020

To be taught in a language other than one’s own has a negative effect on learning. [Starting a child’s education in the mother tongue] allows teachers and students to interact naturally and negotiate meanings together, creating participatory learning environments that are conducive to cognitive as well as linguistic development. […] 

The fact that India is unable to work out even the answers to basic questions such as medium of education even seven decades after Independence means that Indian children have some of the worst learning outcomes in the world. As per World Bank metric used to measure schooling quality, for 2018 India chalked up a figure of 355 – the same as war-torn Afghanistan. Some of the countries which have better schooling quality than India include Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

Source: “Why is India obsessed with English-medium education – when it goes against scientific consensus?” by Shoaib Daniyal
Date visited: 27 March 2024

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[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

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“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

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Adivasi Academy & Museum of Adivasi Voice at Tejgadh

Appropriate education for Adivasi children – the Vidyodaya School model

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