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: 9 August 2020

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“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India ( | Learn more >>
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“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.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [C]aste 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.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters) | Learn more: Accountability | Democracy | Education and literacy >>


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Search tips: in the search field seen below, combine the name of any particular state, language or region with that of any tribal (Adivasi) community; add keywords of special interest (health, nutrition endangered language, illegal mining, sacred grove); learn about the rights of Scheduled Tribes such as the Forest Rights Act (FRA); and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights, and children’s right to education; specify any other issue or news item you want to learn more about (biodiversity, climate change, ecology, economic development, ethnobotany, ethnomedicine, global warming, effective measures to prevent rural poverty, bonded labour, and human trafficking).

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