Education gradually turns inaccessible for the Adivasi people as the languages they speak are on the verge of extinction due mainly to a lack of practice.
Of the 30 existing Adivasi languages, at least seven have so far become endangered. Reduction in population in respective community and neglect by successive governments worsened the situation.
Researchers recommend launch of a separate education system at least at primary level for the indigenous people in their mother tongue to save the languages. If taken, the move would also be the first step to save the literature and culture of these communities, they believe.
So far, Khumi, Khiyang and Pankho languages have become endangered as users of each language reduced to less than 2,000. On the other hand, Kuruk, Koch, Patra and Hajong languages are likely to be endangered as their use has been alarmingly dropped.
When the government launches "education for all by 2015" campaign, 33 percent of the total 50 percent dropouts of Adivasi primary students occurs due to language problems.
Different agreements like the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord and the Constitution conferring the right to study in mother tongue could not change the scenario.
"If the government really wants development of the Adivasi people, they must protect their languages and ensure education in their mother tongue," says eminent linguist Prof Abul Kalam Manzur Morshed.
"The state should take the responsibility so that the indigenous people get education in their mother tongue at least at primary level. Otherwise, the 'education for all' campaign cannot be successful," comments Shourav Sikder, chairman of the Department of Linguistics, Dhaka University.
In neighbouring Tripura of India, the indigenous people study in mother tongue till higher secondary level.
Successive governments ignored the demands of the Adivasi people to introduce primary education in their mother tongue and thus drew flak from the experts and educationists.
Even the government agencies concerned do not know the exact number of indigenous languages spoken in the country.
"Our predecessors did not concentrate on the population issue. I'll try to bring up the current standard of literature, language and culture of the indigenous people," says State Minister for Culture Promod Mankin.
He adds a national Adivasi cultural academy would be formed besides necessary expansion of current Adivasi cultural centres for research and practice of their literature and languages.
Though the indigenous people have no alternative to using Bangla for education the government even does not have any programme to teach them the state language.
But the Adivasi people are keen to learn Bangla.
The government institutions pin the blame on each others showing lack of infrastructure in initiating any efforts in this regard. They however say any initiative taken by the Adivasi people to protect their language would be welcomed.
Kuruk, the language of Orao ethnic community, is an example of Adivasi language getting extinct over the years.
Research shows just three generations earlier the language was widely used and practised by about 80,000 Oraos.
In course of time the population reduced to only around 20,000 from a population of 2 lakh. Most of the Oraos now even don't understand Kuruk properly and cannot communicate smoothly using the language.
Khumi, Khiyang and Pankho languages have also become endangered as population of each of these indigenous communities has reduced to less than 2,000.
Languages of Koch, Patra and Hajong are in no better situation as their use has dropped over the years.
Among the 30 indigenous languages only Chakma and Marma have their own alphabets, while 12 indigenous communities have adopted Roman alphabet for their use.
Some other indigenous communities, especially the 2 lakh people living in Rajshahi, use a language called "Sadri" adopting alphabets from Hindi, Bangla, Urdu and other Adivasi languages.
"Each community has their own literature in spoken forms and they have poetry, songs and fairy tales. The forms of literature will be lost unless the communities are given education in their mother tongue," Shourav Sikder observes.
The Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Bangla Academy deny responsibility of conducting any research or census on Adivasi languages showing lack of workforce, infrastructure and fund crisis.
According to a survey conducted by the Research Development Collective in association with Brac, only 1.3 percent Adivasi people — especially from larger communities including Chakma, Mahato, Santal and Garo — complete graduation, while statistics show the rate of completing master's degree and above is nil.
The survey also shows only 2.3 percent indigenous people complete higher secondary education, while 11 percent pass secondary school certificate exams.
The survey was conducted on 10 indigenous communities across the country both on plain land and in the hills.
In CHT the condition of Mro people is the worst as they have only 15.5 percent enrolment at primary schools with only 2.7 percent girls.
"There are places where 100 percent people are illiterate. With limited resources this is the best we can do," said Prof Mesbah Kamal, who conducted the study in 2004.
Poverty, lack of opportunity to study in mother tongue, absence of indigenous teachers, inadequate number of institutions, schools at distant places, worst communications, involvement of children in economic activities, and lack of awareness about important of education are the reasons behind dropouts.
Experts suggest introduction of a multilingual education system to make it possible for the Adivasi children to face the challenges. They also recommend special government census on sociocultural and education status of the Adivasi people, separate academic calendar and setting up of a residential education system.
Arranging education in mother tongue would not be a tough job for the government as the work is being carried out largely by different donor organisations and non-government agencies.
Different NGOs and donors organisations including Oxfam, Danida and Action Aid have about 800 elementary and primary institutions for Adivasi children across the country in their mother tongue.
Apart from this, Brac also runs about 1,600 schools for indigenous education in the country. There are also 500 missionary schools offering education for the Adivasi children in their mother tongue.
Sunday, October 18, 2009 / The Daily Star, Bangladesh