Could Adivasi children be made to stay in school by teaching them in their own native language?

In a country where the primary school dropout rate among Scheduled Tribes is 31% – 11% more than the total national figure – this question perhaps deserves more attention. But in the past decade, only a handful of states have attempted to introduce Adivasi languages in government schools, Odisha, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh the most prominent among them.

The latest to join the list is Maharashtra, which has published a series of 12 educational books for primary school children in ten Adivasi languages. 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.

“The aim of these educational books is to reduce the dropout rates among tribal children,” said Vaishali Jamdar, a senior official at the MSCERT. “If children are able to learn in their own mother tongues, they will take more interest in school.”

Does this approach work? According to education activists, Adivasi communities are often caught in the tussle between wanting recognition for their own languages and seeking socio-economic mobility in the larger world through the dominant languages of power. Bringing Adivasi languages into schools, then, is effective only if they are taught in a moderate, balanced manner.

Language of power?

The series of 12 books published in Maharashtra this year are neither intended to be textbooks, nor written solely in Adivasi languages. Rather, they are bilingual supplementary reading books with titles like “My house” and “To the market”, designed to teach students from Class 1 to 5 some basic everyday vocabulary in their mother tongues as well as in Marathi.

“Since our books are bilingual, they will also help teachers learn a few words of the local Adivasi language and understand where the students are coming from,” said Jamdar. “They can then use this vocabulary to help explain the rest of the Marathi syllabus to the students.”

This balanced approach to bilingual education is a result of trial and error in Maharashtra. Around two decades ago, the state had attempted to introduce a series of textbooks written completely in Adivasi languages, for the same purpose of retaining children in school. “But those books were not well-received by the communities,” said Nilesh Nimkar, director of Quality Education Support Trust, an education non-profit working with marginalised groups across Maharashtra. “The locals felt that the government wanted to keep them backward by not letting them study in Marathi, the language of power.”

This is something that other non-profits working in rural Maharashtra have also witnessed. “Down the years, we’ve made several attempts to bring tribal languages into formal schools,” said Godfrey D’Lima, director of Nashik’s Prabodhan Seva Mandal, an NGO that conducts tutorial programmes for marginalised government school children. “But the people wanted schools to teach Marathi and English and not their own dialect, because they want their children to eventually communicate with the larger world.”

Odisha and Jharkhand

Perhaps the most successful “mainstreaming” of Scheduled Tribe languages has been in Odisha, where the state government has been offering bilingual primary education for the past ten years. The state has extensively published textbooks in ten different Adivasi languages, and children are taught in their mother tongues from Class 1 to 5. But Odia is introduced as a subject in Class 2 itself, to prepare students for a shift to the state language in secondary school.

“The government has also taken care to appoint Adivasi teachers in schools so that they can teach bilingually,” said Dilip Dash, a spokesperson from Odisha-based NGO Antodaya. “Many government schools also use bilingual wall paintings as an educational tool.”

The outcome of this approach is evident in the numbers: In the past three years, Odisha was able to bring down its school dropout rate by a significant 12%.

In Jharkhand, 12 Adivasi languages have been recognised by the state, and textbooks are published and distributed in all of them, right up to the level of higher education. “Schools are run in Hindi medium, and students can pick a tribal language as their second language,” said Gladson Dungdung, an Adivasi rights activist from Jharkhand’s Kharia community.

The textbooks help students to fare quite well in their Adivasi mother tongues, but Jharkhand’s failure, according to Dungdung, is its severe shortage of teachers across all levels of education. “When there are few teachers and when students barely understand Hindi, they obviously don’t do well in school.”

The case of Chhattisgarh

If there is one state that has a glaring need to incorporate Adivasi languages into schools, it is Chhattisgarh. And yet, the state government has done nothing so far to officially recognise its many Sheduled Tribe languages, including Gondi, Kuduk and others. The gap has been filled not just by NGOs but also by Maoist groups.

In the past decade, Maoists in Chhattisgarh have built their own parallel schools – not officially recognised – that are run in Gondi medium and use locally-printed textbooks in all subjects, including science and math. For Gondi children who feel lost in the state’s Hindi-medium schools, these informal schools have emerged as their only source of meaningful education.

“Gondi as a language is very different from Hindi, but the state is making no efforts to recognise it as a scheduled language,” said Shubhranshu Choudhary, the founder of CGNet Swara, a non-profit organisation that enables rural reportage and communication in Chhattisgarh through locally developed radio networks. The organisation also runs a small website in the Gondi script to promote the language.

“But why should we be the ones making these efforts? Because of the state’s apathy, Gondi children drop out of schools at a high rate and end up joining the Maoists,” said Choudhary. “It would definitely help if at least primary education in these parts was conducted in Gondi.”