Policy-Making and Planning in the Public Education System for Adivasi Children

Policy-making for Adivasi education requires an understanding of the Adivasis in their historical and contemporary contexts and, more importantly, a consideration of what they themselves want.

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The University-Practice Connect Initiative of the Azim Premji University has been engaging with practitioners, organizations, government officials and academics working in the area of tribal education. Taking this association further to collectively arrive at a better understanding of a variety of issues, a knowledge-sharing workshop on Elementary Education of Adivasi Children in India’ was organised at the University on March 1 – 2, 2019. This report documents one of the panel discussions among a group of participants and a reflective conclusion on the same.

You can read more about the Workshop on Adivasi Education here.


As per data of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, India’s national literacy in 2011 stands at 73%, while that of the Adivasis, at 59%. The Gross Enrolment Ratio for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in elementary education (grades I to VIII) for 2015 – 16 is 103.3, at the secondary level (grades IX‑X) is 74.5%; for senior secondary (XI-XII) is 43.1%; and, in higher education, it is 14.2%. The dropout rate among the Adivasi children between grades I to V is at 31.3%, between grades I‑VIII, 48.2% and between grades I‑X, 62.4%. All these figures reflect the huge deficit that the Adivasi communities experience in the domain of education and by extension, in the areas of livelihood, governance, political representation and leadership.

Historically, the development of the Adivasis has been discussed and addressed in the binaries of tradition’ and modernity’. While tradition has endeavoured to keep them in isolation’, introducing them to modernity’ has meant mainstreaming’ or assimilating’ them at the expense of their identity. Essentially, the perception of the Adivasis as being different’ from the larger society translated into numerous approaches for their development and amelioration. For a long time, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel’ was considered to be the touchstone for addressing the issues of the Adivasis. However, considering that India has about 500+ Adivasi communities spread across various states and speaking more than 300 different mother-tongues, reflects the tremendous diversity that exists within this social category. Further, the complexity of their issues, such as denial of access to forests, land alienation, compulsive migration, displacement, loss of traditional livelihood skills, exclusion of their traditional knowledge, along with their own emerging aspirations, makes it difficult for an either-or approach. A middle path of combining tradition’ and modernity’ has its own complexities and with external forces as Hinduisation, Naxalism, the modern market, globalization, there are too many directions in which the Adivasi is being pulled to make any balancing act possible. Policy-making for Adivasi education, therefore, obviously requires an understanding of the Adivasis in their historical and contemporary contexts and, more importantly, a consideration of what they themselves want.

The session aimed to draw upon the gaps that exist between Adivasis’ and Education’. This is especially resonated in the fact that policy-making, planning and financing of the public education system in Scheduled Areas is the simultaneous responsibility of the Education Department and the Tribal Development/​Welfare Department. Experience shows that while the Education Department is not always cognizant about the needs of Adivasis, the Tribal Development/​Welfare Department does not have the domain knowledge of education. On the other hand, NGOs and educationists have evolved many interesting and innovative educational practices; however, these remain restricted as location-specific or community-specific experiments for want of funds as well as appropriate strategies and research to scale up these experiments. Amidst these divergences, the Right to Education Act 2009, has emerged as the focal point to enhance both, the scale and the scope of education for marginalised communities.


The group represented a wide set of discussants: academics, researchers, practitioners, educationists, policy-makers and government representatives. They also belonged to different states, like Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana and Uttarakhand. Since all the participants have long experience of working with Adivasi communities, they spoke from the first-hand experience of ground realities. The translation of policy into practice is a complex process involving several players and stakeholders including the government, administrators, parents, children, teachers, educationists, community and funders. The participants shared their own experiences in Adivasi education in the context of their respective states. These revolved around attitudes towards Adivasi communities, residential schooling for Adivasi children, quality of educational delivery in Adivasi areas, teacher training, school infrastructure, mother tongue education, children’s security, Right to Education, the relationship between education and livelihood and participation of Adivasis in policy-making.


  • Roles of the Department of Tribal Development and Department of Education
  • Funding mechanisms (tribal sub-plan, education budgets)
  • Learning from NGO and international experiences
  • The localisation of planning and program design
  • Implementation of RTE norms
  • Assessment of residential schooling provision

Before discussing specific issues, the discussants broadly discussed the framework that any policy on Adivasi education should consider. An important question that was raised was: Whose responsibility is Adivasi education? Since there are so many agencies involved in the delivery of Adivasi education – Ministry of Human Resource Development, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Department of Education, Tribal Development Department, DIET- who exactly is responsible/​accountable for making qualitative education accessible? Who do children belong to – parents, community, nation? What is the role of parents in the education of children? What is the onus of the community in getting access to quality education for itself and its future generations? How responsible are policy-makers, the various stakeholders and civil society for delivering equitable education and who is to be held responsible for the poor status of Adivasi education in India?

Vibha Puri Das (Ex-Secretary, Ministry of HRD, and Ministry of Tribal Affairs) emphasized that an effective education policy should have an inter-sectoral approach and should interlink education with other critical aspects of the Adivasi child’s life, such as health, sports, forest rights, food security, shelter, safety and skill development. What is also important, she pointed out, is the need to see if provisions, such as PESA, School Management Committees (SMCs) have really empowered communities to voice themselves at the local level and if these voices are in any way making a qualitative change in the existing education system. She observed that PESA had largely failed to make the impact that was envisioned in its formulation and all local governance structures need to be strengthened to empower communities.

Statutorily listed as Scheduled Tribes’, there is a tendency to club diverse Adivasi communities as one social category and ignore the diversity within them. While Adivasi communities share commonalities, they also have their specific geographical and historical differences in their ways of life that are important for any development initiative.

A narrative from Chhattisgarh broadly encapsulated the situation of the Adivasi education across the tribal states of India. Sunil Sah of the Azim Premji Foundation pointed out that too many things are happening in the name of tribal development. Speaking from his experience in Chhattisgarh, he shared that there are serious issues of inadequate infrastructure, paucity and absence of competent school teachers, lack of facilities for non-tribal teachers to stay in the schools or villages where they are appointed, inadequate security provisions and absence of a healthy learning and growth environment for the children. The support offered for education is meagre: the scholarship amounts are inadequate in terms of the expenses involved and the process of obtaining scholarships too laborious and time-consuming. Often, the expenses students make to avail the scholarship, exceed the scholarship. The other difficult task is to obtain a caste certificate. The population being sparse rather than dense in tribal areas, Adivasi families have limited access to government schools.

Another important aspect, according to the participants, was that a policy for the Adivasis should reflect the diversity of their language, culture and social fabric. The diversity of language, socio-cultural practices and way of life of the Adivasi communities is not considered during the making of textbooks and children are left with little to identify within the schools where they are to spend twelve most crucial years of their lives. The question of language is complex as children must cope with three languages: the language of communication at home, the language of daily use spoken with persons outside their community as in the school, the village, etc. and the language that they are to acquire for employment. There being no material available in the home/​local language and with teachers belonging mostly from non-Adivasi communities, a kind of non-communicable silence is imposed upon the child. Sah’s question on how policies could address these basic issues that impede the education of the Adivasi child on the ground led to an issue-wise discussion that is summarized below.

Issues discussed and the implications for policy

1. Issue:

Translating policy into action is a major challenge, as, often the government has well-laid out schemes and measures; however, oftentimes, these are not properly implemented. Besides providing a vision and a direction, a policy should be reflective and look into reasons for past achievements and failures. It should be backed by a proper action plan that can help translate policy measures into reality and result in concrete outcomes. Another reason for policy failure is the rampant corruption across the system and individuals at all levels.

Policy Implication:

There need to be mechanisms for monitoring and review of the implementation process, resource utilization, timelines and outcomes. A third-party review, made mandatory, would be very useful.

2. Issue:

There are special schemes for particular communities. Special schemes become necessary as there is always some competitiveness even among marginalised communities. Certain communities gain an edge over the others while some communities remain at the bottom of the rung. Often, short-term measures are taken to address issues. For instance, instead of strengthening the local village school, there is a proliferation of several kinds of schools as the regular schools, Ashramshalas, Eklavya Model Residential Schools, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, yet, the status of Adivasi education continues to remain sub-standard.

Policy Implication:

Policy should look beyond the either-or approach of isolating Adivasi children or integrating them with the larger society at the risk of their own community identity and way of life.

3. Issue:

Residential Ashram schools began in the 1930s as an alternative to missionary schools. They were conceptualized on Gandhi’s Nai Talim education philosophy. However, they have replicated what they had set out to oppose. Rather than trying to integrate the traditional Adivasi way of life with modernity, Ashramshalas have not only eroded the Adivasi fabric but have also tried to Hinduise’ the young Adivasi mind. These schools are, to a great extent, a replica of mainstream’ schools and emulate the ways and values of the dominant society. Further, there are functional problems reported that include issues, like sexual harassment. Hostels for tribal students are found equally wanting in security measures. Often, wardens are missing from hostels or there are no female wardens. There are inadequate safety provisions for children, especially girls. The quality of food is poor as nutritional values are ignored. Children are disciplined against their own ways of life. The grants are not released on time. There are frameworks, but the delivery is poor. Committees set up to monitor the Ashramshalas and hostels usually do not carry out the necessary checks.

The Maharashtra Report on the state’s Ashramshalas submitted in 2016 by the Salunke Committee has highlighted the issues of unexplained deaths, unhygienic/​inadequate food and infrastructure, sexual abuse, corporal punishment and political interference.

However, at the ground level, the need for Ashramshalas is real as Adivasi parents who migrate for livelihood, take their children along as there is no one behind to care for them, thereby disrupting their schooling. Ashramshalas have therefore evolved as places where Adivasi children from migrating families or those children who do not have access to local schools due to distances or non-functionality of schools, can study uninterruptedly. However, since the introduction of the RTE, schools were expected to have reached within the periphery of one kilometre of every settlement. This has not translated into reality everywhere. Moreover, as is being reported in Gujarat, the state’s Education Department passed a resolution in June 2011 that about 13,450 primary schools with a class strength of fewer than 100 students, will be merged with the nearest bigger schools on account of an inadequate number of students and staff, as well as financial constraints. However, communities and educationists share that this clubbing of schools can work out only if proper transport facilities are provided. Otherwise, the merger may create issues of access in remote areas.

Residential schools tend to isolate the Adivasi children from other communities, and they grow up ghettoized, making socialization difficult in their later years. The Eklavya Model Residential Schools were set up to provide qualitative education in areas where the Adivasi population is more than fifty percent and these are expected to be equipped with good infrastructure, such as school buildings with hostels and staff quarters, computer laboratory, playground and other educational resources. However, education there does not take into account the distinctiveness of Adivasi culture and life. The Eklavya Model schools are modelled on mainstream’ schools. The Adivasi identity gets diffused here as children are denied the space and the freedom to follow their indigenous lifestyle, customs, languages and way of life. Homogenization poses challenges to the Adivasi identity.

Policy Implication:

The group was of the opinion that residential schools are not always the best solution for Adivasi education. From one viewpoint, they allow children of migrant Adivasi families to continue with their education. However, residential schools also prevent children from growing up in a family and community. They prevent socialization with other communities. The quality of infrastructure is poor in most residential schools. There is leakage of funds, safety and security, especially of girl children, lack of supervision, insufficient number of women teachers, all of which leads to dropouts. The Ashramshala teachers live in a very narrow framework and need to broaden their horizons. Often, the residential facilities for non-local teachers are poor and they are compelled to take transfers to better areas. While there is no immediate alternative to residential schooling for Adivasi children. The problems in these schools need to be addressed urgently so that children can study in safe and encouraging environments.

4. Issue:

The quality of education in Adivasi schools is directly related to the quality of teachers in the Adivasi areas. There is a paucity of good teachers in government schools in Adivasi areas. The policy of appointment and the process of recruitment of teachers, as well as staff, is not standardized. The teachers in Ashramshalas are often appointed to fill positions on an ad-hoc basis. Most teachers do not wish to serve in remote areas as there are no facilities for them to stay there with their families and education of their own children suffers. In many instances, teachers serve in these places for the mandatory period of six years, thereafter, they take transfers and return to their preferred places of work, even if this involves bribing authorities. Therefore, one finds that often, teachers also get recruited simply because they belong to the community. However, in such cases, the quality of teaching gets compromised because teachers from the community are not always sufficiently qualified or competent.

Policy Implication:

Teacher appointments in Adivasi areas need to be standardized. It needs to be emphasized and demonstrated through practice that not anybody’ can become a teacher and that Adivasi children deserve competent teachers. Teaching requires a certain kind of qualification, training and aptitude. This is more so in the case of teachers serving in Adivasi areas as it is generally found that non-community teachers are prejudiced against Adivasi children. The recruitment process of teachers in Adivasi areas needs to be standardized and made transparent. Recruitment should be done primarily on the basis of qualification, knowledge, competency and other essential qualities required for teaching. At the same time, there is also a need to fill up more vacancies in the reserved category so that more qualified indigenous teachers from the community can be part of the formal education system and contribute to Adivasi education.

Further, during the first instance of recruitment, when it is mandatory for the teachers to be in one place for six years, they should be encouraged to learn the local language –the mother tongue of the children. Quality of other staff, such as wardens, security, cooks, cleaners, etc also needs to be ensured. Training should be made mandatory not only for the teachers but for all school staff. Teacher and staff training should address language issues, attitudes towards Adivasis, material development etc. Proper facilities for accommodation should be provided to non-local teachers so that they are not discouraged to live in far-flung Adivasi areas.

5. Issue:

Lack of academic bodies that are working actively to enhance the quality of Adivasi education, both at the levels of primary schooling and higher education.

The District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) were conceptualized in the late 1980s to provide training, and for capacity-building and continual upgradation of teachers along with developing relevant pedagogies and material to equip them. However, DIETs across the country seem to have largely become defunct. The body lacks academic resources that are the core of any educational program. Similarly, the Tribal Research and Training Institutes (TRTIs) under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, that were set up to function as academic and research institutions and inform the Ministry on issues of Adivasi culture and development, too have become largely inactive. Their research and documentation are limited to their own immediate states and contrary to their role and expectation, their research does not contribute to meaningful/​impactful policy-making at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Policy Implication:

Rather than being shut down, it was felt that the DIETs should be re-energized. The recommendation was to create a unit within the DIETs to meet the teacher training needs in the area of Adivasi education. The participants felt that the DIETs should be revamped and be capacitated by way of scholars, educationists and community resource persons who know the local Adivasi language(s) and can contribute to developing Mother Tongue based Multilingual Education (MT-MLE). In terms of research augmentation in the sector, it was recommended that the State Tribal Research and Training Institutes should be linked to universities and colleges so that they get the necessary research acumen and direction and are able to produce significant studies and contribute to the development of Adivasi education in a meaningful manner.


The role of education and the way it is imparted must be re-imagined and reconsidered in the present context. Earlier, Adivasi families and the community nurtured traditional knowledge and skills and handed them down to the younger generations. Traditionally, the Adivasi life has been closely interlinked with nature and the natural cycle. Children learnt farming skills, animal husbandry, knowledge of the forest and natural resources, medicine, arts, community history, songs, dance and music from their own families and the village. Over the decades, Adivasis have been experiencing land eviction and alienation, compulsive migration, the pressures and opportunities of mainstreaming’ with the dominant’ culture(s) and are increasingly adopting popular modes of development. The Adivasi life is rapidly changing, and the younger generations have their own notions and aspirations of development.

Considering that education will provide them with jobs and an alternate livelihood to the diminishing returns from agriculture, Adivasi parents now want their children to be educated. However, the school, with its modernizing agenda, alienates the child from the community. Further, education is homogenizing and creating uniformity among the Adivasis and destroying their diversity of life, knowledge systems and identity. The school teaching-learning system is based upon and emphasizes writing’ while the Adivasi knowledge system is based upon the oral tradition’. In the present education system, there is little that will help the Adivasi child stepping into school to deal with this dichotomy. The formal education system excludes Adivasi languages, literature, arts, music, culture, history, social structures and norms, and above all, their traditional knowledge about all spheres of life. This exclusion is not only depleting the Adivasi knowledge source, but it has also placed our planet at risk as our modern development approach is threatening the environment, health and life. The present generation of Adivasis who undergo modern education are often left feeling alienated about their identities — they may not like to identify themselves as Adivasi’, nor are they accepted by the larger society as one among them.

Policy Implementation:

Tribal education policy should be mindful about the distinctiveness of the history, languages, culture and way of life of the Adivasis and the fact that they are equal citizens of our country. By extension, the policy must consciously endeavour to respect tribal distinctiveness with regard to curriculum, teacher training, material development and school infrastructure. Adivasi knowledge systems and orality should be made part of the schooling/​education system. That the present education system does not understand and include the Adivasi worldview, culture and aesthetics is clear. Excluding Adivasi history, languages and culture from their schooling create an alienating environment for the Adivasi children and they grow up rejecting their culture/​community and not being accepted by non-Adivasi culture/​communities.

Presently, there are very few models in the areas of Adivasi schooling that have been successful. There is a need for more such models. Further, more research on the role of local knowledge in higher education is required. There is a need for research and debate on how to approach Adivasi knowledge and education, imagine it and shape it for the betterment of not only the status of Adivasi education and Adivasi communities but of society at large. There is a need to archive as well as share good practices in the domain of Adivasi education.

In the context of Telangana, it was suggested that the Adivasi home be treated/​developed as a school, and the community, as a university. There is a need to develop a learning environment for the Adivasi child and the home and the community should be recognized as learning spaces as they traditionally used to be.

Adivasi education should be decentralized, and schools should be allowed to make decisions regarding the academic calendar, holidays that follow the agricultural and seasonal cycles and festival days; local sports; and, skill development courses. Preparing the school calendar in keeping with the agricultural cycle and festivals of the local communities would help children to grow up integrated with their community. There is also a need for schools to nurture local talent. For instance, music bands have been formed in schools in the north-east. Similar initiatives can be followed across states in keeping with the richness of the local cultural practices.


Presently, Adivasi education is the dual responsibility of the Tribal Welfare Department and the Education Department. There are tugs and pulls between the two. Due to the lack of proper coordination between them, often, there are issues of implementation on the ground level.

Policy Implication:

There are two ways to resolve this and whichever is thought better should be standardized across all states.

i. To absolve or relieve the Tribal Development Department of all educational responsibilities and let education be the turf of the Education Department.

ii. To have the Right to Education as the common anchor between them and have the departments divide their roles and responsibilities, accordingly.

8. Issue:

Budget outlay for education is poor. In the last decade, the budgetary provision for education has ranged between 3.5 to 4 percent of the total expenditure. In 2018, the allocation of education reduced from 3.69 percent of GDP (2017−18 revised budget estimates) to 3.48 percent (2018−19 budget estimates) of the GDP.

Policy Implication:

There should be more outlay for the bottom rung of the pyramid. A further suggestion was that planning should be built bottom-up, i.e., beginning from the block level and going up to the district and state levels so that the actual needs of the schools get covered.

9. Issue:

Tribal policies exclude tribal voices. One sees an absence of tribal point of view and leadership. There is no Ambedkar among the Adivasis.

Policy Implication:

The Adivasi voice needs to be included in policy-making. And Adivasi representation can be strengthened through education alone. Education can help create strong leadership among a marginalized section pf people. Presently, one finds that not many are able to transition to or complete higher education. One way to address this is to link education to livelihood. Higher Education should be linked to employment so that more Adivasis are encouraged to complete it. There is a need to create more opportunities for Adivasi communities in various professions. Higher education should be linked to employment because only when there is immediate placement, will Adivasis be encouraged to go for it. For this, it is very necessary to provide Adivasi students with scholarships/​fellowships to enable their chances of successfully completing higher education. The State has to broaden its provisions for Adivasi higher education. The creation of social leadership among the Adivasis should be left to other processes and social and political spaces.

Critical Responses

The Azim Premji University had made it a point to invite members from Adivasi communities to hear their perspectives. These included students, activists, policy-makers and educationists.

In the open session, an interesting observation was made by Ashokbhai Chaudhari: I had come to this workshop with the expectation that there would be an endeavour to listen to and understand what aspects of the Adivasi life, culture, thought and knowledge need to be brought into the existing education system. Instead, the workshop has focused on what needs to be done for Adivasi education. The Adivasi is going to perish anyway but it is the larger society that needs to think about what they need to absorb of the Adivasi thought and values to save their world in future. What is necessary is to imbibe Adivasi worldview and values in the larger education system.

Elaborating this, Padma Sarangapani elucidated from her own research about how Adivasi communities treat children as adults and therefore, children have a will of their own. They do not have to mindlessly do or follow what they are told to. They are not moulded to become like someone. To have an education system based on the Adivasi perception of the child is a far thought for us.

During the open session on policy, Virginius Xaxa remarked that the term mainstream’ is used generally and thoughtlessly. The implications of the term need to be considered carefully. Secondly, he was critical of the Panchsheel’ and pointed out that it had not achieved much for the Adivasis in so many decades after independence. Therefore, the Adivasi issues need to be discussed, understood and addressed from a different perspective.

Joseph Bara questioned the correctness of imposing mother tongues on those Adivasis who have already shifted to another language. He pointed out that there is a need to practice language democracy in the classroom and that teacher training needs to incorporate components of Adivasi culture. There is often a conflict of scripts that needs to be sorted out.


Policy alone cannot resolve all issues of Adivasi education. However, it can provide a vision; the understanding of a framework; and, certain values within which Adivasi education can function and meet the needs of the communities.

Within the domain of Adivasi Education, there are issues of policy and implementation. The approach to policy should be action-oriented. Further, policy should aim to connect the centre, state and districts. It should be respectful and inclusive of the diversity of Adivasi life and culture. Our notion of development that is being thrust on Adivasis is intrinsically violent. The state is systematically driving the Adivasis out of their habitats and ways of life. Ideally, the education policy and the education system should endeavour that the violence on the Adivasis is reduced and that we do not impose our notions and worldview on them. At the very least, it should bring them freedom from marginalization, oppression and exploitation. To begin with, the policy can change the way tribals’ are defined.

Facilitator: Indu Prasad is currently, Director, School of Education and School of Continuing Education, and University Resource Centre, Azim Premji University.

Rapporteur: Sonal Baxi is part of Bhasha Centre’s Higher Education and Primary Education programs at the Adivasi Academy. Her experience includes developing multi-lingual material, organising workshops for perspective building on Adivasi education and publishing oral literature.

Participants: Amarendra Das, Bhupendra Singh Paraste, Deepika K. Singh, Padma Sarangapani, Praveen Kumar, Seetha Kakkoth, Shivali Tukdeo, Sunil Sah, Verabadhra Naika, Vibha Puri Das