Public education system and the Adivasi child: Panel discussion

By Asim Siddiqui and Pragati Tiwari | July 30, 2019

The situation of tribals today is far worse than it was twenty years ago. There is a strong conflict between the interests of the tribal communities and those of the capitalists, which is playing out in the form of Naxalite movements.

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 March1‑2, 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.

Initial remarks: Sharad Behar

The Chair of the Panel, Sharad Behar, began with a grim acceptance that the situation of tribals in India today is far worse than it was twenty years ago. It is because of globalisation and neoliberal policies that most natural resources are being exploited and so are the lives of indigenous communities that stay closest to nature. There is a strong conflict between the interests of the tribal communities and the interest of the capitalists. He invoked the five principles of Panchsheel that Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, came up with and claimed that it was a visionary way to think of peaceful coexistence, and it still holds relevance for us when we discuss tribal education. The conflict between the interests of tribal communities and capitalists is also playing out in the form of left extremist or Naxalite movements among the indigenous communities in central India.

Alex Paul Menon

Alex Paul began by speaking about his close encounter with Naxalites in Chhattisgarh where he was also detained by them for 13 days and then, let go. It gave him a sense of the intentions of the Naxalites which are of mainstreaming the Adivasis, not unlike those that the Government has attempted, and both have harmed the indigenous communities. As an anecdote, he shared that both the government and Naxalites do not value the tribal rituals and gods, as the latter has become atheistic while the former has tried to Hinduise the Adivasis by mainstreaming them into the Hindu religion.

Education in this conflict area of the tribals is, therefore, quite contentious. The government, in pushing for mainstreaming of the Adivasis through education, is doing more harm than good. The government policies are teaching Sanskrit to the tribals but do not want to promote education in their mother tongue. Although Maoists use the native language to reach and disseminate their thoughts to the indigenous communities, they are more interested in occupying the State machinery, something that is of little interest to the Adivasis.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), although a progressive policy is also being misconstrued as a kind of welfare measure by the State for the tribals, instead of it being used to recognise the tribals as the rightful owners of the land. The FRA has come under criticism as it is being used to evict Adivasis out of the forests. Menon emphasized that in reality it is and must be the recognition’ of FRA and the government should acknowledge that it is not bestowing anything on the community but merely recognizing their rightful claim to the land which belonged to them for centuries before any form of the State came into being.

He acknowledged that in his work, he has only been able to understand the way the government machinery and the Naxalites have been functioning and there have been no solutions to the magnitude of problems that are being faced with regard to the education of the Adivasi child.

RS Praveen Kumar

Praveen Kumar began with an assertion of his Scheduled Caste (SC) identity and spoke about how his parents were forced into child labour. Later, both of his parents got the opportunity to study at Missionary schools and completed the teacher training programme to finally become teachers themselves. He himself studied in the government’s social welfare schools and got into the Indian Police Service (IPS) and his sister became a doctor. Inspired by how education became a tool for change for his parents, his sister and himself, he felt that the same story could be replicated in the millions of households that come from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds. This led him to voluntarily take up the role of the Social Welfare Education Society, although he is not an educator or teacher, but an administrator.

Speaking of the indigenous community, Praveen Kumar said it was very disturbing for him to see the poor development of the people who are originally the first natives of this country, and who are being victimised and marginalised because of their lack of access to resources and State institutions. To address this problem, the combined Andhra government started residential schools for the marginalised community in 1984 due to the efforts of S.R. Shankaran, the Chief Secretary to the Government. He combined the hostel scheme for the marginalised communities for tribals and SCs and merged it with the government schooling system. They started with 46 schools, and now there are 900 residential schools all over Telangana.

The important thing is that it was the government that willed the expansion. There are around 170 tribal social welfare schools. The medium of instruction in these schools is English. Initially, the teachers faced problems in teaching in English but gradually they adapting to it. Instead of giving students examples of Sania Mirza or Saina Nehwal, they pointed to role models for them from within their community; those who were able to get higher education and were able to create a better life for themselves. They provided the students with the platform and tools to articulate their problems so that the world can listen to their perspectives directly rather than from someone else speaking on their behalf. There is a need for nurturing and supporting these voices from within the community so that they can themselves talk about their challenges and experiences.

They also created the Swaero network through which the people of the community who are doing well outside can be in touch with their community and contribute to their development. This network brings together all the tribals living in the urban areas and convinces them to share their success stories with students. Many students are even going abroad for their studies or work now. Though the coverage of these residential schools is only 10% and these are not the only solution for all their problems, but these, definitely have been able to improve the living conditions of a set of Adivasi children.

Vibha Puri Das

Whenever we look at any developmental figures, we find the tribal communities always at the bottom; there is about 20% difference between the tribals and the rest. Thus, the development challenges are very big and there is a gathering impatience among the communities who are left behind in the growth of the last seventy years. The other big problem is that the public institutions are getting depleted of talent. When I was in the Tribal Welfare Ministry, I observed that the Tribal Research Institutes (TRIs) are not able to fulfil the mandate given to them of doing world-class research. We need to develop social sciences and policy-making that is evidence-based and contribute to making good developmental policies.

However, this was not the case, earlier. The TRIs uses to be very strong around the 1960s. They used to be the place for training for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But that deteriorated due to the lack of resources and talent that got to the Tribal Welfare ministry. It became a sort of punishment posting and the talent depleted, gradually. Thus, what we need to do is to revive these institutes and universities can play an important role in doing good evidence-based research for policy-making and supporting government institutions. The government should also look forward to drawing upon universities’ expertise in working with indigenous communities and their specific requirements and struggles.

Closing remarks: Sharad Behar

Panchsheel education can be looked at as a way forward. But first, we need to look at the fundamental problems with the public education system. The basic assumptions underlying it need to be uncovered to look at the deeper problems with the system. All children are provided with the same uniform package of education, no matter whether they are from the tribal community or rural or urban background. Pedagogy generally follows a top-bottom approach with little emphasis on how students learn or on their curiosity, so it is safe to say that there is a problem with the basic structure of education itself. The assessment is also uniform for everyone. So, the public education system can be seen as an institution whose motive or outcome is homogenisation. It aims to create this modern human being which contrasts with the culture of the tribals. The tribal community itself is very diverse and thus, there cannot be a single umbrella’ to put them under.

We need to acknowledge that the tribal child comes from a culture that is different from the mainstream culture. We should also recognize that the tribals have been marginalized systematically, so, several social and cultural justice issues need to be kept in mind while thinking about their education.

Coming to the idea of the Panchseel and viewing education from this perspective, the basic objective is that tribal children should be allowed to develop within their own knowledge systems. They should become self-reliant, even in the public administration of their issues. There should be a multiplicity of educational programs rather than providing one uniform and homogenized education. But the sad part is that none of these were being followed even during Nehru’s time; the education policy has not corresponded with this idea of education.

This whole discourse on education policy has been about mainstreaming children and how the government is enabling them to join the mainstream and ripping them away from their cultural identity. Instead, the education policy should be designed in a way that helps them in asserting their identity and cultural practices, and which gives them a tool to fight the exploiter and injustice that has been done to them in the name of mainstreaming and development.

Is there a middle ground between justice and injustice, or between exploiter and exploited? No, we cannot have a middle ground when there is a clear distinction between justice and injustice and communities of people are being completely decimated. We need to be on the side of the people who have been systematically marginalized and create a kind of education system that can help the indigenous communities assert their identity and claim their rights and demand justice.

Reflective Summary

This discussion raised many important and difficult questions for the panellists and following is a summary.

Although at a larger level, it does look like the picture is quite grim, there are a few bright spots both in the governmental and non-governmental initiatives which need to be brought together as a sentiment of change for the indigenous communities. The indigenous community needs to be in charge of the administration of their own affairs and education plays a key role in this. In the name of protecting the diversity of the country, we cannot afford to not engage with the power centres and the dominant classes because they are the ones making the decisions. Therefore, through a kind of inter-cultural education, the Adivasi communities can both assert their identity and distinct knowledge system while they also get to learn the mechanisms of working with the modern State and taking control of power. In the absence of either, justice cannot be served to them. We cannot ignore either of these dimensions in favour of only one of them.

In terms of the resource allocation by State, the budget for teacher training for Adivasi communities has dropped by 87% in the last six years which makes it very difficult to train teachers well for their job. In such a scenario, where the State is withdrawing from its responsibility towards public education, it is difficult to see how education can be used as a tool for change for the Adivasi communities. The way out of this conundrum is to take control of State power and State mechanisms both from inside and outside the system. Merely by resisting the State, we may not be able to reach the desired results in providing the kind of intercultural education that is required for the Adivasi communities.


Sharad Behar, former Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh and Founder Director of Eklavya, MP.


Alex Paul Menon, Director of Dept. of Tribal and Scheduled Caste Welfare, Government of Chattisgarh.
RS Praveen Kumar, Secretary of Telangana Residential Welfare Educational Society.
Vibha Puri Das, Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Welfare. Government of India.

Report by:

Asim Siddiqui, Faculty, Azim Premji University
Pragati Tiwari, Student, Final year, MA Development