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An Unequal Playing Field: The Pandemic Has Further Excluded Tribals From Access To Quality Education

The Preamble of the Constitution of India starts with the statement, "We the people of India." The challenge rather than the question is who are these 'people,' what gender identity it belongs to, of what caste, from which class, from where in terms of geography, etc. Since the constitution of India promises to promote each member of society, we can see without any iota of doubt; it's clearly not the reality. The remotest reality is always opposite to the reality we know. The notion of people in the preamble, though without any biases, includes every individual and gives equal rights to all, but despite all this, there are people at a margin away from the mainstream—the people who are excluded from society not accidentally, but systematically.

Adivasi students of Chhattisgarh returning to school after the second wave of the Pandemic

Tribal Community

Tribals always enjoyed autonomous governance. The colonial state tried to incorporate these groups of people into their colonial state structure with measures like annexation and a new uniform code related to civil and criminal laws administrative setup.

After the independent government tried to facilitate tribal communities through intervention, affirmation, and facilitation, the question remains the same: are they actually benefited? According to the 2011 census of India, "Schedule tribes constituted 8.2 % of the country's total population." In the name of inclusion and welfare, the concept of exclusion has emerged within the debate around tribal exclusion. In the context of formal education, we can see how alienated language infrastructure issues and contemporary with the image of a pandemic, the digital divide created an environment of the exclusion of marginalization of tribes from mainstreams.

Exclusionary Education

Christian missionaries started one of the first attempts to begin formal education in Adivasi people; after that, Gandhi’s “Nai Talim” arrived in the early 1940s that emphasized local practices, knowledge of their mother language, etc. In the 1950s, RK Despandey established “Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram” that anticipated tribal communities as "backward Hindus" and did not give them their unique Identity. This concept was also continued by G.S. Ghurye, one of the founding fathers of Indian sociology. Ghurye with A.V. Thakkar advocated for “assimilation” of tribes in the mainstream rather than “integrating” them. The concept of "ashram schools'' was conceptualized by Gandhian activist Thakkar Bapa in 1921 in Gujarat and later acquired by the government of India and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which runs "Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams" for Adivasi communities. A.V. Thakkar was one of the earliest to establish the first "Ashram Shalas" in the 1930s and expanded this model in Orissa and Bihar.

Post-independence India saw a whole new way of inclusivity through residential schools when first tribal teaching through residential and hostel schools was provided. But the problem with these residential schools is that it tries to dominate every aspect of a student's life and, in a way, distances these tribes from their own culture and uniqueness.

In 1961, the recommendation from the Dhebar commission came to encompass tribal knowledge and languages into the curriculum. Later on, similar offers were given by the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, but no follow-up happened. The National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) began sponsoring education for communities in Chhattisgarh. Firms like Adani Enterprises, Vedanta, and NALCO partnered with the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences to open schools in different tribal locations. The school follows practices like a uniform discipline hierarchy system. This "cultural racist nature continues the cycle of humiliation and discrimination of Adivasis."

The national program of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan aims to "achieve universal elementary education," focusing on tribal children, in particular, to "bridge all Gender and social category gaps at primary stage by 2007 and the elementary stage by 2010." The earliest state formulated a teacher training module and different teaching-learning materials for the Bodo tribal language in 1995. In Madhya Pradesh, a handbook for teachers called "bridge language inventory" had been prepared in 3 tribal languages: Gondi, Kuduk, and Bhili. In Karnataka, the Solinga language was incorporated into textbooks for primary classes. For sensitization among teachers toward the social-cultural aspects of tribal communities, special kinds of handbooks were designed. For Bhili, Pawara, Madia, Gondii communities, a special type of dictionary called the "Gondii bridge material" with tribal languages was designed in the Dhule district of Maharashtra. Bilingual language materials were drafted in Kerala's district in Kasarkode, Wayanad, Malappuram, and Palakkad. Odisha initiated a comprehensive strategy for the education of tribal children.

Education as a way to empowerment is generally lacking in the Adivasi community. Since women are 'vulnerable within the vulnerable,' the girls from the tribal community face multifold barriers, such as social, pedagogical, and policy-level. Social barriers consist of several restrictions while accessing educational resources in the household. Pedagogical barriers include the problem they face in the institution of formal education, for instance, no or less representation of teachers from the tribal community. The low representation of tribal teachers results in less interaction, understanding, and participation of tribal students, which leads to the disempowerment of students belonging to the Adivasi community. Many policies do not include the issues of languages, and hence this linguistically diverse community faces unique discrimination based on their language and the alienated language.

Education is one factor that also gets affected during the pandemic. As health crisis gripped the world, the institutions shifted to the online space where only the affluent could access quality education. The reason for this is India's diverse social, economic, political, and geographical culture. The existing system before the pandemic already lacked in many terms, for instance, infrastructure, teachers, inclusive syllabus, and so on. Further, this digital divide leads to more deprivation of education in students belonging to marginalized socio-political communities; the world witnessed new discourse on the digital divide and its impact on Indian formal education.

Educationists emphasized that the "mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTBMLE) approach has been ignored while designing online learning modules." Ronit Sabar, a Rayagada-based development professional, emphasized: “MTBMLE is the most crucial prerequisite for educating tribal children, majority of whom are first-generation learners. The pandemic has drastically disrupted the MTBMLE for tribal children. We may witness huge drop-out rates in the coming years."

The exclusionary curriculum "creates an educational ghetto of the already-marginalized and institutionalizes the exclusion." “Schools must be diverse and accessible to all,” said the convenor of the Right to Education forum, Ambarish Rai. Educational activists and marginalized communities both have acknowledged that the government both at the centre and the states failed to make the education system inclusive despite all measures and the Right to Education law. “The truth is children still experience a lot of discrimination and humiliation in the classroom, both from students and insensitive teachers. This has a long-term negative impact on children,” said Annie Namala of the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion.

"The already existing digital divide has now come as a practical form of social exclusion because the ones who get left out in this are a particular section of students— those hailing from geographically marginalized or those from socially oppressed class and caste,” said M Geethanandan, the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha's activist. Chithra Nilambur, an activist, operating with tribal communities in the Malappuram district, raised an important question; "It is not only about having a smartphone or television. The problem is much deeper. What is a phone for a student if the family does not even have money to buy rice? How are they supposed to recharge these phones? Is the government even considering those tribal families who do not even have a proper house or electricity?”


With the new normal, e-learning is becoming a new form of formal education. As such there is a need to ensure equity and equality in education for each section of society. The vision of universal education without "inclusivity would be educational elitism." For this opportunity, reciprocity, participation is an urgent need.

In educational institutions, language is an important site of exclusion; infrastructure facilities are poor, availability of adequate teachers is also a big issue; unaware of it; usually practices based on shared perceptions. School is supposed to be a "no punishment zone." Still, the exclusionary policies steps and measures lead to humiliation, discrimination, and further suppression of tribal students/ communities. The educational institution assumes a particular homogeneous group of students coming from a similar social-political, cultural background. It then leads to exclusionary curricula for many marginalized and vulnerable communities who find this educational system alienated and ignorant towards their knowledge and experience. The issues such as inaccessible tribal habitat, poverty, physical distance to school, health issue, lack of sincerity and commitment of teachers towards these people, their job discrimination, lack of familiarity with an official language, deficiency of shared medium, other reasons include a low level of parental education, occupation, income deprivation construct barriers for educational development. These communities are "due to the lack of education groups or individuals exploited and excluded from the mainstream of life. Hence human resources of that group were minimized."

It is an essential and urgent need for awareness to improve parental literacy, quality and quantity of education, the incentive to these children, decentralization educational management and proper supervision. Moreover, the physical distance of schools should be minimized, skill development offered, standard syllabus provided, and more attention given to tribes.


About the Author: Rinku Kumari is a Dalit-Dusadh Feminist who is currently a student of Women's Studies at TISS, Mumbai. She is an artist of Godna Mithila Art and a Hindi poet. She has earlier published a research paper titled 'Untouched but Uncovered: Stories of Dalit women in Madhubani paintings during Covid 19'. This paper was part of Sponsored Studies Project 2020 Indian Association for Women's Studies (IAWS). She is currently working with Nazariya, a queer Feminist group.

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