On a warm April morning, in the minutes after roll call ends and before lessons begin, the classroom is buzzing with energy. It’s one of two classrooms in a primary school surrounded by sal trees deep in the interior of Mayurbhanj district in Odisha, a state in the eastern corner of India. About 30 children, aged roughly 4 to 8, sit in rows on a large, faded red mat that covers the entire perimeter of the room.
A short while later, Sasmita Sing Banara, a multilingual education (MLE) teacher gathers some of the students in a circle and begins to read aloud in the Ho language from a second-grade textbook. “It dances when it sees the dark clouds. What is it called?” she asks, pointing at a picture of a peacock. “Mara,” the children sing back. “Yes, that’s the word in Ho. And what is it called in Odiya?” she asks. “Mayuro,” the children respond.
Odisha is the state with the second-highest Indigenous population in India, home to as many as 62 Indigenous communities, including the Ho. But the sounds of their languages don’t often reverberate through the classrooms this way.
India is among the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, but its constitution officially recognizes only 22 of the hundreds of existing languages, and these are the ones taught or used in schools. India’s census dismisses altogether languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. Since independent India’s state borders were first redrawn along linguistic lines in 1956, certain languages with territorial majorities and scripts have gained social and political power. Indigenous languages, in contrast, have been marginalized, along with those who speak them.
This has led to the fact that at least 400 of the 780 languages currently spoken in India are at the risk of extinction in the next 50 years. The ones most at risk are those used by Indigenous communities, and the consequences of their loss is grave, experts warn. These languages hold the knowledge of the communities’ ecological surroundings, agricultural activities, and social relations—and also encapsulate some of the oldest historical memories, says Ganesh Devy, a literary scholar who, starting in 2010, led a project called the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Over a span of three years, he and a team of 3,500 volunteers aimed to document India’s linguistic diversity. With the help of an 80-person editorial team, the survey’s findings were published in 50 academic volumes.
“In oral traditions, these memories continue to go to the next generation, keeping the communities intact,” he says. When the languages are lost, so too are the communities often lost.
For decades, a growing number of studies and policy recommendations in India have noted that the language gap in classrooms serves as a major cause of poor learning, retention, and self-esteem for Indigenous students.
On paper, Odisha has taken these concerns seriously. Banara was one of about 3,400 language teachers appointed after 2014 when Odisha formalized a mother-tongue-based multilingual education program focused on Indigenous communities. Through an official policy, the state mandated that lessons in early grades be imparted in a child’s own language, and became the first—and currently only—state in India to do so.
In the face of crippling poverty at home, Banara managed to complete her secondary schooling before getting married. She says her family practiced subsistence farming, and she did not know of anything else she could do for work. But in 2011, when she was about 21, an opportunity came up.
Sikshasandhan, a local nonprofit working on education, was hiring volunteers from Indigenous communities to assist government school teachers, who usually did not belong to the local communities themselves or speak the children’s languages. The organization ensured that the government was on board, and also provided training and salaries to the MLE volunteers. District officials eventually supported and expanded the program to 176 schools.
The program was borne out of Sikshasandhan’s decade-long experience of running alternative education centers whose teachers, curriculum, and functioning were all rooted in the Indigenous communities that the students belonged to. The idea was to transfer the same learning and format to government-funded public schools.
Banara began work as an MLE volunteer. And in 2014, when the state government advertised for the recruitment of language teachers, Sikshasandhan encouraged and trained Banara and other volunteers to apply so they could effect change within the government system. Following a language test and interview, Banara was hired as an MLE teacher.
At first, the job simply felt like a noble way to supplement the family income, but with time, it became a source of profound interest and joy to her. She saw that the students were able to understand and get along with her better than with the other teachers, which, in turn, led to better learning. She now has the assistance of an MLE volunteer herself, which helps distribute the task of managing the class and liaising with the community. “The language is ours. The children are ours. It feels good to be teaching like this,” Banara says.
Banara isn’t alone in her observations. Studies that evaluated Sikshasandhan’s efforts as well as those of the state’s MLE program found increased Indigenous student enrollment and lower dropout rates in schools. Research conducted over a period of three years and published in 2011 found significantly better academic comprehension and performance (in language proficiency, mathematics, and environmental studies) as well as more active classroom participation by Indigenous students (with the classrooms being “noisy, lively, and engaging” instead of “teacher-centric” and silent) in schools that followed the MLE program compared to those that did not.
The Issue of Implementation
Since the policy first came into place in 2014, Odisha has developed more than 300 textbooks and 2,500 supplementary materials in 21 indigenous languages. Still, government officials confirm that there have been no further MLE teacher appointments, research, or revision of the curriculum framework since the initial push. Teachers interviewed for this piece say they require more program-specific training, resources, and support—and in some districts, the lack of these things leads to the underutilization of Indigenous teachers.
The multilingual education program is active in only about 1,500 of the estimated 14,000 primary-level government day-schools that have at least 50% Indigenous students, which experts say exemplifies insufficient effort. There was also a widespread notion among interviewed teachers and officials that the program simply served as a way to “switchover” to Odiya or English instead of Indigenous languages being used simultaneously (and arguably meaningfully) as students progressed through the grades. Besides, thousands of Indigenous children continue to be enrolled in the more than 1,700 government-run residential institutions across the state that teach primarily in Odiya and are yet to implement the policy.
On the nonprofit side, while Sikshasandhan’s program includes providing MLE volunteers, training, and resource support to better implement the policy, their work, too, is currently limited to a handful of schools in Mayurbhanj due to lack of funding. In the past few years, India has increased the restrictions on how nonprofit organizations can receive and spend foreign funds, placing limits on administrative spending, requiring that foreign donation be received only through a specific bank branch in the capital New Delhi, and restricting subgranting. The work of thousands of nonprofits large and small has been severely impacted.
And so efforts to center students’ Indigenous languages are getting stymied even as the country’s constitution guarantees them on paper.
“It’s not a question of whether this is important or not. This is the child’s constitutional right,” says Sapan Kumar Prusty, the district coordinator for tribal education in Mayurbhanj. But even he admits that the policy hasn’t been effectively implemented because the state government has failed to give it the due attention or priority. “It is a problem.”
Still, the programs that exist are better than nothing, or outright discouragement, which has long been the case with Indigenous languages, experts say. Just as residential schools in the United States and Canada aimed to forcibly remove Native children from their homes and communities in order to “civilize” them in residential schools that were often violent and dangerous, such facilities are still operating in India. There has been a continued emphasis on residential schools in India as the means to “mainstream” Indigenous children without making space for Indigenous language, culture, or knowledge systems in the curriculum while simultaneously failing to account for adequate facilities and safety.
Jema Gadsara is a 6th-grade student in Dillisore village in the district who has been enrolled in a residential school more than 40 miles from her home since first grade. She says that staff actively encourage Indigenous students to “forget their mother tongue” and speak only in Odiya, so much so that Jema actually began to jumble up and forget certain Ho words when she came home and spoke the language with her parents. Understandably, she says she came to enjoy speaking Odiya more.
Many Indigenous parents feel the need for their children to speak and learn in the dominant language, Odiya, if they are to secure a future for themselves in the face of widespread displacement and loss of traditional livelihood in a state where their language isn’t widely respected or acknowledged.
Students, at an early age, often come to agree. In Barada’s class, for instance, Damodar Purty and Manai Sing, both in the third grade, say they prefer Odiya to Ho even as they speak to each other in the latter, because it means being able to communicate with the other non-Indigenous teachers and understanding the lessons quicker. So the teaching of Indigenous languages faces institutional barriers as well as cultural ones.
In recent years, there has been some renewed focus on the issue. India’s New Education Policy, released in 2019, emphasized the use of the student’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction at least until grade five. A number of Indian states have announced efforts to teach Indigenous students in their own languages, and some have developed textbooks, teacher-training materials, and digital lessons to that effect.
The UN General Assembly declared 2022–2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages and formed a global task force under UNESCO. Anabel Benjamin Bara, assistant professor at the Delhi-based Faculty of Management Studies, is the co-chair of the task force, and says it is “vital to focus more on the children and the youth in order to preserve Indigenous languages.” They are, after all, the future of every community.
In his advocacy for the use of Indigenous languages in schools in India, one of the major issues Bara encountered was the lack of Indigenous teachers who are well-versed and trained in teaching such languages. The efforts in Odisha show that a first step could be to work with volunteers from the community.
Growing up, 23-year-old Jana Gadasara was acutely aware of the lack of Indigenous teachers in her schools, and with time, her own circumstances explained the reasons for it: systemic barriers, lack of guidance, and a feeling of shame brought on by the language gap. Gadasara is now using her salary as a MLE volunteer with Sikshasandhan to pay for her college degree so she can meet the qualifications required for government recruitment. “It’s very important to have teachers like me in the classroom. I can’t express in words how much I want to be one myself,” she says.
In the absence of widespread state intervention, scattered efforts have shown the continued importance of alternative forms of education to fill the gaps. Bhopal-based nonprofit Muskaan runs an experimental school and several community learning centers for marginalized children, including those from Indigenous communities, which incorporate the children’s local context, languages, and community in their teachings.
Similarly, the Adharshila Learning Centre in the Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh is a village-based school for Indigenous children that was built along with the community. They teach in the Bareli language in the initial years, and encourage the continuation of traditional knowledge systems through activities like farming.
Bara says India can draw lessons from the efforts in other countries where community participation has led to the prioritization of the use of Indigenous languages. In Canada, for instance, the Maskwacîs Cree Nation and the Alberta government signed a historic education agreement in 2018, which ensured that more than 2,300 children are taught under a Cree-based curriculum. This curriculum was devised in consultation with the community and brought the schools under the administrative control of the Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission. Similarly, representatives of the Sami Parliament in Norway, Finland, and Sweden have been working on a project that incorporates Sami languages and traditions into the early education system for Indigenous children. It is being piloted in kindergartens in Norway.
The biggest lesson from the MLE program has been that the investment of time—which also requires sustained funding—is key, according to Anil Pradhan, member-secretary of Sikshasandhan and part of the MLE-policy drafting committee in Odisha. He says this will require several years of uninterrupted work with and by the government, alongside constant engagement with the teachers and the community to help children build confidence and self-esteem in and through their languages in the long term.
For 30-year-old MLE teacher Goura Barda, his classroom experience has helped him feel like teaching in Ho is “a matter of pride.” He vividly recalls his own schooling experience where this was not the case. He struggled with Odiya in the initial years and did not perform well academically as a result. There was no one to turn to for help. “There were 10 to 15 of us from this area in our class,” he says, referring to other Indigenous children, but only two of them, including him, managed to reach college.
As Barda communicates in Ho in his classroom today, it makes him wonder: “If a program like this existed during my time, maybe I would have flourished.” That, he says, is the hope with which he teaches his students.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
Interviews that took place in Odisha were conducted in the Odiya language and translated by the author.
Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist based in India, reporting on gender, social justice, and global health and development. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera English, The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The New Humanitarian, among others. You can contact her at: https://saritasantoshini.com/