Oxfam Paper on the “Right to Mother Tongue-Based Education for Tribals in India”

In my report on the Multilingual Education Conference in Bangkok in 2019, I mentioned a presentation from Anjela Taneja from Oxfam. I was very glad to note that Anjela has now taken the time to turn her findings into a paper so that we can all benefit from it. Upasana Lepcha has written below a helpful summary of the paper.

Oxfam India has released a comprehensive paper on Multilingual Education (MLE) The Right to Mother Tongue-Based Education in Tribal India: A Comparative Perspective by Anjela Taneja. The paper  examines already existing Mother-Tongue-Based-Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) programmes in India for tribal populations. It brings to light the gaps and challenges facing MTB-MLE and makes recommendations on how to overcome them.

The first part of the paper addresses the severe underuse of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in India and how this is especially crippling for the tribal children. Although tribals  constitute 8.6 percent of the total population (2022 Census), tribal children live in areas which do not have easy access to schools. Those of them that make it to school despite the challenges are faced with a language alien to their own, causing poor performance and dropouts. 

The paper looks into already existing interventions for MTB-MLE in Indian states and notes that Odisha is the only state with a dedicated MLE policy. It also traces MLE related work in Odisha from the 1990s which began with teachers’ training and bilingual primers, which was finally resurrected in 2006-2007 with the introduction of MLE at the primary level. Now Odisha boasts of ‘language teachers’ and textbooks for grades 1 to 5 and, as a result (according to this report), children in MTB-MLE show better achievements in languages and mathematics. Another state, not far behind Odisha, is Andhra Pradesh which has included the teaching of eight tribal languages in grades 1 to 5. Certain initiatives in Jharkhand, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand have also been mentioned. The North East, with its different language dynamic and the use of English, has been mentioned. Along with that are growing efforts such as language mapping in Assam for MLE.  

The paper looks into the challenges in the implementation of the MTB-MLE programme. One of the main issues is that the ‘language of instruction’ is usually the dominant language, and thus there is a decline in the use of mother tongue in education. The recommendations therefore are to undertake language surveys, note/record the mother tongue of the students during admission to school, strengthen MLE mechanisms at the primary level,  and look into languages lacking a script. 

Another issue is the lack of classroom resources such as textbooks and primers and even if they are available they lack in quality. The recommendations are to produce more resources, ensure good quality and timely distribution.

The attitude and aptitude of teachers who have a monolingual mindset, coupled with the forced use of English, have resulted in poor instruction in many schools according to Taneja. The solution according to this paper would be to teach in the mother tongue in early childhood and introduce English gradually.

In looking at the overall MLE initiatives in India, they are said to be only sporadically appearing in a few states, with little implementation being done, along with a lack of resources. Teachers with limited knowledge of the tribal language and tribal traditions are employed. They should become more acquainted and fluent in the tribal language and culture. 

The role of academic institutions and official governing bodies have also been said to be inadequate and lacking in their support of MLE. Lastly, the role of the language communities themselves needs to be clear on being able to create a political stand and demand for recognition. The example of the recognition of the Santhali language  (one of the 22 Official languages of India) has been cited in this regard. 

In conclusion, this paper recommends, first of all, a three-pronged approach that involves the introduction of MLE policies by the states that have tribal populations. Secondly, it suggests bridging the implementation gap of existing policies on MLE. It also suggests working with tribal groups and leaders themselves to bring about a united demand for recognition and emphasis upon using  tribal languages. 


Karsten, in collaboration with Upasana Lepcha


  1. The Right to Mother Tongue-Based Education in Tribal India: A Comparative Perspective

  1. The Right to Mother Tongue-Based Education in Tribal India: A Comparative Perspective PDF Version

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