A rosy picture of national ethnic people dancing and singing adorned in traditional ethnic dress in most national events, cultural programmes on state-run television, Pahari (hill people) ethnic food festivals and recruitment in government jobs is not the true story of the life, livelihood and visibility of the Adivasis in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has 50 different national minorities. They have distinctive languages, cultures and practices which they inherited from their ancestors. The Adivasis are inhabitants in forests in the plainland and the hill forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).

Left-leaning lawmaker Fazle Hossain Badsha agreed to disagree with leading development economist Prof Abul Barakat on his policy research on the status of Adivasi. He remarked that they should not be bracketed as a disadvantaged or vulnerable population, which does not reflect the real status of the national minorities.

Badsha without hesitation said, the Adivasis are drowning in abject poverty and pushed toward vulnerability by the majoritarian but stopped short of mentioning ‘Bangalee Muslims’ as the devil.

They have adopted several “survival strategies” to combat hunger and poverty from environmentally friendly exploitation of nature, the lawmaker observed.

Well, the lawmaker agreed with Prof Barakat that Adivasis are losing their forest rights, are traditionally conservators of forests, access to farm in khas (public) lands, and clumsy land acquisition formalities have pushed the Adivasis further into vulnerability to survive on a bare minimum.

Dr Barakat shared his findings from a policy study on the ‘Study of Budget Allocation and Budget Spent for Development of Ethnic People (CHT and Plainland) in Bangladesh’, a research conducted by the Human Development Research Centre (HDRC) and funded by Manusher Jonno Foundation on 15 January at CIRDAP Auditorium.

The economist said two-thirds of the Adivasis are caught in a functionally landless category. The poverty index argues that 60 percent of the national minorities are very poor.

The national budget is more than a statement of allocation for the development of economic and social sectors. But the ethnic people have been deprived and discriminated against historically, admitted the study.

The budget allocations for the Adivasi people are too little and too inadequate. A large part of the allocations are not spent for them and they get an insignificant amount from a large pie.

Adivasi people do not get adequate allocations from the national budget. Like all other ordinary and marginalised people, the participation of Adivasis in the budget planning process is absent.

Even their community and national leaders are not approached for any meaningful discussion to assess the real needs and demands.

Some allocations seem to be “not so needful”, while some other priority needs are ignored, most likely due to the absence of consultation with the communities.

The lack of effective monitoring is another stark reality. A portion of the insufficient allocation to the Adivasi is not fully spent due to a lack of accountability. The quality of spending is questionable due to leakage misappropriation by the rent-seekers, mis-targeting and other mis-governance issues.

Reviewing the national budget allocation for the Adivasi it is found that an estimated Taka 2,508 crore (1.22 percent of the Annual Development Plan-ADP) in financial year (FY) 2020-21; and Tk 2,400 crore in FY 21-22.

It could be understood that the allocations decreased in FY 21-22 by Tk 108 crore or 4.34 per cent in nominal terms.

There are some critical but missing allocation line items for the ethnic people for plainland Adivasi people, those include food assistance in ‘monga’ (absence of farm work) months, legal aids for ownership of grabbed land, education in their language, equitable health services, enhancing livelihood endowment, promotion and protection of Adivasi culture and knowledge management.

The critical missing allocation line items for the CHT Adivasi include adequate budget provisions for the land commission, CHT regional council, perspective plan, biodiversity and environmental protection.

Lawmaker Badsha echoed with Dr Barakat that a separate ministry for the plainland Adivasis was recommended. The present Ministry for CHT Affairs could be revamped and made into one ministry for the national minorities, which may have a CHT Division in the newly formed ministry.

An effective Land Commission is very vital for the Adivasi against organised land grabbers, having political clouts. The land grabbers are actively functioning all over the communes of Adivasi regions with impunity.

The land litigation in district courts are another frustration for the Adivasis who lost their ancestral lands to the land grabbers. The worst case scenario is when the state acquires a large portion of lands that belonged to the Adivasis in a bid to develop so-called eco-parks or lease the land to private corporations for the construction of resorts and plantation gardens.

Finally, the study recommends emphasising food security, inclusive development, widen the social net to trap the Adivasis slipping into abject poverty and hunger.

First published in The News Times, January 16, 2023