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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Counting the indigenous people in

Source: The Daily Star News

There must be more funds for them in the budget. Photo: Azizur Rahim Peu/ Drik news

THE finance division of the ministry of finance is now working to finalise the national budget for FY 2010-11, which will be placed before the Parliament in June. The finance minister has concluded pre-budget consultations with the chairman and members of the Parliamentary Standing Committees, representatives from Economic Reporters Forum and NGOs, editors of electronic and print media, economists and professionals and secretaries of all ministries and divisions. According to the web-site of the ministry of finance, the finance division has also met all the line ministries and divisions to finalise the budget proposals.

As the time of declaration of the national budget comes nearer, people from all walks of life are expressing their desires and expectations to be reflected in the proposed budget. Expectations from different pressure groups, including women rights activists, marginalised professional groups, farmers, disabled people and others have already been aired. But the issue of proper representation of indigenous people in the national budget is seldom raised.

With a population of approximately 140 million, Bangladesh is a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual country. Although a majority of the country's population belongs to one ethnic and linguistic group, about 1.2% of the population are indigenous, living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and in the plain land regions with their distinct languages, scripts, literature, religions, numerical systems and cultures. At present, there are more than 45 indigenous groups (adibashis) in Bangladesh.

No ethnographic survey has been carried out so far in the history of Bangladesh. However, according to the 1991 population census, the "ethnic population'' of Bangladesh is 1.2 million. Unfortunately, the constitution of Bangladesh has no formal provision and policy regarding the indigenous peoples of the country.

Only the "backward section of the society" has been emphasised, rather than a clear indication of the indigenous community, in Article 28 (4) of our Constitution: "Nothing in this Article shall prevent the state from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens."

Although the ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) affairs was formed soon after the 1997 CHT Accord was signed, there has been no further government initiative to expand the scope of the ministry to include other indigenous groups like the Garo, Khasi, Manipuri, Santal, Munda, Mahato, Oraon, Buno, Mahali, Rajbangshi, Bhumij, Bagdi, Rakhine or others in the plain lands of North Bengal, Tangail-Mymensingh-Sylhet region, Khulna-Jessore-Satkhira region or the coastal areas.

Abul Mal Abdul Muhit, the minister of finance, while delivering the budget speech in June 2009 observed: "We believe in harmony amidst all the religions, castes and racial denominations. This is why we wish to eradicate all sorts of violence, discriminatory behaviour and oppression against the minority community forever. We would ensure political, administrative, legal and social security to attain this goal.

In case any communal violence takes place, we would make provision for stringent punishment by promulgation of draconian laws. We would make special provisions for preservation of traditional or hereditary rights of the indigenous people in the forest areas. We would ensure special opportunities for religious and ethnic minorities as well as indigenous people in employment sector and educational institutions." (Clause 256)

"We would implement the CHT peace accord fully. We would preserve the distinct character of the language, literature, culture and lifestyle of the ethnic minorities, indigenous and other groups of people by recognising their rights and undertake extended measures in development of backward regions of the country, and would implement priority based programs for balanced development." (Clause 257)

The atrocities in Baghaihat, Sajek Union of Rangamati in CHT in February of this year seriously question the peace initiatives and development endeavours for the indigenous people. How can the government and the civil society be expected to work together for a better environment, peace and prosperity if the minimum requirements for stability and ethnic reciprocity are not fulfilled?

This is why the concerned indigenous people and all the development organisations and individual activists working to promote a better understanding on this issue today wish to raise the valid claim that the government should be more reflective in implementation of the peace treaty in the CHT region, create the proper environment for peace and stability in the trouble prone CHT region, allocate more fund for indigenous people in the coming national budget and extend the concerned ministry's area of work for the indigenous people in the plain land regions of Bangladesh.

Audity Falguni is a development activist.