In dozens of nondescript tribal villages in Odisha’s Rayagada district, every time a woman of the Saura tribe cooks rice for the family, she puts aside a handful of raw rice, which is collected for a community fund from which ‘special’ teachers draw their paltry remuneration. What do these teachers do? They teach Sora, the fading dialect of the tribe, to the young of the community.
“Handfuls of rice contributed by womenfolk is not enough when we confront the gigantic task of saving the Sora dialect. But with this, we ensure ownership of the community in preserving our language,” says Krushna Sabar, secretary of the Malar Mandir Vigyan Selum (MMVS), a Ramanaguda-based cultural forum that runs 30 informal schools to impart language learning. Mr. Sabar has spent 15 years developing software for the Sora script.
Hundreds of kilometres away, in the Kuanrmunda and Lathikata blocks of the Sundargarh district, every Thursday, elders of the Oraon tribe make it a point to converse with younger members in Kurux, their mother language.
“Communities are apprehensive that the extinction of their dialects would sound the death knell for their distinct ethnic identities,” says Parmanand Patel, a lead researcher with the government-run Academy of Tribal Languages and Culture (ATLC) in Bhubaneswar.
The Saura, Oraon and Bhumija communities recently sent a memorandum to the Prime Minister’s Office seeking inclusion of their respective languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which the PMO forwarded to the State government. In May, the ATLC received copies of the two memoranda and was asked to give its views on them. The Odisha government has also been receiving petitions from Gram Sabhas for the inclusion of different dialects in the Eighth Schedule. Community leaders of five tribes — Munda, Bhumija, Koya, Khadia and Oraon — have developed the script for their respective dialects.
Odisha has one of the most diverse tribal populations in India, with 62 tribes, including 13 primitive tribes, residing in the State. They speak 72 mother tongues broadly grouped into 38 languages, 19 of which are nearly extinct. Only four tribal languages here — Santhali, Ho, Sora and Kui Lipi — have a written script. Santhali has already been included in the Eighth Schedule and the Odisha government has recommended Ho be included as well.
In the Gadaba tribe, with a population of 84,689 (2011 Census) in two blocks of the Koraput district, very few can speak their mother tongue Gutab. Researchers apprehend its speakers will be halved over the next ten years. Most members of this tribe now speak either Odia or Desia, another dominant tribal dialect of the region.
The purity of Gta, the language of the Didayi tribe (population of 8,890 as per the 2011 Census) is almost gone, and barely 100 Parenga (population of 9,445) people speak their mother tongue. Small numbers of Didayi tribals residing in 17 hilltop villages in the Malakangiri district know the language. Less than 1% of the 8,88,581 Gonds, who constitute the second largest tribal community after the Santhals, can speak Gondi, their language.
“Odia, English and Hindi are State-promoted languages and a tribal student does not want to be left behind as these languages help him get mainstreamed into the development process,” says the ATLC researcher.
Tribal dialects began fading more rapidly after Direct-to-Home televisions gained popularity even in forested tribal areas, fetching avid viewership for soap operas in languages that were once alien to the region. In some instances, young tribals are now embarrassed to be seen speaking their mother tongues in public.
Experts feel that a strong community-driven movement can help tribal dialects survive. The Santhali language — now a medium of education in 550 primary schools — has been revived in large areas of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj after the Santhal community made consistent efforts to save it.
The State government adopted the Multi-Lingual Education (MLE) programme in 2006, in which the mother tongue of tribal children is used as the medium of instruction for five years of primary education. Of the 24 tribal languages included in MLE, primers (primary learning materials) have been developed for 21 languages so far. In the primers, the Odia script is followed for tribal dialects.
The Odisha government has appointed 3,385 tribal language teachers for the MLE programme. In another initiative, the State has started preparing dictionaries for 20 tribal languages, two of which have been published while eight others are nearing completion. It is hoped that as the community-driven efforts take root, the withering of tribal dialects can be prevented.