The indigenous peoples of Bangladesh welcome the Bangladesh government's commitment of additional funding to combat the challenges in the Seventh Five Year Plan. However, the present budget lacks an exact and adequate allocation for both plain land and hill indigenous populations. More needs to be done to address promised special needs such as employment, mother tongue based education, non-farming opportunities, microcredit, vocational training, development of the tourism industry and more.
In Bangladesh, more than 54 indigenous communities live both in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as well as the plains, along with the majority Bengali population. According to the 2011 census, the country's indigenous population is approximately 1,586,141—the number is almost two percent of the total population in Bangladesh. However, indigenous peoples claim that their population is three to five million, according to a thematic strategy paper titled "Rights of the Ethnic People (Indigenous Peoples)" from Manusher Jonno Foundation in 2018. According to the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, an apex organisation of the indigenous peoples of the country, the estimated population of plain land indigenous people (who are not based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts) is likely to be more than two million. This lack of disaggregated data and geographical mapping is one of the main obstacles to the allocation of a proportionate budget for indigenous peoples.
The national budget is regularly ambiguous regarding allocating separate and specific shares to indigenous peoples, even though they belong to the most disadvantaged sections of society and face multiple challenges that are economic, cultural, social and political. The poverty rate of indigenous peoples is 80 percent in the plain land areas, whereas the national poverty rate is around 23 percent, as detailed in a World Bank Group Household Income and Expenditure Survey from October 2016. However, in the government declared Tk 5,68,000 crore budget for fiscal year 2020-21, there is no exact allocation for plain land indigenous peoples and their development.
At the moment, the coronavirus pandemic is another life-threatening risk for indigenous people in these regions. Besides, the unofficial lockdown has also impacted a large portion of indigenous peoples working in the informal sector, such as daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In terms of hardcore poverty, which is a subset of absolute poverty, the rate for overall rural Bangladesh is 17.9 percent, whereas for plain land indigenous peoples, the rate is about 25 percent, according to a research paper from the Bangladesh Economic Association.
Plain land indigenous peoples also have no separate ministry for budget allocation. As a result, no special scheme has been introduced by the government for boosting their economic activities and lifting up those who are the furthest behind. Often, a small portion of money for development of indigenous peoples of the plain lands are allocated under the Development Assistance for Special Area (except CHT) project. However, recent details of this project fund allocation seems to show that the budget did not reach plain land indigenous peoples as expected. For example, in the fiscal year 2019-20, Tk 171 lakh was distributed from an allotted Tk 50 crore under nine upazilas—Tungipara, Kotalipara, Rajbari Sadar, Pangsa, Kalukhali, Baliakandi, Sakhipur, Faridpur Sadar and Pakundia. Regrettably, these nine upazilas are not areas with high concentrations of indigenous populations of the plain land, and most of this development assistance ended up going to non-indigenous peoples. While this non-indigenous population also needed the assistance, without targeted interventions of plain land indigenous peoples, they are likely to be pushed further into poverty as a result.
In the case of indigenous peoples from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), there are certain paradoxes in the budget allocation as well. The CHT spans almost 5,093 square miles and is a unique territory, being the only mountainous area in the country, and home to one-third of the total indigenous population. The poverty rate of indigenous peoples is 65 percent in CHT, whereas the national poverty rate is around 23 percent, according to the 2016 World Bank Group survey. In CHT, the indigenous peoples often face difficulties such as unemployment, education, lack of health and infrastructure, etc.
The customary laws and unique legal systems administered by both traditional leaders (circle chiefs, headmen and karbaris) and the state officials in the CHT are protected by the Constitution. There are laws in the country that do not apply to this region and there are some laws that apply only to the CHT— The CHT Regulation of 1900 (also known as the CHT Manual) is the most important legal instrument that is applicable only to the CHT. The CHT Regional Council is supposed to be the coordinating and supervising authority over the hill district councils, local government and the CHT Development Board, as well as all development activities and customary laws, among other things.
Nevertheless, the fund allotted for the CHT is under the the Ministry of CHT Affairs (MoCHTA), and this framework undermines the power of the CHT Regional Council—these different layers of administration and power structures are explained in detail in Survival on the Fringe: Adivasis of Bangladesh, a book edited by Philip Gain. In the fiscal year 2020-21, the proposed budget for MoCHTA is Tk 1,235 crore—however, there is no explanation of exactly how much of this budget is allotted for indigenous peoples specifically. All the legal administration, including the CHT Regional Council, must look to the MoCHTA for allotments from the budget, which takes away the authority to make decisions from the indigenous peoples in the CHT.
Indigenous peoples are culturally distinct societies and communities. Although they make up six percent of the global population, they account for about 15 percent of the extreme poor across the world. In Bangladesh, indigenous people are one of the major groups that require immediate attention and coordinated actions to minimise the socio-economic gap with the mainstream. Therefore, exact and adequate allotment of funds for indigenous peoples in the national budget is a necessity, and would be a new paradigm in Bangladesh.
Khokon Suiten Murmu is an indigenous rights activist and Project Coordinator (EIDHR) of Kapaeeng Foundation.