A strong social contract for indigenous peoples

A group of Mro community members play their traditional musical instruments in the capital’s Shahbagh, as a sign of protest over the luxury hotel that is being built on their ancestral land in Chattogram Hill Tracts. Photo: Prabir Das

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of our great independence. As a sovereign nation, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in economic growth, poverty reduction, life expectancy, the human development index, and many other social development indicators in the recent past. By keeping this momentum continuing, Bangladesh is also advancing towards fulfilling the Global Agenda 2030 with the theme “Leaving No One Behind”.

But how far we have achieved the concerned goals and targets for our marginalised people, like our country’s indigenous communities, is another question. They are not big in numbers compared to the total population, only around two percent, but they nevertheless deserve development and all basic rights that are enshrined in the national constitution. These communities also sacrificed their lives for the independence of the country, as did other citizens.

If we see government statements on indigenous peoples’ situation—that the government is doing everything possible for the betterment of marginalised groups like indigenous peoples—and compare it to the reality, they would not add up. So far, through its 15th amendment of the Constitution the government has recognised indigenous peoples as “tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities”. This is a positive development on part of the government as it recognises the identity of these marginalised groups. Further, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs has amended the controversial list of ethnic communities that was included in the Small Ethnic Groups Cultural Institution Act of 2010 and corrected it, as recommended by a National Advisory Committee. Now, 50 indigenous groups are officially recognised in the country.

Another remarkable step from the government was to introduce school textbooks in five indigenous languages to facilitate mother tongue based primary education as stipulated in the National Education Policy. Also, signing the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Accord of 1997 (popularly known as the “Peace Accord”) was another bold step to facilitating development, peace, and harmony in the southeastern part of the country, by establishing a kind of power-sharing mechanism with the indigenous and local people of the CHT. In the 50 years since independence, these are significant developments for the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples.

However, if we observe the situation of indigenous peoples critically we will see the harsh realities in their lives. Indigenous communities, with their distinct languages, traditions, cultures, values, and customs, contribute significantly to the beauty, development, and sustainability of the country. Their contribution, manifested in all the elements that make up the country—including in the war of independence—in fact serves as its source of strength. Ironically, however, the overall situation of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh is decidedly poor. Like other parts of the world, indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are among the most disadvantaged, neglected, and vulnerable citizens in the country. They often face eviction from their ancestral lands in the name of development, tourism, bases of security forces, economic zones, eco-parks, national parks, and reserved forestland. Their lands are often taken away without their consent.

The best example of this kind of land grabbing is the construction of a luxury five-star hotel on Mro people’s traditional land in the Chimbuk range of Bandarban hill district. The ancestral lands of the Mro people have been reportedly encroached jointly by a welfare trust and business corporate giant Sikder Group’s R&R Holdings Ltd. The hotel and its accompanying modern recreational facilities—including a dozen luxury villas, cable cars, and swimming pool—will adversely affect an estimated 800-1,000 acres of land belonging to nearly 600 indigenous families. Some Mro families have already been evicted while others are under threat of losing their lands. Mro villagers as well as different national and international advocacy groups staged rallies and signed petitions addressing policymakers, including the prime minister, amidst the Covid-19 crisis. However, a positive response is yet to come from the authorities to address the matter. As a consequence, the affected Mro community is passing its days in great uncertainty. Similarly, indigenous peoples in Madhupur of Tangail district, the Khasi people in Moulvibazar district, and the Rakhaine people in Barguna-Patuakhali are living under threat of eviction due to government-declared reserved forest or their lands, including cremation grounds, being grabbed by local goons. As a result, these communities are facing uncertain times.

Apart from land issues, indigenous peoples are also vulnerable in terms of gender-based violence, climate change, extraction of natural resources, accessing government facilities, and even in political representation. As a result, some indigenous-inhabited regions lag behind in accessing education, healthcare services, and social safety net programmes. Even during the government’s Covid-19 response programmes, many indigenous communities did not get any support as they live in remote areas and do not have representatives among those implementing these programmes. Therefore, they are still leading miserable lives with food shortages and lack of income. The ongoing countrywide Covid-19 vaccination programme is also not accessible for many indigenous communities due to their remoteness and lack of information and awareness.

For the people of the CHT now, the historic CHT Accord has turned into an illusion. Hope is now fading. The Accord is considered a constructive arrangement between indigenous peoples and the Bangladesh government. But even after 23 years, major issues of the Accord—such as making the CHT Land Commission functional, devolution of power and functions to the CHT institutions, preservation of tribal area characteristics of the CHT region, demilitarisation, and rehabilitation of internally displaced people—remain un-implemented. This is very frustrating for all indigenous peoples and their communities. We are observing how a state’s promise is being violated and ignored.

The 8th Five Year Plan undertaken by the Bangladesh government for the period 2021-2025 also brought some other promises for the development of indigenous peoples of the country in sugar-coated words. With the theme “Promoting Prosperity and Fostering Inclusiveness”, the plan rightly observed the vulnerable situation of the indigenous peoples (“ethnic minorities” as used by government) by stating: “the ethnic communities in Bangladesh are the most deprived of economic, social, cultural and political rights, mainly due to their ethnic status. Ethnic identities are creating barriers to ethnic minority peoples’ inclusion in wider social networks… the result is that ethnic people are socially isolated, with little access to mainstream economic and political spheres.”

Against this dire situation of indigenous peoples, the government proposed some strategic plans and commitments for the socio-economic and political rights, fundamental human rights, and social security of indigenous peoples, along with safeguards for their social, cultural, and traditional identities. The Five Year Plan also assured citizens that the rights to access education, healthcare, food and nutrition, employment, overseas employment, and protection of rights to land and other resources for indigenous peoples would be honoured. Furthermore, it mentions the formulation of a Perspective Plan for the development of the CHT through a consultative process with key stakeholders. It reiterates that the government will consider implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007 and the ratification of the ILO Convention 169, among others. All these commitments are truly encouraging for all of us.

We have stepped into the sixth year of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, indigenous peoples are still invisible in SDG implementation processes. If we really want to fulfil the government’s promises for the true development of the indigenous peoples in the country, we need to bring them on board and ensure their meaningful engagement in all development programmes. Their voices need to be heard and their issues need to be addressed without further delay. Without their active participation, it is not possible to narrow the gaps and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. To bring them into the development process, including for the realisation of their political rights, as those currently the furthest behind to where they should be now, requires a strong social contract among all stakeholders. Otherwise, all these promises will remain on paper only and the essence of our great independence will be meaningless for the indigenous peoples of this land.

Pallab Chakma is the Executive Director of Kapaeeng Foundation.

Date: Aug 9, 2021