Language gap in policy making needs bridging

For active participation of tribal communities in policy dialogues, subaltern language are indispensable

By Bijayashree Satpathy, Sruthy Bharathan
Last Updated: Tuesday 04 June 2019
Language gap in policy making needs to bridged
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

India is a land of multiplicities and the formulation of policies in the country has a long history. Time and again there have been changes in the objective of various policies from regulation to community participation to sustainability. In this, language plays an important role.

The policies and legislations are made available to the public in English and Hindi. And, some states have these documents in their respective regional languages. These standardised regional languages are used in every level of administrative, business and social intercourse.

Quoting here a famous adage: “Every two miles the water changes, every four miles the speech.” India is a land of pluralities, where we have several local languages and their scripts.

These local languages are mostly inherited and followed by subaltern communities, especially tribals. They are considered illiterates and because they are yet to be part of the planning process, they are recognised as “others”.

Their understanding of their own problems are questioned by the “high cultured” literates and so they vouch for standardisation of language for all formal communications (policy documents, orders, notices etc.).

So, the standardisation process itself is politics. Moreover, the role of religion, caste, colour, creed, and literacy are inevitable in standardisation of any language. The collective “high culture” decides the standard language and they communicate with that to “others”. 

Studies conducted across India on the gamut of welfare programmes and policies have inferred that improper monitoring, lack of accountability, corruption, asymmetric information, inadequate incentives are reasons for ineffective implementation of policies. Contrarily, poor (especially tribals) have remained obscure about the process of planning and perplexed about implementation of policies and programmes, which is apparently for their welfare.

Various identity-based movements in India could manage to bring the element of participation among communities to represent themselves in policy making and attain the quorum. However, the language of subaltern is hardly taken into consideration while recognising their identity.

India, under successive regimes, has been competing for an exemplary GDP figure, which is of course considered an important parameter to showcase the growth of the country.

The competition becomes complex with the introduction and implementation of various economic growth-oriented welfare schemes and programmes to counter poverty. But, it ignores enhancing the capability of human beings, which not only enables them to do something but also confers them the freedom to choose from a range of options provided by the government welfare programmes.

Programs like health, education, and sanitation have been given importance, but delivering them without creating capabilities is meaningless. The welfare programmes are reinforcing the gap between internal and combined capabilities.

In the late '80s, the government introduced community participation in the implementation of programmes. In village- and block-level meetings members of subaltern communities did participate, but as mannequins.

Although various political, social and cultural factors are playing active roles in discouraging participation (both physically and vocally), but minimal usage of subaltern language in formal meetings to speak and understand their concerns cannot be overlooked.

Civil society has been playing a vital role in implementing these policies and programmes by interpreting and making it understandable for tribals in their local language. But, the essence and process of these Acts and programmes are often misinterpreted. Factors behind this could be lack of training, hurried implementation, etc.

These led to exploitation of tribals. For instance, the necessary documents for application of certain schemes or programmes should be available to the tribals in free, but they are paying for it.

The obscurity injected by the dominance of recognised regional languages led to the intervention of various players (like the market) in the process of execution of the programme, thereby maintaining the gap between state and subaltern community.

The bridge

The knowledge of the process — identification-planning-execution-evaluation of any policy and programme — has remained in the hands of powerful groups, who are non-tribals and are based in urban areas. For convenience, the dominant class use standardised language in policy affairs.

As aptly said by Fairclough, the standard language is a sort of “class dialect”. Tribal communities are unique in their own way and are repositories of inherited knowledge. Referring to them as “illiterate and poor” is questioning our own inheritance.

The civil society has been playing a mediator between communities and government, but the unsustainability of programmes, perpetuating unawareness among masses, communities’ constant dependency on government welfare programmes question the accountability and transparency in the implementation process.

However, the role of civil society cannot be ignored. In a recent experience in the VII General Assembly of Mines, Minerals, and People at Visakhapatnam (which was attended by the tribal representatives from the mining-affected areas across India), it was found that civil society were making efforts to simplify the rules and regulations related to mining in local languages for tribal representatives.

In another occurrence, where the Supreme Court ordered to evict more than one million forest dwellers, civil society (including wildlife conservationists) joined hands with tribal forest dwellers for reversal of the order.

Since Independence, many anti-poverty schemes, programmes and projects have been implemented, but the validity of these is dubious. All these are planned at and enforced from the top. The people at the bottom of the pyramid have always been left out.

Scholars like Chambers, Nussbaum, and Sen have been critiquing the top-down interventions and vouch for the community’s participation in the process of development. But, without finding ways for inclusion of subaltern languages in policy making, it is difficult to get the desired outcome.

For active participation of tribal communities in policy dialogue, subaltern language can be indispensable. A proper groundwork is necessary before the implementation of government welfare programmes that can enhance the capability of the subaltern.

On one hand, English is the lingua franca of the world, which is predominant in maintaining international diplomacy and global business ties. On the other, regional (recognised) languages have been used for effective communication inside the territory of the state.

For the promotion of these languages, the education system has been playing an important role. But it has a limitation of not meeting the needs of different subaltern cultures. But, in the scenario of extinction of more than 40 languages or dialects in India, preservation of tribal languages is necessary.

The Census of India since 1971 recognises only those languages that are spoken by more than 10,000 people, overlooking the subaltern languages spoken by few. Moreover, the knowledge of managing biodiversity and cultural diversity are embedded in subaltern languages.

The promotion of subaltern languages can be effective in preserving cultural heritage, which is an inalienable cultural right of tribals. The risk of death of subaltern languages can be side-stepped by managing a language policy, specifically by encouraging multilingualism in the education system.

The country is debating around voices, choices, rights, consensus, justice and equality on various social, cultural, political, economic, legal and technical issues. It is high time to preserve the subaltern languages through its usages in policy dialogue.

This, in turn, can help enhance the internal capabilities of tribals by shaping external conditions in such a way that tribals can realise their freedom to choose from a range of options served through various welfare policies.

Furthermore, subaltern communities with the help of civil society can assert their claim not only in representation but also in preserving, protecting and using their language in various policy discourses.  

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