August 11, 2022
DHAKA – According to the latest population census data, the indigenous population in Bangladesh has increased by only 64,000 in the last 11 years. However, in the 2011 census, only 24 communities were considered ethnic minorities, while the last census took into account 50 different communities across the country. Given that the number of counted groups actually doubled, how is it possible that the total population grew so little, with many communities even experiencing a decline in numbers?
The situation is worrying on several levels. The first is the possibility of a relative decline in the Aboriginal population. If true, this is something that should concern us most, especially since the census also found a decline in religious minorities, and continued violence against minorities forcing them to move elsewhere has been seen as a factor causing this. We only hope that the authorities will also share our concerns and do everything to make Bangladesh a safe country for minorities.
However, according to indigenous leaders and experts, there has been no decline in numbers and the census actually failed to give an accurate representation of indigenous minorities. They argued that in many remote areas, data collectors did not make the effort to visit villages and indigenous households. The inclusion of more ethnic groups, while hailed as a welcome step, has now lost its weight, as some of the most vulnerable members of indigenous groups have apparently been excluded.
What was the reason behind this? Inefficiency or negligence is not excusable, especially since the census data collection process has been streamlined through the computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) method. Was the under-reporting then deliberate? Was it due to systemic flaws or was it just apathy? The disappointing response to the current situation from the technical manager of the census project points to the latter. He argued that their report is based on facts and figures, whereas what activists say are only estimates. However, anyone working in this sector should be familiar with how systemic biases and beliefs can impact data collection, and should engage with surveyed communities to guard against them. However, reports suggest that community leaders were in no way involved in this process.
According to indigenous leaders, there has been no decline in their numbers and the census has in fact failed to give an accurate representation of indigenous minorities. In many remote areas, they say, data collectors have not made the effort to visit villages and indigenous households.
After the recent directive to the media not to use the term “Adivasi” to refer to indigenous groups, the government should be careful not to give minorities the impression of a deliberate exclusionary census policy. It’s not just for ethnic minorities. The transgender population is also believed to have been massively under-reported. There must be processes in place to ensure that minorities do not experience another kind of oppression by being erased from national statistics.