August 11, 2022
DHAKA – If data from the latest population census is to be believed, 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 to be ethnic minorities, whereas the latest census took 50 different communities across the country into account. Given that the number of groups counted has actually doubled, how is it possible that the total population has increased by so little, with many communities even witnessing a decline in numbers?
The situation is troubling on a number of levels. The first is the possibility of a relative decline in the Indigenous population. If true, it is something we should be most concerned about, especially since the census has also found a decrease in religious minorities, and the continued violence against minorities forcing them to move elsewhere has been considered a factor behind this. We only hope the authorities also share our concerns, and will do everything to make Bangladesh a safe country for minorities to live in.
However, according to Indigenous leaders and experts, there has not been a decline in numbers, and the census has actually failed to give an accurate representation of Indigenous minorities. They argued that in many remote areas, data collectors did not make an effort to visit Indigenous villages and households. The inclusion of more ethnic groups, while hailed as a welcome move, has now lost its weight, since some of the most vulnerable members of Indigenous groups have seemingly been excluded.
What was the reason behind this? Inefficiency or oversight is not excusable, especially since the process of collecting census data has been streamlined through the Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) method. Was the underreporting, then, deliberate? Did it stem from systemic flaws, or was it simply apathy? The disappointing response to the current situation from the technical head of the census project points to the latter. He argued that their report is based on facts and figures, whereas what activists are saying are just estimates. However, anyone working in this sector should be familiar with how systemic biases and beliefs can impact data collection, and should engage with the communities surveyed to guard against this. However, reports suggest that community leaders were not involved in this process in any way.
According to Indigenous leaders, there hasn’t been a decline in their numbers, and the census has actually failed to give an accurate representation of Indigenous minorities. In many remote areas, they say, data collectors did not make an effort to visit Indigenous villages and households.
After the recent directive to the media to not use the term “Adivasi” when referring to Indigenous groups, the government should be careful not to give minorities the impression of a policy of considered exclusion when it comes to the census. This is not just for ethnic minorities. The transgender population is also thought 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.