2 months ago

Can the Bihari peoples ever be socially included?

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Though the recognition of the Urdu-speaking camp residents or the Biharis as Bangladeshi citizens by The Supreme Court of Bangladesh in 2008 has led to a big leap towards the communities' inclusion in mainstream societies and development agenda, they still strive to take part as full participants in the economy and the broader society they live in. 

Their access to public services, like even getting a passport, is curbed, and such obstacles are blocking their route to development.

The trap of social exclusion they have fallen into is hard to escape. Social exclusion limits their development, and their limited development gets them more socially excluded. It's well-known that social capital like social networks, trust and peace with the surrounding community is essential for development. 

As for a socially excluded community like the Bihari Bangladeshis, the degree of social capital is painfully low, and so is the level of development. 

In such circumstances, crimes like drug dealing and hijacking are quite high among the Bihari people. An average Bihari person happens to lag much behind an average Bangladeshi one in terms of literacy, income level, and overall social status. All these strengthen the unwillingness of local Bengalis to accept Bihari participation in local markets, politics, and society. 

Despite being citizens of Bangladesh like any of us, the Bihari Bangladeshis have hardly been able to merge with the mainstream community and contribute to national development to a significant extent. 

Unlike other marginalised communities or minorities in Bangladesh, the Bihari populace is treated with bias and utmost suspicion while seeking jobs or public services due to the legacy of conflict with the local communities in the 1971 Liberation War. Having their origin in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and mostly Bihar state in India, the Bihari Bangladeshis living in 116 camps in Bangladesh have always been treated as 'the other' by the surrounding Bengali locals. 

The Bihari children go through difficulties in schools as the local children tend to sideline them, and the institutions fail to ensure the Bihari children's participation in class and extra-curricular activities in full pace with the local children's. 

This difficulty in their mainstreaming, complemented by the misery of the home environment they are supposed to study in, eventually makes them have poor school performance and often drop out. 

With this little schooling experience and social acceptance, they are left with limited career options like saloon worker, rickshaw puller or day labourer. 

Being already sidelined and looked down upon for their camp address, they get worse off due to their abundance in all these blue-collar jobs. Naturally, the Sustainable Development Goals of inclusive society and institutions are hard to be met for such a community. 

Development, having inclusiveness as a precondition, requires full access and participation of all the existing communities or groups in the development agenda. Otherwise, the outcomes of a development initiative fail to sustain. 

As the predominant development policies tend to be formulated centrally, the marginalised groups' needs and urge to participate in the development process remain unheard of. 

It essentially creates a cycle of social exclusion for those groups. On the one hand, they can't enjoy the fruits of national development programs as the mainstream communities do due to their curbed access and participation at local and national levels. 

On the other hand, such barrier to access and participation curbs the level of development attainable for them. Often, these groups can do nothing but live on the development that trickles down from the mainstream communities' bowl.  

One major drawback on the government's part is that it doesn't address the issue of the mainstreaming of the Bihari community in particular. There is no sign of recognising their linguistic and cultural diversity in the national curriculum, whereas those of different Indigenous groups have a place in 'Bangladesh and Global Studies' books. 

Though the government has taken special plans for their development a few times, they could barely contribute to their development as the community has not been mainstreamed yet. In September 2019, The Housing and Public Works Ministry of Bangladesh took a 6101.23 crore project to rehabilitate Bihari people in Bosila, Dhaka. If implemented, the project could have contributed greatly to the mainstreaming of the community. 

Sadly, the plan remained a plan, and now another government plan of rehabilitating the Bihari people of Mohammadpur in 5600 residential flats in Keraniganj is on its way. Such plans seem quite ambitious as they expect to bring development without focusing on mainstreaming or social inclusion. 

Providing them with their own schools, colleges, parks, community centres, and other social amenities, such a plan expects to build a self-sufficient community. It overlooks the opportunity of bringing them with their full potential into the mainstream at first and finding them contributing to development afterward. 

Some programs run by non-government organisations working for the Bihari community have a high potential of ensuring their social inclusion. 

For example, Al-Falah Bangladesh runs over 30 Foundation Schools in different parts of Bangladesh, and those schools provide Bihari children with pre-primary education to prepare them for entrance to class 1 in public schools. 

Though small, efforts of such kind can be the very efforts for mainstreaming the community. Being taught in Bengali and taken on trips to historical sights like Shaheed Minars here, the children get prepared for mainstreaming from an early age. 

Similar efforts at other levels are to be made. All government and non-government development projects launched for them must have social inclusion as a focal point.

To put it simply, development and social inclusion reinforce one another in the case of the Bihari Bangladeshis. Without social inclusion, development for the community will be mere fulfilment of subsistence needs. 

And with inadequate development in terms of literacy, political representation, and social status, they will get more and more socially excluded. 

Both the Bihari community and the local one can gain something from it, as the exclusion of even one community is detrimental to the national development every group depends on in this century. 

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