Are Young Adivasis in Odisha Losing Life-Skills Through Schooling?

Instead of teaching basic life-skills, the hyper-competitiveness of modern schooling is making adivasi children individualistic and detached from the community.

After graduating from school, 17-year-old Khirot Kutruka might pursue a BA, but will return to his fields after that. A Kondh adivasi from Goelkona village in Odisha’s Rayagada district, he commutes seven kilometres from his village to attend school in a neighbouring town. What he’s taught at school and the future it leads to are questions hanging over young adults like Kutruka.

Thin, short and reticent, Kutruka is one of the numerous majority tribal adivasi’s in the district getting a school education because of the state government’s efforts to promote the ‘mainstreaming’ of adivasi children. He studies English, History, Political Science and Economics – subjects having little to do with his life in the village. A single teacher instructs a class of 350 students – 44% of whom are Kondh, The remainder are Dalits. The relatively well-off upper-class Odiya students attend private school, and relocate to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh for college.

Young girls returning from school, Singari village, Muniguda block, Rayagada district. Credit: Parul Abrol

While Kutruka isn’t sure about what he’s learning, experts are more worried about what he’s losing. Pradeep Prabhu, retired dean from TISS Tuljapur and co-author of the Forest Rights Act, is deeply concerned with the government’s push to “educate” the adivasis, “Why do we want to fit everyone in our narrative of what is civilised? These are extremely sophisticated societies with highly evolved structures to train their younger generations in life skills. We need an alternate hegemony to appreciate other models of life.”

Elders in Kondh communities have started sensing the rapid decline of skills among younger generations. Adivasi children typically start learning the ‘ways of life’ as soon as they are born. They cling to their mothers who go into the forests for gathering food every day.

Debjeet Sarangi, founding member of Living Farms – an organisation working with Adivasis in Odisha – says, “Children learn by example – how to interact with others, and how to help each other out – especially in difficult situations, like encountering animals in the forest. More importantly, they are cared for by everyone in the village, not just the mothers. It builds their interpersonal relationships.”

Also read: Does Raising Questions on the Rights of Adivasis Make Me a ‘Deshdrohi’?

Forty-year-old Bhagyo Saraka from Darukona village in Rayagada district, shares: “They [babies and toddlers] are always with us. They listen to whatever we talk about. Nothing is inappropriate for their age – that’s how they learn to talk and relate to others.”

Darukona is a Kondh adivasi village in the Rayagada district and neighbours Kachapaju village – home to Dalit and Christian converts – who attend Christian school. The adivasi’s have resisted the Eucalyptus plantations grown by the villagers from Kachapaju (primarily because it dries the earth of water for other crops). However, the geographical proximity with non-adivasi villages brings the market – and schools – close the the adivasis, causing influences to rub off.

Anthropologists Malvika Gupta and Felix Padel have been working on indigenous issues in India. Voicing their concerns about the the mainstreaming of adivasis, they said: “In Kondh/Dongria culture –  children are encouraged to share their dreams every morning, as a resource that derives straight from the deepest levels of awareness and inspiration […] childrens’ dreams form a vital daily input for the whole community in a way that is unimaginable in mainstream society.”

Government school boys hostel, Bissamcuttack town, Rayagada district. Credit: Parul Abrol

Tille Kolaka, a 50-year-old woman says, “What do these kids know? They sit within four walls all day. Our parents taught us everything about forests. They don’t know even how to collect [food] on their own. They are lost in the forest, which is our mother.”

Kolaka’s words ring true when talking to Kutruka, who rarely hunts or works in the field with his father and other community members. Experts point out that the modern school education doesn’t provide them with the basic livelihood skills required for living in a Kondh village, instead a hyper-competitive education system ensures they return to the villages hyper-individualistic.

In the middle of these two villages is Pinda village. Niglu Pidikaka is about 60-years-old and the Jani (priest) of his village. As we talked, the women of Niglu’s house were busy cooking for the evening, while he cradled his grandson.

Also read: Kalinganagar, Where ‘Development’ is Threatening a Way of Life

He says, “I can teach puja vidhi, but god will pick the next Jani… so everyone should know the rituals. But we teach by example and encourage questions. Toddlers sieve information through us, which results in long-term understanding – leading to self-sufficiency when they grow up.”

But equally important is to encourage doubt which, according to Niglu, sharpens reason. He is not a big fan of school education which keeps children confined in closed spaces and detached from nature. Being in the open is very important, he stresses, “If you lose connection with your forest, your nature, you lose connection with your people as well. We are all one unit.” He finds an empathy deficit because of the modern education system.

Jaychandra Pathy, Block Education Official (BEO), Bissamcuttack block, Rayagada district. Credit: Parul Abrol

The Block Education Official (BEO) at Bissamcuttack, Jaychandra Pathy, doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the education system, and that “adivasis need to be educated to join the mainstream”. Even as many similar experiments have failed in the US and Australia – with disastrous results for indigenous families and their children – India continues to pursue the mainstreaming of adivasis.

Sarangi sums it up, “In effect, you are producing a factory line of low-skilled labour for a bigger market outside – low skilled in life skills, livelihood skills. And you are adding to the population of poor.”

The article is part of series produced under OneWorld – Dream a Dream Media Fellowship on Life Skills. Parul Abrol is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.