Education Was Always a Struggle in Bastar. The Pandemic Has Made it Near Impossible.

Activists say school infrastructure has fallen into complete disrepair over the last year and a half. Since most Adivasi students do not have access to the internet, online classes have been a bust.

Kanker (Chhattisgarh): On the cloudy morning of August 3, Adivasi children in Nilegondi village were solving puzzles at a small neighbourhood gotul – cultural and education centres of the Koitur people with youth dormitories. It was, however, no usual gotul gathering; the children were there for a “mohalla class” – a recent initiative by the Chhattisgarh government to try and continue school education in the absence of online classes.

Amidst the dense forests of Kanker’s Antagarh block, at a height of about 600 feet, Nilegondi can only be reached through uphill, swampy paths. And like hundreds of villages in Bastar, it is also affected by the Maoist insurgency; villagers are vulnerable to harassment and abuse from both the security forces and the Maoists.

The closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of access to online education for many students in rural areas has been a big concerns. On the occasion of Independence Day last year, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel announced the “Padhai Tuhar Para” scheme, under which mohalla classes are being conducted as an alternative to online education in remote areas. Mohalla classes in Adivasi areas, thought, are largely reliant on community management. The collective efforts and accountability of Adivasi teachers and parents seem to be the only hope for education for many of these children.

The World Economic Forum had reported last year that only 13% of the people surveyed by the NSSO could use the internet in rural areas, and just 8.5% of them were women. These number of internet users is likely to be significantly lower for Adivasi children.

Gaukaran Pradhan, the 33-year-old Gond headmaster, is a resident of Bar Deori village and travels 20 km every day to the gotul in Nilegondi village to teach. Since the pandemic began, Adivasi communities in the region have made a rule that teachers coming from different villages should obtain permission from the village members before setting up mohalla classes. After this, the village’s gaita (tribal priest) invokes the Prakriti Devi or the “Jimmedarin Yaya (mother)” and she is given the responsibility to ensure that no disease enters the village or causes any harm to the people and the environment.

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“As this is a conflict area and the terrain is hilly, no non-Adivasi person wants to teach here. First they take the job and later they apply for transfers, which creates vacancies for teachers. I and the rest of the teachers have faced a lot of problems treading this risky path for years,” Pradhan told The Wire. “Two years ago, I was pulled into the river while crossing it but somehow survived; many times I have also had to face a bear while climbing the hill. The kachha road was built just last year, during the pandemic.”

The ashram school problem

Successive governments have done nothing to promote education and build school infrastructure in tribal areas, and now teachers are struggling to make students attend mohalla classes. As the schools are far away from their homes, some students take admission in government ashram schools. But because of the pandemic, their studies have also been interrupted.

Dilesh playing during his lunch break. He studies in the Kanagao ashram school but due to the COVID-19 closure, he is temporarily studying in the mohalla class in Nilegondi village. Photo: Shubham Tigga

Ashram schools are government-run hostels and residential educational institutions for the Adivasi community. Their aim is to bring children from remote locations to more connected localities. The idea for ashram schools was conceptualised by Gandhian activist Thakkar Bapa in 1921 in Gujarat, and later adopted by the Indian government as well as the RSS, which runs Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams for Adivasi communities.

Adivasi rights activists have long pointed out that the guiding principle of ashram schools is that the Adivasis are savage and wild, and need to be civilised using education away from their social and cultural life. With this in mind, ashram schools’ aim is to reorient children in upper-caste Hindu cultural norms. So much importance was given to the idea of residential schools that now, much of Adivasi education has been overtaken by ashrams.

Ashram schools started out as a reaction to missionary schools in tribal areas that began to create tribal elites from the second half of the 19th century, accelerating class formation during the colonial era. A.V. Thakkar is credited with setting up the first ashramshalas in the 1930s, and spreading the model from western India to Orissa and Bihar. The Kothari Commission Report, in 1966, redefined Gandhi’s concept of ‘productive work’ towards industrial training, to suit ‘a country on the path to industrialisation’, at a time when thousands of Adivasis began to be displaced by big dams and factories.

By the 1980s, these ashram schools numbered over 3,000. Far from being based on Gandhi’s Nai Talim, as they were supposed to be, many of their features display its precise antithesis, since they mostly fail to use tribal languages or to incorporate tribal knowledge and pedagogy into the curriculum. This was already implicit in a speech on ‘The Aboriginal Problem’ that Thakkar gave at the Ghokale Institute of Politics and Economics in 1941, in which he characterises Adivasi culture and agriculture as backward in every respect, in line with G.S. Ghurye’s image of tribals as ‘Backward Hindus’, promoted in his book The Aborigines – “so-called” – and their Future, published by the same institution two years later.

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“Ashram schools are responsible for the fading of Adivasi culture, by providing students Hindutva teachings like the Saraswati Vandana and other practices,” says Yogesh Nuruti, an activist with the Koya Bhumkal Kranti Sena, an organisation working towards cultural and constitutional education among Adivasis in north Bastar. India’s ashram schools have also been a threat to minor girls from the Adivasi community, with several incidents of sexual assault being reported.

Nuruti says, “Girls are often tortured in the ashram schools; a few years ago, at least 11 minor girls were allegedly raped by a teacher and a warden in Jhaliyamari village of Kanker. After that case, the government started imposing guidelines for the safety of girls and started recruiting a female ‘nagar sainik‘ and other employees.”

Students in the Nilegondi mohalla class. Photo: Shubham Tigga

Educational indicators from Adivasi-dominated hamlets of Chhattisgarh have always been dismal, especially when it comes to the scheduled areas like the North Bastar Kanker district. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate in Kanker is about 70%, but there is no disaggregated data about Adivasi literacy rates, which are believed to be much lower.

According to the data collected from the district education department, Kanker has a total of 2,441 primary to higher secondary schools, where 1,49,000 children study. The district has 1,591 primary school buildings, 608 secondary school buildings, 160 high school buildings and 135 higher secondary school buildings. Out of these, 68 school buildings are in a dilapidated condition, including 55 primaries and 13 middle school buildings. Altogether, the condition of most school buildings is poor.

In the Antagarh block of the district, most schools in the conflict-rife areas of Hindudinapal, Sode, Nuleki, Murnar, Chipondi and Chingnar are in a dilapidated condition, with crumbling roofs and leaky walls. Reopening schools without repairing the buildings could lead to accidents. Villagers have been urging the education authorities to start schools repairs and have also appealed to them to invest more in schools and colleges, including new school buildings, but there has been no response to their demands. Villagers said that due to the closure of schools during the lockdown, many school buildings fell into disrepair.

In mohalla classes too, the infrastructure is basically non-existent. A few days ago, in the mohalla classes of Khursitikul primary school of Narayanpur, at the Ambagarh outpost, a young child died after being bitten by a snake.

Government programmes aren’t reaching these students

Besides mohalla classes, in April 2020, the Chhattisgarh government started a new web portal called “Padhai Tuhar Duar” (Study at Your Door) under which students are being digitally taught through e-class facilities like video lessons and games. Unfortunately, this scheme has not succeeded in the rural areas of the Bastar division due to the large digital divide in the country. Inaccessibility to internet connections, the lack of devices like smartphones and laptops, and the inability to buy data packs have proved to be major obstacles. On February 10, the Economic Times reported that only 18% of tribal students enrolled in residential schools had access to online education during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In March 2021, the Chhattisgarh government had presented an education budget of Rs 97,106 crore for the year 2021-22 in the Vidhan Sabha. Using the acronym HEIGHT, the budget aims to focus on holistic development, education (equal opportunity for all), infrastructure, governance, health and transformation. Rs 372 crore have been allocated for the operation of hostels for students belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and Rs 281 crore for construction work under the Gurukul Upgradation Scheme. There is also an allocation of Rs 1 crore for setting up a BEd college in North Bastar Kanker. However, in the past, large budgetary allocations have not led to changes on the ground.

“Initially I was very uncomfortable with the jungle area, but now I have got a good relationship with my people. I do not even feel like going back, only Adivasi teachers can teach in hilly areas. I live in a rented room and because of good bonding with the Adivasi landlord, he charges me nothing,” Kamlesh Bhuarya, a 32-year-old teacher from the Halba community of Balod district, said.

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Pointing towards the threats from LWE (left-wing extremists), he added, “In the beginning, I was scared of Naxalites. Then one day for the first time I met them face to face. I was extremely afraid, but after writing my name and making a few inquiries they left without harming me. Now they call me ‘Balod waale sir (the teacher from Balod)’. They do their work, we do ours, we don’t worry about other things except teaching.”

Children, especially girls, often drop out after primary school because middle and high schools are 7-8 km away from their homes. The school where Kamlesh teaches is named Budhiyarmari School and was earlier situated in Budhiyarmari; now, because of bauxite mining, the school is has been moved to Tondamarka.

“Villages are always built after looking at multiple concerns like rituals, deities and resources for survival. This means displacement is difficult for Adivasis, but bauxite mining means they often have to move, Nuruti told The Wire. The Adivasis in Budhiyarmari, Nuruti continued, face a range of harassment techniques – being falsely charged with Naxalism, waste disposals being created near their village to push them away, etc.

Local musical instruments at the Budhiyarmari gotul. Photo: Shubham Tigga

Although these areas have no COVID-19 cases, teachers are asked by authorities to provide training to parents regarding safety guidelines and hygiene practices.

Due to the shortage of space in the gotul, children can’t follow COVID-19 safety precautions. Earlier it was midday meals that brought children to the school, but in the current situation, even that is not available. Alternatively, dry rations were being provided by the cluster resource coordinator at the mohalla classes. Lately, instead of dry rations, money is credited into the bank accounts of the villagers. To withdraw this money, one has to go to the bank located in the bazaar areas. It often costs more to travel there than the Rs 100-150 they receive, and the fear of COViD-19 is another deterrent keeping them away.

Generally, rice, pulses, pickles, salt, oil and soybean are provided in the midday meal dry rations in Chhattisgarh. In 2019, there was a lot of controversy in tribal areas regarding eggs being included in the meals. In 2015, the BJP government had stopped the distribution of eggs in midday meals. In 2019, the Congress government restarted eggs in the meals to prevent malnutrition. They cited data, saying that in Chhattisgarh 40% of tribal and 35% of non-tribal children below 14 years of age were malnourished, and it was necessary to include egg in their diet.

“Coronavirus has caused a lot of damage to education in Adivasi-dominated areas. The condition of school buildings is terrible, it is risky to enter them and they can collapse at any time. Even now, the mohalla classes are going on without government support. Neither functional toilet facilities for the children nor other resources have been provded,” Keshav Sori, the head of DISHA, an Adivasi rights NGO based in Kanker, said.

“The long journeys to schools and the presence of security camps near the villages cause most girls to drop out of school as soon as they are 13-14 years old. Boys too often drop out of school to go to states like Tamil Nadu to work as daily-wage labourers to provide for their families,” Sori continued. According to him, the pandemic has resulted in many more students abandoning their studies.

Struggle for education in Koyalibeda

About 50 km from Kanker, another village amidst the dense forests of Bastar, Koyalibeda, too lacks proper education infrastructure. For more than a decade, people in Koyalibeda have been protesting the deplorable condition of education facilities in their block. Villagers state that in the 18 panchayats of Koyalibeda, the enrolled population of students is about 50,000. There are only 94 primary schools, 24 middle schools, two secondary schools (out of which one does not have a building), six high schools and not a single college.

The appointed teachers do not have a subject-wise focus. There is no faculty for physical training and there are no playgrounds or sports equipment for students. There are no laboratories, libraries or computer rooms. There are no facilities for pure drinking water, toilets or treatment of sick children. The shift to online education has been unsuccessful because of poor network coverage and the lack of devices.

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Activists in the region allege that many tribal students are being denied secondary or higher education simply because they are not able to obtain Scheduled Tribe and residence certificates. According to a local survey conducted by Adivasi activists, more than 3,000 children have dropped out of school in Koyalibeda block alone during the pandemic.

“We do not want online education, because there are no coronavirs cases in our village. Adivasi villagers cannot afford smartphones and computers to support their children’s online education, that’s why we request the government to start education with a local teacher so that teachers don’t need to go out of the village. This will reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Sahdev Usendi, an Adivasi activist from Koyalibeda, told The Wire.

Usendi added, “The administration has no proper data because they never tried to know the condition at the ground level, but as social workers, we know that many have dropped out.”

The Nilegondi gotul. Photo: Shubham Tigga

The villagers have several other demands, like increasing the midday meal allowance from Rs 4 to Rs 20, providing Scheduled Tribe certificates from the gram sabha, classes in mother tongues and adding the history of Bastar to the syllabus.

The crores of funds released under various schemes for education by the Chhattisgarh government have not benefited students in the area. Lakshman Kawde, the district education officer of Kanker, told The Wire that no government funds have been allocated specifically for the ‘Padhai Tuhar Duar’ scheme and no separate funds had come for online education in the block. These schemes are running on the DMF (District Mineral Foundation) fund. In Koyalibeda and other places, teacher recruitment is currently ongoing to overcome the shortage of teachers and the government has banned transfers for two years.

Usendi, however, argued, “The administration is talking about two years, the problems with education in Koyalibeda have been going on for more than 10 years. The fight for education will continue, we will take our right to education.”

The state of Chhattisgarh has been infamous for the Naxal insurgency, and this is the main reason cited for the fact that development has taken a backseat in Adivasi-dominant areas. Yet, when it comes to educating children, the failures on part of the district administration are not taken into account.

The conflict too has a role to play in the high dropout rate. In addition to safety concerns, wrongful incarceration – of students themselves or their parents – leads to many having to abandon their studies.

For instance, in 2013, Maoists carried out a bomb blast near Kanagaon. Soon Lakmu Usendi, the father of three children and a farmer from Nilegondi village, was picked up and falsely incarcerated for two years. Usendi’s youngest son Anil was among the attendees of the mohalla class in gotul, while the other two children go to schools away from their village. Usendi told The Wire that after being found innocent, he was compensated with only Rs 10,000, though it had been extremely difficult for his wife to make a living without him.

Saggu Salam. Photo: Shubham Tigga

Saggu Salam, who too was falsely incarcerated and later acquitted in the 2013 blast case, was studying in class 11 when he was arrested. “I was sick and had come home after taking leave. Suddenly more than 100 people barged into my house and took me away. They hit me without any explanation. When the principal tried to advocate for me, he too was threatened,” Salam told The Wire. “After two years, when I came back, I got Rs 10,000 compensation but after that I did not get admission in any school. So I stopped studying and went to work in Tamil Nadu as a tunnel labourer.”

In an area where access to education was difficult to begin with, the switch to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic has dealt another severe blow. As activists hope that schools will be repaired and reopened soon, children continue to lose out on important days of education.

Shubham Tigga is a Chhattisgarh-based independent journalist reporting on the issues related to Adivasi communities in the state. The story was reported under the National Foundation for India fellowship for Independent Journalists.