A School By the Forest Is Transforming Tribal Lives in Jharkhand's Latehar

"The biggest weapon for change is education. It is education that will strengthen tribes both economically and socially," said Krishna Kumar Ram, who is known in Uchwawal as the ‘forest teacher’.

Uchwawal (Jharkhand): Amid hills flanked by lush green forests lies the village of Uchwawal in Latehar, mostly inhabited by the Parahiya tribes, one of the 12 government-recognised ‘primitive tribal groups’ in Jharkhand. As day breaks, a group of children makes its way to the edge of the forest that surrounds the village to start their morning classes.

“The biggest weapon for change is education. It is education that will strengthen tribes both economically and socially,” said Krishna Kumar Ram, a Dalit resident of Uchwawal who is known locally as the ‘forest teacher’.

Kumar is a para-teacher at Utkarn Prathmik Vidyalaya Uchhawal, a local primary school in the area. He has been teaching children and motivating parents for the past 15 years, and has convinced several families in the area to enrol their children in schools. The government-aided school, which is run by Kumar and another teacher, two cooks who prepare mid-day meals and his wife, Lilawati Devi, now has over 60 students.

Despite India having one of the largest tribal populations in the world, Adivasi communities in states such as Jharkhand continue to be vulnerable across key sectors such as security, food safety, healthcare and, perhaps most importantly, education.

“Teaching was not easy at all in the beginning. Earlier I used to be scared to pass through the forests to go to school because of armed men,” said Kumar. However, “The situations is much better now.”

The primary school was established as part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and later legally reinforced by the Right to Education Act 2010, which makes elementary education for children between the ages of 6 to 14 free and compulsory as a fundamental right.

“According to the circular, there should be a primary school within one kilometre of every village,” said Kumar. “The government implements many schemes but one has to be aware of them to be able to avail them.  For locals with no access to information, that’s often impossible.”

Kumar, who is from the village himself, said that when he graduated from college, most people in the village were uneducated. “In Uchwawal, even the sight of a motorbike was rare at that time. Such was the situation of this village,” he said.

The school by the forest.

The school by the forest.

When he was appointed as a teacher in 2003, there was hardly any awareness about education among the villagers. So the first part of Kumar’s job became informing locals about the importance of education and convincing them to send their kids to school every day.

“I would go door to door, talk to families and get hold of the children. There wasn’t even a school, I was teaching in someone’s house who was given Rs 1,000 by the government for volunteering,” Kumar said. While the initial response to Kumar’s mission was not overwhelming, he managed to get some 20 children by the end of one year. “The school was finally established in 2004,” Kumar told The Wire.

The tutor’s efforts have, over the years, borne fruit. Kumar’s student Anu Kumari became the first person in Uchwawal to clear the matriculation examination in 2018, which was conducted by the Jharkhand Academic Council. “Women’s education is a different problem altogether. It took me a while to convince Anu’s father to let her study for as long as possible.”

When Anu was done with primary education, Kumar had her enrolled in the nearest local girls’ high school. “In 2005, I got to know about the Kasturba Awasi Vidyalaya in Manika. This school was admitting children who came from underprivileged backgrounds and I ensured her admission,” he added. None of the girls from the village had ever appeared for the board examinations before, though some boys had tried and failed.

Apart from Anu, 12 of Kumar’s ex-students are currently studying in the same local girls’ high school, and he helped them all get in, often at great personal cost. According to people in the area, Kumar has offered not only moral and intellectual support, but even financial assistance. “Women’s education is very crucial, this has always been my primary focus,” Kumar told The Wire.

Krishna Kumar and Lilawati Devi.

Krishna Kumar and Lilawati Devi.

Lilawati Devi, Kumar’s wife, plays an important part in the village’s education system. When the anganwadi scheme was launched, she began working on the idea, at a time when Uchwawal had no anganwadi establishments. She looks after children up to five years of age and ensures they stay in the education system. Kumar goes on to teach them till the age of 12 (about class five), the grade limit of his school. The children’s – and well as their parents’ – encounter with the education system in the village begins and ends with their experiences with this couple, and everyone knows them well and trusts them.

Together with the help of two cooks, the couple ensures the daily implementation of mid-day meals, an important incentive for enrolment in backward areas.

The couple, who are both members of Scheduled Castes, have also forged a rare example of inter-caste amity. Lilawati believes that such prejudices do not stem from the children themselves and that these issues need to be addressed at a deeper level. “Educating parents, especially mothers, is the first step to progress. If mothers and fathers are educated, children will be healthy and educated. And through my work, I try to make these them aware of their own rights and duties,” Lilawati said.

The anganwadi sevika also provides women with basic health education and ensures optimum assistance to pregnant women so that they have a safe delivery.

There are 68,000 trained and untrained para-teachers in Jharkhand, recruited on an ad-hoc basis for teaching in schools and alternative learning centres. Eight-eight percent of schools in Jharkhand are government-run – most of them the scale of Kumar’s Utkarn Prathmik Vidyalaya. Sixty percent of primary schools in the state have a total of two classrooms and in the district that Uchwawal is situated in (Latehar),only 6.7% of schools that are primary or have a primary segment are electrified. Dropout rates at class V and beyond increase, and along with the fact that only 10% of Jharkhand’s schools offer secondary and senior secondary education, the path to a complete education has several obstacles.

“It is not possible for one person to change the system. But does that lower my commitment towards society? I don’t think so. The poverty that I have seen in my family and in my village is what made me choose teaching as a profession, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life,” Kumar said.

All photos by Shibangi Sinha Roy.