Notes from Mayurbhanj

This is the way we go to school–II
Parimal Bhattacharya

The three-roomed building of Pungichua new primary school is yet to be completed. Three classes share a single room, mid-day meal is cooked in another, while the third room stores bamboo, wooden planks and other masonry materials. Kanai Charan Singh, the teacher, keeps his motorbike there. Kanai Charan, 57, is from Bhumij tribe and commutes from Kalamgadia. An overturned drum acts as a table upon which he keeps the attendance registers. He consults them to give us the data. Class I-28, class II-12 and class III-37: altogether 77 pupils. Forty-one of them are girls and, what is more remarkable, 38 children are from Tendu. Ramrai, our language teacher, asks the boys and girls from Tendu to raise their arms, and it is apparent that the enmity between the two hamlets over the location of the school has become a thing of the past: pupils from Pungichua and Tendu sit together. Pradeep takes out his camera and captures the moment: a boy from Pungichua holding aloft the arm of his mate from Tendu. Both smile jubilantly and their teeth glisten.

The boy from Tendu is Mathai Singh. He has curly hair, bright beady eyes and he studies in class II. Every morning, he treks two kilometers through the forest to come to school. On the way, he has to cross the stream that passes between the two hamlets and swells during the monsoon months. But Mathai, as well as many others from Tendu, never fails to show up at school as long as the water is waste-deep, wading through it with his books and clothes over his head. But that is nothing. If he doesn't come to school, he will have to guard his father's tiny patch of forest land against animals. Moreover, the school offers tikin mandijom, though not very regularly. After the meal, he has to walk another kilometer and back to wash hands and drink water.

Listening to Mathai, I seem to get a new perspective on the question Pradeep had asked at Hudisahi, the question we have been chasing all these days : Why do they come to school at all?

Kanai Charan does not know when this water problem will be solved - perhaps not before he retires from service. The panchayat department would not transport the machinery for a tubewell until the bridge is built over the stream. In fact, the school building is yet to be completed but the building materials have been dumped and are lying near the stream. Kanai Charan does not have the resources to carry them here. Also, masons from outside are reluctant to come in this jungle as two of them died of cerebral malaria while working here. Ensuring steady supply of midday-meal rice and provisions from Kalamgadia is also a big problem, he tells us, his face etched with lines of anxiety and despair.

Kanai Charan is so overcome with the hardware of education that he has no time for pondering over the software. Here he is confronted with teaching children of three grades together, a situation that his training has not prepared him for. Neither does he have the energy to innovate at the fag end of his teaching career. Over the years, he has evolved a coping strategies of huddling the children, keeping them busy with writing work, and using punishment to maintain discipline. It goes without saying that learning becomes a casualty in the process.

We find them sitting listlessly on the floor, trying to read and memorize something from torn, dog-eared books, or copying alphabets on pieces of slate. A couple of small children, siblings of the pupils, sleep in a corner of the room. They wake up when the midday meal is ready (rice and soya nuggets curry on the day we visited), or when Ramrai tells a rhyme or lore in their language. The school bags, made out of cement sacks, are strewn on the floor: soiled, crumbling text books and steel plates peep out of them. The class II primer has sketches of flora, fauna and objects including apple, aeroplane and their names written in Odia. But Mathai and his friends fail to identify most of them. Does anyone in Tendu eat apple? Is this area under the flight path of an aeroplane? What do they call an aeroplane in Ho? Does Mathai know the name of our country?

I ask it through Ramrai, who translates it for me. Mathai looks at us timorously for some moments, looks at his friends, his bright beady eyes turn blank.

'Sukhuapatta Pahar,' he replies at last.

Every morning, at around 10.30, as we traveled from Nuasahi to Sikshasandhan's project area in Kalamgadia, we passed on the way several men wearing sky blue shirts, navy blue trousers and riding motorbikes. They were the teachers, coming from Balasore, Bhadrak or other towns. A recent government directive has made it mandatory for school teachers in Odisha to wear uniforms—blue shirts and trousers for men, pink saris for women. I got to know several of them since we visited their schools. We exchanged greetings as we crossed one another on the way. One of them was Amalendu Behera (name changed), a young man with a chiseled face and a vermilion tilak on his forehead, who came to his school everyday from Balasore, more than 50 kilometers away. He burned Rs 140 worth of petrol daily, twice the amount an average family earns here per day. When I pointed this out, Amalendu rued the fact that he had mistakenly entered Mayurbhanj instead of Balasore in the preferred choice of district in his application form. He was preparing to sit in the recruitment examination again. But perhaps Amalendu was misstating the fact. Most of the young teachers we met were from more developed coastal districts and belonged to the upper castes. They opted for these remote places because there was less competition here. It was pointless to ask them why they did not prefer to stay near their schools.

So, the network of metalled Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana roads facilitates in these remote tribal areas the daily import of a precious commodity: education. The few things that are exported are cheaper and lighter in comparison: sal-leaf plates and seasonal labour. But that is another story. Fact is, an unbridgeable gulf separates these teachers from the pupils they teach, from the respective communities they come from. In Kalamgadia and Noto gram panchayats, Sikshasandhan has introduced a commendable innovation by appointing language teachers from the local community, who acts as a bridge between the teachers and the taught, between a pedagogy that is framed in distant urban centers and the indigenous knowledge base.

Sikshasandhan is also generating learning materials that are in tune with local needs. This is another crucial area because the boundaries between the pedagogy and community knowledge are rigidly drawn here, and the textbook serves as the only source of 'legitimate knowledge'. Teachers never relate to the knowledge base of the children.

But knowledge knows no boundaries: outside the narrow, definitive domain of the textbook, often inscribed in a language the child doesn't understand, it thrives and self-generates in multiple forms here. In the remote forest regions of Mayurbhanj, a school-going child is a miniature adult—she is treated by her family and society as such. She knows most life-sustaining skills, including a sound knowledge of her natural surroundings, and has already imbibed a number of community values. But unfortunately, she leaves all these intellectual acquisitions outside when she enters the classroom, like the plastic sandals she sometimes wears. Her cognition, sharpened by living in close harmony with nature, goes to sleep like her younger sibling on the classroom floor. Her school gets only a mute shadow of her. As we toured the forest villages and visited dozens of schools in session, I was surprised by the eery silence that prevailed—so different from usual urban schools, where one can hear the cacophony of chirpy children from a distance. I knew many of these children suffered from malnutrition, but surely that was not the only reason for their listlessness. A few dozen children of different age groups often shared a single classroom, and yet there was no racket : they looked so timid and enervated. One could hear the chirping of birds and rustle of leaves outside the classrooms. The forest and fields throbbed with life and activity under a warm, dazzling November sun. It was impossible not to recall the million dollar question :
Why do the children come to school at all?

Pradeep, a skilled illustrator, had shown me a cartoon titled 'The Paradox of RTE Act'. The government—personified in a bald, fat man in black suit—is holding aloft a cage called EDUCATION and chasing a group of children who are running away into the forest.

And what a gilded cage it is. As one travels along the silken new PMGSY roads winding through the forest of tall sal and mohua trees, the pucca school buildings spring starkly into view. Most of them have received a new coat of pink paint, with large painted grandfather clocks frozen at 10:30 (the school starting time), painted height scales (six feet high - in an area where the Body Mass Index of more than half the pupils is below the standard measure), and a prominently displayed Student Helpline e-mail address ( in an area without electricity and computers). The teachers, too, are dressed in regulation uniforms. These are the visible symbols of a government intent on implementing the new act, only the cold, uniform aspects of the buildings and the bureaucratized hieroglyphs they display make the schools indistinguishable from health centres, police stations or other state facilities. Their ambience is also so different from the home and the world the tribal children in the forest villages of Mayurbhanj inhabit. Just as the authoritative pedagogy has no space for the indigenous knowledge the children imbibe from their community, the lived reality of the latter eludes the mechanical grid of the school system.

Pradeep shared tidbits from his experience of making a photo documentation of nearly 1,500 school children in the panchayats where Sikshasandhan is working. Thus, many pupils were found to have been enrolled under names they themselves did not know.

'It is puzzling but common,' he said, smiling. 'For example, I would find Asman Kisku enrolled in class III but would fail to locate him for a whole week, in school or in the village. Nobody had ever heard of Asman. Then I would run into a boy named Bagun who is in class III but whose name is not in the school register. It took some time to discover that Asman and Bagun are the same boy. He had spent his pre-school years at his mother's place where he was called Bagun. During the time of admission, his father had given him the name Asman and then forgot about it.
Sometimes he found the same pupil appearing before the camera against two names in two different classes. On enquiry, it turned out that the child was innocently appearing as a proxy for an elder sibling who had stopped coming to school long time ago.

'Parents sometimes come to schools with the demand to change the surnames of their children,' Amar added. 'For example, someone with the surname Tiu appears one day to say that he doesn't like it and henceforth wants to be called Singh.'

What is in a name? At a place where a BPL card or a government welfare scheme is as elusive as a moonbeam, there is nothing in it. Nandan Nilekani and his grand scheme of Unique Identification Number for every Indian citizen belong to a different planet.

'You go to a school here and ask a pupil his date of birth. None of them knows it. In fact, none of the parents knows it. The teachers put arbitrary dates during the time of admission.'

What is in a date? At a place where the chance of a new-born surviving the first year of life is 'fifty-fifty', where a high percentage of births take place at home and the percentage of neo-natal immunization is in single digit, there is nothing in it. Chalta hai. Recently, according to newspaper reports, India's prime minister Manmohon Singh is said to have confessed with characteristic modesty that he doesn't know his exact date of birth.

In the remote tribal settlements of Mayurbhanj, a child's date of birth is as misty as a country called Sukhuapatta Pahar.

In a country called Sukhuapatta Pahar, people grow or collect from forests most of the things they need and make do with very little from outside. It is evident in the village haats that take place once or twice a week. But we also saw tiny temporary markets coming about on the wayside late in the afternoon in the middle of the forest. There would be one or two peddlers with spices, dried fish or gutkha - their ware easily transportable upon carriers of bicycles—and, invariably, a knot of men gathered around a woman selling handia from a large aluminum pot. Handia: the common man's drink in the tribal region is also a part of the staple diet. People ferment it at home and even carry it in the fields. We have seen families working at harvest gathered under the shade of an acacia tree during lunch break and drinking the white soupy liquor in sal-leaf bowls; it is nourshing and perhaps slightly soporific. Rice is the main ingredient, and BPL rice at two rupees a kilo has made handia a commodity that one can sell for profit. Tales are rife in the tribal settlements of how some people have become rich by brewing and selling handia. The temptation is too high and Yamuna Samad told us the story of a language teacher, a woman, who taught at school during the day and sold handia in the afternoon. She needed some persuasion to give up the practice.

No, handia isn't brewed and consumed at Yamuna's house. Like her, her husband is an educated social worker and they converse at home in Odia, alongside Ho. Her four-year old boy understands the language and can even speak it. Yamuna has plans of sending him to a good hostel school, preferably in Bhubaneswar where she has contacts. A generation earlier, a woman like Yamuna would probably have converted to Christianity. A Baptist mission has been working in the region for more than half a century. But Yamuna knows about the bouquet of schemes and facilities that government has on offer for the uplift of the tribal people. Working with an organization like Sikshasandhan has given her the confidence and resourcefulness to avail them.

One can detect a village haat from a mile away by the string of wayside handia stalls, separated from each other by about twenty steps. The idea is to rip off the last paisa from the homebound tribal man, who would stop at every stall on his way home for a quick swig, and would perhaps sleep away the evening upon a culvert. But the way to the big, weekly haat at Sarat is strewn with stalls selling more potent stuff: hooch in plastic pouches. Ear-splitting film songs are belted out of teashops, and a bunch of boys from the local intermediate college are drawn to the large posters of recent releases from Bollywood. They are rather nattily dressed and some of them flash mobile phones; some have even spiked up their hair with gel. With customers like them in mind, a couple of book stalls have come up; they sell made-easys, guide books for competitive examinations and Odia soft porn. There are also the usual stalls of vegetables, grains, yeast balls (for fermenting handia), cheap fabric, recycled plastic goods, cosmetics of fake brands, coloured soft drinks, fluorescent sweetmeats, posters of filmstars and packaged consumer goodies. Dusty, sweaty press of humanity squeeze along the winding spaces where urban meets the rural, mainstream meets the margins in myriad garish, loud, vicious ways. Presiding over this disorder is a newly-built high-tech police station with barbed wire and sniper portholes, on the look out for a grim future.

This is the outside world making inroads into the tribal hinterland of Simlipal. A world that has taken away Purmi Singh's matriculate son and many others like him. Education here is like a double-edged knife that cuts both ways: it either remains alien and forces the child to drop out of school, or alienates him from his community and society. He is often forced to make a choice early on, between his own world and that of the school. I interviewed a Class IV boy from Dolipada PUP hostel school, the brightest in his class, who does not like to go home during holidays.

'Why?' I had asked, surprised. 'Don't you have your family there?'

'Yes, but I don't find a suitable playmate in my village,' he said peevishly. 'All are patho-poribana pila.'

Patho-poribana pila—boys who do not study. The boy dreams of studying science, becoming an engineer and landing a job in a big city like Bhubaneswar.

This is a universal story that gets a sharper edge deep in the forested setting of Mayurbhanj. Why should it always be like this? To search for an answer, we go to Surai Hembram who lives a stone's throw away from the marketplace of Sarat.

Surai Hembram, 65, is a respected Santal leader who did a lot of work for the spread of education in the area. He has been sarpanch for a long time and is still an active member of several welfare committees. When we went to his tiled mud house, Surai was harvesting paddy in his small plot of land and came back to meet us.

'This is a problem whose answer I don't know,' Surai said with disarming candour. 'But this is a fact that those who go forward in our community never look back. They don't even return home during the annual festivals. They come reluctantly when there is a wedding or death in the family, but doesn't like to bring along their children. It takes one generation for the community ties to snap forever.'

'That means the community doesn't gain anything from their prosperity and, at the end of the day, it is education that happens to be the culprit. Isn't it?' I asked him.

'Yes, and this is all the more painful because, unlike in urban caste societies, tribals cannot normally dream of a life without the community. The highest form of punishment one can think of is excommunication from it. But all that is changing, and changing fast.'

We sat in the thatched verandah of his cottage, upon charpoys. On the mud-plastered courtyard, a fleck of hens pecked around an extinguished hearth. The call of a rooster, the groan of a well's pulley, the swish of paddy being threshed resolved into the music of a somnolent afternoon.

'Education should make a tribal child proud of his own identity and culture,' Surai continued. 'Not alienate him from it. Textbooks should be written that way, and possibly in his language. But teachers, too, have a role here. Almost all the teachers are from outside, they know nothing of our culture and customs. That can't be helped, but there is a remedy.'
"What is that?' I asked.
'Teachers, too, should study alongside their students. The students should study with their eyes and hands, the teachers with their ears.'

Surai looked at my perplexed face and explained:
'The students should learn reading and writing, the teachers should learn about the community and culture by listening to the people. They should sit with the pupils and eat the midday meal. They come from outside, and where can you buy food in the village? Also, that way they will ensure the quality of food that is served. But they should also take part in community meetings, give their advice during salisi. That way they can work as a bridge.'

I mentioned the role Sikshasandhan is playing in this regard by appointing language teachers from the community.

'Yes, that is a good step and it is beginning to show results. But you need a lot of time and patience to make an impact. When we set up the high school here at Sarat, there were very few students for the first 4-5 years. We toured the whole panchayat and pleaded with the people. Now they have turned down applicants. But NGOs often cannot afford to spend so much time and abandon a programme mid way, before it can show results. They have their constraints, I know, as they have to depend on funding agencies. But when you are dealing with education, you need time and patience. If things are like this so many years after independence, you cannot change it overnight.'

'You have been actively involved with this field for so many years, and have seen things from up close. Have things really changed? Are you optimistic about the future?' I asked him. That was my last question.

Surai Hembram looked into the distance, at a mound of golden paddy awash in late afternoon sun. A young goatherd was taking his flock back into the village.

'Yes, things have changed, and changed for the better,' he finally said, intoning every word. 'But very slowly, not at the desired pace.'
He remained silent for a long moment and then lapsed into nostalgia.

'You have already visited Noto and have seen how backward the place is. Forty years ago, there was not a single literate person in the whole panchayat. People would come to me here, walking 14 kilometers through rocky forest path, for a letter to be read. I used to have a fixed day in the week—Tuesday it was—when I would remain at home to read and write letters for the people of Noto. Now they don't need to come. That is the change.'

Yes, things are improving, but not at the desired rate. Since the time of independence, India has inched forward in most human indices, including literacy and education. But during the last two decades, we have fallen behind most of our smaller and poorer South Asian neighbours. One of the many reasons for the success of a country like Bangladesh in this regard, according to Amrtya Sen, is the role the NGOs are playing there1. India now runs the world's most ambitious mid-day meal programme to feed cooked meal to 25 crore school children every day. The enrolment, too, has increased dramatically during the last few years. But a large percentage of students drop out before they finish high school. The positive signs are counterbalanced by the gloomy scenario in the remote tribal pockets across the country. Here, each success story has a seamy side, each rosy face a dark underbelly.

Every morning, as we left Sikshasandhan's project office at Nuasahi and entered the forest villages, we had to cross the moribund Sunei river. It was once an important tributary of Baitarani that nourished this part of the Simlipal range, until a dam came up in the 1970s. And, like all dams, it flooded large tracts of tribal land and irrigated fields in distant Kaptipada belonging to caste Hindu landowners. A large number of people were displaced, few of them were rehabilitated in a pensive tin-roofed colony, most migrated to distant mines and collieries. Some, the most hapless of them all, clung on to the edges of forest villages like human detritus. Shankar Dehuri, 55, is one of them.

We met Shankar and his family on the way to Dolipada village in Ramchandrapur GP. The family of five lives in a tiny hovel by the wayside, where a green Forest Department signboard says that this is an elephant corridor. Shankar doesn't own a piece of land. When he was displaced from his village nearly three decades ago, he received Rs 12 thousand as compensation. That money had long been spent and Shankar has not been able to turn around his luck. Now he and his son Laxmi, 25, work as landless daily labourers. They go to work in the irrigated fields at Kaptipada during season; otherwise they break stones in the quarry at Sukhuapatta hills. Their wives collect sal leaves from the forest and make plates. Their life follows the universal pattern of destitution, but there is a twist in the tale. Shankar, the father, can read and write while Laxmi, the son, is an illiterate. The village where Shankar lived had a school where he had studied up to class V. But when they were displaced and came here, there was no school around. Things have changed since then. Now there is a school at Dolipada and Laxmi's 7-year-old son studies there.

Things are changing, but very slowly —Surai Hembram had said. This is the story behind the slowness, the story of a missing generation, of moving two steps forward and one step backward.

As we took leave of Shankar, his whole family was out in the courtyard soaking in the last warmth of a dying sun. His daughter-in-law was drawing floral patterns upon the mud walls with lime, his wife was cutting some herbs she had collected from the jungle and preparing the dinner, while Laxmi was mending the fencing of the tiny homestead land that did not belong to them. His son clung on to his grandfather and watched us keenly, his thumb thrust into his mouth. The only luxury item the family seemed to possess was a radio, with a cycle wheel for an aerial perched atop the straw roof.

The way out of Dolipada passes through an outcrop of rocks with tall imposing monoliths covered with wild creepers. One day, when all the stones from Sukhuapatta hills have been queried, perhaps Laxmi will come here to break these, to gouge out their dark Paleozoic flesh that will become the muscles of 21st century India. But for now, these monoliths stand like some insurmountable riddles under the lengthening shadows. We turn a bend, and soon the jungle gives way to terraced fields cut into the slopes: cropped brown earth interspersed with patches of yellow flowering mustard. A picture-perfect tribal couple, man and wife, returning briskly with loads of golden paddy upon their heads. A jet black cock flashes across the road, expertly dodging the wheels of the speeding motorbike, and a tiny hamlet jumps into view: a knot of neat mud huts, a lotus-bloomed pond, a council of rough wooden benches under a huge tamarind tree. Scenes handcrafted by people living here for generations, displaying ingenuity and a sustainable lifestyle that can be a model for the future, and yet condemned to a life of penury.

But some of the most precious things that they have are not visible to the eyes. Sangho, for example. Each tribal hamlet here has a sangho, a form of association, and all the adult men and women are automatically its members. Sangho sits in council once a week, where community jobs are discussed, planned and assigned. One has to pay a fine to the sangho if he or she fails to attend a meeting or carry out a work. The work ranges from clearing and harvesting fields to constructing houses. The concept of hiring labour for private purposes is nonexistent here, so everyone needs the labour of the community in times of need. Sangho also decides and carries out work related to village welfare. This is one of the finest democratic institutions that has evolved over generations without any external mediation or interference, like the traditional panchayat, and is still functioning. Unfortunately, government and other agencies hardly give it due notice, or work to empower and broaden its base. How excellent it would be, if School Management Committee and similar micro-level statutory bodies can work from within the sangho, rather than working in parallel. On an earlier visit to other parts of Odisha, I had seen how community forest management committees have evolved through indigenous village-level institutions, and are doing excellent and innovative conservation work. If forests can be protected and regenerated, then why not education?

These thoughts flit through my mind as we speed along and leave behind the project area for the last time. The winter sun has dipped early behind a line of low hills, and a thin layer of mist hangs over the settlements. A fragrant vapour rises from the ochre soil as life collapses around the brown hutments adorned with blue ribbons of smoke. A sudden yearning wells up within me for the sights and sounds that I have grown accustomed to for the past one week: so much beauty, and yet...

At the end of the village, upon a forest clearing, we come across a group of about a dozen people: men, women, children and even pet dogs. Abject and bedraggled, they have set up a temporary home under open skies. Women are preparing food in chulas, while children have turned in upon crude hammocks hung from the branches of trees. They are the dhua sunaris—we learn—the tribe of gold washers who, until a generation ago, used to extract bits of the precious metal from the bed of Baitarani. The river has waned, but the craft still runs in their blood. They now repair ironware of tribal households and forge rings and talisman out of disused coins. They migrate from village to village during these months of harvest, when even the poor people have some money in their pockets. In the thickening shadows, the dhua sunari men showed us their simple age-old implements. They are from Raijharan in Angul district.

Here, even the poorest of the poor have their poorer counterpart, the seamy side of a story has an even seamier subplot. The tale of dam-displaced Shankar Dehuri seemed to me to be the most harrowing, until I met the dhua sunaris. At least Shankar and his family have a roof over their heads, and a fixed address, while this group of people will spend the freezing forest night under open skies. The last pink glow is fast fading from the western horizon, it will soon be dark. Before the tin shed of Hatsahi school, that also doubles as an atta-chakki, a knot of men have lit a fire.

When we finally leave the forest behind and come to the trickling Sunei, the mist has cleared and countless stars have appeared in the sky. It is a new moon night. Looking up at the vast, bottomless; vault shimmering with the astral bodies, I am struck by awe. How terrifying it must be if one has to view them from a hammock in the middle of the forest. But for an educated person, they are constellations: intelligible configurations with names, that have guided sailors and diviners for ages. I hope Yamuna's son will grow up to look at them that way; and Shankar Dehuri's grandson too, if he doesn't join his father at the stone quarry. I hope the bridge at Pungichua will be completed before this monsoon so that Mathai Singh can go to school; and a tubewell will finally be installed at Rugdi NPS; and an anganwadi center will come up at Hudisahi, so that the pupils do not have younger siblings inside the classroom, hungry and sleeping. I hope the newly-built sloping ramps in school buildings will be used by handicapped children, like the one in Birsa's village, and not by teachers for parking their motorbikes. I hope Sikshasandhan will adopt more gram panchayats and introduce more innovative programmes. I hope elite seminars on elementary education will concentrate less on misty theories and numbing statistics, and more on elementary matters - like how to divide a midday meal egg between a school-going kid and her younger sibling at a place where there is no anganwadi center.

As we cross Sunei and move towards Nuasahi, we hear a deep rhythmic thumping emanating from a village. This is a settlement of caste Hindus and the arati is on at a temple of Lord Jagannath. But for a moment I mistake it for a tribal drum transmitting an anxious message: under a silent star-studded sky, it sounds like the beating heart of a country within a country.

References :
1.    Status of Elementary Education in Noto Gram Panchayet, Kaptipada, Odisha : A Baseline Analysis, Sikshasandhan 2011.
2.   Asian Tribune, 26 September, 2011.


Vol. 45, No. 19, Nov 18-24, 2012

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