Notes from Mayurbhanj

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

Sometime in May 2011, i received an e-mail from Dr Jatindra Nayak, the chairman of Sikshasandhan. It was a proposal. He asked me if I would be interested in spending a week in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, where Sikshasandhan has been working in the field of elementary education among the tribal people, and write a report. I had met Dr Nayak on an earlier visit to Odisha, when I went to Niyamgiri hills to research a book on bauxite mining and its impact on Dongria Konds. The support that he, and Siksha-sandhan's secretary Anil Pradhan, extended on that trip had been invaluable. So it was gratitude on my part, mixed with an appetite for travel, that made me ponder over the proposal. But I was apprehensive: I had no idea about the terrain and the people. More-over, 1 am not an expert on the subject. My interest in elementary education amounts to a book I have written on the scenario in West Bengal, and occasional contribution to the print media on the topic. But my doubts were tempered by reassuring words from Dr Nayak and Anil, and perhaps a streak of temerity in me, and one balmy November evening I landed up at Sikshasandhan's project office in Nuasahi, Mauyrbhanj.

The one week that I spent there, I traveled around 600 kilometers on the pillion of a motorbike, visited around 20 villages spread across three gram panchayats, inspected the schools there, and talked to villagers, teachers and children. At the end, all that have remained with me are some images—words, sounds, spectacles, smells—as ineffable as the light on the eyes of a little Kolho boy who treks two kilometers of rocky forest path everyday to go to school. As I try to pin those images on paper, they seem to turn into a blur, like the shapes flying across the motorbike's rearview mirror upon which was written:


Yes, the sights, sounds and the twinkle on the eyes have got closer and closer till they have seeped into me, and have begun to whisper with one another in the recesses of my memory. They are like grains falling in a golden shower through a winnower's fingers. When I went there it was harvest time, and I have seen men and women winnowing the grains. Here is a handful of that harvest.

I am grateful to Pradeep Sar for leading me on, literally and figuratively, and also for showering me with wisdom and insight. I am also indebted to Pitambar Sankhua, Bhrugu Rath and Amar Ranjan Bhoy for their unwavering assistance. All the field assistants and language teachers of Sikshasandhan in the gram panchayats of Kalamgadia, Noto and Ramchandrapur have extended co-operation, and I must particularly mention Birsa Singh and Yamuna Samad for their keen enthusiasm. I am indebted to them all.

'Even the anganwadi children come here,' Amar informs us.

'You mean the anganwadi kitchen is run from here? Inside the school premises?' I ask.

'No no,' Amar protests. 'There is no anganwadi centre here. The kids aren't given food or anything. They just come along with their older siblings. They come because they know this is a school.'

A school. Hudisahi New Primary School is a bare brick-and-concrete shell in the middle of a forest clearing. There are two classrooms and a kitchen. The rooms have no doors and windows, no paved floors, not even a blackboard. A lone charpoy stands in a corner of one of the classrooms; the other has dug-up floor that resembles a pigsty—the little kids sit and play here. This being a Saturday, classes have given over early. But the scattered cinders on the kitchen floor tell us that a fire had last been lit quite a few days ago. The mid-day meal is not being served since last Tuesday, we gather later, because the quota of rice has not been dispatched on time from the panchayat office at Noto, a few kilometers away. This is a routine affair.

'But still the village kids come to school,' Birsa Biroli, the field assistant from Sikshasandhan, tells us. ‘Our language teacher brings them here every morning. There are two regular teachers, but they are very irregular. They commute from Baleswar, which is 70 kilometers away.’

So, here is a school without regular teachers, midday meal, teaching aids, blackboards or anything. It came up three years ago, and has been like this ever since. Meanwhile, the country has passed a historic law, Right to Education Act 2009, that makes it the responsibility of the state to ensure that every child between 6 and 14 years of age goes to school. We enter the rooms, dark even in the middle of the day because of the bare unpainted walls, and look around. There is no regulation boundary wall and no toilet facility. The nearest source of drinking water is half a kilometer away. We have been witnessing similar tales during the last few days, in the four gram panchayats where Sikshasandhan has been working.

"How do you persuade the villagers to send their wards to school? What do you tell them?' I ask Birsa.

Birsa searches for words :

'Well, I tell them about the importance of education, about the Right to Education Act, about...'

'But they don't need much persuasion,' Amar cuts in. 'The kids just come to school. Even the little ones, who should be going to the anganwadi.'

Amar Ranjan Bhoy, Sikshasandhan field staff at Nuasahi project office, has expressly brought us here to prove a point: that children do not need much persuasion to be brought to school, even if that means a school like this. We stand in semidarkness and look out through the windowless holes. Outside, a brilliant winter afternoon buzzes among the trees: birds chirp, leaves murmur, goats bleat in the distance. The eyes, blinded by the light, require a couple of seconds to refocus on the alphabets that children have scrawled on brick walls with bits of clay. Suddenly, the absurdity of it all strikes me. Pradip Sar, my traveling companion here who has been working for Sikshasandhan on an assignment, caps this sense of absurdity with a remark :

'You see, I think we should stop looking for ways to bring children to school,' he says gravely. 'I think we should rather search out why do they come to school at all!'

There is a moment of silence and then we—Amar, Birsa and I—burst into laughter. Pradip watches us for a perplexed moment and then joins in. Our guffaw echoes in the bare room and flutters out into the forest. It is a kind of laughter that doesn't bring any relief or joy, but rather a deep sense of unease.

Why do the children come to school at all?

At a place where school means a dark bare brick shell in the middle of nowhere, without drinking water or regular mid-day meal, where government-appointed teachers are habitually absent and speak a different tongue, this is a question that cries out for an answer.

The one week that I spent at Mauyrbhanj in Odisha, touring three gram panchayats in Kaptipada block where Sikshasandhan has been working for universalisation of elementary education among tribal children through various innovative programmes, I chased this question.

And yet this question is only one half of the story. I saw the other half as I traveled from one tribal hamlet to another in Simlipal forest range, riding the pillion of a motorbike, and saw hundreds of boys and girls - aged between 6 and 14, and younger - grazing cows and goats, working in the fields, carrying firewood from the forest, stitching sal-leaf plates, fetching water in large steel pitchers. It was harvest time, and both boys and girls could be seen working in the ripe yellow paddy fields alongside their parents. In the villages we saw older girls running the household and looking after the animals and younger siblings. In most of the schools we visited, the attendance rate hovered around half of the enrolment numbers, sometimes much lower. The teachers blamed this on harvest time, when tribal people need extra pairs of hands to collect the paddy from their tiny plots of forest land. They do it through community labour, known here as sangho-kamo, but young children also join in. Sometimes they go to neighbouring Balasore district, we learnt, to work in the fields of large landowners.

At a place where most families cannot manage two square meals a day round the year, a child means a belly to feed. A pair of hands also come with the belly. The food that the hands earn, after feeding the belly, goes to feed another belly, and thus sustain another pair of hands. Soon, that pair of hands will grow strong enough to feed another belly, and sustain another pair of hands. And thus the tale goes on.

It is a chain tale in the true folklore style, one that has been going on and on for more than six decades after independence. A piece of legislation enacted by the government of India in 2006—Child Labour Abolition and Rehabilitation Act—could not break this chain. Can another piece of legislation —namely, Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009—do it?
To look for answers, I go to the primary stakeholders : the children.

Sikshasandhan is organizing a three-day winter camp at Dolipada PUP (Project Upper Primary) School in Ramchandrapur gram panchayat. Around 50 boys and girls from schools within the panchayat area are taking part in a workshop, where they will learn to draw, paint, compose and sing songs, enact skits—in short, to sharpen and display their creativity.

'Do all your neighborhood children go to school?' I ask them in Hindi. Someone translates it in Odia, and then Yamuna Samad, the field assistant, reframes the question in Ho. Most children belong to Kolho tribe, who speak Ho, and the younger ones do not understand Odia. Their responses, too, reach me via two tongues.

'No,' they reply. 'Some of them go to the fields and the forest.'

"And what do they take back home from there?' I ask.

'Firewood... sal leaves... paddy... guava... water...mushroom...amla...'

They go on compiling the list of items with glee.

'And what do you take back home from school?' I ask bluntly.

They fall silent.

'Books!' A boy shouts out, raising a tattered primer over his head.

'But you bring books from home. What else do you carry back? Something you don't bring from home'?'

‘Tikin Mandijom!’ one of them replies innocently, pointing to his tummy, provoking much laughter.

Tikin mandijom is midday meal in Ho.

Then one of the older boys, old enough to guess the answers adults seek from them, speaks up :
'Vidya!' he says. Education.

Everyone agrees. But I cannot resist myself to pester on.

'But what do you do with vidya? Do you burn it like firewood? Do you stitch it like sal leaves to make plates?'

I know this is a nasty one, and I hasten to give the answer myself. Education is like fruits that one can share with the family, I tell them, and it can be the little things that one learns everyday at school—like matters of hygiene, or information about our country and the people. As I go on explaining, and listen to my words being rendered into two languages, I can feel how vain and pompous I sound as I sit facing the eager boys and girls, some of whom I know will stop coming to school from the next session, and join their brethren out in the fields and the forest.

What else can it be? At a place where poverty level is as high as 75% and literacy is as low as 20%,' where the food people grow in the fields barely sustains them for half the year, a boy or a girl returning home with a bundle of firewood or sal leaves is more real than one returning from school. At a place where people live from moment to moment, from hunger to hunger, vidya seems like an obscure investment, a thing of the hazy future, a chimera. Here, the only real thing that a child apparently carries home from school is the midday meal in his stomach, a quantity of food that is saved at home, that will feed another stomach.

'Many families here with two children send one to school, and the other to the field or the forest,' Yamuna tells us. 'Or, if it is a girl, keep her at home for household work.'

Female literacy here is as low as 14.78 percent.

'What do they say when you tell them about the RTE act, that makes it mandatory for every child between 6 and 14 to go to school?' I ask her.

'Take one or two of them, they say, but I won't let you take all my children to school,' Yamuna replies, helplessness etched on her face.

Deep in the tribal hinterland of Mayurbhanj, a child at school effectively means a plate of food saved at home—provided, the midday meal is served at school. This is the most tangible reality, and an effective tool of persuasion. When we meet the Sikshasandhan-appointed language teachers of Kalamgadia gram panchayat area, one of them confesses that he uses this argument to persuade the parents.

'What else can you tell them?' he says, his voice heavy with despair and shame. 'These are poor illiterate people and they don't know the value of education.'

We have gathered at Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra, a pink one-storied building recently built in the premises of Kalamgadia gram panchayat office at a cost of rupees 10 lakhs. It is meant for activities related to the development in the panchayat area. The language teachers of twelve schools within the panchayat have been invited at the meeting; there are also the three field assistants—Birsa Singh, Sujata Shau and Yamuna Samad from Ramchandrapur. The keys to the locked rooms could not be found, so we are sitting on the tiled verandah floor, exchanging views and sharing experiences. Everyone belongs to a tribal community, Kolho or Santal, except two women—Sujata and Manjulata Behera. The latter is the language teacher at Sarisua Primary School. There has been some resentment among the local people as they are non-tribals, but Sikshasandhan has stood its ground because both have long experiences of working with the organization. They are also very articulate and know the tribal languages.

'Earlier, most children at Sarisua were reluctant to attend school because they couldn't understand what the teacher said. But I made it a point to go to each home and talk to the parents. Now the kids are very regular. Every morning, before the school starts, I make a tour of the village to make sure that none is left behind. I tell them stories and sing songs, and they love it,' Manjulata says, beaming with pride.

She is dressed in a blue starched sari and wears a wristwatch. All the teachers and field assistants are young, neatly dressed and speak with confidence. Their presence in the schools has made visible impact on students' attendance and they are eager to share their experiences. All of them have come to the meeting on bicycles and are carrying mobile phones. These are little details that would go unnoticed elsewhere, but here, where most young men and women are to be seen in the fields and households tied to a timeless pattern of subsistence livelihood, they are a picture of hope and change. Most of them received their intermediate and college degrees from Kaptipada and Sarat, and they are happy with their work and its positive outcome.

'You know, people used to look down upon me as I am from Pungichua, a most remote village that remains cut off from the rest of the world for three months a year because of a stream,' confides Ramrai Singh, the language teacher at Pungichua New Primary School. 'But now they address me as 'Sir' and come to me to seek advice.'

A teacher in these areas generally means a person from the coastal region, usually from upper castes, who never speaks with the villagers, resides in distant towns and commutes to school in a motorbike. (We even saw two lady teachers coming to a primary school near Sarat in a car, a yellow Nano.) But Ramrai is different: he is from the community, and his duty to his pupils extends beyond the four walls of the class room. For example, Pungichua school has severe water problem and children have to trek more than a kilometer after midday meal to drink water from a forest stream. It was Ramrai who took up the matter at the block level and even persuaded the BDO to make an inspection.

Ramrai Singh, the only young man from Pungichua to have ventured out of his hamlet for an intermediate degree, was born in 1986, the year the National Policy on Education was declared. That was the first national education policy that gave special emphasis on promoting education among tribal people, opening more primary schools in those areas, developing curricula in tribal languages and encouraging more tribal youth to take up teaching. Those initiatives never properly took off, but in a curious way Ramrai's story celebrates the silver jubilee of NPE 1986.

Like him, everyone gathered here has a story, a story of grit and hard work, of never dropping out, of walking long distances to go to high schools, of fighting hunger and indifference of the teachers, of never having anyone at home or village to help with studies, of withstanding pressure to give up and join their brethren in the fields and the forest. Now they wear these stories on themselves, upon their faces glowing with hope and confidence.

'Why should anyone need to tell the parents about sending a child to school to save a plate of food?' I ask. 'You can tell your stories instead. You are the living examples of what one can achieve through education.'

The modest smiles that break upon their faces tell me that they know it. The sincerity and commitment that they bring to their work comes from this knowledge.

Birsa Singh's house is in Kalamgadia, beside a wide grassy field dotted with old mohua trees: a row of thatched huts around a courtyard, and a small plot of fenced homestead land. Birsa and his elder brother live here with their families. Newly harvested paddy, glowing golden yellow, is heaped in the middle of the courtyard. Chicks skitter about, ducks keep up a racket, Birsa's little son plays with a spotted kid goat, an old woman basks under the warm noonday sun on a charpoy. A dozen sanitary pans are heaped in a corner. The wife of Birsa's brother is a panchayat worker, we learn, and these pans are part of a sanitation campaign under the National Rural Health Mission. Like most government campaigns, this too has been a failure here, although there is a pucca latrine behind the courtyard of Birsa's house. We don't ask whether they use it. Instead, we discuss the provisions of Forest Rights Act 2006 for which Birsa has invited us to his house. His brother Singrai and a couple of villagers are also present.

A voluntary organization has translated the Act in Odia and has been distributing it in booklet form. Birsa has read it thoroughly. He has also made a list of the forest lands villagers here have been tilling for generations, and also the community lands that belong to the village. Here too, like elsewhere in the country, the Act is yet to make a proper beginning and his efforts are being routinely scotched by corrupt land revenue officials. But Birsa is patient, a steely determination sparkle in his quiet, intelligent eyes. I later learn that there is talk of his becoming the village sarpanch in the election next year.

Birsa has a college degree; his elder brother Singrai, too, has one. He had got a job in the defence canteen services, but couldn't pay the bribe that was demanded at the time of appointment. He now devotes himself entirely to the family-owned land and cattle. But Singrai has seen to it that his own children get quality education; his son and daughter study at a private hostel school in Bhadrak. His daughter Sanjeevani, who is in Class XI, comes to greet us. Her annual examination is over and she has come home last week to wait for the results. She takes tuition in two subjects, English and mathematics, from teachers of her own school. They charge Rs 175 for each, subject. Singrai spends around Rs. 2000 per month for his children's education. He can afford it because his wife earns a regular salary. Birsa's wife, too, is an anganwadi sahayika. Both the women have studied up to class eight. Birsa's elder son will be seven next year, and he has plans to send him to a good hostel school outside the village. By that time, he will probably become the sarpanch. Sanjeevani, too, will possibly go to a degree college in Kaptipada. Her mother will probably get a promotion in a year or two. A family in a Kolho village deep inside the Simlipal forest will climb up the social and economic ladder, slowly but surely. And all this thanks to an investment in an immaterial equity: education. At a place where literacy is 20 percent, 75 percent people officially live below poverty line, 85 percent children are malnourished, this is a story worth looking at.

And yet such stories are lost under the pervasive saga of despair and misery, betrayal and disenchantment. It is harvest time, and all the able-bodied men and women are out in the fields at this hour of the day. So, Birsa takes us to meet a group of village elders. A Kolho village, unlike the hamlets of other tribal communities, is a scattered settlement of small groups of hutments standing apart and nestled amid groves and forest clearings (something that makes it all the more difficult to bring the children to school). We leave the motorcycle at Birsa's place and walk up a narrow trail through a wooded slope. A lone adobe hut stands beside a cropped field. Odia film song, playing on a radio or a mobile phone, emanates from inside; a red bicycle leans against the wall. Birsa calls out and a teenage boy emerges: he is wearing jeans, red nylon t-shirt and a bracelet. His name is Turam Singh, we learn, and he is studying at the +2 college (intermediate) at Sarat. Together, we go to the place of the meeting, around hundred meters away under a giant tamarind tree. Turam walks the cycle by his side and stands leaning against it jauntily at the meeting. We—Birsa, Pradip and I—sit on a charpoy that someone has placed there. A knot of old village men sit around us on their haunches upon the dusty ground. A group of women and children watch us from a fenced courtyard.

Suddenly I remember the Raj sketches and aquatints I have seen of colonial sahibs meeting native villagers under the tamarind trees: they too sat on charpoys, their turbaned orderlies behind them, to hear petitions and adjudicate. We, on the other hand, have come to discuss something that does not seem to be remotely connected with the way life follows its quotidian rhythm here. We talk about neither BPL rice nor the patta of forest land, but about universal enrolment of children in schools. The old men stare at us with dull rheumy eyes. Turam gets bored. The women get busy with their work of stitching sal-leaf plates. The children lose interest in the strangers and begin to play. Only one little boy, naked and with a malformed head, stands crookedly wedged between the ropes of a charpoy and stares at us daftly. He is suffering from cerebral palsy, Birsa informs us, and remains confined like this throughout the day. He cannot stand or walk.

Purmi Singh has a matriculate son who works and lives in Bhadrak. His two other sons, both school drop-outs, live with him and work in the fields. For three months a year, when there is no work in the village, they break stones at a quarry atop Sukhuapatta hills.

I ask Purmi for his thoughts on the value of education, on what education gives to people. The old man stares silently at the distance, the lines on his face deepening. I know this is a difficult one; education has taken away one of his sons.

'Education gives people the confidence to come forward and speak to strangers,' he finally replies.

This is a piece of wisdom that takes time to sink in. I understood its full import as I toured some of the remote hamlets of Kalamgadia and Noto gram panchayats. The more remote the places, the more taciturn and timid were the people. They clammed up when they saw strangers on a motorbike, or when Pradeep asked them questions in Odia. Generations have grown up, grown old and died in an area without a school. All are tribal people, and they speak a tongue which is different from Odia. They come in contact with Odia-speaking people when they are old enough to venture out of the village, to sell their labour or minor forest produce.

It is now a universally accepted fact that learning a language becomes difficult as one reaches puberty. Also, these people's first contact with the outside world is usually in the form of cunning labour contractors, middlemen and moneylenders. In effect, it is the enduring myth of the big bad world out there, ready to cheat the simple tribal, that makes these people turn inward and reclusive. Eight to ten years of school education, on the other hand, can reverse the process and bust the myth. It can give them an exposure in Odia language and culture, give them the necessary confidence to interact with the outside world, to integrate them with the state's society and polity.

Education is the key to the larger world. This is an axiom I have always known, but have never viewed it so clearly, written on the face of a cowering tribal man.

But whether they go to school or not, the outside world rarely fails to reach them. Often it finds insidious ways.

From an inspection of Hudisahi NPS, empty as a shell on a Saturday afternoon, we walk up the wooded hillside to the village. Hudisahi is a hamlet of about 50 households, mostly Kolhos and a dozen Mahakuds the latter listed among other backward communities or OBCs. All of them live much below the poverty line, although many are yet to receive their entitlement cards. The last survey was done here some ten years ago, we are told.

Hudisahi lies at the back of the beyond, on the periphery of Noto panchayat and at the foot of forested Simli hills. There is no all-weather road here; one needs to trek three kilometers of dirt track across rocky fields and forests and ford a number of hill streams to seek essential amenities and services. People frequently die of simple curable diseases, like diarrhea or typhoid, before they can avail basic medical aid. The state health department runs a rural ambulance service, called Janani Express, for pregnant mothers. But there being no road, Janani Express cannot come to Hudisahi.

'What is the infant mortality rate?' I ask, keeping my voice low to match the sensitive nature of the subject.

"Fifty-fifty" replies Gusey Banara, swaying his outstretched palm like a weighing scale, before Birsa Biroli can translate my query in Ho.
It means a child born in the village has a fifty percent chance of survival. Most of the deaths occur within the first year of birth. Odisha is one of the few states in India that has a very high infant mortality rate of around 70 per thousand live births. But 'fifty-fifty' means 500 deaths per thousand live births! The figure numbs the senses. I dare not ask the percentage of children immunized after birth.

Gusey, a panchayat ward member, is in his early thirties. Most of the people gathered at the village meeting place under an ancient peepal tree are of the same age or younger. The only senior citizen in the gathering is Sabram Singh Banara, 70 years old, the oldest person in the village. There is Kuan Singh, chairman of school management committee, and Seth Banara, the vice-chairman. Both are in their late twenties and illiterate, like the others. Their contribution in the SMC amounts to thumb impressions that they put under the minutes of meetings that the school headmaster makes up every month. Here, too, they remain mostly silent and give short monosyllabic answers to our questions. Gusey does most of the talking -and in Hindi. He lived for two years in Gujarat and worked in road construction, in a National Highway Authority project. He picked up Hindi from there. The only other person who knows Hindi in the village is Amin Singh. He too worked for a whole season at a brick kiln near Hyderabad, but the middleman who took him there cheated him of his dues.

'That man is a crook,' Gusey says. 'He does this to everyone and has made a lot of money. He lives in Bandhasahi.'

"Why do you let him go scot-free?' I ask.

'What can one do?' Amin smiles helplessly. 'Everybody knows that man is a cheat. But there is no other way and people go with him in the hope of making some money.'

At such a young age, Amin has learnt to deal with his misfortune by generalizing it. Anger is a luxury here, even at youth, and one soon learns to devise inner strategies to survive endless series of adversities that is the other name of life. In most of the villages we toured, we met men like Gusey and Amin, sucked into distant metropolitan centers by the behemoth of 'development' - in road construction, real estate and infrastructure projects - and then cast off. They return to the villages with dashed hopes and a hard view of the big bad world out there; in the process, they pick up workable Hindi (and perhaps a communicable disease, even AIDS). They present the seamy side of India's recent growth story. Ironically, it is these men, grown embittered and cynical, who usually came forward and communicated with us first.

But Hudisahi has nothing to offer to men like Gusey and Amin. The soil around here is rocky, giving work to people for not more than four to five months a year. The forest, too, is degraded. The only thing it seems to yield steadily is sal leaf, with which people make plates. Water is a precious resource in the whole region, especially during the summer months.

Was it always like this? I ask Sabram Singh Banara.

No, the forest was thicker and life was easier when Sabram was a boy, when he came with his parents from Singhbhum and settled here. In fact, all the Kolhos in this part of Mayurbhanj came from Singhbhum region at around the turn of the 20th century. This is one of the reasons, I am told, why Singh is a popular title with the community: it carries the mark of their place of origin. They also carry the history of migration in their memories, handed down from generation to generation and matured into mythical lores. Birsa Singh took us to an old man in his village, Laxman Badra, the repository of these lores. Laxman narrated how the Mundas (Kolhos) originated from Harappa; came to live in Singhbhum for thousands of years until the British arrived; how they fought heroically against the colonial power, were defeated and had their tongues cut off; how seven families migrated to the dense forests of Simlipal and set up home over a century ago.

Laxman's mythic lore carries seeds of history. In early 19th century, British colonialism in Chhotonagpur introduced a host of middlemen and moneylenders between the rulers and the tribal peasantry. From free landowners, Mundas and Oraons were reduced to serfs and their community life was shattered. They organized protests that culminated in the Kol Revolt of 1831-32. Brutal suppression followed, and the tribals remained subdued for a while, until they began to resort to a form of passive protest of emigration at the end of the century. Some of them went as far as Andamans, others went to work in the tea gardens, and some, like the Kolhos of Mayurbhanj, migrated to neighbouring states of Odisha and Bengal. A century of dispossession could not rob them of that colourful history; it manifests itself in a title like Singh, or a name like Birsa - a name that recalls the legendary rebel Birsa Munda.

But a part of that history still perpetuates itself in another form here.

From Hudisahi we go to nearby Bandhasahi, a village of Mahatos. Hudisahi and Bandhasahi are a study in contrast. Many of the houses in Bandhasahi have tiled roofs and strong wooden doors with latches; there are also a number of tubewells, and the concrete posts by the wayside hold the promise of electricity under Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification scheme. Two pick up vans stand at the mouth of the village. We meet Ramchandra Mahato, the sarpanch, a smart paan-chewing young man who speaks fluent Hindi and takes us around the village to the fields. The fields are irrigated with spring water under an Integrated Tribal Develepment Authority scheme, although Mahatos are not tribals. They belong to the OBC. Ramchandra owns 35 acres of prime land, irrigated round the year, where he grows paddy, tomatoes (called bilati here) and other vegetables. Most villagers are landowners and have work in the fields throughout the year, he tells us, so that there is not much demand for work under NREGA. But the real reason behind Bandhasahi's prosperity lies in trading. Mahatos buy the sal-leaf plates from the tribals and sell them at a much higher price in the wholesale market at Kaptipada. They also indulge in usury. Their relationship with the tribals is based on exploitation, but also on mutual dependence that goes back for nearly a century.

On our way back, we see a concrete road being built at the initiative of Bandhasahi villagers. This will make it easier for pick-up vans to enter the forest villages and give the relationship between the Mahatos and tribals a new twist.

The historic migration from Singhbhum in colonial times could not save the Kolhos here from middlemen and mahajans.

The Right to Education Act is an unparalleled piece of legislation where education is recognized as a constitutional right and the state commits itself to educating nearly 25 crore young people between 6 and 14 years of age. A country whose performance in this field during the last two decades has been pathetic, even worse than some of our poorer neighbours like Bangladesh, Srilanka and Nepal1, one wonders whether the promise enshrined in the law makes a mockery of itself. Such cynicism is inescapable as one tours the forest villages of Mayurbhanj and watches dozens of out-of-school boys and girls working in the fields, herding animals, carrying water and firewood. Five years after the Child Labour Abolition and Rehabilitation Act was passed, these scenes are a part of our daily reality. How long will it take for the RTE Act to take effect? How many years or decades before all these boys and girls in the fields and the forest are in school?

As one gropes for answers, a disquieting image comes to mind: the image of an autistic boy one has seen in Kalamgadia, hemmed in between the ropes of a charpoy, standing crookedly and staring with vacant eyes.

Pundits compare India's performance in the field of elementary education with China. Some blame the democratic system for the sorry state of affairs even six decades after independence. But ours is no single defining story. It is a land of contested realities that unfold in complex ways. Here every story has a foil, every thesis an antithesis. Thus, after being besieged by images of apathy and ineptitude, corruption and criminality, I heard the story of two hamlets: Pungichua and Tendu. Both are as remote as the other, two kilometers away from each other and nestled deep inside the forest; both remain cut off from the outside world during the monsoon months because of a hill stream. When the government decided to set up a school in Pungichua, the people of Tendu protested. If Pungichua can get a school then why not Tendu? They argued. If the sanction is for one school only, then why not set it up at Tendu instead of Pungichua? The tug of war continued for some time until Pungichua won. As a mark of protest, the people of Tendu refused to send their children to school.

But that was two years ago. I go there to see with my own eyes the situation now.

A new Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana road forks near Gokulchandrapur primary school. The right arm goes to Sarat; we take the left arm, move for about 10 kilometers along a forest of sal, mohua and other tall trees and then leave the asphalt road and into the forest. Soon we come to the hill stream, a tributary of Sunei river, a trickling rivulet upon rock bed that swells during the rains and cuts off Pungichua and other forest hamlets from outside world for three months a year. A concrete bridge is being built here, god knows for how long, since the ironwork has already turned rusty. But we have no difficulty to cross the stream on foot along with our motorcycle. A rocky forest track winds up from here, along the foothills of what is known here as Sukhuapatta Pahar, a low thickly-wooded hill range that runs all the way from Baripada to Nilagiri in Balasore district. Sukhuapatta literally means 'dry leaf', maybe it is so named because the dense forest of sal and other deciduous trees ensure a steady supply of the leaves with which people stitch plates—a work that sustains them during the months when there is no work. We pass a small hamlet of about ten households, learn the direction of Pungichua, and thread our way through a forest of denuded acacia trees. Pale sunlight falls slantingly, turning the carpet of dry leaves iridescent brown. A raven caws mournfully upon a bare branch. Who would imagine we are out here to visit a school? It seems like an absurd adventure.

I share this thought with Pradeep, absorbed in negotiating the skidding wheels of the bike along the boulder-strewn track.

'Imagine what would happen if we have a punctured tyre,' Pradeep says.

We share a hopeless laugh. During the past few days that I have been touring the area, I cannot remember to have seen a single repairing shop.

Pungichua NPS, like the Hudisahi school, sits in the middle of a forest clearing some distance away from the village. It seems as if someone has dropped it absent-mindedly from the sky and has forgotten about it. The nearest source of water is 1.5 km away, in the forest stream.             

(To be concluded)

Vol. 45, No. 18, Nov 11-17, 2012

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