An experiment half done

Print edition : November 05, 2004

THE school is easily identifiable. It is the hut from which a din is issuing in an otherwise silent hamlet. Action songs are being belted out lustily; the reedy voice of the teacher reciting the alphabet is followed by a dozen or so enthusiastic young voices repeating it at full volume. The sounds are unmistakably those of education in India but with one difference - the teacher is an Adivasi just like the children. Four years ago, the schoolroom in Kalapani, an Adivasi hamlet in north Maharashtra's Dhule district, was full of children who responded eagerly to their teacher.

At Kalapani village, learning in the lap of nature.-

He called them jifri (ragamuffin), yedi (crazy) and lakdi (skinny) - names that would have sounded insulting if a government teacher had used them, but not here because the teacher was one of them. He lived in the same hamlet. He spoke to them in their Paura dialect. He taught them by giving them examples from their own lives and mostly held classes outdoors. He used the local names of trees and animals and, most of all, he taught at a pace that did not intimidate them.

But this experiment in culturally familiar learning, involving contract teachers in tribal settlement schools started by the Maharashtra government, has all but died out. Like many other tribal children in north Maharashtra, the bright and enthusiastic children who used to attend the Kalapani school have avoided going to the government schools or the ashramshalas.

The tribal settlement school plan was initiated to solve the problem of poor attendance of government teachers in remote village schools. By creating a force of auxiliary or contract teachers for rural schools, it was reasoned, local people could be given some basic teacher training, after which they would be hired and be responsible for the village school.

Many advantages stemmed from this idea. Adivasis who were interested in teaching but were intimidated by the amount of study required for a B.Ed. degree got a chance to teach and be employed. The problems that crop up between non-Adivasi teachers and Adivasi children ceased. And the children became a link in continuing their dialects and their cultures. But the plan died, not because of any inherent defect, but because the deeper restructuring that was required in the rural schooling system was never undertaken.

North Maharashtra has traditionally voted the Congress, but the party has done little to repay the region's loyalty and it is not just in the matter of tribal people's education. With 10 of the 36 Assembly seats in north Maharashtra reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, one would have expected tribal people's issues to be at the fore, but this is not so. Left out of the conventional education system and unable to find regular employment, nutritional and health problems were rampant. Of the reported 1,000 starvation and malnutrition-related deaths in Maharashtra's tribal areas many were from the north Maharashtra tribal districts of Dhule, Nandurbar and Nasik.

Other issues that affect tribal people include land rights, natural resource management, employment; issues related to wildlife and forest conservation; and the rehabilitation of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project, an issue that is especially crucial in Nandurbar and Dhule districts.

There are also demands from industry, the cooperative sector and agriculture, which governments over the years have failed to meet. Industry, which was seen as the hope of north Maharashtra, did not pick up as expected. North Maharashtra's geographical location along the national inland transport corridor prompted a rash of small-scale industries to spring up in the district, but poor industrial infrastructure forced most of them to close down. The issues here are unemployment, increasing business competition, and falling profits for those in the small-scale sector. A commonly expressed need of the region is new business opportunities and regular trade in terms of agriculture and industry.

There is another reason why the Congress should address the real issues of the region. Although neither the Congress-NCP nor the Shiv Sena-BJP made the alleged religious conversions of tribal people an issue this time, Sonia Gandhi, who campaigned in the tribal belt of Nandurbar twice this year, first had her attention drawn to the region because of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's activities against Christian missionaries. As a member of the Church, who lives in Shirpur, said, "Religious conversion as an issue in the region cannot be dismissed. The only reason why there have been no serious attacks on missionaries is because the political atmosphere is pro-Congress."

This reliance on the Congress for social and secular stability makes it even more imperative that the party address the real issues of the region.

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