Education of Tribal Children - As I saw in a VanYatra

A. N. Maheshwari


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The total tribal population of India is about 67.8 million, which is 8% of the total population of the country. Except for the States of Haryana and Punjab in each of the other States there is a significant tribal population. As tribal people live in forests they tend to get cut off from the main stream. Odds are against them, which get compounded because they comprise of relatively small ethnic groups. In spite of the tribal regions being generally rich in natural and mineral resources, their benefit seldom accrues to them. To add to their woes, because of the geographical remoteness of their habitats and the hardship of living conditions in tribal villages the Government appointed teachers avoid working in their schools. Under such adverse circumstances the support of the formal system of education for the tribal children has remained much below the national average. In this context several individuals and organisations have voluntarily come forward with programmes for enabling the tribal people in overcoming their disadvantages. A recent initiative in Bihar for helping tribal communities by taking care of the education of their children has been the setting up of one - teacher schools in tribal villages by the Friends of the Tribals Society (FTS). The backbone of the FTS approach is the association of a local educated youth as the teacher in the village school. The FTS has evolved a low cost model of basic education, which is indigenous and goes beyond teaching of numbers and alphabets. It aims at imparting education that is comprehensive and will develop in children values and samaskars.

Starting from 1991 the FTS has started more than 1100 one - teacher schools in Bihar. I came to know of this novel system of non-formal education from Shri P. D. Chitlangia, who is the President of the FTS. To me from its description the FTS model appeared similar to the gurukul system. I saw in it a glimmer of hope. I was keen to observe the FTS experiment by visiting their one - teacher schools and find what children are able to learn, meet the parents and obtain first-hand feedback on the relevance of the FTS school for their children. I readily accepted the invitation of Shri Chitlangia to attend as a special invitee the Annual Review Meeting of the FTS Scheme of the One - Teacher Schools and to take part in the Van Yatra for visiting some of the FTS schools in the Chota Nagpur region of Bihar. The meeting was held on 24th and 25th April 1999 on the campus of the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, and we went on the two-day Van Yatra at the end of the formal meeting. In the following paragraphs I have given in a travelogue style an account of my visit to some of the one - teacher schools that I visited in the Van Yatra.

The other members of the team who went on the Van Yatra were Shri Chitlangia, Shri and Smt. Bimal and Bimla Lath. We started from Ranchi around 10 A.M. in a hired Tata Sumo. It had begun to get warm even before we left Ranchi. The day was expected to get scorching hot with temperature soaring to 45 C or more by the time we would reach the first school in our itinerary about 77 km from Ranchi. We reached Sisai, a block headquarter, around the noon time and were joined there by Shri Sanjaya Verma, the supervisor of the FTS initiatives in the 90 villages in the Sisai Block running the one- teacher schools. Shri Verma is a lecturer in tribal languages in the local Degree College and is an authority on the folklore and tribal history of the region. Before I proceed further with my narration I may like to mention that perhaps the motivation underlying the FTS initiatives in Bihar is to respond to the parallel missionary activities of Christian organisations working in this tribal region. Sanjay Verma pointed out village churches and schools run by the missionaries. He told me an interesting story that also brings out the conflict of interests between the missionary efforts and those of the Hindu voluntary organisations.

"A Sunday service was being conducted by a Christian priest for the recently converted tribal people when a wild elephant roamed into the congregation. People ran helter- skelter in panic. One person from the congregation turned toward the menacing elephant and with folded hands prayed, "Oh Lord Ganesha! Take us into your shelter, bless us and provide us your protection." The elephant raised his trunk in a gesture to bless them, turned back and walked away. With no further persuasion the recent converts to Christianity changed their religion back to Hinduism."

I now mentally prepared myself for seeing the inroad of Hindu religion in the tribal community. By starting a one - teacher school entry is obtained in a tribal village. After a bumpy and dusty drive on village roads we reached the village Buru Toli. It is a village of people belonging to Ooraon tribe. We got out of the van and walked in the peak heat toward the settlement where the children, their parents and the teacher were patiently waiting for our arrival. My exposure to tribal culture and traditions was limited to seeing the tribal folk dances held each year in New Delhi as a part of the Republic Day celebrations. I was least expecting the gaiety of the traditional welcome. We were ceremoniously received with a display of folk dance and music.

The entire community had gathered to escort us to their school. The path to the school was decorated with banners and flower decorations. But I was absolutely unprepared to get my feet washed with oil and water, a customary part of tribal welcome.?/P>

The one - teacher school in this village has been running for less than three months. We entered a hut where the school was held. We were informed that the hut belonged to Shri Chetu Ooraon, the teacher of the school. Chetu Ooraon is a local youth and is a matriculate. The classroom was packed with children, many of whom were wearing school uniform. We asked whether the older children in school uniform also studied in this school. We were told that they studied in the Government primary school and as they were from the community they also came to the FTS School on that day for meeting the visitors. A roll call was taken from the register of the school to segregate the children enrolled in this one - teacher school from the children who had come that day out of curiosity. The teacher called children's names by prefixing word bhai (brother) and bahin (sister) before the names of the boys and the girls, respectively. The children announced their presence by calling loudly 'Jai Shri Ram'. At the direction of the teacher, children invoked the sacred sound Om three times and recited the Saraswarhi Vandana.

They were asked to identify the Devanagri and the English alphabets and count numbers from 1 to 100. Most of the children were in the age group 5 to 9 years but a few 3 - 4 years old were also there. After this brief interaction with the children we came out to meet the villagers who were waiting outside in an open space under the shade of trees.

Children also came out with us and were asked to play for we wanted to see their progress in physical education.

A brief meeting was held with the villagers. I wanted to find how many of them have had formal education. Quite a few of them had education up to matriculation. A few hands were raised in response to identify those who had had education beyond high school. One person was enrolled in the college at Sisai. They expressed a feeling of desperation that in spite of getting educated they were not able to lay hands on suitable government jobs. The fields around the village were parched dry. The main activity for living was agriculture and that was possible for six months in the year, as rainwater was the only source of soil moisture. They seemed to be satisfied with the performance of the FTS School. It was convenient for their young children, as the Government primary school was couple of kilometer away from the village.

We were over two hours behind our schedule. The next village to visit, Kusum Toli, was 18 km away. We passed many villages en route. Roadside selling of country liquor was pointed out to me. Making wine out of rice and selling it were the prominent non-agricultural occupations of the tribal people. Sanjay Verma mentioned that belief in superstitions and addiction to alcohol were the two glaring social evils in tribal society.

I saw from a distance ruins of a tribal fort. Verma narrated an interesting story associated with that ruin. I could not take down notes as the discussion took place when we were driving. All the same from memory I recall here what Verma told me as we drove past the ruin.

"These ruins are of a palace - cum- fort constructed by a tribal king during the reign of the Mogul king Shah Jahan. The tribal king was taken as a prisoner and lodged in the fort at Gwalior. The tribal was very much impressed by the grandeur of the Gwalior fort. The Mogul king wanted to consult an expert to select a genuine diamond from a fake piece. He was told that the tribal in his prison was an expert of diamonds. The king summoned the tribal and asked him to identify the fake from the real diamond. The tribal asked for two goats and fixed the diamond and the fake on horns of the goats. Soon the two goats locked their horns and the fake diamond made of glass shattered into pieces. In appreciation of this feat of talent the Mogul king released the tribal. He returned to his region and built this palace-cum-fort on the pattern of the Gwalior fort."

By about 3 P.M. we reached Kusum Toli. Here the welcome was more elaborate than what we had received at Buru Toli. Here also the whole village had gathered to receive us. They danced and sang. Mr. Chitlangia danced with the hosts. Banners and buntings in this village were very attractive. Women of this village seem to have spared their saris and fineries for use as decorations. I managed to wriggle out of the washing of the feet part of the welcome ceremony.

We went inside the hut where children were waiting for us, perhaps for a very long time. Many of the children were sleepy and tired. Here also at the prompting of their teacher they invoked the sacred sound of Om three times and recited the Saraswathi Vandana. The teacher in this school is Shri Chandnath Ooraon, a local youth who is a matriculate. This school also has been running for less than three months. Level of children's familiarity with English and Devnagri alphabets and numbers was similar to those of the children we met in the Buru Toli village.

The meeting with the villagers was livelier here. One person who was smartly dressed on inquiry mentioned that he is a B. A. (Hon.) in Economics. He was selected as an officer in the State Police service but did not take up the offer because of the reservation of his community. In this village many persons have had formal education and some were studying in the Sisai College. They were satisfied with the FTS School. Villagers pointed out that their main occupation was agriculture. It keeps them busy for six months in the year and in the other six months they find odd jobs, wherever available.

The villagers had arranged lunch for us. I had some misgivings in availing the lunch and regret that such a thought crossed my mind. We were given not the Sabri's Ber but a feast, the best I have ever had.

We were seated in the gallery of a hut in which the sunlight was filtering down from the ventilators. Cool breeze blew inside. Plates made from sal tree leaves were laid before us. They were refreshing green. The meal consisted of several courses. Chutneys made of tomatoes, mint leaves and raw mangoes were served first. A curry made out of jackfruit was served next The main item of the meal was plain dosai, made out of rice batter. In the next course puris made out of rice flour were served. Boiled rice and dal followed. The final course was the rice pudding. Preparations were finger licking good.

I was curious to know whether the meal had been subsidised by the FTS. It was clarified that the decision to serve us lunch was taken by the village community and the village families met its cost from voluntary contributions. We would perhaps never return to this village. The villagers had no expectations from us. This gesture of the community touched our heart. I should mention that there was complete order in the village. The insides of the huts were impeccably clean and were decorated with what we call as tribal art. As we were coming out of the village we saw a person on a bicycle carrying a music player and a rechargeable battery. None of the villages we visited had household electricity.

The next school in the visit has been operating for just about one month. Here also we were given the traditional welcome of beating drums and trumpet music. Musical instruments of each village although similar in musical type carry the distinct signature of the community. The name of this village was Lakaya. When we asked Karmu Mehati, the schoolteacher, his educational background, he answered with an apology, "Matric fail." Children in the classroom were singing in a melodious tune:

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Welcome to our village,

We are forest dwellers,

We don't have riches,

But we are happy to share,

With you our love,

And fresh air.

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They invoked Om three times and sang the Saraswathi Vandana. Children were alert and could recite stories they had learnt from their teacher. What the teacher was able to achieve in a short period of one month was impressive. Shri Chitlangia expressed interest in meeting the father of Karmu Mehati, the teacher of the school. Shri Chitlangia paid obeisance to the father of the teacher by taking the dust off his feet with his hands. The father was deeply moved by this gesture especially when Shri Chitlangia expressed his appreciation to him for having brought up such a fine son. This incident made it clear to me the difference between the impersonal approach of the State toward its schools and its teachers and those run by persons like Shri Chitlangia, whose actions are driven by the cause they believe in and their commitment to it.

It was past sunset and the night had set in and we were yet to visit another FTS school. We stopped at Gumla for a cup of tea. I saw a bookstore across the road and decided to find out the type of textbooks that were sold in an interior region of Bihar. I inquired whether they carried the NCERT textbooks. I was happy to see many NCERT textbooks printed in 1999 available in that bookshop. We decided to skip the visit to the school at Anjan, although we would have found it functioning because it was a night school. We had to cover a two-hour journey through forest roads for reaching Bisunpur, where we were scheduled to make the night halt. As we were approaching Bisunpur we saw a forest fire that had spread to a large part of a mountain.

We reached Bisunpur by about 9 p.m. Shri Ashok Bhagat received us in his ashram. He runs Vikas Bharti, an institution for tribal welfare. I was told that like the Mahatma Gandhi Shri Bhagat does not wear stitched clothes. I soon became aware that I was meeting an extraordinary person who had received many honours including the Vriksha Mitra award for planting 10 million trees in the Bisunpur forests. Shri Bhagat has been working for the welfare of the tribal community and is responsible for organising training of the FTS schoolteachers. The atmosphere in his ashram was serene and peaceful. We moved towards the Shrum Niketan, where tribal sisters were waiting for us to render a Ram Katha. The tribal girls had returned recently from Ayodhya after undergoing a special 9 months training in Ram Katha. The training was around 20 episodes from the Ramayana such as the incident of Kewat, Sabri and other themes relevant to tribal people. They move in villages in which FTS schools are functioning and recite Ram Katha to the village women. We were received at the entrance of the Shrum Niketan and as mark of welcome sandal wood paste was applied on our forehead. The topic of Katha selected for that evening was the incident of Ram's visit to Sabri.

Bahins, dressed in saffron saris, delivered the katha from an elevated platform around a peepul tree in the compound of the Shrum Niketan. It was about 10 P.M. A few lanterns placed on the platform augmented the illumination provided by the shining stars. We heard the katha in the company of the inmates of the Shrum Niketan. Ashok Bhagat mentioned that Shrum Niketan follows Sri Aurobindo's concept of education through work. About 150 destitute tribal children were being looked after in the Shrum Niketan. After the Katha we retired for the night in the guesthouse of the Vikas Bharti.

Next morning, 27th April, I left for Ranchi. I was scheduled to reach Ranchi by 12 noon to board my return flight to New Delhi at 3. 30 P.M. I took leave of the other members of the group as they had an independent programme of visit to an interior FTS school in a village of Asura tribe, which is considered most primitive of the tribal groups in the Chota Nagpur region. I stopped at the FTS school in the village called Kubadeli, where the FTS School has been functioning for nearly one year. I reached the school around 8.30 A.M.. Children and some of their parents were waiting for me in the school. Here also the teacher, Ramchandra Bhagat, asked the children to welcome me by chanting Om three times followed by the recitation of Saraswathi Vandana. I asked whether children could read and write. Many children raised their hands when I asked them to come forward and write their names on the blackboard. I asked one girl to write her name and those of her brothers and sisters. She wrote names with confidence. I was most amused to note that she had appended the word commander to the names. Children were able to add and subtract single digit numbers and could narrate stories and songs. I asked one parent whether he found the education given in the FTS school relevant. His answer was yes and he mentioned that at least for three hours each day children are happy and learning, instead of roaming around in the village. They were clear in their minds that the basic education will not be of any help to their children in getting any job but all the same it was desirable as their children learnt values that they endorsed.

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I left now for Ranchi, which was about 120 km by road. Manoj who is a teacher trainer for the FTS schools was escorting me. We had hardly covered about 10 km when the vehicle in which I was travelling broke down. Driver of the vehicle announced that the diesel was not reaching the engine. He tried to fix the problem but to no avail. I was losing time and became worried that I might not be able to reach Ranchi in time for my flight. I desperately wanted to take ride on any moving vehicle. Several trucks carrying bauxite (aluminium oar) went past us, but it did not make sense to ask for a ride in trucks loaded with stones although rich in minerals. A bus was hailed down. It took me to the next town, which was about 5 km away. Here Manoj negotiated with a transport agent to arrange a special trip of that bus to Lohardaga, a district headquarter 35 km from that place. I reconciled to my being exploited for my situation and agreed to pay Rs.550 for a 35-km journey. We reached Lohardaga by 11 A.M. We discovered that on that day private vehicles were booked for Moharram celebration or for marriage functions. Here Manoj could at best get a seat for me in an overcrowded bus going to Ranchi. I managed to enter the bus but there was no vacant seat. Manoj forced a person to vacate his seat for me and asked me to occupy it. I normally would have declined such an arrangement. But I was holding fragile containers of pickle, honey and jam that were given to me at Bisunpur and the bus did not have any reasonable standing space. I did not want my fragile luggage to break into pieces. As the bus was stopping every kilometre I inquired the time that it would take to reach Ranchi. When I was told that this bus is likely to cover the distance of about 75 km in four hours I lost all hopes to reach Ranchi in time for my flight. I asked the conductor whether he could convert the bus into an express service. He agreed not to take new passengers provided he was paid Rs. 300 as compensation for the fare he was going to lose. I agreed to that also. Now we were moving with reasonable speed but we were stopped by a Moharram procession that wanted to get in the bus. When the conductor mentioned that the bus is an express service, two hefty persons from the crowd threatened to beat the conductor and poked him with the sticks they were carrying. I asked the conductor to let the crowd enter the bus. More than 50 women along with their children and many women with babies in their arms entered the bus. I now resigned myself to the prospect of missing my flight. But my gloom got dispelled when after having moved not more than 2 km all the Moslems got down from the bus. Now the bus moved towards Ranchi without any new incident. I reached the Ranchi city around 2 P.M. It was a short journey by an auto- rickshaw to the airport.

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