Monthly Archives: January 2019

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Sanjana’s Journey In Understanding The Importance Of Education

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or found begging.

Fourteen-year-old Sanjana (name changed) attends the Telugu-medium Municipal schools near Sewri in the Mumbai suburbs. One of the top students in her class, she is known for her confidence amongst her peers. She lives along with her mother and younger sister in a small home. The police had rescued her from begging almost two years ago. Today, this Class VII student makes sure that she attends school and encourages children around her to do so too. The school staff admires her spirit, as she understands the importance of educating herself and the change it is bringing in her life.

“Did you go to school today?”

“No, I did not.”

“Why not?”

“The municipality has demolished all the houses and taken away our belongings. All we managed to save during the eviction were some utensils.”

“When did this happened?”

“Yesterday. The “municipality ki gaadi” demolished everything. All the roofs of the houses are gone. They took away my bag which had some of my school books. I don’t know what to do. This happens every six months. The municipality, without any warning, just comes and demolishes our homes. They take our things to be dumped somewhere. It’s difficult to get things back. I don’t know much about it. My mother does not tell me.”

“Why haven’t you gone to school today?”

“How can I go? The whole house has been demolished and we are left out in the open. Anyone can steal the utensils we are left with. Since I am the eldest, I have to take care of it, while my mother goes to work. There are chances that the municipality people might return and take other things too. So, I have to be here to keep an eye on everything. It gets difficult to concentrate on studies when such things are going on.”

“When will you be going to school?”

“Not for the next 15–20 days. May be by tomorrow, we would shift to another place where our relatives stay. We will get back once things are settled here, and when we feel that there is no threat of anybody returning and demolishing our home. We have to start saving to buy plastic sheets and staying with relatives will help us to do so.”

“How?”

“For some time, since we will stay with relatives, we do not have to fully pay for food. It is contributed. It helps us to save at least 100 rupees every day. After some days, it is enough to buy plastic sheets.”

“What’s been on your mind since this incident?”

“I hate it! I hate it! I hate it! But things like this keep me motivated to study further. I want to be a police officer one day and stay in my own house where I don’t have to live with the fear of being thrown out every single day. I don’t want to stay in fear, that’s it.”

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – A Home Away From Home For Sujay

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or found begging. 

Sujay’s (name changed) peers call him “humble and polite”. The 13-year-old boy, who loves to study, has been staying in a Children’s Home after he was rescued from beggary in June 2016. He used to stay along the roadside in Mumbai’s Grant Road with his father, who did not care much about him. Later, he took to begging along with women and children on the road. At the Children’s Home, he feels safe, he says.

“Hi, how are you today Sujay?”

“I am good Didi.”

“Did you go to school today?

“No! Today is Saturday. No school.”

“What have you been doing then?”

“I have been playing with my friends.”

“What were you playing?”

“Marbles.”

“No studies today?”

“Not much, no homework today. We have tuitions in the afternoon.”

“Sujay, do you like staying in a Children’s Home?”

“Yes. I do. You know Didi, this place is way better than where I lived earlier.

I used to stay on the road, with my father. My father hardly cared for me. It has been two years he has not come searching for me. I felt left out Didi. But here everyone appreciates my work. When I used to stay on the roads, I had to beg along with my friends every time we felt hungry. Here in the Home, I don’t have to ask for anything, be it food or education. When I was on the streets, every day was a struggle to survive. You have to be tough to survive on the streets. Here, I feel safe.

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – A Hard Day’s Night For Chaaya

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Close to a traffic signal at Dadar in Mumbai, on the dusty pavement, 13-year-old Chaaya (name changed) sits huddled, meticulously tying one flower after the other to weave a gajra (garland). There are days, when she has to skip her school to sell these gajras to contribute towards her family’s income to make ends meet.

 “Hi! How are you?”

“I am good.”

“Do you go to school?”

“Yes, I am in Class VI now.”

“Do you go every day?”

“No, sometimes. One or two days a week.”

“Why?”

“I have to work.”

“What work?”

“I make and sell gajras.”

“Who gets the flowers for the gajra?”

“Sometimes, my mother or I go to the market to buy flowers. We have to wake up early, get the material and start preparing gajra.”

“This is what you do every day?”

“Yes.”

“When do you go to school then?”

“I have school in the morning. If my mother goes to the market and brings the material, I am able to go to school.”

“Your mother doesn’t go every day?”

“No, sometimes she sleeps till late, which is why I have to go.”

“What about your father?”

“He does not help. He is a daily wager and wastes all the money in drinking.” 

“Do you like to study?”

“Not much, I don’t understand what is taught in the school. But I do want to study and complete at least Class X. My parents won’t let me study further.”

“Why so?”

“Girls in my community get married once they turn 18 years.”

“Do you want to marry?”

“I don’t have much of a choice in that. I have to get married.”

“Would you like to tell us about your day at work.”

“So, I get up early in the morning. My younger sister and I go to the market to fetch flowers and other materials for gajra. I come back and start making the garlands. I make about 100-200 of them per day. By afternoon, I go to the nearby railway station to sell them. I earn around 200-300 rupees, excluding the material expenses. There are times when we don’t have to sell. We get work from others to complete certain number of gajras and we get paid. The material is provided and I don’t have to sell, though the number of gajras are more. We have to make 1,000-2,000 garlands in two days. We get paid well, but it is a lot of work.”

“Who uses the money you earn?”

“I give it to my mother. We buy food from the money my mother, sister and I earn by selling gajras. My mother cooks good chicken. You should try it.”

“Do people ever give you food?”

“Yes, they do. People come and distribute food. Or sometimes leftovers. We don’t eat the leftover food.”

“Do you get bored of working?”

“Yes, I do. But I have to if I have to eat.”

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Leaving Her Husband To Study Further

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Today an adult, Aarti (name changed) belongs to the Pardhi (a semi-nomadic now de-notified tribe, which was for over a century branded as a criminal tribe) community of Solapur, Maharashtra. Having gone through a forced marriage, young Aarti nurtures a dream — a dream to study further.  

“How long have you been married Aarti?”

“It has been two years. I don’t stay with my husband anymore.”

 “Why?”

“He didn’t give me any attention. I worked for him and he cared least about my existence.”

 “How long have you been staying away from him?”

“It has been six months. I was married against my wishes. I wanted to complete my Class X and then take up a good job. But my mother and uncle beat me up and forcibly got me married off.”

 “What did your husband do?”

“He would make me work for the whole day and cared least about me. If he thought that I did not work as he wanted, he would mercilessly kick me or hit me. I would be in pain for hours. He used to beat me up because I could not bear a child even a year after our marriage. He used to humiliate me in front of everyone and my family. Others took my side, but my family kept quiet.

Now that I have left him, my family taunts me. They laugh at me. My mother survives on my earning, yet she says that I am a burden on her. I earn and live on my own, but still they slam me. My mother wants me to go back to my husband. But I don’t want to. Why should I? I want to complete my Class X. This is the reason why I have come to you Didi. I want to study and get out of here, and stand on my feet.

“Did you ever complain to police?”

“No. I haven’t and I don’t want to. I don’t want to cause trouble to anyone. All I know is that I don’t want to stay here anymore.”

 

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Manoj’s Adolescent Years Of Drug Addiction & Overcoming It

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Twelve-year-old Manoj (name changed) is a doting brother. He and his younger brother used to wander around together across the suburbs of Mumbai. The duo would beg for a living. It was during a follow-up meeting by the Prerana’s team that they discovered Manoj’s addiction to drugs. He used a part of the alms to support his addiction. Subsequently, he was sent to a rehabilitation center following the order by the Child Welfare Committee. Here is a part of the discussion by Prerana’s social workers as they interact with Manoj in one of the follow-up visits after the child was placed in the rehabilitation center. 

 “Hi Didi, how are you?”

 “I am good Manoj. How about you?”

 “I am good since the past few days. Initially, it was difficult (rehabilitation process). I felt weak. They made me stay in a place where they gave me medicines and food.” 

 “Do you feel okay now?”

 “I feel good. I have been feeling strong since the past few days.” 

 “That’s good to know.” 

 “I was not okay initially, but I feel better now. I was never okay Didi when I took drugs. My younger brother had asked me to stop it so many times but I did not listen to him.” 

 “What had happened?”

 “My younger brother and I would wander from place to place. I had friends who took drugs — the shoe polish. We used to inhale it. I used to feel dizzy after that. It started as fun, but took a heavy toll on me. My younger brother had warned me, but it was of no use. I continued taking it.” 

 “Do you want to return to your home?”

 “No. Actually I am not sure Didi. I will stay till I am sure I am okay and then want to return.”

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Hazardous Work And Hungry To Lead A Life Away From It

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Sixteen-year-old Akash (name changed) dropped out of school after his father’s death. He was 12 then. While he studied in an “ashram-school” (tribal residential school run or supported by the State) in Solapur, the situation compelled his mother to ask him to beg and later do menial jobs to make ends meet. Prerana under its Sanmaan project is now trying to reintroduce education in the life of this child. 

 “Tai, Akash is spelt with one ‘A’ and not 2.” 

 “Sorry! How come you are back early from work today?” 

 “No, I did not go to work today.” 

 “Why did you not go to work? What happened?”

 “Nothing!  Just did not feel like going. Tai, did you get the information of NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) that you were to get?”

 “Yes, I did! You have completed your standard VI right? So, we can now have you admitted in the next class. Tell me something, why did you drop out of the school?

“I did not want to continue. Our father died when I was 12. My mother had to make me and my step-brother discontinue our school so that we could work and earn for the family. In all, we are eight brothers and sisters. My mother could not take care of everyone herself. So, she removed us from the school.”

 “What kind of work did you do?”

 “For a year, I begged along with my younger sister. We both earned 200-300 rupees a day. I used to give the money to my mother. I never liked the work she had to ask me to do, but I had no choice. Then along with my mother I started selling things. I sold books and gajras in local trains and on the streets. 

 “Then?”

“Once I turned 15, I started doing menial labour. I worked at construction sites, Metro sites and even cleaned sewers. I hate it! I hate to clean the gutters. The stench makes me choke and puke, but you have to do any kind of work you get. I have to work and earn if I have to survive. The work — be it clearing sewers or construction work — is physically taxing, which is why I eat tobacco. It calms me down.” 

 “Do you know that taking tobacco is dangerous for your health?”

 “Yes, I do know that it could kill me. But Tai, the kind of work I do, it hits you mentally. There are times when I am so frustrated that I physically fight with people around me for no apparent reason. I need tobacco so it helps me to get through the day.”  

 “Please note that we can take you to a rehabilitation centre to help you give up tobacco.”

 “You mean treating?”

“Yes, you might need medical help to get rid of it.”

 “I need to think about it.”

 “Tell me something…. why do you want to study?”

 “When you came to the community I saw that you wanted to make sure that the children go to school and study. No one has ever come to our community like that. I always wanted to study but did not know whom to approach for that. Which is why I have come to get the information about what’s to be done to complete my education.”

 “Yes, but why?”

 “Why not? You completed your studies, why can’t I? Why do I have to give any reason for completing my studies. Tai, what kind of future you saw when you completed your education?”

 “I did my Masters in social work because I wanted to be a social worker. What do you want to be when you complete your education?”

 “I don’t know! All I know is that I want to study and complete the 15th standard. All I know is I don’t want to work under the scorching sun, get drenched in the rain, work in the sewers to earn money, without caring for myself.”

Working in sewers is hazardous work. Children up to the age of 18 (below 14 are children and 14 to 18 are adolescents as per the 2015 amendments in the Child Labour Law) are not to engage in hazardous work as per the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Giving Up On Her Dreams For Her Younger Sisters

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Every morning, Savita (name changed) hops on to the local trains on the Harbour Line in Mumbai to sell a sack of garbage bags. This 14-year-old girl has a family of five, and is the eldest of the three daughters. They live in a shed made of aluminum sheets by the side of a highway in Chembur, a suburb in Mumbai. 

 “You are home early today!”

 “Yes, I completed my day’s work and returned early.”

 “Where do you go for work?”

 “I sell garbage bags in local trains; one packet for 20 rupees and three for 50.” 

 “How many bags do you buy every day?”

 “We buy a sack full of the garbage packets. Each sack contains around 100 packets. 

“How much do you buy those for?” 

“Each packet? Nine rupees per packet. Mother buys the sack.” 

 “From where?”

 “Somewhere in Mulund, I don’t know the place.” 

 “And so you sell the whole sack all by yourself?”

“No, my mother and I do.” 

 “How much do you earn?”

 “Around 500 rupees per day.” 

 “How long do you work?”

 “I leave by 9 am and return by 8 pm sometimes.” 

 “What do you do once you return home?” 

“I cook, and eat the same food the next morning too.”

 “Do you want to continue working this way?”

 “(Shyly) I don’t have any choice, I have to eat and survive, for which I have to work. My family depends on the money I earn. I have to take care of my sisters. Nobody cares about us. I don’t like working. Women customers bargain and higgle-haggle even for 10 rupees. Men on the platforms ogle at me. But yet, I have no choice Didi. I have to work.” 

 “Do you complain to anyone about it?”

 “No one. It is part of the work I do. I can’t even complain to police or they will ask for hafta (extort money) from me for selling the bags in the train. I can’t afford that. If I get arrested, I have to pay a 1,200-rupee fine to the police. The women police come and take away our things. Earlier, I used to sell clips, but I got caught once in six months and had to pay fine. Also, the revenue is not that good in selling clips. In selling bags, I don’t get caught easily and the profit is good.” 

 “How many family members do you have?”

 “We are five people — two younger sisters, father, mother and me.” 

 “Does your father work?”

 “He does, but he spends all his earnings either on gambling or drinking. He does not care about us. If we try to talk to him he beats us up… all of us.  Also, he wanted a boy child, and we all are girls.” 

 “What about your education?”

 “What education Didi? I tried going to school, but was ridiculed by my teacher. I was bullied by my classmates for not understanding a word in the class. There were times, due to tiredness, I would doze off in the school and the teacher would scold me in front of the whole class. It was unpleasant and humiliating.” 

 “Do you ever want to complete your education?”

 “I am not sure Didi. All I want is to take care of my sisters. I want them to be educated. I want them to complete their education and have a stable job. I want them to be addressed as ‘madam’. In the next few years, I may get married, but I will still take care of my sisters.”

LittleHumansOfMumbaiStreets – Saanya’s Unforgettable Life Without A Shelter

Little Humans, in collaboration with Prerana, brings to you the stories of vulnerable children from the streets and communities of Mumbai who are either forced into, rescued from or are found begging. 

Saanya (name changed), a 10-year-old girl, was rescued from begging in Mumbai, back in May 2016. Today, she and her sister study in a Municipal school in Ghansoli, Navi Mumbai. She is regular at a school and is good at her studies. In conversation with Prerana’s social workers, she recalled the challenges she had faced while she lived shelterless along a roadside in Ghatkopar with both her sisters and parents. The family’s makeshift toilet meant four bamboo sticks on four corners tied together by tattered pieces of cloth and plastic. 

 “What safety related challenges did you face while staying alongside a street?”

 “As you know, we don’t have water and toilet facilities. We have to take water from the nearby colonies. Often, the residents of those colonies humiliate us and shout at the children for fetching water from there. We don’t have our own toilet facility, neither is there any public toilet facility. So, we are forced to wake up early and go to a nearby colony, which is abandoned, to relieve ourselves. It is dangerous at night but it is also difficult during the day time as it is dimly lit there. We have to always take someone with us for our safety.” 

Why do you feel unsafe?”

 “It is all dark there. If we are alone anyone can do harm to us in any manner.” 

 “What do you mean by ‘anyone’?”

(She does not answer)

 “What is the worst thing about staying on a footpath?” 

 “We are scared, especially at night. My parents sleep on either side keeping me and my sister in the middle. My mother has instructed me to scream aloud and raise an alarm if someone tries to touch me.” 

 “Have you ever spoken about it to anyone?”

 “No one other than my family.” 

 “Do you know about the child helpline – 1098?”

 “No.”

 “So, when someone touches you or tries to grab you or does anything that you don’t like, you can always talk to the police. You can also call 1098 and talk to the helpline persons.” 

 “How will that help?”

 “They will protect you. They will try to get the person who troubles you punished.”

 “Hmmmm.”

 “Would you like to stay in a children’s home instead of living on the street?”

 “No! Not a children’s home. I am happy with my family. I don’t want to be away from my family.” 

 “If you get to stay in some place other than the streets or children’s homes, what kind of place you would you want to be in?”

“A place where there is a tap and a toilet in the home, so that we don’t have to listen to anyone’s scolding; a place with walls and a roof, so that we could be protected from the rains, so we won’t have to run from place to place on a rainy day. A place with a cupboard, so that we can keep our belongings safely. Also, from where school is nearby, so that I don’t have to walk long distances.” 

Under The Guise Of Faith- At The Kumbh Mela

Confluence of the Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati. Devotees. Curious foreigners. Naga Sadhus. Saffron cloth. Camping on the river side. Colourful flags. Marigold flowers. Garlands. Loud chants. Chiming bells. Cheering crowds. People. Faith. Offerings. Sacrifices. Holy dip. Washed away sins. Liberation. Moksha. More people. Stampedes. Screams. Clatter. Chaos. Quiet. Faith. Offerings. Sacrifices.

It’s happening right now, and it is the Ardh Kumbh Mela festival in Uttar Pradesh, India, the world’s largest religious gathering, and possibly the largest congregation of human beings in a single place. Amongst millions of devout pilgrims are also present numerous children. Some coerced to collect alms, others taken to be purified, yet others employed to keep the rivers clean. While they mostly remain out of our peripheral vision, their presence raises significant questions on the role we ascribe them, in the world of religion.

Here are some photos on how young children participate in religion, under the guise of faith, not understanding why, yet, defining their association to religion for the rest of their lives.

A newly initiated child monk puts on a turban, in a tent erected along the riverbanks at the Kumbh Mela 

Photo- Saurabh Das/ AP

Another young boy, preps for the day to follow…

Photo – David Ducoin

A child dresses up as a God to collect alms from pilgrims

Photo- Kevin Frayer

Another, makes her way to this large gathering in the hope to make some money

Rajesh Kumar Singh/ AP

Children turned sadhus, sit on the bike with their predecessors

Photo – David Ducoin

A little boy cries in fear as his father takes him for the holy dip

Kevin Frayer/ AP

A child adorned with marigold flowers, carried on the shoulders of Sadhus remains unaware of the meaning of this religious procession

Photo- Sanjay Kanojia

A child carries a basket of flowers to sell to pilgrims on a shore off the holy river 

Photo- Sanjay Kanojia

Accompanied by their families, boys make offerings

Photo – Brett Cole

Young girls perform Pujas

Photo – Brett Cole

Others play in the putrid waters…

Photo – Brett Cole

And entertain themselves, oblivious of the mega event around him

Photo- Sanjay Kanojia

A boy bathes in the polluted waters during the Kumbh Mela

Photo- Sanjay Kanojia

A man carries his grandson on his shoulders to avoid him getting lost in the crowd

Photo – Rajesh Kumar Singh

A group of workers, including children, clean the banks of River Yamuna

Photo- Sanjay Kanojia

 

Understanding Millennials Through Magazine Covers

Every generation across centuries has brought with them definitive characteristics and traits, many passed down and many struck down as the new generation emerged. Yet, there is one generation whose distinct characteristics are shaping world order, influencing new age cultures and leading the way from a very young age. 

Millennials, as they are popularly known are self-assured, socially conscious social media addicts. They challenge status quo and question establishment. They are egotistical, entitled and empowered. And they are the unconventional trendsetters of the 21st century.

Here are 5 magazine covers that illustrate traits typical to this young genesis of people.

1. THE ME ME ME GENERATION

A selfie a day, keeps the doctor away. Be it at work, or at the gym, a selfie is imperative. For this generation of digital natives, the internet has been their classroom as much as it has been their playground. It has made them independent thinkers as much as it has made them dependent social media addicts. It has given them access to ideas as much as it has given them the means to implement them. While the influx of social media has made this generation more connected and updated, changing entirely how they consume information and interact with each other, it has also made egos more fragile and instant gratification more important. Hailed as one of the most narcissistic and entitled generations, Millennials tend to seek security, validation, and refuge in social media, everyday.

While this cohort is native to the digital world, how long will it be before they step out of their social vacuum and get over their social media hangover?

2. THE DO-IT-YOURSELF (DIY) GENERATION

The simple belief of this generation is that if you can dream it, you can do it. They are ambitious as much as they are at ease in their skins. They are fiercely independent and confident, moving away from conventional, orthodox opportunities, paving the way for themselves. Risk takers, trend setters, change makers and tech wizards, this Elon Musk generation is setting the new world order.

Will this DIY generation change the stereotype ‘youth is wasted on the youth’ and build a self-reliant future for themselves?

3. BEYOND ‘HE’ OR ‘SHE’

This generation rejects notions of what society has told them about who they are supposed to be. They are inclusive, accepting and all-embracing of whatever identities they discover, questioning the conventions when it comes to gender and sexuality. Millennials have no one identity, rather a variety of identities reflected in their culture at large, they respect personal choices and are redefining the meaning of gender world over.

Will Millennials fight the gender fight till it moves from the margins to the mainstream and becomes an accepted way of life?

4. THE YOUNG & THE RESTLESS

From seeking laws for better gun control, standing strong against environmental degradation, sharing their views on a gender fluid world and corruption, to promoting equal rights, education and empowerment for their generation, Millennials are at the fore for almost every social issue. These protagonists for social change, work and think independent of the previous generation, taking causes into their own hands, not sitting around waiting for change to happen.

Will the Millennials pass on Youth Activism to the next generation?

5. MILLENNIAL MIND – AGE OF ENTITLEMENT OR ENLIGHTENMENT?

Millennials inherited a world that has left them in a dilemma. While some are paralyzed with anger and confusion, others are activated to save an ailing environment, still others are choosing to travel the world, educate themselves online or start new businesses instead of getting a higher degree. Today, Millennials have no single voice for their generation, rather, a chorus of voices that represent the different understandings of current life quandaries, and in some cases, creative resolutions to them.

Will this generation overcome the dilemmas passed down by their previous generation, and transform it into an age of entitlement or enlightenment?

Education, Development & Tribal Children – A Conversation With Champions Of Change


While India continues to make strides in economic development, the costs of this development are being borne by some of the most unassuming citizens of the country. The tribal communities across India are among the most adversely affected communities as a result of development strategies that fail to include the rights and entitlements of these particularly vulnerable citizens. The exclusion becomes sharper when the state and the society at large is unable to distinguish between what their understanding of development is, versus what development the “mainstream” assumes they would benefit from. The Vedanta debacle in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha is perhaps one of the best examples to substantiate this.

A lack of education facilities catering to a tribal child’s world, severe nutritional deficiencies, and caste and gender barriers are some of the core issues which add to the further disempowerment of the tribal communities. These issues particularly affect the children and the women of the communities. As attempts to “mainstream” tribal children with promises for a better future continue, it is important to engage with questions of whether this mainstreaming is further alienating them from everything they have known as home. It is also crucial to deliberate on ways to engage with these issues to ensure a holistic approach of development for the tribal child and the community.

Vidhya and Achyut Das who founded Agragamee in 1987 have led some of the most defining struggles of the tribal people in the hinterlands of Kalahandi and Rayagada districts of Odisha. Theirs is an organization of firebrand activists committed to addressing some of the complex development issues faced by tribal communities through a focus on (but not limited to) literacy and education. By following an issue-based, culturally sensitive, sustainable and people-centred approach, Agragamee has brought about ripples of change in some of the most impoverished and neglected regions of India.

In conversation with Vidhya and Achyut Das on education and development challenges faced by the forgotten children of India, and that solutions are possible.

1. One of the foremost mandates of Agragamee is education for tribal children. While both of you as a team have done pathbreaking work in the field of adult literacy, you have also expanded your efforts towards programs for primary education in tribal areas. Can you tell us a little more these interventions and why there is a special focus on the girl child through them?

Children in Rayagada and Kalahandi districts of Odisha have faced multiple exclusions for generations, the most critical of these being the exclusion from education. Agragamee has been involved in the implementation of programs for primary education in these districts for the last three decades. The project is designed for children of economically deprived sections who are first generation school goers.

These efforts in education were essentially through single teacher learning centres, which sought to provide education in some of the remote tribal regions where schools did not exist or did not run. The interventions helped establish child centered processes, where learning and play merged into one another, helping teachers enjoy their work almost as much as the children. These learning centres functioned during the night, when working children as well adults had free time to learn. Subsequently the teachers were encouraged to take up the schools in two shifts, to cater to different age groups.
In time we felt the need to begin full time schools to demonstrate quality education in the tribal regions, where even children who had given their 10th Board exams could barely read. These schools focus on girls as a necessary effort to address the huge gender gap in education in the tribal regions. Taking into consideration, the extremely low level of education of girls and women in the tribal districts of Odisha, the Agragamee Schools have been able to break the taboos and barriers to the education faced by the girls in the tribal villages.

2. What has been the role of the community in supporting these interventions?

These schools were based on the felt need of the community. They were keen that their children learn how to read and write. Thus, these programs had immense participation of the community. They even provided a space and a school building to start off the process. Initially, this participation was in the form of silent observation. Subsequently, many adults and adolescents started bringing their slates and chalk to these learning centres to pick the basics of literacy.

In due course of time, these centres became active and vibrant spaces for discussions on socio-economic issues affecting the village, including alcoholism. There was a time when parents from an OBC community in Kumbharshila village did not want their daughters to mingle with SC and ST children in the Agragamee schools and therefore did not send their children to school. Before long, they let go of the caste barriers and started sending their girls to school on realizing that the children who came to the school were passing their high school examinations with flying colors while their daughters were still unable to write their names.

Some of the children have already started teaching their mothers alphabets. A mother once shared, “My child has been after my life. She has taken a vow that she won’t relax until she teaches me how to read and write”.

3. How does the curriculum in these schools differ from regular government primary school curriculum?

The methods of teaching in these schools are completely child centered. There are certain things that make the curriculum followed in these schools significantly different from other schools. The children are encouraged to hold on to their tribal identities through what they are taught. There is an emphasis on total self-expression of the students through co-curricular activities, and a development of value-based curriculum and teaching aids with locally available material. Most importantly, teachers are trained as activists for social change and they understand the immense potential and importance of this role.

4. Based on your decades of work experience in the tribal belts of Odisha, what are some of the major challenges tribal children face in terms of access to education?

The children from poorer communities and in the tribal regions have multiple disadvantages. Poverty often forces them to take time out of their school and studies and work to help their parents in earning a livelihood. Additionally, they suffer from chronic nutritional deficiencies, which makes them prone to diseases and further reduces their ability to study and work.

The challenge then is to break this self-reinforcing cycle of poverty and low learning levels and provide a demonstration of a scalable model for developing efficient and effective reading competencies in communities which are still in the process of creating first generation school goers.

5. It is speculated that once the school rationalization policy by Niti Aayog is implemented, about 4200 government schools will be merged or closed. Rayagada district has already witnessed a closure of 121 government schools. What is your opinion on this? What impact do you think this will have on the ground?

The rationalization policy might make practical sense, however if you look at it from a rights-oriented perspective, it is misplaced. This policy is in direct conflict with the Right to Education Act. They say this is to save resources but shutting down 120 schools is not going to save resources. The per child resource requirement in a residential school is almost three times more than that for a village school. It would be much more practical and sensible to invest in improving teaching, and other support in the village schools where every child can acquire education.

This policy is problematic because the real problem has been ignored by coming up with this as a solution. There is low attendance in village schools because there is very poor quality of education. Children barely learn anything even after 7-8 years of schooling. Thus, parents feel school is a waste of time. Children also do not find anything of interest to attract them to school, in the schools, and prefer to discontinue sooner rather than later. The parents of these children are illiterate and believe that Ashramshalas are a better option because they cannot understand why the standard of education in the primary schools is low.

While there are insufficient teachers in government schools, there is also very little  pressure on teachers to teach effectively. Furthermore, there is a lot of pressure on them for other works including Adhaar registration, new voters survey, updating the DISE, etc. This detracts from the main work of a teacher which should be teaching, and improving her abilities to teach. Teacher support in terms of appropriate training, onsite monitoring, demonstrations by senior members are also very poor, to the point of being almost non-existent in the tribal regions. Several systemic improvements are therefore necessary, to address the neglect and inefficiency in education in the tribal regions.

6. Do you think Ashramshalas are an effective solution to the literacy crisis being faced by tribal children?

The understanding within the Government seems to be that tribal children need a controlled environment to learn, and thus they need to be sent to residential schools. Nothing can be further from the truth.  Ashramshalas are not going to solve the learning crisis in the tribal regions. They will only serve to alienate the tribal child from her community. In this situation, she either has to adapt to the language, value systems and culture of the middle class or develops an inferiority complex and becomes completely subdued. Such processes have been tried with indigenous populations in several countries with very serious consequences. Tribal communities their own value systems and ways of life which need to be respected.

7. The word ‘development’ when applied to tribal communities is truly dichotomous. How do we decode what development really means for a tribal child?

A good school in the village – with a good teacher and proper infrastructure which includes library facilities and drinking water, and food security for the children and the community. The mid-day meals are meant to be supplementary feed have become the only food children have access to. There needs to be a focus on harnessing the self-sustaining power of the community. There is need for a holistic approach which builds up the self-reliance of the family and the community, along with quality education.