I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!

A note I wrote a year ago, sadly, ceases to be irrelevant. Do read in context of the recent controversy of ABVP and Ramjas:

The Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad is arguably the most noted public university in Pakistan. Founded in 1965, the campus shone for its liberal outlook. Describing the pulse of the university, renowned author Steve Coll, in his book “Ghost Wars”, writes, “During much of the 1970s, the university’s culture had been western in many of its leanings. Women could be seen in jeans, men in latest sunglasses and leather jackets.”
In 1977, capsizing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power of the country. He would later send Bhutto to the gallows in 1979.
Zia aborted national polls, citing there’s “no place for western-type elections” in Islam. Simultaneously, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative political party, campaigned for a “moral transformation of Pakistani society”.
In the mid-70s, Jamaat student leaders made their presence felt at the Quaid-i-Azam University. By late 1979, the university’s student union was under their control. The Jamaat student leaders named and shamed women refusing to wear the veil, threatened liberal and secular students and teachers.
The Jamaat student leaders enjoyed great support from the military dictatorship of Zia. In order to “de-westernize” Pakistan through his “nationalistic” approach, Zia interfered with student politics and promulgated his agenda. During his 10-year rule, Zia diluted the autonomy of educational institutes by abandoning student bodies and making Arabic and Islamic studies mandatory.
A report from 2014, titled “Islamization fears at Quaid-i-Azam University”, notes, “There are far fewer students today who can sing and dance, recite poetry, or who read novels. There’s no intellectual excitement, no feeling of discovery, and girls are mostly silent note-takers, you have to prod them to ask questions.” Further, it mentions the fact that no girl wears jeans or dares to sit next to a man.

I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!

UP Election 2017: In Sonia Gandhi’s adopted Udwa village, millennials are impressed with Modi’s ‘audaciousness’

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Rajiv Kumar, 21, has come home to vote. He has met his parents after June last year. But after going to the ballot on February 23, he will immediately head back within a few days. “I have spent my childhood here,” he says. “But after the amount of time I have spent away from home, it makes it a bit difficult to adjust.”

Rajiv lives in Delhi, where he is preparing for the IAS exams. Prior to that, he spent four years in Assam pursuing B Tech. He hails from the remote village of Udwa in Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli district, which would be going to polls on 23 February. More importantly, Udwa is the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi in 2014 under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

More than two years down the line, millennial voters in Udwa remain without the basic amenities one takes for granted. The struggle begins with sunrise. Only 19 households have a toilet out of the 608 families living here. Others have to toddle through farm fields to relieve themselves. Women have to go even before the sun makes his journey up the sky.

Firstpost/Parth MN

Most houses in Udwa are brick-walled. Firstpost/Parth MN

More than 40 kilometers from the city of Raebareli, Udwa welcomes the visitors with lush green farmlands on both sides of a bumpy road. One hardly comes across a concrete house while meandering through the village. Most of them are brick-walled constructions, which look dilapidated with widening gaps between the bricks. Others are even fragile where a tin-roof is supported by bamboos with brittle constructions covering the sides. One has to bend to be able to enter the house, which is dark even at noon, for the lack of ventilation. Clothes are hung out to dry on a rope tied to a tree in front of the house with livestock walking through the cow dung in the vicinity.

Udwa_1

Clothes are dried outside the houses near trees. Firstpost/Parth MN

The dire state of the village cannot only be blamed upon Sonia Gandhi. The state governments that ruled UP over the years are also culpable of negligence. But having adopted the village, the electorate here believes Sonia Gandhi should have taken more interest in it. Villagers say she has hardly visited, neither has any Congress leader inquired about their requirements.

Rajiv says the village has not changed since he moved to Assam. “When I heard Sonia Gandhi has adopted our village, I was filled with hope,” he says, as he walks through Udwa, with a sense of relief that he would be out of here in a few days. “But apart from the electricity situation, the place is sadly the same.”

Rajiv, who is now well versed with the technology, says he would have loved to remain in his native village. “Who would not want their parents to be around?” he asked. “But it is not possible to prepare for the IAS exam without any facilities.”

Udwa_3

Rajiv, has come back to the village to vote, but he finds it difficult to adjust. Firstpost/Parth MN

Rajiv is a son of the Pradhan of the village, who could afford to send his son away. Others, however, are less fortunate. Lavlesh Kumar, 20, travels 24 kilometers to get to his college, where he is pursuing his final year in BA. He cannot wait to migrate. “I spend four hours in traveling every day,” he says. “I want to do MA after this. I have no option but to migrate. Those who have remained here are languishing without jobs or working as daily laborers. There are hardly any avenues of employment.”

Sick of waiting for the transformation of Udwa, the youngsters here in the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi are set to vote for Narendra Modi. Almost every youngster said Modi is the one who can now be trusted. Udwa has around 25 percent of SC and ST population and a sizeable “Mauryas”, who fall under the OBC category. The BJP candidate here is also a Maurya and the large chunk of SC, ST votes is likely to be split between BJP and BSP. The Congress-SP alliance is struggling here simply because there is no alliance. Udwa is one of the villages in Unchahar constituency, where Congress and SP have both fielded candidates. But as far as Udwa is concerned, the youth here is smitten by Modi.

Rajiv says it is important to have BJP in the state, which would ensure coordination between state and centre, making it easy for the lawmakers to develop UP. “I feel they should have declared CM candidate, but it will be Modi’s man at the end of the day,” he says. “Look at the way he has transformed Gujarat. Even since he assumed prime ministership, he has focused on job creation and investments.”

Rajiv has never been to Gujarat, but he says, he has followed the development through social media, which is his major source of news. He is a frequent internet user, who reads articles popping up on Facebook. “I am also a fan of Sushma Swaraj and Suresh Prabhu,” he adds. “The way they solve problems on Twitter is amazing.”

Udwa_6

Lavlesh has taken a liking for Narendra Modi. Firstpost/Parth MN

Lavlesh, on the other hand, became a fan of Modi after demonetisation and surgical strikes. However, he praised Akhilesh for the developmental work and said even the sitting MLA is a decent man. “But SP cadres indulge in gundagardi (hooliganism),” he says. “I will vote for BJP because Modi is an audacious prime minister. We need someone who is decisive and takes quick steps. How long do we wait for our village to see some sort of development?”

Udwa_4

Neelam is one among the girls who have had to quit studies because of lack of facilities. Firstpost/Parth MN

Listening intently to their forceful arguments is 19-year old Neelam Agrahari, who is helping her brother prepare samosas at their stall. She has studied till 12th standard. But she had to shelve her education in spite of the keenness to continue. “The college is 24 kilometers from here,” she says. “We do not have a bike or a vehicle. It is difficult for a girl to travel that much every day. Most of the girls of my batch have quit studies.” Just a few meters from there, sits a primary school of the village where a slogan on one of the walls reads, “Padhi likhi jab hogi nari, ghar ayengi khushiya sari. (When a woman is educated, there will be happiness in the household)

Udwa_2

A slogan on one of the walls in the village that reads: ‘When women are educated, only then households will be happy’

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 5: Students subjected to rampant political interference

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the concluding part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

It is 5 pm. The final bell goes off. The last lecture has concluded. Students gather their notebooks, pen and bags. Teachers head out of the classroom. Students change their uniforms and put on regular clothes. But just when an outsider would think the students are done for the day, another bell goes off. Boys and girls head out of the rooms in different directions within the school premise. Out on the ground, under the open sky, boys form queues and stand beside each other keeping exact distance from one another, as if getting ready for a PT class. Except it is not a PT class, but an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. Soon, a stick is placed in front of the stationary group and a saffron flag is meticulously unfolded and placed on the mounted stick.

The scene is from a state-aided tribal residential school with over 1,300 students in the Dadade village of Palghar’s Vikramgad taluka. Tribal welfare minister Vishnu Savara’s Arvind Smriti Sanstha runs the school, where the shakha is an integral part of the school curriculum.

Every evening, students at this school – boys and girls at separate venues of the school premises – pray in front of the saffron flag. Hands on their chest, two 16- year-old boys lead the prayers. A staff member of the school joins in. The two boys fluently recite the prayers in Sanskrit. Others follow their lead. It goes on for good five minutes or so, and concludes with the chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

“From where did you learn this prayer?” I ask the two boys. “Our RSS holds a shakha, which is attended by kids from Vikramgad taluka once in a while,” says Dhiraj Bhadange, 16, hair neatly combed, shirt tucked in. “We try to pass on whatever we learn at the shakha to our juniors at this school.”

Dhiraj is proud that he is passing on “wisdom” to his younger schoolmates. Upon asked the meaning of the prayer, Dhiraj says he does not know the entire translation as it is in Sanskrit but understands the crux of it. “What is the crux?” I ask him. “It is a prayer for the Hindu Rashtra,” he promptly says. “We pay our respects to the saffron flag. We pledge to take the Hindu Rashtra to utmost heights.”

The shakha concludes immediately after the prayers. “Exams are going on,” explains a staff member. “Otherwise, we follow up the prayer with games and physical exercises. Kids need to get back to their studies. But it would not be prudent to skip the shakha altogether.”

Another staff member at the school, requesting anonymity, says the government subsidy is merely Rs 900 per month behind every student, in which it is impossible to cover the cost of their meals, breakfast, medicines, blankets and stationery. “We get a fair amount of donation through the RSS,” he says. “Those donations have played a huge role in the development of the school. And attending shakha cannot hurt the students. They are learning the importance of discipline.”

There are 1,109 tribal residential schools across 16 tribal concentrated districts of Maharashtra – half of the schools are aided by the state, which are run by various NGOs. Most of the NGOs either belong to a politician or someone close to a politician, thereby tribal schools are often subjected to political interference which cuts across political parties.

Senior educationist Herambh Kulkarni points out that the interference of Congress and NCP has been more prolonged and acute over the years. “The ashram schools run by Congress and NCP members are used to conceal their corruption,” he said. “If an officer notices any wrongdoing, he is reluctant to act against the school because of the political might. Many of their schools show more number of students than what actually exists, enabling them to get more donations.”

In September last year, a Rs 67-crore scam had inadvertently come to light, when over 8,000 tribal students in the region of Jalgaon appeared to be non-existent during a drive to promote Aadhaar. Activists believe the phenomena is statewide and around 30 percent of the entries out of the 2.4 lakh students enrolled in the state-aided ashram schools could be fake. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

The politicians and headmasters understandably deny political interference, and teachers refuse to speak about it, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Former MLA Vivek Pandit says the term political interference does not convey the gravity of the practice. “It is political control,” he says.

Bandu Sane, an activist who has been working with tribals in Vidarbha for the longest time, says the placements at ashram schools often go to the relatives or friends of the politician whose NGO is running the school. “Tribal schools get a lot of donation, and it is hardly monitored. Precisely why most of the tribal politicians own one,” he says. “I have seen teachers and non-teaching staff campaign for political leaders who employ them. They cannot say no even when they are used like donkeys.”

A teacher, requesting anonymity, says as the elections approach, workload increases, as he has to double up as a teacher as well as a cadre. “We are asked to campaign, distribute money, maintain accounts, prepare posters and everything that is done ahead of the elections,” he says. “It is a given that we have to work during the elections. It is an unsaid rule that we cannot question.”

While no political ideology or stream is immune to it, the indoctrination of tribal students at the Arvind Smriti Ashram School is quite
blatant. Tribals have traditionally not had a religion, and this appears to be a drive to bring them into the Hindu fold.

Dhiraj teaches his younger colleagues to maneuver lathi and martial arts, or Niyuddhi, as he likes to call it. “We need to be equipped enough to protect the Hindu Rashtra from any danger,” he says. Danger from whom? He smiles unsurely and says, “Outsiders.” Upon probed further, he seems clueless.

On special occasions, the RSS ideologues from the nearby shakha visit the school, says Dhiraj, and address the students. “We are taught the importance of our festivals,” he says. “We pay our respects to Shivaji on Shivjayanti, we salute the saffron flag on Gurupurnima, we also celebrate Dr. Hegdewar’s birth anniversary.”

On Raksha Bandhan, students of the school travel to various villages in their locality and tie a rakhi to an elder member of every house they visit, Dhiraj says. “It is a token gesture and a reminder of our pledge to protect the Hindu Rashtra,” he says, at which point the headmaster comes and stands beside him, encumbering his flow. He is suddenly reluctant to speak. I thank him for his time. The headmaster shakes my hand and leaves, and I go after Dhiraj again. “Are you not taught about Christmas or Eid?” I ask him.

“No,” he gives me a sarcastic smile. “They are not our festivals. Not in Hindu Rashtra.”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 4: With poor infrastructure, underqualified teachers, education takes a backseat

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 19 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the fourth part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

The room is about an inch or two wider than the space occupied by two double bunk beds lined up one after another. One has to walk sideways to pass through the space in between the beds. Bed sheets are sullied. There is no ventilation and the light hardly comes through even at noon. The caretaker has to turn on the tubelight to get a good look of the dingy room, where clothes are hanging above the eye level. This is the state of girls hostel in Nashik’s Devgaon tribal residential school. With over 350 residing students here, almost 45-50 of them are cramped into one room, where they spend the night. They do not have separate cupboards, privacy to concentrate on their studies or even a respectable space to keep their clothes.

As one spares a thought for the appalling infrastructural facilities doled out to the students in Devgaon, but as you visit more such tribal schools in Maharashtra, the cramped room appears to be a luxury. Most of the students do not even have a separate space to go to after the conclusion of the last lecture. The room in which they spend their night becomes their classroom during the day.

Maharashtra is the only state that allocates budget for tribal development in proportion of its tribal population, which leaves no scope for shortfall, even though the state runs 555 ashram schools and aids 554 of them. For the year 2016-17, Rs 7,644 crores had been allotted for tribal development.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Living facilities at a tribal school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The tribal ministry is often accused of malpractices and the ground reality of ashram schools makes one wonder where the money goes. In 2008, the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive report to the then ruling dispensation, which highlighted similar infrastructural fallacies to what TISS did to this government in August 2015.

According to the findings, almost half the schools would have to be derecognised, considering the codebook of Maharashtra Ashram Schools mandates the campus of the school be minimum 2 hectares to create a conducive atmosphere for the kids to study and play, which is part of the all-round growth of the students. However, 64 percent of aided and 38 percent of government tribal schools had a campus that did not measure up to the codebook, as per TISS findings.

The report further exposed the state, for it found only 9 percent of the aided and 12 percent of the government-run schools could provide a living space of 40 square feet per student at the girl’s hostel. The boy’s hostel did not fare much better.

With the kind of infrastructure the state provides, it cannot hope to expect the quality of education to be impressive. Only 60 percent aided and 50 percent government schools had classrooms with maps and charts. Moreover, merely 58 percent aided and 55 percent government schools provided tubes/bulbs and fans, making it worse for students to study.

Milind Thatte, an activist in the Jawahar tribal belt, said the concept of tribal schools has become outdated. “Residential schools were conceptualised because there was hardly any access to most of the tribal villages,” he said. “Today, a lot of those villages have become easily accessible. Let the students live with their parents and the state can save up what it spends on the hostel and use it for their books, meals etc. Ashram schools should be limited to places where it is a task for the kids to head out of the villages.”

In December 2015, the Maharashtra government had mooted the idea to rope in the private sector to run the ashram schools, which was an admission in itself of being incapable of running them well in spite of spending thousands of crores.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Even the basic infrastructure at most tribal schools in Maharashtra is in a poor condition. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Former MLA Vivek Pandit, whose organisation works with tribals in the area of Palghar, Thane and Dahanu, said the tribal welfare department depends on contractors, which is marred with rampant corruption. When TISS paid a visit to 1,076 schools across Maharashtra in 2015, it encountered around 75,000 students less than what they had been told, which is astounding considering these are residential schools. Last year, a corollary scam had come to light, where thousands of students enrolled in the schools were found to be non-existent. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

TISS also found the number of posts at the ashram schools had been unoccupied. Including the headmaster, teacher, male and female warden, cook, peon, lab attendant, helper and others, 976 posts had been vacant in aided schools, while in government schools, the number was 3,469.

Instead of filling up important posts like those of a trained teacher, permanent employees, many of the schools have hired teachers on a contract basis, where they are used as cheap labour. While a permanent teacher would have to be paid a salary of at least Rs 35,000, the contract teachers, who teach primary students, are hired at Rs 15 an hour. They are mostly graduates in their mid-20s, hoping to get a permanent job. The secondary and higher secondary teachers get Rs 54 and Rs 72 per hour respectively. One of the teachers, at the request of not being named, expressed his frustration. “I have been working as a contract teacher for 15 years,” he lamented. “Rs 15 an hour fetches me around Rs 2,000 a month. It is humiliating.”

As a result, the student-teacher ratio remains dismal and pupils spill out of the classrooms. Better trained teachers do not take up the job and many who do leave midway through the term.

When TISS submitted its report in 2008, some of its major suggestions included “Provide guidance on academic and co-curricular activities”, “Better training for better teachers” and “Prepare infrastructure budget and check on the structures”. Seven years later, the study by the same organisation did not come up with very dissimilar suggestions. In all likelihood, TISS might be commissioned another study in 2020 and it would probably not matter if the institute merely updates the date and submits the same report it submitted a year and a half ago.

Despite the conditions in which the tribal students study, records show more than 95 percent of the students pass their board exams. But before one is misled into thinking about a positive story amid adversities, activists call it a scam. Most of the students, they say, struggle to read, and yet go on to pass the exams. Interactions with students at various schools indicated there is much truth to it. Students laboured to solve basic math problems at the age of 14 and 15. Many of the schools did not have a laboratory or a teacher for science, yet students over there have passed the subject.

Activist Bandu Sane, who works extensively with the tribals in Vidarbha, asked if the tribal schools produce toppers, where do the students go after they graduate. “If all the students are passing their board exams, why do they struggle so much once they are out of the tribal schools?” He asked. “It has been five decades since the inception of ashram schools. Why have they not been able to emancipate the tribal society? Why have the tribals remained the way they were a few decades ago?”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 3: Abysmal security, sexual assault cases remain an alarming concern

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 18 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the third part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

When the rest of India was ready to welcome 2017, tribal students at the state-run ashram school in Aswali village of Palghar – about 120 kilometres from Mumbai – were in for an unpleasant shock. At around 11 pm on 31 December, the principal of the school, Yashwant Wagh, barged into the hostel in a drunken state and physically abused the students.

A nine-year-old boy, when asked about the incident, stood up and positioned himself on the floor as if getting ready to do push-ups. But he soon touched the floor with his tiny elbows and arduously pushed himself forward on the ground. Around 30 students were made to do this on the rough, stone cold floor. The boy then said the principal even kicked some of the students and stood on them. They were being “punished” for not doing their homework.

When the local media took up the issue, the principal apologised, but the petrified students said they have seldom felt safe around him. He was later suspended.

Tribal students in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

Tribal students in a school in Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

In Maharashtra, over 5 lakh tribal students are enrolled in 1,109 tribal residential schools – 554 state-run and 555 state-aided – spread across 16 tribal-populated districts. While the conditions in which these tribal students live are repugnant, security of the students, or rather the lack of it, has remained an alarming concern. Apart from being beaten up and ill treated, the cases of sexual exploitation are rampant and it is merely a tip of the iceberg, believe activists.

In November last year, the whole state of Maharashtra woke up to a horror — a tribal school in Buldhana was derecognised after reports emerged that girl students are being sexually assaulted there. The incidence only came to light after a girl, who was visiting her parents, complained of stomachache and was later found to be pregnant. As the episode unfolded, several other girls came forward complaining of sexual harassment, and at least three of them were pregnant. Eleven people were arrested, including school trustees, the headmaster and a few teachers.

Incidentally, a report led by the former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe, was submitted to the Maharashtra governor a month before the Buldhana incident, warning of sexual crimes at tribal ashram schools across the state. The report noted that an alarming 1,077 deaths had transpired in 15 years at the tribal schools, 493 of them were girls. Sexual assaults, suicide, lack of medical help, malnutrition and negligence were cited as major causes for the deaths.

“In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” states the report, adding that schools could not produce any data regarding 12 percent deaths while vague descriptions like “unknown cause”, “severe illness” and “sudden death” were the other reasons. “We had a feeling that the girls were being sexually exploited, but it was obvious they were under pressure from teachers and the management and would not open up to us,” Salunkhe had reportedly said. “Since death certificates in most cases were vague, missing most crucial details, reason of their deaths cannot be ascertained. Sexual exploitation angle cannot be ruled out.”

An ashram school in Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

An ashram school in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. Photo courtesy: Pramod Pawar.

The report suggested the setting up of an internal committee that would address the issue of gender violation according to the Vishaka guidelines. It further stressed the need for teachers and the staff to be appropriately sensitised to gender violations and child rights. The governor wrote a letter to the chief minister asking for lady officers to periodically visit the tribal schools.

After the findings of the report, the Maharashtra government towards the end of 2016, promised to take corrective measures, including a woman’s squad for the safety of girls, ambulances and posting of auxiliary nursing and midwife. However, the promises did not have a deadline, casting aspersions on the sincerity of the move, for all those years, even the most basic security measures had been palpably missing.

The Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a comprehensive study to the government on ashram schools, which noted only 25 percent of the aided and 46 percent of the government-run schools actually had a concrete compound wall marking the premise of the school. With many of the schools located along the road, lack of concrete fencing magnifies the chance of an accident. The state-run ashram school at Thane’s Aaine village presents an amusing and disturbing example. It takes a while to differentiate the school from the village as the houses used for the school are some of the rented apartments of villagers living in the neighbouring houses. The classes function sans any privacy or silence with locals going about their day outside. Building a compound wall for the school would practically cordon off the whole, or at least a part, of Aaine.

TISS further highlighted that only 31 percent aided and 39 percent government schools had a security guard. More shockingly, the post of female warden is vacant in almost 80 percent aided schools and 42 percent of the government schools.

At the government-run ashram school in Palghar’s Sakhre village, the principal, SS Sooryavanshi, said he uses the cook as a security guard at night. “There is only one security guard for 352 students staying here,” he said. “I use him to guard the girl’s hostel. The cook is deployed where the boys live.”

The ground reality at the moment indicates the callousness with which the delicate issue of security is handled by the state. With lack of female wardens, inadequate number of security guards and no compound walls, the schools provide an easy access to any outsider to merely stroll into its premises without being scrutinised. As a result, cases of sexual harassment and assaults on tribal students often crop up every now and then, which activists say are more acute than what the citizenry finds out.

“Tribal families are poor and police do not take them seriously,” said activist Bandu Sane. “Moreover, the fear of dishonour intimidates them against filing a complaint. Other times, the families are paid off to remain silent. And when they conquer all adversities and decide to fight the case, they often find out that the perpetrators have better contacts and their might overwhelms the tribals.”

 

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 2: Students stare at malnutrition due to poor food, filthy kitchens

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 17 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the second part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

A month and a half back, tribal students at the state-run Ashram School in Thane’s Aaine village finally got what they had wanted for months: A bit more rice. Priyanka Kinnar, 13, standing on the street with no lights that passes through the school, meticulously looked here and there and sheepishly made a small cup with her right palm to show the amount of rice the students were served, along with one chapati and vegetables. When students asked for more food, their request was turned down.

Priyanka said she would overhear the kids asking each other for leftover food to pacify their hunger. When students gathered courage and complained to the headmaster, it fell on deaf ears, according to the students. Around two months back, the headmaster was missing when activists of former MLA Vivek Pandit’s Shramjeevi Sanghatana that works in the tribal belt of Palghar, Dahanu and Thane paid a visit to the Aaine school. It gave the students an opportunity to divulge their gripe.

“We found out that the students were served half the amount of rice they are supposed to get at a time,” said Santosh Dhinda, one of the activists who then took up the issue with the local media. “After the cameras arrived in this remote village, the quantity of rice has increased.”

kitchen-listice

The kitchens in the tribal schools are mostly unhygienic. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

In June 2015, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had pronounced there would be no compromise on the quality of food served to the tribal children. To avoid the monotony of khichdi, the state had planned “nutritious meals” that would include roti, pulao, mixed vegetables, aloo matar and aloo jeera, while fruits, eggs, poha and upma would be served for breakfast.

A pilot project of central kitchens was launched in Palghar and Nasik districts the following month, and it was supposed to be replicated throughout the state covering over 5 lakh tribal students by December 2015. “It is my dream project that has come true after 12 years. Nutritious food in ashram shalas will lead to a major socio-economic change,” Fadnavis had said.

More than a year down the line, the socio-economic change seems to be far from achieved, with only a handful of schools being covered by the central kitchens. “The quality of food is relatively better wherever they have central kitchens serving food to a selected schools,” said Vivek Pandit. “But majority of the schools receive ration and food is cooked at the school. The vegetables are rotten, pulses are adulterated. At times, the quality of food is so bad; it makes the food served in jails look good.”

food-listicle

Poor quality food and inadequate variety remain a concern in tribal schools of Maharashtra. Photo courtesy: Parth MN.

The NCP has accused the current ruling dispensation of serving banned, expired food, but interactions with staff members at various schools, while validating the accusations, indicate the situation had been no better under the earlier regime. The staff is keen on sharing details of the deteriorated food quality and lack of adequate variety on the menu, but the moment one asks their name, they stop. “We intend to keep our jobs,” they say.

Upon assuring their identities would be protected, the teachers as well as the non-teaching staff resume, “We also eat the same food. Human beings don’t deserve this kind of food. For very student, the aided school gets Rs 900 a month and government schools get Rs 2500 a month. How is it possible to serve two all-round meals and breakfast in that amount?”

When Shramjeevi Sanghatana surveyed schools in their area, it transpired that the gap between two meals at certain places was as wide as 13 hours.

In August 2015, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) had submitted a report in which it noted that out of all the schools across Maharashtra – just over 1,100 with half of them being aided and other half state-run – merely 6 percent aided and 3.6 percent of the government tribal schools served breakfast according to the menu. Further, 33 percent of the schools has their gas facility and utensils in good conditions but the kitchens were unhygienic.

At the Arvind Smruti Ashram School in Palghar’s Vikramgad, which is tribal minister Vishnu Savara’s school, an open space marked under a tin roof held on a few bamboo sticks serves as a kitchen that makes food for more than 1,300 students. The kitchen is open on two sides and lined with bricks on the other two. Two cooks are in charge of three large vessels, as they prepare food in the company of constant stench.

It has been over five decades since the establishment of ashram schools for tribal students in Maharashtra. Even after all these years, it turns out the tribal kids cannot even take the basic necessities for granted.

The students across Maharashtra received raincoats in October, when the monsoons begin in June. Upon questioned, Savara had said the rainy season is still going on. The Opposition had also alleged the purchase orders for raincoats had been done in violation of norms, without calling for tenders.

Pandit said the whole tribal department runs on contractors, where contracts of crores of rupees are given for various purchases, in which there is rampant corruption. When the department decided to provide sweaters to students during winters, it said the cost of each sweater was Rs 2,100, while its market price was estimated at Rs 500. After a lot of clamour, the idea was amended and the government decided to give the amount directly to students, bypassing contractors and middlemen.

When food and clothing – two of the most fundamental requirements – are predicated on the whims and fancies of the state, it is a fair reflection on the holistic conditions the tribal students across the state are subjected to. In 2014, 40 students in a tribal school of Gondia district had walked out after they found glass and plastic in their food. In October 2016, when former director of health, Dr. Salunkhe submitted his committee’s detailed probe into the deaths at tribal schools in Maharashtra, it cited malnutrition as one of the major causes.

Activists believe the students do not protest as fiercely or frequently over food because they are not aware of what they are entitled to, and their needs are indeed innocently basic. Back in Aaine, Priyanka said the situation is better for the past one and a half months. The cup made from her right palm widened a bit. “They have started serving non-vegetarian food once a month,” she said with a smile. “At times, we also get eggs and bananas.”

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 1: State of neglect endangers student health

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 17 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the first part of a series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

On 7 October last year, 12-year-old Kaushalya Bharsat complained of loose motions at around 6.30 am to the female superintendent of the government-run tribal school where she lived. The principal, SS Sooryavanshi, ordered her to be taken to the nearest hospital in Vikramgad, which is a 25-minute ride from her school in Sakhre village of Palghar district, about 120 kilometres from Mumbai. According to hospital records, Kaushalya was brought to the hospital at 7.35 am, where she was declared dead on arrival.

Sooryavanshi said she had been feeling uneasy the day before, and was taken to the hospital where the doctors prescribed medicines. “She was feeling better in the afternoon,” he said. “She even attended classes that day. We made sure she took her pills after dinner.”

Hospital records, though, told a different story. She had been keeping ill for the past three days. On the morning of 6 October, doctors had advised her to take a blood test. “But she left without doing so,” the report stated. The superintendent, who has since left the job, had reportedly said the doctors did not mention the blood test.

Kaushalya’s distraught father Kusa said he was not even informed of his daughter’s illness. While the doctors verbally told Sooryavanshi that Kaushalya died of food poisoning, the report does not mention the cause of death. Sooryavanshi said if food poisoning had been the reason, she would not be the only victim. Further reports that would ascertain the cause are still awaited from the JJ Hospital in Mumbai.

There are just over 1,100 tribal residential schools in Maharashtra – half of them state-run while others aided by the state. With more than 5 lakh tribal students enrolled in these schools, Kaushalya is not the first whose health has so dramatically and mysteriously deteriorated. According to the high-level probe by Salunkhe Committee, which submitted its report to the Maharashtra governor in October last year, 1,077 deaths have transpired over the last 15 years in the state-run tribal residential schools. “In 67 percent cases, there was no proper mention of the cause of death in the death certificates,” the report noted. Vague descriptions like “severe illness” and “sudden death” dominated the ‘cause of death’ column while malnutrition, lack of medical help, negligence were other reasons, casting serious aspersions on the healthcare, hygiene and sanitation facilities available in these schools across Maharashtra.

In August 2015, Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS) submitted a comprehensive report to the current ruling dispensation after examining 1,076 schools, in which it came up with some embarrassing findings regarding healthcare and sanitation facilities at the ashram schools.

Only half the schools actually had a first aid kit. Menstrual cycles of the girl students were not monitored appropriately, which could lead to Reproductive Tract Infection. Around 54 percent of the aided schools and 61 percent of the government-run schools provided sanitary napkins, while others did not even do that.

In case of an emergency, most of the schools would be frazzled, as hardly anywhere is there a trained doctor to offer immediate treatment. At a government ashram school for girls in Nashik’s Devgaon village, the staff dreads an emergency. “The Primary Health Centre is 12 kilometres from here,” said a staff member, requesting anonymity. “The civil hospital is 70 kilometres. How do we deal with a crisis? We would have to live with perpetual guilt if something goes wrong with the girls.”

An open space surrounded by different one-room constructions occupies the complex of Devgaon’s tribal school. Three years back, another construction came up: The health centre. Except it has been closed from the day it was inaugurated, and the staff said no health official or doctor has even paid a visit. Because of these inadequacies, activists say the proactive medicinal measures seldom transpire and often, the staff wakes up to a health emergency that could have well been avoided. TISS also noted that merely 29 percent aided and 20 percent government ashram schools had good drainage facilities. The rest being average or worse, magnifying the chances of water-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, etc.

Sooryavanshi, whose school in Sakhre moved to a newly constructed complex in the same vicinity at the end of 2016, said he is glad the students would now live in clean, hygienic conditions. “Earlier premise was too small, where students would live, sleep, eat and study in the same room,” he said.

The freshly painted two-storey buildings have a separate residential building for girl students. A huge banyan tree extends its shadow enabling pleasant breeze around the school. However, it appears to be the same medicine in a new bottle. Within days of its move, the school ran into problems with water supply, forcing boys to bathe under the open sky at a nearby lake, which is freezing early in the morning. “The amount of water we have at our disposal is not enough for all the 352 students,” said Sooryavanshi. “We have to prioritise girls over boys.”

The school in Sakhre might have run into problems now, but bathing in the open is a norm in most of the schools. TISS study revealed that only 30 percent of the residential school hostels – aided and state-run – provided a bathroom behind every 20-girl students, while 27 percent aided and 30 percent government schools provided a toilet behind every 20 students. The rest had one toilet behind 50 students or more, compelling students to defecate in the open. Around 10 percent aided and 23 percent government schools did not have toilets at all.

Just six kilometres from the Devgaon Ashram School, is a a state-run school along the river Vaitarna, where every monsoon almost 30-40 students suffer from diarrhea or loose motions, said a staff member. Fortunately, girls here do not live at the school. The toilets are non-functional and boys go to the riverside or in the nearby farm fields to relieve themselves. A few open taps are supposed to serve as bathrooms, needless to say, insufficient for over 300 residing boys.

Gajanan Pingle of Rayambe village, a few kilometres from the Vaitarna School, still remembers the fateful day of September 2004, when a staff member of the school came to his village and said a boy from Rayambe has drowned while bathing in the Vaitarna reservoir. Gajanan rushed to the site along with his neighbours and collapsed when he saw the recovered body of his nine-year old son Deepak. He was his only son. It has been 12 years since the tragedy. A solar panel, which does not work, has been installed at the school since then. But the bathrooms are still inadequate. And students still bathe in the Vaitarna reservoir.

The ‘Secret School’ That Braved J&K Unrest to Continue Teaching

This story first appeared on The Quint on 7 January 2017

For almost five months, Mohammad Yasin Bhat, 32, avoided the main road to commute to his workplace. He would instead take a longer route that made him walk through the fields that were full of mud.

Bhat’s colleague, Mohammad Rafique, 29, would walk for 12 kilometres when he could get there in 6 or 7 by taking the main road.

Both of them are teachers at the Government Boys High School in Paller village of Budgam district, around 25 kilometres south of Srinagar. It is one of the rarest of rare schools in the Kashmir Valley, which was operational throughout the unrest and perhaps the only one to have completed the entire syllabus.

After Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July last year, Kashmiri citizens deluged the streets to protest the ham-handed measures of the Indian state. Violent agitations ensured the Valley was enveloped in turmoil, leading to educational institutes indefinitely shutting down.

Reaching the School Like ‘Undercover Agents’

However, in Budgam’s Paller village, a group of teachers decided they would not let the mayhem affect the education of their students. “The 10th standard exams were looming,” said Bhat, who did his PhD in mass communication and journalism from University of Hyderabad. He came back to the Valley because of his father’s death in 2009 and became a teacher. “We could not think of shunning our responsibility towards the kids.”

A week after Wani’s killing, Bhat said, they held a test and then conveyed their idea of keeping the school clandestinely functional. “Students were keen to study,” he said. “We explained the importance of board exams and how they are likely to shape their future. Once the 10th standard students agreed, others too joined hands. We had instructed them on how we could pull it off.”

Out of the 120 enrolled students, around 80 lapped up the idea. For the several weeks that followed, 80 students and 15 staff members of the school channelised their inner undercover agents. On a daily basis, they surreptitiously walked through farmlands, crossed rivers and whatnot to get to the school, for students or teachers travelling on the main road could easily be spotted amidst a curfew, evoking suspicion.

If anybody questioned, they had a range of reasons from “meeting a relative” to “buying ration” ready at their disposal. Bhat said they simultaneously appealed to the village for cooperation and received unconditional support.

Living With Paranoia

Ashiq Hussain Mir, a ninth standard student, said he was petrified throughout the period but not at any point did he think of backing off. “We were all in it together,” he said. “Refusing to participate in it would have meant abandoning my schoolmates and teachers. We took the hurdles in our stride.”

Mir said they shelved their school uniforms and started attending school in regular clothes. Instead of traveling in a group, “we walked in small numbers, keeping a safe distance from other students”, he said. “We timed our departures from our respective homes accordingly.”

Some of the students even carried a bat as a precautionary measure. In case someone inquired, the kids would say they are heading out to play cricket.

However, it was an arduous task to sustain the classes with so many students without anyone noticing. The fact that the school is located up the hill with no houses in a 100-metre radius helped. Also, the staff fixed broken windows of the school, and conducted classes with closed doors and windows, preventing any noise from penetrating the school premises.

In spite of the precautions, students and teachers lived through the time with extreme paranoia. “I would constantly fear the school would suddenly come under attack while I attended class,” said Mir. “I would frequently look over my shoulder while furtively walking towards the school with racing heartbeats.”

‘Irrespective of Azaadi, Will Continue to Teach Kids’

When the unrest intensified and more than 30 schools were set ablaze one after the other, the tensions in the village of Paller intensified in direct proportion. The headmaster prepared a roster and teachers began guarding the school round the clock in rotation.

They arranged to sleep, eat and bathe at the school. “We had second thoughts about persisting with keeping the school going,” said Bhat. “Even our families were ambivalent about our endeavour. But teaching is not just a job for us, it is our passion. You cannot achieve anything without taking risks. Irrespective of whether we get azaadi or not, we would still be teaching and the kids would still be studying.”

Soon, the hushed voices in the locality started praising the audacious initiative, following which around 30 students studying in private schools that had been shut around Paller approached the headmaster. “They also joined our classes and studied with our kids,” said Rafique. “We made sure their entire syllabus was covered before the exams.”

‘Expecting 100 percent’

In November, the students across the Valley appeared for their board exams. They had to prepare on their own, for when the schools had shut down, they had only covered half the syllabus. But students of Paller walked into the examination hall with their chest pumped up. “We are expecting a 100 percent result,” said Bhat. “The kids put in a lot of hard work. We are confident of their performance.”

Post the conclusion of the exams, the situation in the Valley has been relatively better. 94 percent of the students took the board exams. The agitations are no longer as intense as they had been. The fatigue seems to be setting in. Mass protests, or hartals, are much less frequent than they used to be. Shops open up at flexible hours. The streets are busier. And more importantly, teachers and students at the Government Boys High School in Paller no longer walk through the fields to get to their school.

‘Curfew Classes’: A Ray of Hope For Students in Kashmir Valley

This story first appeared on The Quint on 15 December 2016.

About five months ago, one fine day, Naira Bilal, 16, realised she may not be able to attend school anytime soon. A significant chunk of the portion remained untouched with the all-important Xth standard exam looming ahead. It seemed like Naira’s school life had come to an abrupt end.

When Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed on 8 July, thousands of students in Kashmir Valley experienced similar emotional turmoil. Infuriated Kashmiris thronged the streets protesting against the heavy-handed measures of the Indian government. Schools shut down overnight as the Valley was engulfed with protests.

“It was very disturbing,” Naira said. “When the situation deteriorated in Kashmir, there was no way we could concentrate on our studies. In a hostile atmosphere, we students are hit the most for no fault of ours.”

While thousands of students continued to suffer through the turbulence, a few like Naira found a ray of hope in Srinagar’s Shalimar area located along the now forlorn banks of the majestic Dal Lake. A group of three youngsters – Inam-ul-Rasool, Sheikh Majid and Gazala Ali – decided to start free tuitions for kids in their vicinity missing out on schools due to the unrest. They called it “curfew classes”.

Imparting Education Amidst Unrest

“Within a week’s time, we realised the situation is not going to pacify anytime soon,” said Inam, who is pursuing his PhD in soil and water conservation. “The three of us thought of it as an opportunity to do something good for the people.”

While the idea might have been noble, the execution was complicated. With the Valley shrouded in hostility, Inam and co had to keep the students’ safety in mind, along with curfew hours and Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s protest calendars, that are religiously followed by the people.

We could not start our classes from anybody’s homes because that would have jeopardised the safety of the owner of the house. We had to chalk out a holistic plan before we could begin the programme, without which, no parent would have trusted us with their kid.

Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar

Five months down the line from mooting the idea, the curfew classes that started in one room with 7-8 students, has now blossomed into a family of 170 students. Inam said they have hired more teachers – 14 to be precise – and now occupy four rooms. Other teachers are pursuing higher education in different streams.

Support From Locals

While Srinagar has been in hibernation mode for months with barren streets, Shalimar area has bustled with activity alongside deserted houseboats and anchored shikaras in Dal Lake.

Inam gratefully said they received critical support at every juncture from the people who came across their initiative. “A respected member of our locality, Fayaz Ahmad, facilitated a hall at the Abu Bakar Masjid in our locality where the very first class transpired,” Inam said. “The three more rooms, that we now occupy, have been provided by a landlord Gulzar Ahmad Bhat free of cost. When you initiate an idea from the bottom of your heart, you come across generous people.”

Respite for Students

Inam said the parents did not require much convincing before they agreed to send their child to curfew classes. Parents had been panic-stricken, he said, worried about the studies of their kids. Curfew classes, in fact, emerged like gushing water in a desert for them.

The initial plan was to keep the classes limited to kids studying from 7-10 standards. But as the word spread, people in the vicinity demanded expansion. “We even teach nursery students now,” Inam said with great élan. “We started with kids from our locality. Steadily, others too joined in.”

As the number of students mushroomed, scheduling of classes got more meticulous.

In accordance with curfew hours, the first batch start coming in at 6 am, going on till 9 am. The second, which starts at 6 pm, goes on for two hours. Students have continued attending despite the reducing temperatures in the Valley. Curfew classes have provided a refuge from the claustrophobic atmosphere prevailing in the area.

Inam said they also organised badminton and painting competitions, so that the students would get a glimpse of normalcy amidst the unrest that has devoured their lives.

The ‘Societal Classes’

Around 15-20 students of curfew classes, along with Naira, appeared for the board exams concluded last month. Inam is confident about their scores. “We made sure they completed their portion before the exams,” he said. “We sat with them after they answered their papers. It has been a mighty spirited effort considering the circumstances.”

Naira said she would not have been able to attend the whole paper if not for curfew classes, which were recently renamed as “Societal Classes” because of the support they received from the society. “I am very happy with the way the exams went,” she said. “This initiative has been a huge morale booster. It has been difficult to see the way educational institutes have been targeted.”

More than 30 schools have been set ablaze in the Valley so far. Some time ago, Education Minister Naeem Akhtar even wrote an imploring letter to Geelani – the man manacled by his own government – seeking permission to reopen schools in the Valley. Following the letter, Akhtar received death threats.

Inam called the school burning instances deplorable, and asked, “Which parent or student would want to see their school up in flames?”

At the Receiving End

While the initiative of curfew classes might have been widely hailed, it has had its fair share of detractors. Inam and co have faced wrath from some people for supposedly disrespecting the sentiment of people protesting against the Indian State. “We have been called government agents and accused of disregarding the protest calendar,” said Inam.

We respect the sentiment of people. Lekin protest apni jagah our education apni jagah. You cannot expect everyone to praise you. The support from kids and their parents matters the most. And when they appreciate you for the efforts you have put in, you know it is worth it.

Inam-ul-Rasool, Research scholar

Pythagoras in the field

This story first appeared on PARI on 13 November 2015.

The morning is hazy and cool, accompanied by a light drizzle. The shadow of a few trees falls across a classroom where students are in the midst of learning about electricity – the practical way.

Four 15-year-old Adivasi girls are fidgeting with black and red wires in front of about 35 other students. One girl cuts the covering of the wire, another inserts the exposed part through a plug-in. A third is in charge of installing bulb holders, and the fourth makes sure the negative-positive signs are in place. Soon, the group puts together a neatly constructed electric wire.

02-IMG_1937[1]-ParthMN-Pythagoras in the Field.jpg

Adivasi students demonstrate how an electric wire is made

This “informal” higher secondary school in Dadhre village of Wada taluka in Maharashtra is only two years old, but it is already an important local source of education. It was started in 2013 by a 37-year-old teacher, Pralhad Kathole, and four others, to enable students to continue studying.

After Class 7 at the only Zilla Parishad school in Dadhre (where Kathole works), students had to travel 15 kilometres to reach the nearest high school (though recently the Zilla Parishad school has started a Class 8). Poor transportation and bumpy roads ensured that many students, especially girls, dropped out.

Now, they have another option: the informal school, to which they don’t have to wear a uniform, and where the government-approved curriculum is taught in a uniquely practical manner.

In this remote village, 90 kilometres from Mumbai, students have studied the Pythagoras theorem in an agricultural field by marking out a right angled triangle; they have explored congruent angles and geometric proportions through welding exercises. The formula for volume was explained to them on farmland through an assignment: calculate the length, breadth and depth of a pit required to accumulate 1,000 litres of water. “In summers, we sit under a tree and study,” Kathole says.

03-IMG_1944[1]-ParthMN-Pythagoras in the Field.jpg

Teacher Pralhad Kathole (right) with a guest

Agriculture is the predominant source of income in Dadhre. “Those who continue their studies neglect farm work, and those who choose to work on the farms drop out of school,” Kathole says. “Our aim is to amalgamate the two.” He emphasises how important it is for the students to remain in touch with farming: “Many cannot make it to the city. If they do not have agriculture to fall back on, they end up doing small jobs.”

After the students graduate from the Zilla Parishad school, Kathole and his four colleagues work with them. The classes are held in a village hall. The aim is to prepare the students for the Class 10 board examinations, which they take privately.

Two years after it was started, 92 students – 48 girls and 44 boys – all of them from tribal communities, are studying at this informal institution. It costs Rs. 3 lakhs a year to run the school – most of which comes from donations from friends and acquaintances. The five teachers cover other overheads such as the cost of field visits, and earn a living by teaching in other schools in the district.

Preparing the students for the board exams is not a smooth process. Though the students are supposed to be ready for the Class 8 syllabus, many initially find it hard to even construct a coherent sentence. “The work we do with some of the 13-year-olds should be done when they are seven or eight,” says Kathole. “Many struggle with basic counting. Almost all need personal attention.”

The Zilla Parishad school in the village lacks facilities such as a library, and an adequate number of trained teachers. The students pay the cost: a poor education. “The emphasis is on remembering things by rote instead of understanding them,” says Kathole. As a result, everyone’s essays read the same; “everyone’s mother invariably wore a blue saree,” says Roshna Kathole, another teacher at Dadhre, and Pralhad’s sister-in-law.

One of Kathole’s first steps was to build a library. A corner of the informal classroom now has various books in Marathi, Hindi and English: from Hana’s Suitcase to the tales of Byomkesh Bakshi. Reading helps the students to start thinking independently. “Reading outside the curriculum is the only way one can teach students to express themselves freely,” says Kathole.

The results are evident: some of the essays by students who could barely write are now profoundly visceral and reflect their complex realities. For instance, when asked to describe their village, 14-year-old Vaishali Kavte wrote about the dowry system and questioned expensive weddings. “How are parents with moderate income supposed to get their daughters married off?” she wrote. “The norm of spending above one’s capacity must end.”

04-IMG_1941[1]-ParthMN-Pythagoras in the Field.jpg

An essay in Marathi on the summer vacation, by Class 9 student Rohini Wangal

Another student, Sagar Davle, expressed his astonishment at the amount of money a temple possessed. A few students divided their essays into parts: the first half presented facts and observations, the second was opinion. Others, like Rupesh Ravte, 15, say in the past they shuddered at the thought of an essay but now enjoy writing.

The school has ensured that many students easily pass their exams – 14 appeared for the Class 10 exams last year, 12 passed, and some of them have gone on to do diploma courses.

The school has also changed their parents’ attitude to child marriage, which was justified by citing the lack of a higher secondary school. While early marriages still take place in this village, a precedent has been set: Rupali Baraf, 14, almost got married last year before Kathole intervened. “The groom’s parents offered us a saree but I told them to take it back,” she says with a smile.

But many in Dadhre have still not accepted the unconventional school. The Kunbi community heads the village hierarchy, where the other predominant tribes are Katkari and Warli. The Kunbi avoid sending their children to the informal school. But Kathole is confident they will eventually agree and the number of students will increase, as will the impact of this informal school

Read more

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India