The Consequences of School Closures on Adivasi Children

The Consequences of School Closures on Adivasi Children

My memory of Gorlagudi is that of a tiny little village with some 10-12 mud houses and a little government primary school with cracks in the wall.  The first time I visited this village in Muniguda was in 2019  as part of a food sovereignty project. There, who we fondly called, Aaya  (mother in Kuvi) took me to the dongar (a hill) and we dug some tubers and picked few Siyali fruits which we roasted on fire in the jungle and ate with some honey which some of the young boys collected from a nearby tree.

Gorlagudi is a small village of about 60 households in the Telanga Padar Panchayat in Rayagada district in Odisha. It is usually cold here in January and villagers harvest different varieties of millets, then it is kondulu (a type of pulse) all around till about the beginning of February, and then comes the harvesting season first of turmeric followed by tamarind, followed by the blossoming of Mahua flowers. Various harvest marks the onset of harvesting festivals which involves offerings to the village deity; animate and inanimate like earth, animals etc and several other practices which depicts their strong synchrony with the mother nature is what I learnt from my time spent in this Kondh village.

What I also observed was that when men and women went to collect Mahua flowers in the hills children would accompany the parents after school hours to help them. All these activities not just teach children about their immediate environment but also help them establish a connection with the ecology and learn a skill, is critical in spatial learning and contributes to their social-emotional bond and also strengthens the ownership for land not just as property or object but a non-material ownership too (as was seen in the case of Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri).

So children studying in the village school have the privilege of access to these knowledge systems unlike those who are sent to or forced to go to distant ashram schools. A school in the village is crucial as it doesn’t rob children away from their Adivasi identity in an obvious manner, it gives choice and space to stay in the ecology of forest and learn from their elders. This not only makes them resilience and better ready for the outer world i.e. excruciating changing climate and less jobs but also makes them sensitive individuals who share a broader understanding of the development and will not cast away their Adivasi knowledge systems.

Urban schools lack a social-ecological context to their learning environment as compared to village school. Urban children usually grow with a lens of development which is pre-defined in the cities. It’s hard for them to relate to cutting of a mango tree or forests leading to the growth in carbon emission and global warming. The camaraderie and kinship village children grow sharing with the forest, animals and soil makes them better resilient physically and emotionally too. A 5-year-old shares a comfortable bond with goats, cows, dogs and hen who are around the house. Nobody teaches a child to climb the tree in the village and they usually become an expert before even they become 10-year-old.

And why are these important?

Under Niti Aayog’s project to “rationalise” schools with low enrolment more than 4800 schools were closed in Odisha. Gorlagudi Primary school was also one of the schools which were shut in this drive. Odisha is a state with about 23% tribals. Rayagada is one of the districts with a majority of Adivasis i.e. 58% and literacy rate of 44% in rural areas. Gorlagudi is a small village of 60 households with a few literate men and women. So access to education in these parts is extremely important. 

During one of my conversations, an aggrieved middle-aged woman in Gorlagudi spoke of her two sons who went to residential school and her husband who went to Kerala as migrant labourer. And she was there alone collecting Mahua and drying turmeric. The rest of the village is extremely disappointed. Though the wall was cracked and blackboard needed repair, children still came to the one room school.

Despite the effort of the villagers the school had stopped functioning. There were more than 14 children in Gorlagudi village and a few hamlets around had children too who were of the school-going age and ready to be enrolled if they were actively sought by the teacher. The school merging order was implemented based on just the numbers but completely overlooked the geographical complexities of the village and difficulty children would face to go to another school outside of their village.

Gorlagudi village is amidst the forest surrounded by hills and forests from all sides and its difficult for small children to go to another school alone even if it is a couple of kilometres away, for instance in the next village called Depagudi.  Their parents are farmers and labourers who go to work early in the morning and cannot afford to go and drop their children.

Now this has led to young children being sent to residential schools. And since residential schools have limited seats, many couldn’t go anywhere so eventually dropped out of school. So the ones who went out not only left behind a gamut of culture and diversity but also their language, and a chance to understand their land, diverse food systems and ancestral knowledge while those who stayed back in the village had practically no chance of accessing education.

This situation deprives the adivasi children of a well rounded, all round growth and development. A school merger takes away the chance of children to grow with the wisdom of the nature. A school in the village does not just makes lives easier for children and the community by educating them but also facilitates a ground for better survival by allowing a natural form of ecological, socio-emotional learning to emerge. These are also suggested in the National Curriculum Framework and the Right To Education (RTE) Act.*

 A school which is in the village not only provides with the space for formal literacy and learning but also unknowingly allows them to get equipped and adapt to the ways of life in the village and exposes them to various modes of informal and intergeneration knowledge systems and learning exchanges. For instance, the different kinds of indigenous rice varieties, ways to cook wild food and what tubers to consume.  A village school not only shapes the growth of the child and contextualises its learning but also helps them learn about Adivasi worldview, ecological cultures, traditional practices and everyday life of the community where everyone is a farmer-rearer, a few are potters and iron-smith, a few are bamboo craftsman who can weave mats and baskets, a few know how to carve bottles out of dried bottle gourds, they know how to differentiate edible wild tubers from the non-edible ones, they can forage seasonal wild greens rich in nutrients and know the source of variety of honey, many make their own plough and axe, everyone knows how to build, repair and paint their earthen houses, all know how to make fire and several community member know how to make a wooden thresher to make rice out of paddy.

Closing a school in the village deprives them of this rich, diverse, resilient and adaptive learning environment. The focus should be on making school accessible to every child instead of shutting them down so they have to make the impossible journey to a class, which many will not because they cannot.

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*These are the references from NCF and RTE Act:
(a) connecting knowledge to life outside the school.

(b) Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) makes us aware of the need to broaden the scope of the curriculum to include the rich inheritance of different traditions of knowledge, work and crafts. Some of these traditions today face a serious threat from market forces and the commodification of knowledge in the context of the globalisation of the economy. The development of self-esteem and ethics, and the need to cultivate children’s creativity, must receive primacy. In the context of a fast-changing world and a competitive global context, it is imperative that we respect children’s native wisdom and imagination. (NCF 2005, Chapter 1, P 1)

(c) Development of physical and mental abilities to the fullest extent.

(d) Learning through activities, discovery and exploration in a child friendly and child-centred manner;

(e) The child’s mother tongue serving ‘as far as practicable’ as the medium of instruction;

(f) Comprehensive and continuous evaluation of the child’s understanding and knowledge and the ability to apply it. (RTE Act, Chapter 5, Section 29)

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Photos by Natasha Badhwar

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