The Dongria Kondh, belonging to particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), shot to limelight when they protested against a bauxite mine planned in the Niyamgiri Hills where they live.
Though they were able to stop the mining, development eluded them. They still lack access to quality education, basic healthcare services and government welfare schemes.
Although there are government residential schools in tribal areas, challenges to realize the goal of Right to Education include lack of adequate teachers and basic amenities, teacher absenteeism, and lack of an adequate number of female teachers to inspire girls to study.
Over the years, the tribes have become more aware of the importance and benefits of education in aiding them, and in ensuring their rights and entitlements.
The tribes’ desire to educate their children is being fulfilled by Bhubaneswar-based Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a residential school that equips them with life and work-life skills besides academics.
School for tribes
Academician Achyuta Samanta from Kalarabanka in Odisha, established Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in 1993 to ensure quality education for tribal children. Since then it has been functioning as a residential school in Bhubaneswar.
Samanta had observed tribal migrant workers in Bhubaneswar. As they had migrated with their families, their children lacked access to schools.
In the absence of proper healthcare and balanced diet, he found their condition deplorable. He motivated the migrant workers to send their children to Kalinga Institute, where dry ration was being provided to students free of cost.
Initially Kalinga Institute functioned as a day school. Sensing the need, it was made into a residential facility. Samantha started it with 125 tribal children at a rented house. He started it exclusively for the tribal children, since Odisha has 62 Scheduled Tribes and 13 PVTGs.
The tribal children studying in the school include Kondh, Santal, Dongria Kondh, Kutia Kondh, Bonda, Didayi, Paraja and Saura, among others. Tribal children from neighboring and northeastern states are also enrolled at the school. The school tries to eradicate educational inequalities by providing equal opportunities to all the children.
Learning through mother tongue
Initially, the children learn through their mother tongue. Mother tongue-Based multilingual education (MTBMLE), an approach that adopts the first-language-first approach to educate minority language users through their mother tongue in the early stages, and transition to other languages, is followed at the school.
The institute has developed teaching and learning materials in 13 tribal languages. In class I the students learn in their mother tongue. After they become familiar with the regional language, they start learning in Odia. As per the state government’s education policy, they start learning English when they are in class III. Besides academics, the school places equal importance on sports and vocational training.
“Education enlightens us,” Ravindra Wadaka said in English. He belongs to the Dongria Kondh tribal community. “Education helps us to know our own capacity and skill.” He has numerous medals and trophies as proof of his statement.
Shubakanta Malya, a fitness coach at Kalinga Institute inspired Ravindra Wadaka to register for weight lifting. After months of rigorous training, Ravindra Wadaka stood fourth in the first weight lifting competition.
“It was like a dream come true. It was the first time I encountered so many people, and I was a bit nervous,” he said.
Apart from his appreciating his weight lifting skills, the community holds Ravindra Wadaka in high regard for becoming the first Dongria Kondh to earn a master’s degree in physical education. He is confident of representing India in weight lifting in future.
Dongria girls are also fairing extremely well. Phulaki Wadaka is the first Dongria girl to earn a master’s degree in psychology. “I never thought I would pursue higher education in my life. KISS gave me that opportunity,’’ she said.
“Many of my friends now want to study like me. They want to excel in their career and I am happy to motivate and help them.’’
Known for his fluency in English, Mukteswar Wadaka is the first Dongria to have qualified National Eligibility Test. He aspires to be a civil servant.
“For years, mainstream people had a perception that we Adivasi people are only meant for surviving in the jungle. As if we are not eligible for white collar jobs. I want to debunk this myth.”
During the nationwide lockdown amidst the pandemic, Mukteswar Wadaka provided free tuition to other Dongria children in his village, Khambesi. One of the things that Mukteswar Wadaka appreciated most at Kalinga is the institute’s indigenous language diversity.
“Earlier I used to speak Dongria language, but at KISS, I started learning other indigenous languages like Kondh, Santali, Munda and Deshia,’’ he said.
The amalgamation of hundreds of Adivasi children from different communities provides a unique opportunity to promote indigenous language diversity at Kalinga Institute.
Right to education
On 22 November, the Odisha government declared that primary schools with less than 15 attending students in scheduled areas and schools with less than 20 attending students in non-scheduled areas would be merged with nearby institutions. It is estimated that 14,339 primary and upper primary schools are facing closure.
According to the Odisha Right to Education Forum, almost 25% schools in 56 tribal sub-plan blocks from Kalahandi, Kandhamal, Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Rayagada and Mayurbhanj districts were selected for closure by 7 March, 2020. In the past, the policy had led to the closure of 155 schools with an attendance of less than five students.
“Government should conduct a comprehensive survey to understand various factors responsible for poor attendance in the scheduled area,” said Ronit Sabar, a Saura Adivasi development practitioner, currently working in Rayagada as district coordinator for Kalinga Institute.
Despite the challenges that indigenous communities face in accessing affordable and inclusive education, building schools in rural areas nurtures hope of marginalized communities.
“Engagement with multiple stakeholders such as parents, community leaders, Panchayati raj institution members and local civil societies is key to addressing multidimensional issues of tribal education,” said Sabar.
“We provide free education, accommodation, food and healthcare to over 30,000 indigenous students,’’ said Adiroopa Mukherjee, project officer, Kalinga Institute. “Our experience shows that, given access and opportunity, there is no limit to what indigenous students can achieve.’’
This article was first appeared in Villagesquare.in