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Crisis for Dantewada's Schoolchildren

Police and paramilitary forces who arrived in Dantewada following the Maoist-Salwa Judum conflict in 2005 often occupied school buildings. These schools came under Maoist attack, and were relocated to state-controlled areas. Not all students could make the shift and those who did, faced increasing hardship. Yet onerous travel is only one of many problems that tribal children face. Equally problematic are the contrasting worlds, competing ideologies and differing languages of home and school.

FROM THE STATES

Crisis for Dantewada’s Schoolchildren

Supriya Sharma

83 in 2004, to 388 deaths in 2006, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The rise in levels of violence led to more police and paramilitary companies in Dantewada. The sturdiest structures in these villages were often school buildings. As security forces began occupying these buildings, the Maoists

Police and paramilitary forces who arrived in Dantewada following the Maoist-Salwa Judum conflict in 2005 often occupied school buildings. These schools came under Maoist attack, and were relocated to state-controlled areas. Not all students could make the shift and those who did, faced increasing hardship. Yet onerous travel is only one of many problems that tribal children face. Equally problematic are the contrasting worlds, competing ideologies and differing languages of home and school.

Names of children changed to protect identity.

Supriya Sharma (ssupriya@gmail.com) is a journalist based in Chhattisgarh.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 8, 2011

D
antewada has the highest count of human lives lost in Maoist conflict in India, as also one of the lowest literacy rates. Yet, at a cursory level, the latest census shows that the literacy rate in Dantewada has in fact risen from 30.17% to 42.67% over the last decade as the conflict has intensified. Predictably, the state government has been quick to take credit. But on the ground, there is little evidence to link rising literacy with State intervention or innovation. More apparent and admirable is the tenacity of a generation of schoolchildren accessing education at heavy personal costs, traversing a landscape of dislocation.

Difficult Journeys

Every few months, Bhima stuffs nylon bags

with fistfuls of rice, pots and pans and

sundry other belongings. He balances the

bags delicately on two ends of a bamboo

pole, which he rests on his shoulder, before

launching on a hike that involves climbing a

hill, spending nights in the forest, and cook

ing his own meals. All of 14 years old and

studying in class seven, Bhima travels, along

with a small group of friends, between home

in Morpalli village and the ashramshala, or

residential school, in Kuakonda. Spatially,

it is a distance of roughly 70 kilometres, but

it takes Bhima three days to walk to school.

It was not always so. Till it closed down in

2007, the school was once just a few hours

away, and according to figures provided by

then district collector R Prasanna in March

2011, one of 264 schools in Dantewada that

ceased to function in their original location.

Like much else in Dantewada, the closure

of schools is rooted in the civil strife that

broke out in 2005 when the anti-Maoist Salwa

Judum took shape. While there are multiple

narratives over the origin of Salwa Judum,

there is widespread concurrence over its

outcomes. The arming of adivasis by the state

as a counterforce to the Maoists expan ded

the conflict and escalated casualties – from

vol xlvi no 41

took to targeting them. For every school building occupied by the security forces, several others in the vicinity were also destroyed.

For instance, soon after a company of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) moved into an ashramshala at Aranpur in 2007, the Maoists brought down school buildings in the nearby villages of Potali, Nahari and Kakadi, according to school warden Santu Ram Nag. In what became a pattern in the district, the administration responded by shifting schools closer to the highway, in this case, to Kuakonda. But while teachers and other staff relocated, not all students made the shift, again a pattern that was repeated in the rest of the district.

What made the disruption of schools in finitely messier was that it was taking place against the backdrop of a broader dislocation. As the Judum spread and clashed with the Maoists, villages began emptying out. People moved to relief camps, sometimes of their own volition, sometimes by force. Wherever people resisted moving out, they found themselves abandoned by a government that withdrew its staff and services, including schools, citing security concerns. This sundered the district, with small stretches of land along highways and main roads under state control, and the remaining expanse largely under the sway of the Maoists.

In this rapidly changing humanscape, children went through cataclysms that have gone largely unmapped. Those uprooted from the villages and brought to government camps, as well as those who stayed behind, had to renegotiate the school system. In the absence of any clear records, it is hard to say how many found their way back to school. But it appears that most who did, invariably found themselves travelling longer distances.

This is best exemplified by Neelavaram village in Sukma block in the north of the district, an area relatively unaffected by the Judum upheaval. As trouble erupted in the southern block of Konta, children began pouring into Neelavaram. The sarpanch

FROM THE STATES

Bhima Ram Madkam, a strong votary of education (later killed in August 2010, allegedly by Maoists) absorbed them into the existing school, which swelled to double its size. Eventually, the administration sanctioned another school in the same village. Today, Neelavaram is the equivalent of a university town, home to 150 migrant students, boys and girls aged between six and 16 who walk between one to three days to go home at the end of every semester. One of them, Mangdu, changes several buses to get to Andhra Pradesh, a distance of 160 kilometres. There he reaches the crossing point to start the last leg of his journey, a lonely tread on a jungle path leading to his village and home.

Contrasting worlds

At a deeper level, the crisis in children’s lives goes beyond physical dislocation. Dantewada is a cauldron of competing ideologies and contrasting worlds. Adult life can unfold within one world, but the school-going child must perforce tackle both. The interior villages were never sites of shining modernity, but in many places, whatever existed in terms of roads and electricity has either been disrupted by the Maoists, or has fallen into disrepair after the withdrawal of the government. The school, once a small institution, part of a larger village universe and subject to the same deficiencies, is now a distant and autonomous site of instruction, located in a modern universe, complete with roads, electricity and the ubiquitous satellite TV.

In the villages, the Maoists espouse a radical brand of politics in their meetings. Using expressions like looteri sarkar, shoshan, atyachaar, they critique the State as venal, violent and oppressive. But in school, the same State is projected as a benevolent unifying entity. In a typical school courtyard, a larger than life image of Bharat Mata occupies centre stage, surrounded by a national pantheon. Starting with Gandhi and Nehru, it includes Hindu nationalists like Shyamaprasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, and apolitical figures like Rabindranath Tagore. Both the metanarratives are contested and complicated by the media, especially by the images of a chaotic world that come streaming through television. On the subject of violence, the media is largely sympathetic to the State and portrays Maoists as violent nihilists.

This can be befuddling to children whose lived experience of the ongoing violence militates against black and white categories. For instance, in March, reports surfaced that while on an offensive against Maoists, the police allegedly burnt down homes in three villages, including Bhima’s village, Morpalli. Bhima saw the news on TV and could not sleep at night. Next morning, he left for home to check on his family’s safety. To his relief, he found they were safe.

Bhima narrated these events to me on the Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border. He was part of a group of migrant workers returning home after seasonal employment in Andhra’s chilli farms. He was wearing a blue jersey that said “Civic Action Programme, CRPF 111 Battalion, Dantewada”. “The CRPF had come to our school and distributed the jerseys”, Bhima told me. Did the jawans address the students? What did they say? They told us, “Naxali mat bano”.

The jerseys and sports kits for schoolchildren form crucial arsenal in the CRPF’s civic action programme, according to CRPF inspector general Pankaj Singh. Not just the security forces, even the district collector O P Chaudhary talks persuasively of prioritising schools. “If we win over children, we secure the future”.

But if state authorities have identified the need to place children at the centre of the long-term strategy to “win hearts and minds”, this is yet to translate into any meaningful progress towards a child-friendly environment in Dantewada’s schools. These are plagued with more than just the universal deficiencies of government schools in India. To begin with, for the child who comes fresh from an interior village, the first brush with learning is through a non-comprehending adult. Most teachers in the district come from the plains further north in Chhattisgarh. They neither speak nor understand local adivasi languages. This has resulted in a near breakdown of communication in classrooms. This state of affairs eases only as the child grows up and picks up Hindi.

There is official recognition of this communication crisis. This year, the state education department published guidebooks for teachers in key tribal languages – Gondi, Dorli, Halbi and others. The books contain translations of key words, phrases, questions and statements likely to come up during teacher-child or teacher-parent interaction.

october 8, 2011

But like all teaching aids, their efficacy lies in the receptivity of teachers, most of whom remain unconvinced of the need to use them. “I could not qualify for a bank job since I did not know English. The children will similarly lose out on opportunities if they do not pick up Hindi fast,” reasoned Ajay Meshram, a teacher in Koyabekur village. “Hindi is their only hope of becoming part of the mainstream”, was a common refrain. Many teachers offered no arguments and were downright dismissive of tribal culture and languages.

For its part, the state government mooted a proposal in July 2011 to modify teacher recruitment policy for Dantewada and other tribal districts, privileging local candidates, particularly adivasis, over outsiders. But this will not alter the district’s teacher profile in the short term. More intractable issues like the lack of locally relevant curricula are yet to be identified and addressed.

Quick-fix Solutions

Meanwhile, the newly appointed district collector O P Chaudhary has embarked on a grand scheme of building an “education city” at the cost of Rs 100 crore, 10 kilo metres from the district headquarters, to house high school students preparing for professional courses in engineering and medicine, apart from a polytechnic. While the collector wants to promote professional education, activists say what the district most urgently needs is the rebuilding and reform of primary schools. “What’s the use of raising some trophy students, when the rest are being alienated by an insensitive school system, and several others are not even able to access school”, said one activist, requesting anonymity since he works with the government.

After five years, there is some hope the closed schools could get a fresh lease of life. Following a Supreme Court directive, security forces have moved out of school buildings. Through informal channels, the Maoists have signalled they are willing to allow the reconstruction of schools. On his part, the district collector has promised to restart schools, beginning with the installation of pre-fabricated school structures at 32 locations this year. Even if Dantewada’s closed schools reopen, the physical distances mapped by children may shrink but the journeys of the mind could remain as difficult.

vol xlvi no 41

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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