Lalita, Seema and Vaishali of class III are in school an hour early today. Seema and Vaishali are busy writing down the lesson, Lalita reads aloud on the school staircase. Their hair neatly plaited, they look every inch the eager school students they are in their white and blue uniforms and black shoes. So engrossed is Vaishali in her morning lesson that she has forgotten to unburden her tender shoulders of the heavy school bag.
This all too familiar scene of an ordinary day in school that is part of every child's life is nothing short of a miracle, however, for the local residents of Mahadev Basti in Usmanabad, Maharashtra. Because the school in this case is that of the 'Pardhi' tribe listed by the British under the 'Criminal Tribes Act 1871'.
Though the British have long left India, this community continues to live on the margins of society . literally. The tribe lives in jungles, miles away from human habitation in the most uninhabitable conditions where roads, electricity, water, health centres or even a semblance of any Government project remain a distant dream. In these glorious 60 years of India's independence, the only thing this tribe has managed to claim as its own is this lone government school of Mahadev Basti.
Tucked away in the foothills, 15 kms from the Tehsil Head Office, the nondescript Basti has 279 people living in 60 tiny huts. Far from being considered a source of security, the government is a term these people have come to associate with fear instead. They mistook me and my team for the police, out on one of their routine 'investigations' and vanished into their huts. Only after being reassured that we were not the police did they meet us in the only concrete construction in the settlement - the Mahadev Basti school building.
A board announces the year the school building came into being - 1998, the number of students . 27, of whom 10 are girls and 17 are boys. The school has a large hall leading to two rooms where classes between class I and IV are held, an office and a toilet. But the true picture of this 30X60 school became clear to us only when we were told that in the last two years the school has achieved a result of 100 per cent and is now counted among the better schools of the Zilla.
"Until a few years ago", reminisces Subrarao Shinde, "there were police raids more often than not because of which no school teacher dared to set foot in the school premises. Even if a few did, there would be no students. We felt the school was an excuse for the police to keep an eye on us.
"They would spend a lot of time with us", added Kalyan Kale, a local, "and we slowly began trusting them. They would spend hours discussing the importance of education with us." Tate talks of the survey that they undertook with 139 women and 149 men from 60 families, based on which they came up with the model of a school. That's how Samajshala was born.
Pratibha Dikshit, a Samajshala teacher says, "We follow the government-prescribed syllabus here at the school. We are three of us here who have been trained to involve children both in academics and extra-curricular activities. Sanjay Tambare, another teacher at Samajshala volunteered, "Initially we faced problems with the children here because they could only speak Pardhi, their native dialect that we did not understand. We had to use songs, games, pictures etc. to communicate to each other. Now the children have learnt Marathi, Hindi and even English".
Sunidi Shinde says that the real strength of the school is its committee run by the women of the Basti. The committee manages students' attendance, their lunch and overall academics. Every woman in this women's collective . the school committee - contributes Rs 50 every month that is spent on the school and school children."
Vitthal Khandagale, a Samajshala worker, attributes the entire infrastructure - the school playground, the blackboard standing on it, the toilet and electricity - to the sheer hard work and push of the local youth group. He elaborates, "The youth group comprising men aged 18 to 30 years holds a fair every August. They invite government officials and politicians. This year they've invited the Zilla Parishad President Godavari Kendre and she has promised us water, electricity and roads in the Basti. Also, Vijay Mahale, Sub-divisional Police Officer, had held a workshop for the locals to allay the fear of police from their minds."
Adds Vinayak Taur, "We already have in place a school primary health centre that holds health camps every month where health check-ups are conducted not only for the children, but also for adults. A toilet for girls, library and school boundary walls are next in our demands for the school."
Photo by Shirish Khare
The hope of education
The panchayat of Mahadev Basti took a decision on 5 December, 2007 that took many people in the Zilla by surprise. They unanimously decided that if anyone hindered a child's education, they would have to pay a penalty for it. This was the turning point in the life of Mahadev Basti. Since that day, the school has seen 100 per cent attendance and no drop outs. The school Principal, Ram Dahve proudly declares, "The District Collector, too, recognises the success of the school."
Dahve also recognises that with time, education, like most things, is changing. Computers are fast becoming the norm. Even though computers are yet to reach the district, the school has received two computers this year, thanks to 'Lokhit'.
Kumar Neelendu, General Manager, Child Rights and You (CRY) says, "We are campaigning for a Common School System across the country. This school is an example of that. Free and fair education can only be achieved through the Common School System. Government schools in other Bastis can take a cue from this school in the Pardhi Basti that has transformed lives."
During our interactions with the community, we realised that the people of the community want to fight for their democratic rights to citizenship that have so far been denied to them. Living on the periphery of the village has kept them out of the voters' list since independence. They do not even have the basic right to their own land. Some work as agricultural labourers on sugarcane farms for six to eight months while others migrate to Mumbai along with their children who often get embroiled in the gruesome underbelly of Mumbai. Though we often see media stories on the Mumbai underworld, the socio-political dynamics that draw people to it find no mention in them. These aspects remain unspoken in the midst of the din of news.
Phoola Devi (name changed) reveals, "State atrocities against the community show no signs of stopping. The police come to our basti the moment any crime, no matter how petty or serious, is reported in the neighbouring village. But we don't let that hinder our children's education."
We reassured them that we must always strive for change, but soon realised it's easier said than done. The Mahadev Basti school has classes only upto class IV after which children would have to travel 5 kms to the nearest school in Itkur. This seemingly innocuous commute is a daunting task, as not just children but even adults fear venturing out of the Basti, lest they be targeted.
The tribe, however, continues to preserve its tribal culture, tradition and history, visible in their lifestyle and display of vibrant tribal art in the basti school. The children dance to the lilt of Pardhi songs, silhouetted in the fleeting twilight. As we start to leave, some children of class I huddle around us. One of them says, "Hey, listen to our poem."
We ask, "Which one?"
"I want to claim the sun."
How I wish that someday they are able to do that and tell the world about it.