Two years ago, Narayan Manekar of Ladegaon village and his wife Sunita had to sell off their four goats, which were then bringing them an income of Rs.8000 to 10,000 a year. What forced them to sell the animals was not any financial compulsion, however. Sunita has shifted to Karanja, the nearby town, along with the couple's three children, aged five, seven and nine, where they have been admitted to an English medium school, and there was simply no one at home to take care of the goats.

"It is very difficult to make ends meet, with two children who are studying in town," says Manekar, "The school fees and expenses alone are Rs. 6000 per year for both the children. The room rent is another Rs.800 per month. Commuting from Ladegaon to Karanja costs Rs.40 one way, and my wife and I have to commute several times a month. Everything is expensive in town, and we have to buy too many things for the children just to keep them looking good in school, like the 'town children'. And all this despite the fact that my children are not even in the best of schools." According to his estimate, education in town for the children has added a burden of about Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 to the family's annual budget, not including the lost income from the livestock.

Manekar's share in his family land is 1.5 acres, and he supplements his income by working as a farm labourer. Sunita too has started working as a farm labourer in Karanja to add to the family income. Asked if this endeavour is viable financially and otherwise, Manekar says, "Of course it is not. But we are taking all this trouble for the sake of the children's futures."

Manekar estimates that education in town for the children has added a burden of about Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 to his family's annual budget, not including the lost income from the livestock.
Hundreds of farming families like the Manekars are making a beeline to Karanja from districts like Washim, Buldhana and even Yavatmal in the hope of a better education for their children. The pattern is roughly the same. The father stays back in the village to look after the land while the mother moves into a rented room with the children. And it is not just families with older children seeking higher education. Quite a large number of children who have been brought to town for English medium education are as young as three or four.

In Yashwant Colony, a small residential area of about 300 houses where Manekar's family lives, there are more than 100 such mother-headed tenant families living in single rooms with rents ranging from Rs.700 to Rs.1100.

What price, education?

Mothers who spoke with me were very vocal about the financial problems their families have had to face. Says Sandhya Chaudhari of Sukali village in Washim district, "Initially I was alone here with my two children. But soon the situation became so difficult to manage that my husband had to give our land to another farmer for share-cropping and join us." Sandhya's husband is now trying to find his feet as a broker in the grain market, while the family's income from its 17 acres of land has come down to just Rs.20,000 per year.

Jyoti Chaudhari from Lohi village in Yavatmal says, "Our expenses have shot up. It is not just that town education is expensive - everything else is also expensive. In the village we cooked on the chulha (wood stove) with fuel from our own farm. But here we have to shell out Rs.350 per month merely for a gas cylinder. Children need four times as many clothes as they needed in the village." Jyoti's two buffaloes, which she used to look after herself, are now in the care of her sister-in-law. "There are hardly any returns from the animals now," says she, "And my sister-in-law cribs every time I go to the village. I think I will have to sell them sooner or later."

Other families too report drops in agricultural income, and rising costs of living due to their forced migration to the town."Oh, everyone does this at a cost," says Sangita Amle, who is sarpanch of Yerwadi village in Washim district, and is herself living in Karanja with her two children, attending to her sarpanch duties as best as she can. "My husband stays with us and commutes to the village every day by motor bike. The petrol cost alone is above Rs.70 per day. We have also appointed a gadi (farm manager) to look after our 27 acres of land for Rs 25,000 a year, but still our income is dropping."

'Town' education is a must

Why is education in the town so important that families are enduring huge financial and familial problems to obtain it for their children? The obvious answer is the low educational standards in the rural areas. "Even after passing Standard VII, a child can't write his name in English," says Manekar, "Teachers are forever absent, classes are not held." The absence of choices is another important reason that is pushing families town-wards, especially in case of older children. According to Jyoti, "Moving to town was necessary because the village school had only an Arts stream in Standard XII, whereas my children needed science and Commerce."

But as my conversations with parents went into deeper issues, more complex realities emerged. Most mothers stressed that it is not just good quality education that is important to them, but the 'town atmosphere, manners and behaviour' as well. Says Amle, "Good education is possible even in villages. In my own village I ensured regular classes in the school through the village education committee. But town education makes a big difference in the way children dress, talk, behave and present themselves."

Jyoti agrees, "Village people are not taken seriously anywhere, farmers especially so. We are treated as bumpkins. In town, the children can pick up proper manners, ways of dressing and so on."

This last point appears very important, as virtually all the interviewees stressed it. Malatibai Bihade, a grandmother from Mankopra village in Yavatmal, who is living in Karanja with four grand-children aged between 5 and 15, gives a blunt home-truth, "Look, no one really cares for education or hard work. If you want respect, what you need is a slick personality. My family has 40 acres of land and my two sons are hard-working, dedicated farmers. But even a guy who gets a job in town as a peon turns up his nose at us. Finally, however you might idealise, the bitter truth is that no one respects a farmer's son and no one wants to marry a farmer's daughter."

Tough syllabi and Behavioural problems

The transition from rural to urban life has its impact on the children as well. Rural children, especially those who have been admitted to expensive private schools, find it difficult to deal with the tougher syllabi and the added burden of the English medium. Vijaya Amdabadkar, a farmer who shuttles once every two or three days between Karanja where her two daughters aged 10 and 4 live in the care of her young niece, and her village of Ladegaon where she has 20 acres of land, says, "In the village the standard of education was too low, but here it is too high. The children can hardly cope, and have to be scolded to get their homework done."

Viaya Amdabadkar and her family
Picture: Shuchita Prakriti.

Others agree. Sudha Deshmukh, who came to Karanja from her village to educate her own children but stayed back as a teacher in a Montessory school, says, "Children enter the urban education system at different stages - some are as young as four or five, while others are much older. The shift to English medium is the biggest jolt, and the higher expectations that private schools have performance-wise are a huge stress on the children, and their parents too."

With this come behavioural problems. "Children are become very demanding in the cities," says Sandhya, "In the village one pencil would last my children six months, but now they constantly want new pencil cases, tiffin boxes, waterbags, and what not." The children have also forced her to buy a colour television. "In the village they would go out in the fields, but here they have nowhere to go and no friends to play with."

Parents have to be constantly vigilant, says Jyoti, as children can develop an inferiority complex if they are not as well dressed as town children or perform less well. "We have to keep them well dressed and send them to tuition classes. If we don't, there are scenes in the house." Other parents admit the existence of these problems readily enough, but they do not necessarily see them as problems. "Why should our children not look smart or be competitive?" demands Sangita, "Why should urban children have all the opportunities?"

Anything but farming

Finally, what do farming mothers hope this education, achieved at such huge costs on so many counts, will achieve for their children? Answers to this question are evidently not easy to give. While it is quite clear that a regular job with a salary would be the most welcome outcome, most parents do not dare voice such high hopes. Says Sangita, "Jobs would be welcome but jobs are not so easy to land these days. I just hope town exposure will make them smarter, and the education will give them more options so that they are not stuck to the land like us."

"Village people are not taken seriously anywhere, farmers especially so. We are treated as bumpkins. In town, the children can pick up proper manners, ways of dressing and so on."

 •  School choice looms

"I don't know," says Manekar, "So many educated jobless people are working as labourers in my village. But we have to do something, don't we? I have just 1.5 acres, and three children. So what hope do they have except for education?" "What can we hope for?" echoes Sandhya, "We are taking all this trouble just to give the children our best. We have worked hard in agriculture, but found nothing in it. All I want is just that my children should get away from agriculture and find something good."

So, is this entire desperate struggle aimed just at getting away from land? Is it just an expression of loss of faith in the profession all these people were born in? "Yes, why not?" says a strident Malatibai, "Agriculture means just endless hard work and debt burdens - no respect, no freedom, not even a decent livelihood. Everyone wants the farmer to stick to the land while they enjoy the fruits of development. If there is one thing I want in life, it is to see my grandsons in good jobs and my granddaughters married to officers."

Vijaya Amdabadkar takes a deep sigh before replying, "I love my farming, I work hard for it, but it does not give me a decent livelihood. So I turn to education in the hope of a better life for my children. But this is a different trap. I am losing income (Vijaya has had to sell livestock too, and her farming is suffering, left in charge of hired help), I am spending more than I can afford, I am tiring myself out with the dual responsibility, only to see my daughters, who were bold and free, turning into timid, clingy and difficult little girls. On the one hand I am fighting with government policy for the cause of all farmers, and on the other I want my daughters out of farming altogether. I know there is a trap in all this; only I do not know how to break it."