Education for tribals: A student from Odisha shows the way

Lack of internet connectivity, regular electricity supply: Access to quality education has remained abysmal in the remote tribal pockets of Koraput district

By Abhijit Mohanty
Published: Friday 16 April 2021
Nabin Saunta in front of his house at Kanjariguda village in Lakhimpur block under Koraput district. Photo: Abhijit Mohanty
Nabin Saunta in front of his house at Kanjariguda village in Lakhimpur block under Koraput district. Photo: Abhijit Mohanty Nabin Saunta in front of his house at Kanjariguda village in Lakhimpur block under Koraput district. Photo: Abhijit Mohanty

Access to education has remained elusive for several students belonging to the tribal community in Odisha. Some civil societies, however, are helping them access inclusive education, build their confidence and equip them with work-life skills. Nabin Saunta from southern Odisha’s Koraput district is one such student.

“I saw a computer for the first time when I was in class four,” recalled Nabin Saunta, 21. He belongs to the indigenous Kondh community. “It was love at first sight. I was eager to learn more.”

Today, after eight years, Nabin’s dream to study computer has finally turned into a reality.  

Kinjariguda is a tribal village in Tunpar panchayat under Lakhimpur block, 500 kilometers from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar. There are around 150 households in the village. A majority of the households belong to the Kondh tribal community; the remaining are from scheduled caste and other backward caste communities.

Rainfed agriculture and collection of forest produce are the main sources of their livelihood. In the past 10 years, however, the rate of inter-state migration has increased. “Our youth are moving to cities. Our forest resources are getting depleted. Farming is not lucrative anymore. Rainfall is erratic,” said Dambarudhar Muduli, sarapanch from Goudaguda panchayat in Lakhimpur block.  

The youth here often migrates to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana due to lack of education and alternative livelihood opportunities. Many are duped by their supervisors in urban areas, or paid less than promised.

“About 20 youth from our village got stranded in Hyderabad in 2020,” said Dambarudhar. “They were trapped during the lockdown imposed to control the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). We heard about the horrible situation faced by these youth. They had no money to buy food. It was like dying in a foreign land.”

Menkarani Hantal, 38, a woman community leader from Lakhimpur block said: “Due to lack of education, our Adivasi youth are migrating to cities for labour work.” Menkarani belongs to the Kotia tribal community.

Access to quality education and infrastructure facilities in schools has remained abysmal in the remote tribal pockets of Koraput district. Several villages lack mobile network, internet connectivity and regular electricity supply.

Besides, a high drop-out rate, teacher absenteeism and poor implementation of multi-lingual education programme paint a gloomy picture of the educational status in the tribal hinterlands.

The situation of Koraput also mirrors the situation in other tribal areas of the country, where teachers in only seven per cent schools communicated with students in tribal languages, according to a study conducted in 2016 by the National University of Education and Planning.

Such communication gaps ultimately limit the comprehension ability of tribal students, thereby weakening their entire school education. 

When Nabin completed his primary education (standard five) from a government school in Kinjariguda, his father, Ladu Saunta (47) wryly tried to get him admitted to a school. Ladu has valid reasons for his mounting concerns. “I was fortunate to study till class three. Most of my friends never set foot in a school. And I don’t want my son to face the same fate,” said Ladu. 

Hari Saunta, a friend of Ladu, suggested that he approach the Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) based in Bhubaneswar and that provides free education to over 30,000 tribal children from kindergarten to post-graduation. Hari’s daughter studies at the KISS and is in class VIII.  Nabin’s application was approved by KISS.

Nabin successfully secured a first-class position in class XI and XII. “It was a memorable day in my life. I was the first person in my family to study science,” Nabin said.

He added: “Once studying computer science was a dream for me in my village. But not anymore. Now, I am pursuing Computer Science Honours. One day, I will become a software engineer and bring glory to my community.”

When asked why he decided to study computer science, Nabin said:

“Very few people had the opportunity to study computer science. The course made me realise the importance of combining one’s passion with one’s academic profile. This has encouraged me to realise my dream of learning about computers. Today, it empowers me to help my family and community members. We can access information and the internet easily. I feel more connected to the world.”

While Nabin feels blessed to have achieved such remarkable success, his mother, who never went to school, has witnessed a drastic change in Nabin’s behaviour and communication approach.

“He was shy earlier. But now he is smart. He even provided free tuition to other children in the village during lockdown. I am proud of him,” said Rangabati Saunta, 42.  “There are several tribal students like Nabin. But they lack access to inclusive education in their formative stage,” said Madan Muduli, assistant block education officer in Bandhugaon block, Department of School and Mass Education, Odisha government.

Kadey Soren, a Bhubaneswar-based tribal educationist, also echoed Madan’s views. He belongs to the Santal tribal community and has worked on tribal education for over a decade. He said:

“We need to nurture aspiration among the young tribal generation. It is important to preserve their unique culture that has sustained since millennia. Yet, the harmonisation of modern science with traditional wisdom can do wonders. There is a need amplify tribal voices and identities through collective global discussion and collaborative action.”

Providing regular training to teachers and volunteers in child-centric and innovative pedagogic methods is the need of the hour, said Manas Mohanty, a development expert working on inclusive education in Koraput.

School authorities can invite community members to impart training on handicrafts, share indigenous insights on herbal medicines and traditional eco-friendly agricultural practices. “This is an effective way to build trust and respect among the tribal community, which is critical for ensuring zero drop-outs,” opined Mohanty.

“Participatory approach is imperative,” said Bhagirathi Murjia, 53, Sarapanch, Boipariguda block. “We need to actively engage schools, teachers, communities and government authorities.”

Nabin’s life is testament to this: From nurturing dreams of using a computer to pursuing a degree in Computer Science, he is one of thousands of tribal youth whose lives and dreams have been transformed by affordable access to quality education.

“I am grateful for the dream that started my journey. Opportunities are still limited for many of my friends in my village. But accessible quality education can change that,” Nabin said.

As Nabin continues to break the glass ceiling of opportunities and career possibilities for youth in his community, his new dream is of pursuing a Master of Computer Applications and of helping other aspiring youth in his neighborhood follow his trajectory.

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