An ethnobotanist flags the problem with education in tribal areas
Miseducation in Bastar
It was August 15, 2001, Independence Day, in an adivasi village of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Two primary school teachers had invited me, the only adult literate in the village, to unfurl the national flag. I had arrived, but one of the teachers was absent, owing to a week-long drinking spree. Mahua! That destroyer of many a Bastar official.
I tugged at the rope and the tricolour fluttered in the monsoon wind. The gathering was told to clap. An older boy de-husked a coconut and broke it on a stone at the foot of the flagpole. It was rotten. Incense sticks were lit and planted in the damp earth. Then followed chants proclaiming victory for Bharat Mata, Mahatma Gandhi, Chacha Nehru and Indira Gandhi. We then struggled through the national anthem and the ceremony ended. Some mouldy chana was drawn from a dirty cloth bag and distributed along with pieces of the coconut. The children munched on the goodies and ran about. The teacher invited me for a drink. I left disgusted.
The drunken teacher, the rotten coconut and the stale chana symbolise the government's concern, its will and its capacity to promote education in adivasi Bastar. It is essential to empathise with adivasi society to be clear about the kind of education it needs. If we are honest enough, we might find that there is more to learn from such society than to teach. The quality of education follows from the quality of concern. To live and teach in adivasi region requires special qualities: openness, an interest in other cultures, a sense of inquiry and immense energy. In my two decades of travel in Bastar, I have yet to come across a government schoolteacher who fulfills these requirements, even partially.
Schools run by the Ramakrishna Mission, the Mata Rukmini Ashram, the Vidhya Bharathi and Christian missionaries are reputed to be better than government schools. Do they show any interest in adivasi society? Is it their concern that makes them change adivasi names, from Belosa to Bimla, from Kosa to Krishna, from Jirtu to Jitruram? Has anyone seen a school-going adivasi boy with long hair, worn in a side-knot that sticks out of a colourful turban, or an adivasi schoolgirl without a plait? These schools impose Hindi on students, forbidding the various Koitoor dialects, rich with vibrant traditions of song, metaphor and grammar. Few teachers, if any, speak adivasi languages. These schools alienate adivasi youth from their society, creating prejudices. This shows in the adivasi boys who refuse to return to their forest villages during vacations. They are ashamed to acknowledge their parents and their adivasi background, attempting at becoming poor imitations of the non-tribal. These schools distance adivasi children from the forest as a place of learning. Few years at school are enough for adivasi children to develop a tendency to shirk physical labour: day-scholars become burdens on their families.
From childhood, while riding on their mother's hips, adivasi children learn to read plants and animals and their numerous uses. While accompanying their elders during hunts and fishing expeditions, children are called upon to run errands -- to dig up a certain root, to stupefy fish, strip a bark, to mend a bow during an emergency, set up a trap where small game is frequent. By the time an adivasi boy grows up to seek a bride, he can construct a house and run a home.
Adivasi life is full of plant lore and rituals to ensure dispersal of seeds; in fact, the adivasi calendar revolves around customs that regulate their behaviour in the forest. As a botanist, I have often been surprised by the adivasi skill in plant identification, especially with regard to difficult genera such as the dioscorea (yams). Many such yams are dug up for food during the dry season, when the tubers are large, but the plant above the ground has dried up, making identification almost impossible. Such knowledge cannot be acquired in classrooms but comes from a observation that uses all senses.
A few friends and I experimented with alternative schooling in a Koitoor village. Two educated adivasi young men were interested in teaching in the local language and blending classes with the village's work rhythm. Classes were held as much in the forest while gathering plants as in fields while weeding and harvesting crops. Almost all families sent their children to our school -- a large hut built by the village and maintained by the children. Within a year, there were offers of funding. Its novelty attracted the media. The state's response was a government school and sacks of provisions for mid-day meals, which lured the children away from the Koitoor school. Within two years the government took over education in the village. Needless to say, the teacher is the local drunk.
Madhu Ramnath is an ethnobotanist who works in Bastar
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