Bleak future ahead: COVID-19 pushes Karnataka’s first generation Adivasi learners off schools

If children permanently drop out of school, it would be not just a loss of education, but also for the community, say experts

By Sindhu Nagaraj
Published: Wednesday 25 August 2021
Photo: Sindhu Nagaraj
Photo: Sindhu Nagaraj Photo: Sindhu Nagaraj

Seven-year-old Gowtham chases his father in the paddy fields of Basavanagiri village, in HD Kote taluk of Mysuru district, running around like a free bird. It is as if the world’s a playground for him right now.

Back in the village, 12-year-old Apoorva plays ball outside her thatched hut, all by herself. Nearby, two girls, in their early teens, are engrossed in braiding their hair. Basavanagiri’s kids are having a ball — they are on the fields, in the homes, playing and whiling away their time.

Normally, most of them would be in their residential school — the government-run ‘Girijana Ashrama School’ situated on the forest fringe. But these are not normal times and a complex set of problems in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has pushed most tribal children in Karnataka away from schooling.

Not only formal learning, the closure of schools has deprived them of nutritious meals and of course, a shot at a better future.

It is not just this village, or the one next to it, where residential Adivasi schools are without students. This is a pan-Karnataka problem.

The government engrossed in political battles has not even begun to foist a response to a problem that might derail the two-decade-long efforts to bring to schools the young generation of tribal groups.

Basavanagiri is home to Jenu Kurubas, the Yeravas, the Kadu Kurubas and the Betta Kuruba. They mostly collected honey and food and fished in the  forests of south Karnataka. They were evicted in the late 1990s from the protected forests of Nagarhole in Mysuru. Of these, the Jenu Kuruba are a particularly vulnerable tribal group.

“Children are off school,” rues Mara, a teacher from the Jenu Kuruba tribe at the Basavanagiri Girijana Ashram School. “The impact is unthinkable.” It goes beyond the process of learning.

“At the school, we provided children with meals, textbooks, notebooks, soaps, even sanitary pads for the girls,” Mara says.

“Food was one of the factors that brought children to the schools, but with schools indefinitely closed, children have lost access to all of that.”

It is people like him who were at the forefront of bringing children from their communities to this school and drafting them into a process of formal education. The pandemic, coupled with the state government’s inability for a timely response to deal with the problem, has jeopardised that process.

The two girls who are braiding their hair are drop-outs. One of them dropped out of school after the pandemic struck, while the other one dropped out because the school has classes till only grade seven.

“I wanted to study after seventh grade. We couldn’t afford to relocate to a different place and I had to drop out,” one of them says. The other girl says that there have been no classes for more than a year and that there is no point in going back.  

Apoorva, who is playing ball, says, “I want to study further; I have been trying to read at home, but without proper help, I haven’t been able to,” she says.

Photo: Sindhu Nagaraj

Gowtham who is running behind his father, says he joined the school for the first standard in the last academic year. Now, he has been promoted to the second grade without having learnt anything. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says when asked about the letters of the English alphabet.

Shanmukha Aradhya, the government-appointed warden says the school has been closed since the pandemic struck. “We carried out the Vidyagama programme in our school. But the COVID-19 cases started going up and the programme was shelved,” he says.

The Vidyagama scheme was started by the Government of Karnataka to bridge the gap that was created due to COVID-19. Teachers in government schools would gather their children in open spaces, or community halls and would teach them for two or three days a week. This scheme lies suspended since an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in one of the schools in the Belagavi district of north Karnataka.

“We conducted some classes under the scheme,” Aradhya continues. “It was not easy, but we did not want children to miss out on learning. But the number of children who attended was slim,” he admits.

Mara laughs at the idea of online classes. The new normal is alien to these children. “They don’t have phones. Internet is a far-fetched thing.”

Sudeep, an eight-year-old who is playing near the school gate, says he has mostly forgotten everything that he has ever learnt. “It’s been very long since I have studied anything, so I don’t remember,” he says.

Another ashrama school in Metikuppe, five kilometres from Basavanagiri, has six teachers. The school has been turned into a makeshift public distribution centre. “There would be some drop-outs once the school begins,” Shivalangayaka, the warden says.

“I wanted to continue studying but I dropped out after seventh grade. That was when the school got closed and I couldn’t relocate to a different place to continue my education,” says Saraswathi, even as she plays around in her school uniform on the street outside.

The situation is worse in Chamarajanagar

Barring four or five out of 19 ashrama schools in Chamarajanagar, the rest are situated inside the forests of Biligirirangana Betta Tiger Reserve, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Cauvery Wildlife Division and Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Division. Soligas, Jenu Kurubas, Bettada Kurubas and a few Hakki Pikki tribal communities are spread across these forests.

“You ask about online classes, these families don’t have electricity here,” he says. “Solar energy could be harnessed to generate electricity, but only in the evenings. Most of the Adivasis are labourers. They don’t have money to buy food, let alone smartphones,” says Madegowda, a research associate in the district, who has been fighting for Adivasi rights for a decade.

Even though the government broadcast televised classes on Doordarshan, it did not reach these children. “They don’t have televisions or electricity to make use of any schemes the government brought out for the privileged,” he says.

Madegowda says they have sent many proposals seeking regularisation of teachers for quality education but they have been falling on deaf ears. “We don’t have permanent, qualified teachers, so quality education is a myth here,” he adds.

Uttara Kannada, Chikkamagaluru narrate similar stories

Pruthvi, 10, sits in front of his hut in Ajjampura in Chikkamagaluru district, playing by himself. Channappa, a local tribal activist says that like him, most of the children are out of school. The Hasalaru, Malekudiya, Goudalu and Medha communities, erstwhile hunters and bamboo spinners, live in these parts. “The government has done nothing to help the education of these children,” Channappa says.

Poovappa, another local activist says, “No classes have been conducted for the last one-and-a-half years. No teachers came, there has been zero supervision and in all the 12 schools in the district, children have been irreparably affected.”

Rekha is one of the four teachers in an ashrama school in Gonibeedu village, Chikkamagaluru district where Prithvi and his brother Ruthik go. But since the pandemic, the number has come down to two.

“We don’t get paid regularly. We did not have jobs for the whole of last year. Since we are hired on contract, they could terminate it very easily. Only this year in June, we got called,” she says.

Rekha disagrees with Poovappa on the impact. She claims that Adivasi children have not suffered. “We conduct online classes. For those who have smartphones, we send assignments and ask them to send back answers on WhatsApp,” she says.

“We also conducted Vidyagama classes in the beginning,” she adds. However, Rekha admits that online classes have not been easy given that there is no proper network inside the forests and the incessant rains have worsened the situation.

Padma, who looks after Pruthvi and Ruthik, says children are not entirely out of school yet. “I have seen some of the assignments sent by the teacher, but it’s hard studying on the phone. Most of the time there is no network here and with regular power cuts, the situation is bad,” she says.

The hiring of contract teachers and child labour

The reasons are manifold, says S Srikanth, the director of the non-profit, Development through Education (DEED) based in Hunsur, Mysuru. He attributes the reasons to the hiring of contract teachers.

“Recruitment has not happened in years. Most of the schools have only a couple of teachers. And, they come from outside. That’s where the problem lies,” he says.

Srikanth says that the government has money, and yet teachers have not been paid. “There is no proper supervision at the panchayat level. Most children have taken up tobacco picking because it’s easy money but nobody does anything about it,” he says.

“Child labour is cheap, so they are easily employed. With children not in schools now, this is a way for parents to make money,” Mara agrees.

“The children get admitted, that is shown on the paper, but the problem is different. I have to force children to come every morning. Parents themselves don’t want their children to go to school. If they worked instead, they would bring some money in.

“COVID-19 has aggravated the issue. When schools actually begin, children would have forgotten everything. This would set them back by a few years,” Mara adds.

“Adivasi children are first-generation school-goers and education is a major leap for them,” Srikanth adds. 

Indira, a visiting professor of Sociology at MS Ramaiah Institute of Arts and Commerce, Bengaluru explains that this issue has been there for decades.

“With or without the crisis created by COVID-19, many tribal families are not too keen to send their children to ashram schools, more so allow them to stay away from home,” she says.

“The ambience of most ashram schools is not conducive for children to stay over in the night. Also, there is an inherent distrust in the system on the part of most tribal families. Tribal schools are located close to tribal hamlets and children tend to run home after school hours.”

Indira also adds that now that schools are closed, children tend to become ‘ready-made’ labour to their families. And given that the mid-day meals have been discontinued, there is no guaranteed reason to go back to school.

Possible solutions

According to the Union Ministry of Tribal Welfare, there are 50 recognised tribes in Karnataka. Some 125 Girijana Ashrama schools in Karnataka cater to around 16,000 children.

Most of these schools are situated in the southern and southwestern parts of the state and are concentrated in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, Chikkamagaluru, Uttara Kannada and Kodagu districts.

Even though there is a sizeable population of Scheduled Tribes (ST) in northern Karnataka, many Adivasis are concentrated in these parts with green cover. According to the Union Ministry of Education, a fifth-grade tribal child cannot write his / her name in his / her mother tongue. 

Rajesh Gowda, the director of the government-run Karnataka State Tribal Research Institute (KSTRI) says there have been no surveys to measure the impact of the pandemic on Adivasi children.

“We proposed getting tribal graduates as mentors to track the learning. We thought if children are personally supervised, they would learn. But we have not been able to get this proposal implemented yet,” Gowda says.

He, however, admits the government has not been able to do much in this direction and admits that the consequences of promoting children to higher classes could be worrisome. 

Srikanth alleges the government could help and COVID-19 is just a reason cited to refrain from doing anything real. “Instead of teachers coming from outside, tribal volunteers could be appointed. They would ensure children learn,” he says.

He says migration in search of work and food has also worsened the situation and adds: “Instead of providing ration to children for six months, the government could provide it for a year. The government is not regularly paying the teachers. It could at least fill stomachs.”

Srikanth says if children permanently drop out of school, it’s not just a loss of education, but also a loss of community. “If ashrama schools are developed to be on a par with central schools, there could be holistic development. ASHA workers could be appointed to supervise at village levels,” he adds.

Indira proposes a solution. “They are lapsing back to a state of illiteracy and this is an emerging threat in the field of primary education across the country.”

She continues, “Civil society must come forward to contribute school infrastructure. If children are brought to the mainstream, the learning process need not be discontinued.”

This section of society is plagued with a plethora of problems. With the ongoing pandemic playing spoilsport in implementing any schemes, it is to be seen if the government will come forward to send the Adivasi children back to schools.

This story was reported under the National Foundation of India Fellowship for independent journalists

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