Kotagiri, nestled in the lap of verdure mountains, pristine landscape, is in the Nilgiris district of Tamilnadu. These mountains are home to many tribal communities like Irulas, Kurumbas and Todas, who dwell in these forested landscapes.
Most tribal women from these village are confined to their homes. And those who do step out, are employed in the tea estate or are daily wage laborers.
A community college in the hills helps the young women pursue vocational studies free of cost, without going down to the plains, with an assured employment opportunity.
A few years ago, Nilgiri Adivasi Welfare Association (NAWA), a local non-profit organization, in affiliation with the Coimbatore-based Bharathiar University started a community college in Kotagiri. The college was started to open up education and employment opportunities for the tribal youth. “Even if tribal youth want to step out of their lands and receive education outside, they are unable to do so due to high costs. It costs at least Rs 65000 per year to go down to the plains for education,” said K Vadivelu, principal, NAWA Community College. “Also, the classes run from Monday to Saturday, which is not very convenient for them.” .
The option for distance education degrees are there, but there is a bottleneck there as well. “For tribal students, it is difficult to understand concepts without in-person coaching. Even if they join distance education, they cannot come out successfully. The only option is community college,” said Vadivelu.
There were different challenges in starting a community college. It doesn’t work like a regular college. The administration had to consider college timings according to the convenience of students. If they wanted evening classes, the college agreed to conduct classes in the evening.
The students cannot come to college every day. They go for laborer jobs for their livelihood and the college administration did not want to disturb that. If they wanted to come to college on Sunday, the administration was willing to conduct classes on Sunday.
The NAWA Community College enrolls dropouts also. “I wanted to give an opportunity to students who were keen to qualify themselves, who were interested to study and work,” Vadivelu told VillageSquare.in.
The tribal women are shy and do not speak, and a lot of time goes into making them open up and talk. “To bring them into a comfortable zone, the lecturer should bring them to the college atmosphere, be with them,” said Vadivelu.
Today, a group of women sit in a classroom overlooking the green mountains. They talk among themselves in hushed voices. There are more bird sounds than human voices in the classroom. The community college has enabled the young women to get educated, without spending any money, in the same environment they are familiar with.
Education through challenges
To start with, three diploma courses were introduced for the tribal communities – a one year diploma course in health assistance, a diploma course in naturopathy, and the third one on traditional medicine. In future, the community college is planning to start a course in tribal studies . So far, only women have joined, though the courses are open to men also.
There are other challenges as well. The medical terms in microbiology have no equivalent Tamil words. Many English words have been translated into Tamil so that the students understand the terms easily. During their medical practical exams, students face another challenge.
“When students go for their practical exams at the tribal hospital in Kozhikkarai village, they come across elephants. These are the circumstances under which they are studying,” said Vadivelu.
Though they have been forced to write their exams in English so far, the college administration, spearheaded by the principal, took it up with the university. This year, the young women wrote the exams in Tamil.
For Balamani, a 21-year old Irula tribal girl from Koovakarai village, coming to college was a challenge. But she was willing to do it as her family supported her. From the mountains, she has to walk down to the main road, take a bus and reach Kotagiri, in time for her classes.
“I had taken my grandmother to the hospital when she was unwell. There I met the college principal who told me about this course,” said Balamani. “Initially, I thought it was risky, but I was confident that I could study.”
She prepared for exams and also managed household works. She has four siblings. “I am the eldest one with responsibilities. I want to go for a job, and support my family,” Balamani told VillageSquare.in. She has finished her course in health assistance, and is aiming to take the course in naturopathy.
Like Balamani, her school mate R Subhashini also took the course in health assistance. “We were just staying inside the house for a long time. We got used to that. We never talked much, but now after coming out, there is a change. We are confident and can talk openly to people,” she said.
Nadiya (21), from Sundapatti village, is the daughter of a laborer at a tea estate. , “When people around me told me to join this course, my initial idea was to understand about health,” Nadiya told VillageSquare.in. “ Now I understand that opting for a course in health assistance means I can work for the benefit of people.”
The traditional medicine course was crucial, according to Vadivelu. The tribes possess a repository and wealth of information that they have gathered through their indigenous knowledge from ages. These had to be documented.
Getting educated wasn’t easy for tribal women. Further, getting educated in medicine was tougher as tribal people do not like to take medicine. They usually heal themselves by taking external therapies.
In many interior villages, the tribes know about herbal medicines that are very effective. These medicines have no side effects. By just smell, the tribes will identify the herbs, and treat illnesses naturally. The practice is known as nattu vaithiyam (traditional medical practice).
For a simple ailment like headache, there are many solutions across the tribal communities. They know the leaves, though they may not know the names. There is a need for a common name for these herbs. “We need to study, document this and prepare medicines through proper licensing. This profit can reach the community,” said Vadivelu.
Employment opportunities for women
Students are taught anatomy, physiology, microbiology in health assistance course. “Students are not just learning not only anatomy, physiology, microbiology, but also hospital management, hospital administration, health care services, and handling patients in different situations,” said Vadivelu.
The college administration finds the need to do something for the students’ livelihood. They can earn about Rs 5,000 a month after finishing this course. The intention behind this community college is to give them employment opportunities. If they pass, they will be absorbed in the tribal hospital run by NAWA.
With this one year diploma certificate, students can enroll in the government employment exchange and get into private and government sector. Vadivelu says, “With a one year diploma in health assistance, they can be an assistant to the nurses. For tribal community, Rs 5,000 per month is a reasonable income.”
Naturopathy is popular not only in India, but also globally. Yoga, meditation, therapy, steam bath, mud bath, etc. are naturopathy techniques, and these are taught here. Vadivelu says, “Government of India is going to take a lot of therapists in future. Such therapists will get Rs 16,000 per month on an average. We are focusing on creating more human resource in this front.”
Three years ago, the first batch had nine students. In the second batch, there were 25, and the previous batch, the number was 45, and it is only increasing. The college administration believes the next batch will have a 100 students, for the courses not only benefit them but the community as well.
Sharada Balasubramanian is a Coimbatore-based journalist. Views are personal.