Bhamragad taluk in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra is tucked away in a remote corner, located on the eastern side of Maharashtra, bordering Chhattisgarh. Madia Gond tribes inhabit the region. Originally hunter-gatherers and forest dwellers, now most of them have taken up farming.
The Madia Gonds have their own distinct language and culture. The area had minimal contact with the outside world till the 1980s. Predominantly a forest area, the main livelihood for villagers are seasonal farming, cutting bamboo, collection of tendu leaves, and occasional MGNREGA work.
The residential ashram school, started in 1976, is one of the activities of Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP), started by Late Baba Amte in 1973. The residential school, hosting 650 students, is funded by the government and privately managed. LBP runs two community-led day schools too, where 200 students are enrolled.
When the residential school was started in 1976, it was the only one in the entire area for many years. The school in Hemalkasa village has produced many doctors, engineers, lawyers, officers, farmers and entrepreneurs, all of them being the first in their community pursuing such vocations.
Children from more than 100 villages live in the hostel and attend school. The school offers education up to class 12 in arts faculty. The school has about 30 teaching and 20 non-teaching staff, all of them residing in the campus, so as to provide maximum support and care for the students.
The school emphasizes on academic as well as extracurricular activities. Students have fared extremely well in state and national level sports tournaments. The school has a state-of-art computer lab with internet connection and fully functional library, besides other facilities that the students fully utilize.
Closure of schools
Though the number of COVID-19 patients has been increasing in the state, Gadchiroli remains a green zone without a single positive case till date. However, as a precautionary measure, the government ordered closure of all schools from 15 March, with uncertainty about the start date of a new academic session.
When the school was closed, the students said that they would be back in two weeks. As the uncertainty grew, the teachers visited nearby villages and wrote letters, to inform students that they should come to school only when instructed to do so.
During the lockdown, teachers brushed up on educational theories learnt in college, prepared teaching and learning material for the next academic session, got the classrooms ready, organized text books and recycled stationery where possible. The purpose was to remain meaningfully occupied.
Lack of communication
There have been a lot of discussions on life before and life after coronavirus. There is an upsurge on the opportunities for online learning and teaching. While this enthusiasm and need for a panacea for post COVID-19 has its own reasons, more often than not, it is based on a lot of preconceived notions.
One such preconceived notion is that of romanticizing the life and culture of tribal and rural people, how their economy and way of life are sustainable and how they have been the least affected by the coronavirus infection.
However they are the ones in dire need of education, information, understanding of the unfolding crisis and updates that have a bearing on their lives. This is not unfortunately happening, due to undependable mobile connectivity, erratic power supply and absence of all-weather roads. Hemalkasa is no exception.
The state government notification instructed that all types of educational institutions were to remain closed. However the government instructed schools to maintain the academic schedule through online teaching and use of Doordarshan. We were not sure if this would be possible in our region.
How many Dalit, tribal and other parents belonging to vulnerable communities would be able to form groups on mobile messaging apps and benefit from the flood of online learning courses that are popular now in urban areas? I can safely say that the number is less than 20 in the whole of Bhamragad taluk.
Bhamragad taluk has about 10,000 children studying in schools and various educational institutions. Their hope of education is grim at the moment with the current situation. After passing class 12, many of our students left the taluk and were studying in cities such as Pune and Aurangabad.
All of them aspiring to join medical and engineering courses, and preparing for other entrance tests, (a system already unfavorable to them), have returned to their villages. Their urban counterparts continue to study and thrive on online tuitions and video lessons, while this situation keeps our students away from learning.
Lack of academic resources
While children in cities are using video sharing platforms and cloud-based phone apps to learn various arts and keep themselves busy through activities, children in Bhamragad are helping their parents with work in the farm and at home, taking care of animals.
Some of them pick mahua and collect tendu leaves from the forests. The biggest hardship is that they can hardly see a printed word while they are confined to their surroundings in remote villages. For children in our school, a prolonged holiday like this is a huge setback to their yearlong learning.
This is not unusual as most of our students are first generation learners. They do not have a conducive environment in their homes that will strengthen or consolidate their formal education in school. None of them has the luxury of newspapers, periodicals, maps, atlas, experiment kits, dictionaries, children books, and the like to keep them active in a learning mode.
Relearning with a backlog
Huge time intervals between vacation at home and school increases their rate of forgetting exponentially. In turn that will affect their rate and capability to learn when they come back to school, without the level of knowledge that children of their age should possess.
One might argue that there is no need for them to study in formal schools. And argue that coexistence with nature has been the tribal way of life; they have always had their forests, traditional knowledge, wisdom of food and nutrition.
Amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19 the worst affected are those with the least resources, information and education. Not to conceive how the years and generations of neglect and backlog (economic and developmental) that they have faced is adding to their misery.
One needs to remember that post-lockdown, the children will need extra inputs and time to catch up with the backlog and learn what they should have, at their respective levels. Our team has decided to forego some holidays and concentrate on teaching through various materials and hands-on activities.
The real deficit for tribal people has been and continues to be absence of credible and useful information. Unfortunately in these times of coronavirus, the situation has not changed, or rather worsened. Very few of them have completely fathomed what this pandemic is about, the reason for this situation and what the way out is.
Even though local administration has been trying hard to provide basic information, the picture is unclear to many of them. When I visited villages before the complete lockdown was announced, I heard how the local priests and shamans and the villagers are interpreting the disease, adding to the myths.
Cut off from the world, the residents of these remote tribal villages are devoid of television channels and newspapers. This absence of availability of appropriate information avenues is a real poverty and has always been so.
In these times, I often think that it would not be a bad idea to replace the 2 kg of wheat (any way our people here hardly eat it, it is meant for animals) with a newspaper or a periodical, in the allotment of ration to all of them through the public distribution system. After all, each one of us needs a stimulation for the brain and mind, in addition to staple food two times a day.
Samiksha Godse has done her masters in economics from Pune University. She has been working with Lok Biradari Prakalp for the last 11 years in livelihoods and education, focusing on multilingual education, to bridge the gap between home and school for tribal children. Views are personal.