Keralas adivasi kids undertake a long and dangerous walk for education

Kerala's adivasi kids undertake a long and dangerous walk for education

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It is still 10 minutes to 5 when little Maheswari is woken up. The sun is not yet fully out on the Kunnathumala adivasi settlement in the Neyyar Peppara forest division in Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve, lying on southernmost part of the Western Ghats. Rubbing her eyes, the six-year-old pleads with her mother Latha and father Murugan to be allowed a little more sleep time. But the family has...

It is still 10 minutes to 5 when little Maheswari is woken up. The sun is not yet fully out on the Kunnathumala adivasi settlement in the Neyyar Peppara forest division in Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve, lying on southernmost part of the Western Ghats. Rubbing her eyes, the six-year-old pleads with her mother Latha and father Murugan to be allowed a little more sleep time. But the family has no time to lose because the school is far and the road ahead dangerously meanders through a dense forest.

The couple, daily wage labourers, also need to report to work at 6.30 am after ensuring their daughter has reached school safely. The family is one among the nearly 56-60 others that inhabit the Kunnathumala settlement, perched atop a mountain, accessible only through a two-kilometre trek through a forest.

Given the fear of wild animals in the forest and letting a child walk alone, Latha has to accompany Maheswari, a student of Class 1, on her way out of the forest from where an autorickshaw picks her and drops her to school – 20 kms away. When the auto drops her back after school at the same spot, Latha or Murugan will have to ensure they are there to take her back home – once again through the forest.

The family has been forced to follow this daily routine ever since schools reopened after a two-year Covid induced shutdown. Before Covid struck and education moved online, Maheswari attended the Multi-Grade Learning Centre (MGLC), locally known as single-teacher school, an informal system of education for the Kerala’s adivasis that was introduced in 1997, in her own village just like the children from other families.

When the schools resumed post Covid, the adivasi people of Kunnathumala found the only school inside the forest for young children had shut down down.

“I cannot let her walk through the forest alone so I accompany her. The auto-driver drops her at the community centre, at the foothills, after school. I come back from work by 6 pm and take her with me. I am paying Rs 125 per day to the auto-driver. This is a huge amount for us but we are paying because we cannot compromise on the child’s education,” Latha tells The Federal.

Latha’s elder daughter Rajeshwari is a student of Class 8 at Ambedkar Memorial Model Residential School, 30 km from the village. Latha plans to admit Maheswari too in the same residential school when she gets promoted to the fifth standard. “We have no other option. Children get good education and good food in the school but it would have been easy for us if the single-teacher school had continued here. Sending the younger one to a school which is 22 kilometre away is really difficult,” says Latha.

“The child travelling so far leaves us really anxious through the day till she is back with us,” she adds.

MLGCs were established in 1997 under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) to ensure special focus on the education of marginalised adivasi and fishermen communities. By early 2000s, 358 MGLCs were running across Kerala imparting primary education to about 11,000 tribal students. Under the informal teaching programme, a single teacher taught students from Class 1-4 imparting basic lessons in language, mathematics and science. Most MGLCs were established in the remote interior forest areas where the adivasi communities lived.

Over the course of time, the number of formal schools and residential schools exclusively meant for adivasi children increased and the number of single-teacher schools came down. The single-teacher schools ran under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a centrally aided project, till 2011. The Centre provided financial aid to MGLCs only from 2003 to 2011, after which it became the sole responsibility of states.

When the Right to Education Act came into existence in 2012, the Kerala government decided to convert the single-teacher schools to lower primary schools. The decision remained on papers and not a single MGLC was upgraded to a lower primary school.

Kerala adivasis
Latha, mother of Maheswari and Rajeshwari, says sending the younger one to school has become very difficult.

In 2019, the Kerala government suddenly decided to shut down the MGLCs. By then the number of the single-teacher schools had shrunk to 270 due to the opening of new primary schools. The remaining MGLCs employed about 344 teachers – called as Vidya Volunteers – who were teaching about 3,818 adivasi students. The schools got an extension to run till March 2022. Only 18 MGLCs, running under the tribal department, are functional now and the rest have been shut down. Even these 18 will be shut down after alternative arrangements are put in place.

S Syamkumar, assistant private secretary to Kerala education minister Vasudevan Sivankutty, says that the decision was taken since there were no students left in MGLCs as all of them have moved to formal primary schools. The Education Department has claimed that the number of school dropouts due to the switch is almost zero as almost all students have been absorbed either in nearby schools or the Model Residential Schools for adivasi children. The ground reality, however, belies the government’s claims.

As The Federal travelled through a few tribal settlements in Kerala we found that not only has the move caused a spike in number of dropouts but has also made everyday life harder for the tribal children and their parents. Young children, such as Maheswari, have to walk through the forest and cross rivers to reach schools. Broken or dilapidated bridges, heavy rain and overflowing rivers make their journey to school even more difficult.

The closure of MGLC has come as a double whammy. The first jolt came with the floods of 2018 which washed away many roads and bridges and isolated remote adivasi villages. The grown-up children who travelled outside their villages for education suffered because they could not attended schools for a long time even after the floods abated.

Most tribal settlements in districts such as Malappuram, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Wayanad and Thiruvananthapuram were cut off from the rest of the world. In many villages, the bridges were broken and the children had to depend on country boats. Crossing the river by boats is nearly impossible on during the monsoon.

“None of the students have gone to school today as there is heavy rain and the water level in the river is high” Reghu CK, a Vidya Volunteer at the single-teacher school in Chembra settlement in Nilambur forest, told The Federal on July 4, a day on which many districts in Kerala received heavy rainfall.


Young adivasi students in Kerala are being forced to tread through jungles to reach schools.

The Chembra MGLC was allowed to run for the time being after locals protested the move to shut it down.

“The people in Chembra belong to Kattunaikar, one of the most primitive tribes in Kerala. The adivasi settlement is located deep inside the forest. If this school is shut, all the 18 children would drop out and remain uneducated,” Reghu says.

Reghu’s fears aren’t unfounded. The elder children in the tribal settlements in this locality have to travel about 36 kms to reach their school located on the Malappuram- Wayanad border. A school bus arranged by the tribal department is used for the transportation of the children but the children have to cross a river to board the bus. “The bridge that was used by the tribal people in this locality was washed away in the 2018 floods. Since then, going to school has become a nightmare for the children. They can’t go to school on the days of heavy rain as the water level in the river goes up. The children are unable to attend school for weeks during the monsoon season,” says Reghu.

Reghu points that the dropout rate among the adivasi children has increased after the flood followed by Covid. “The school attendance was 100 per cent before the floods. The closure of schools for two years due to Covid has left the children reluctant to attend school daily,” Reghu, who has been working as a Vidya Volunteer since 25 years, tells The Federal.

While the closure has added to the hardships of the students and parents, even the adivasi people do not see the single-teacher schools as the ideal choice for educating their children given its informal nature. People, The Federal spoke to, say that the system compromises on the quality of education.

“In single-teacher schools, all children from Class 1-4 sit together. It is not a good system. It would be ideal if the government can convert single-teacher schools to proper lower primary schools,” says Santhakumari, an Anganwadi worker from the Kunnathumala settlement.

She also said that sending children at a very tender age to residential schools is not a good idea. “Children need to have parental care at least till the age of 9 or 10 years,” she adds.

Model residential schools: Not the ideal alternative

Most tribal people that The Federal met at Kunnathumala settlement in Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MNREGA). Dropping the children to schools and bringing them back in the evening every day is practically impossible for them.

Sandhya’s case is an example. She sent her six-year-old child to the Model Residential School 51 km away from her settlement. “My daughter was too young to be sent to a residential school, but we were left with no option when the single-teacher school was closed. The nearest school is 20 kms away and we cannot accompany her every day,” says Sandhya. Most mothers that The Federal spoke to are scared to let their daughters walk through the forest unaccompanied.

There are 20 Model Residential Schools in Kerala, exclusively meant for the adivasi children, in addition to 104 pre-metric and post-metric hostels. According to a 2021 study by the Planning Board, the residential schools play a pivotal role in enhancing the rate of enrolment of tribal children in schools. According to the Economic Review of 2021, tribal students constitute 1.85 per cent of the total enrolment in schools in 2021-22. (The population ratio of tribal people in Kerala is 1.43 per cent). Despite Kerala having an exponential growth of private schools, the major source of education for the tribal children remains to be government schools. About 59 per cent tribal children study in government schools.

Though the dropout ratio of non-tribal population has almost come to nil in Kerala (0.08 per cent), the tribal children continue to drop out. According to the 2021 Economic Review, 1.17 per cent adivasi children enrolled in schools drop out each year.

Women of the Kunnathumala settlement say while single-teacher schools are not a viable alternative to primary schools shutting them has hit their children hard.

“The meta data will not help us to understand the reality in the case of the tribal communities in Kerala,” says PE Usha, an activist and the former director of Mahila Samakhya, who worked among the adivasi communities.

According to Usha, both the flood and the pandemic forced many tribal children to give up on education. When the state turned to online education during the pandemic, the digital divide saw many adivasi children at the losing end.

The winding up of single-teacher schools without an alternative system in place could permanently reverse the gains made when it comes to educating the adivasi children.

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