To School against odds

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Khushi Mena, a student of Rajkiya Unch Prathmik Vidyalaya, Kitoda, walks at least 5 km daily to get to school along with her siblings, Prakash and Mukesh. Whereas it’s not uncommon for children of Kitoda village in Girwa block of Rajasthan’s Udaipur district to drop out because of the long distances they have to traverse, Khushi is determined to stick on.

Highlighting the perils they endure during their daily trek she quietly mentions their run in with a wild animal one afternoon. “It was around 4 pm when we were returning home, we spotted the animal from far and were scared. Thankfully, it simply saw us and turned away. At times we have had to save ourselves from snakes, too,” she says, matter-of-fact. During monsoon they have to cross several natural streams that spring up along the way. “As the water levels rise we have to wade through them to get to class. We reach late but we still make it a point to go,” she adds.

Of course, not everyone is able to beat these tough odds. The greatest worry for Surmal, a resident of Amarpura, 40 km from Udaipur, is the poor attendance of his four children. “When the weather is rough they have to stay at home. We do not have affordable transportation facilities around here and I can’t take the chance of anything untoward happening to them. I want them to study well but I fear that one day they might lose their admission as they miss school frequently,” he remarks.

It was around 4 pm we were returning home, we spotted the animal and were scared. At times we have had to save ourselves from snakes.

Fortunately, across the region, the panchayats and the local civil society organisations have been trying to introduce different incentives, ranging from providing affordable transportation to singing motivational songs at night meetings for parents, to forming groups of all-women escorts to improve enrolment and keep the drop-out rates in check.

The Udaipur-based NGO, Unnati Sanstha, is working towards ensuring quality education for students like Khushi, Prakash and Mukesh. According to a study conducted by the NGO across eight panchayats of Girwa, Sarada and Kherwada blocks, only 59 per cent children between 6 and14 years attend school and 46 per cent parents do not send their children to school because of the unsafe terrain.

Marjorie Aziz, its secretary, says, “This is a tribal area; illiteracy and poverty are rampant. Parents are not inclined to send their kids to school. In fact, they prioritise survival over education and end up pushing them into doing paid work in mines or agricultural labour. Even if this hurdle is overcome successfully there is the question of safety. Schools are located several kilometres from settlements; This makes them apprehensive, contributing to the drop-out rate.”

Busy with their lessons at school, braving all odds.
Busy with their lessons at school, braving all odds.

This is where the innovative measures jointly implemented by the School Management Committees (SMCs) and NGO volunteers, in coordination with the panchayats, have managed to steer parents towards sending their children to school and making sure they stay there. Elaborates Aziz, “We ask families not to use their children as assets and put them to work either at home or in the marble mines, at construction sites or the cotton fields. Since 2008, by conducting one-on-one sessions with parents, creating ‘bhajan mandalis’ (prayer groups) that sing about merits of education, and holding meetings with the nodal officer in the Education Department we have brought about a noticeable positive change in attitudes.”

Essentially, tribals here have small land holdings that cannot provide for their large families. Consequently, they have to migrate to find work. In the villages along the Gujarat border there is heavy migration, especially during the harvest season, and child labour is rampant.

Panchayat coordinator Silwans Patel, who has been working with village communities for over six years, sings inspirational songs to promote education. “Parents, who are mostly labourers, don’t mind listening to a song or two on the merits of education at the end of a crushing day’s work. They desperately want a different life for their children,” he says.

Government schools too, have come up with some out-of-the-box ideas. Government Secondary School, Kaya, near Udaipur, has students from the sixth to tenth grade. Out of the 293 children enrolled, 200 come from distant villages. Anand Mehta, who teaches mathematics, observes that children study up to Class Eight and then go to the city to earn a living. “During the summer vacations, even the younger children go to work with their parents,” he says.

However, Principal Laxmi Joshi has found that offering incentives to children who show up on time works well. “Some of them cannot afford to buy pens, so we give them out as prizes. During the prayer assembly, we felicitate them so that they remain motivated. We even talk to the parents whose children have missed a few days of school so that the gap remains minimal.” Additionally, the school ensures that students from the SC/ST community get the government scholarships they are entitled to. “Each teacher takes out the time to go to the bank to fill out scholarship forms for children as their parents are illiterate,” says Joshi.

Sohanlal, hailing from Lai village, 7 km from Kaya, has benefitted tremendously from his school’s proactive approach. “The boy, who has six siblings, lost his father years back. Their financial situation has always been poor. But he is bright. He takes care of the family and even arranged the marriage of his elder brother. He wanted to drop out to earn but we intervened and he’s still with us,” says Mehta with a smile.

Laxmilal Mena, who teaches 45 students at the Hamabal Primary School in remote Khajuri village, “negotiates” with parents on a daily basis. “I have to constantly engage with them. When kids miss school for several weeks they are hesitant to return. When I inquire with the elders, they give excuses like that their uniforms were not washed, so I end up negotiating as per the demands of the situation,” he laughs.

In places where lack of transport poses a major problem, Unnati Sanstha had introduced a system under which children in far flung hamlets get a pick and drop. Four years ago, support was provided to five panchayats to improve the enrolment and retention rates. Approximately 700 children benefitted from this. As the retention levels rose to 90 per cent the state government also decided to come on board. “Today, the government has temporarily halted its contribution but the community is actively demanding it. We are working with the authorities and I’m sure they will reinstate the scheme soon,” says Aziz.

Times have truly changed around these parts and so have people’s perception of education. Amarpura’s Ward Panch Baalal recalls how there were no schools when he was young but things are very different now. “We want our children to study well so that they don’t have to work as labourers like we do. At least they will have a better, more secure future,” concludes Ramesh Chandra Mena, father of four and an SMC member in Amarpura.

(© Women’s Feature Service)

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