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Thu24Apr2014

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Tomorrow’s children

By Moushumi Basu

Adivasi children orphaned and traumatised by extremist violence in Chhattisgarh find education, sport, theatre and emotional support at residential schools like Uttaran

displaced adivasis

From a childhood full of terror in Naxal-affected Chhattisgarh to applause in France, 14-year-old Santosh Gali’s life is an inspiring story. Uttaran has given this young tribal boy, orphaned at age 11 in terrorist violence, a new lease of life. His new home, away from the government relief camp, has slowly blurred the memories of bullets, bloodshed and guns. Today, incredible as it may sound, Santosh is just back from a sports exchange programme in France organised by Sport dans la Ville, a French organisation thatworks internationally towards growth and personal development of children through sport. Two of his friends -- Komal Mondavi and Kamla Soyam -- were also selected to participate in the international event held in July this year, for their outstanding skills as football players.

“Call it a home or a school with a difference. Our children also attend outside schools along with other students. Here at Uttaran we complement their studies, hone their skills and groom them to be self-confident. They live here; we support and care for them as one large family,” says Ritwik Patra, chief operating officer of Uttaran, a project sponsored by Tomorrow’s Foundation (TF), an NGO working for the uplift of indigenous peoples in India. “When we bring these children here, their life is often in complete disarray. They are out of school or, in some cases, have never been to school at all. We try to help them through bridge courses, mainstreaming them with regular schools, skills development, career counselling and handholding,” says Patra. TF chooses three to four children from its centres every year for international exposure in the various fields of art and sports through exchange programmes organised in India and abroad. Sport dans la Ville in France is one organisation that invites students from TF every year to participate in various events.

Impact of Naxal violence School dropouts

At present, Uttaran has two centres in Chhattisgarh -- for girls in Dantewada and for boys in Bijapur. Located in the midst of idyllic hills and forests, Uttaran is far removed from the fear and terror they have known. The teachers here mentor the children, trying to make up for their lost families and childhood. The Dantewada centre was started on January 15, 2010; today it has 92 students. A year later, the centre at Bijapur, which now has 46 boys, came up.

Pupen Khaka, a teacher from the Dantewada centre, recalls with pride: “When we brought the twins Suba and Sudha Kumari here, their eyes spoke just one language -- fear. They would barely speak.” Today, the duo gush: “We want to be football players.”  “The sky is the limit for our girls; we want them to dream big and achieve their dreams,” says Khaka.

Barkha Yadav, 16, lost her parents when she was six. “We three sisters were left alone in the village. The Naxals would threaten us to leave,” she recalls. Today, they are determined to prove their mettle. Barkha recently represented the state at the national convention of Bharat Scouts and Guides, in Hyderabad.

According to official records, over 500 people have lost their lives in Naxal violence in Chhattisgarh since 2010, and several thousands were moved to camps in the state. Both the districts of Dantewada and Bijapur, where Uttaran runs its centres, are epicentres of Maoist insurgency. The worst victims are young and adolescent children, many of them either orphaned or abandoned “We found extremely traumatised boys and girls left at the mercy of relief camps -- there was no today or tomorrow for them,” says Patra. The Uttaran project was launched with 50 orphaned girls in Dantewada, he recalls.

And the numbers are slowly growing, says Anjali Tirkey whom the children address as Ma. “Most of these children have witnessed the worst at very impressionable stages of their life. Hence, for them, the sense of emotional anchorage and support system from the teachers is crucial. They look up to us for that sense of assurance that we will be by their side come what may,” she says. It’s not just about teaching: 14-year-old Komal, for instance, happily takes charge of getting Sunita ready for school, right from waking her up to making her ponytails and ensuring that she is not late for school. “It’s this sense of ‘family’ that we at Uttaran try to foster amongst our children,” Tirkey adds.

An important objective of the training imparted to these children is enabling and enriching their powers of self-expression. So besides the academic curriculum they are also trained in sports, pottery, painting, theatre -- anything that enables them to explore their inner self and realise their potential, explains Ritwik Patra. Sports seems to be their forte. It comes naturally to them, he says. Tribal children are blessed with a good athletic build -- all they require is some guidance and grooming and they are set to make you proud, he adds.

Take the case of Komal who is just back from a fortnight-long summer camp in France. Lithe and agile, she cannot help gushing about her experience. “I am the captain of the Uttaran girls’ football team. We have even defeated teams from New Delhi.” She is also on the school kho-kho team and has played in block-level matches. “Someday I will play football at the national level,” she says confidently. Santosh, on the other hand, nurtures dreams of becoming a sprint athlete one day. Already set in his goal, his day begins at 4 am with jogging and exercise.

But it’s not all play and no work for these children. Their list of achievements goes further than this. Fourteen children from Uttaran succeeded in making their way to Nirmal Niketan International Public School, one of the best in the state.  Another 13 are in Kendriya Vidyalaya at Dantewada. The rest attend government-run schools in the district. “We are taking further steps to enrol another 22 children in Kendriya Vidyalaya at Dantewada in the next academic year,” says Patra.

Sunita is in the upper KG class at Nirmal Niketan and seems already focused on her priorities. She wants to study hard and become a doctor. Her talent is already showing. “She has done us all proud by securing 100% marks in her school examinations,” says her teacher.

Theatre is another area where the children excel. Theatre workshops are organised to enable the children to identify issues, develop scripts and prepare their own skits which they perform at their respective centres as well as in the surrounding areas to generate awareness among locals. Barkha, a girl student from the Dantewada centre, explains that they often convey a social message like the use of mosquito nets to help prevent malaria or how addiction to tobacco ruins lives.

Nature is a major source of inspiration for these young minds. For tribals, co-existing with nature is a way of life. This is reflected at the centres. The children name their rooms after rivers in Chhattisgarh -- Indravati, Dankini, Sankini, Nandini, etc. The boys have chosen hills in the state -- Maikal, Kachhagarh, etc. Their closeness to the forests and trees is reflected in theatre and cultural programmes. Such occasions are not complete without a message about saving the environment.

Uttaran is also helping the district administration keep track of the large numbers of school dropouts from various state-run schools in the district. In fact, Dantewada has the lowest literacy rate in the country, at 30%. The ongoing strife has had a debilitating impact on schools in the region. According to a submission by the Chhattisgarh government to the Supreme Court in October 2010, 31 schools have been converted into barracks by the security forces and 71 reduced to rubble by Maoists. To add to the problem, a number of schools in the interior have quietly folded up and moved out after violent extremist clashes. Such situations have led to the large-scale dislocation of children, though there are no clear records or statistics.

To get a clearer picture of children missing from schools, the district administration has drawn up plans with Unicef to launch a ‘child-tracking system’. Accordingly, data will be collected and fed into specially designed software which will map the movement of children. It will serve as a software-based management information system and set up a database that will enable child protection and inclusive planning.

“This software is being developed by our parent NGO Tomorrow’s Foundation,” says Ritwik Patra. Data will be collected from the villages and the full impact of the project will be felt only after all villages and schools have been covered. This should lead to the re-opening of schools in the interior, he says.

The software will also ensure that government grants to these schools are optimally utilised. A major problem in the district is that if children trickle in unannounced, they also drop out quietly. And only some come back. School wardens are not particularly perturbed by this as food, supplies and stipends ranging from Rs 450 to Rs 950 for each child continue to be sent by the state to the schools, irrespective of the number of dropouts.

Considering the enormous challenges faced by such schools, Uttaran has indeed proved true to its name and has succeeded in ‘handing over’ the legacy of love and bonding to its students. “We do not feel like returning to our village even during vacations. If some of our friends do go, they come back much before the vacations are over,” says Kamla. For the teachers, such a reward from their children could not be more satisfying.  

(Moushumi Basu is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata)

Infochange News & Features, December 2012