Apni To Pathshala

By Shirish Khare

Usmanabad, India: Lalita, Seema and Vaishali of class III are in schooltoday an hour early. Seema and Vaishali are busy writing down the lesson Lalita reads aloud on the school staircase. Their hair neatly plaited, they look every inch the eager school students they are in their white and blue uniform and black shoes. So engrossed is Vaishali in her morning lesson that she has forgotten to unburden her tender shoulders of the heavyschool bag.

This all too familiar scene of an ordinary day in school that is part of every child’s life is nothing short of a miracle for the local residents here. Because the school in this case is that of the ‘Pardi’ tribe enlisted by the British under the ‘Criminal Tribes Act 1871’. Though the British have long left India, this community continues to live on the margins of society – literally. The tribe lives in jungles, miles away from human habitation in the most uninhabitable conditions where roads, electricity, water, health centres or even a semblance of a Government project remain a distant dream. In these glorious 60 years of India’s independence, the only thing this tribe has managed to claim as its own though is this lone governmentschool of Mahadev Basti.

Tucked away in the foothills, 15 kms from the Tehsil Head Office, the nondescript Basti has 279 people living in 60 tiny huts. Far from looking to it for security, government is a term these people have come to associate with fear. They took us for the police out for on one of their routine ‘investigations’ and vanished into their huts. Only after reassured that we were not the police did they meet us in the only concrete construction of the Basti – the Mahadev Basti school building. A board announces the year it came into being – 1998, the number of students – 27, girls – 10 and boys – 17. The school has a large hall leading to two rooms where classes between class I and IV are held, an office and a toilet. But the true picture of this 30X60 school became clear to us only when we were told that in the last two years the school has achieved a result of 100% and is now counted among the better schools of the Zilla. “Until a few years ago”, reminisces Subrarao Shinde, “there were police raids more often than not because of which no school teacher dared to set foot in the schoolpremises. Even if a few did, there would be no students. We felt the schoolwas an excuse for the police keep an eye on us.

When ‘Lokhit Saamaajik Vikas Sansthan’ first came to this Basti, it met a lot of resistance. Bajrang Tate of the Sanstha told us, “The people here were suspicious of us taking us for police aides. They wouldn’t tell us their names and would refuse to be photographed. What helped us deal with that situation and win over the trust of the people was our work of several years with the Pardi tribe in close partnership with Child Rights and You (CRY)”. “They would spend a lot of time with us”, added Kalyan Kale, a local, “and we slowly began trusting them. They would spend hours discussing with us the importance of education”. Bajrang Tate chipped in, “Then we did a survey with 139 women and 149 men from 60 families and came up with the model of a school. That’s how Samajshala was born in 2007”.

Pratibha Dikshit, a Samajshala teacher elaborates, “We follow the government-prescribed syllabus here at the school. We are three of us here at the school who have been trained to involve children both in academics and extra-curricular activities. Sanjay Tambare, another teacher at Samajshala volunteered, “Initially we faced problems with the children here because they could only speak Pardi, their native dialect that we did not understand. We had to use songs, games, pictures etc. to communicate to each other. Now the children have learnt Marathi, Hindi and even English”. Sunidi Shinde informed us, “The real strength of the school is its committee run by the women of the Basti. The committee manages students’ attendance, their lunch and overall academics. Every woman in this women’s collective – the school committee contributes Rs 50 every month that is spent on the school and school children.”

Vitthal Khandagale, a Samajshala worker, attributes the school playground, the blackboard standing on it, toilet and electricity to the sheer hard work of the local youth group. He elaborates, “The youth group comprising young men of 18 to 30 years holds a fair every August. They invite government officials and politicians. This year they’ve invited the Zilla Parishad President Godavari Kendre and she has promised us water, electricity and roads in the Basti. Also, Vijay Mahale, Sub-divisional Police Officer, had held a workshop for the locals to allay the fear of the police from their minds.” Adds Vinayak Taur, “We already have in place the school primary health centre that holds health camps every month where health check-ups are conducted not only for the children but also for adults. A toilet for girls, library and schoolboundary walls are next in our demands for the school.”

The panchayat of Mahadev Basti took a decision on Dec 5, 2007 that took many people in the Zilla by surprise. They unanimously decided that if they hindered a child’s education, they would pay penalty for it. This was the turning point in the life of Mahadev Basti. After that day, the school started seeing 100% attendance and no drop outs. The school Principal, Ram Dahve proudly declares, “The District Collector recognises the success of the school too. With time education, like most things, is changing too. Computers are fast becoming the norm. Even though computers are yet to reach our district, the school has two computers this year, thanks to ‘Lokhit’.” Kumar Neelendu, General Manager, Child Rights and You (CRY), “We are campaigning for a Common School System across the country. This schoolis an example of that. Free and fair education can only be achieved through the Common School System. Government schools in other Bastis can take a cue from this school in the Pardi Basti that has transformed lives.”

During our interactions with the community, we realised that the people of the community want to fight for their democratic right to citizenship so far denied to them. Living on the periphery of the village has kept them out of the voters’ list too all since independence. They do not even have the basic right to their own land. Some work as agricultural labourers on sugarcane farms for 6 to 8 months while others migrate to Mumbai along with their children who often get embroiled into the gruesome underbelly of Mumbai. Though we often see media stories on the Mumbai underworld, the socio-political dynamics involved find no mention in them. These aspects remain unspoken even in the midst of all the din of news.

Phoola Devi (name changed) reveals, “State atrocities show no signs of stopping. The police come to our Basti the moment any crime, no matter how petty or serious, is reported in the neighbouring village. But we don’t let that hinder our children’s education.” We reassured them that we must always strive for change. But we soon realised it’s easier said than done. The Basti school has classes only upto class IV after which children would have to travel 5 kms to the nearest school in Itkur. This seemingly innocuous commute is a daunting task as not just children but even adults fear venturing out of the Basti. The tribe continues to preserve its tribal culture, tradition and history, visible in their lifestyle and display of vibrant tribal art in the school. The children danced to the lilt of Pardi songs, silhouetted in the fleeting twilight. As we were leaving, children of class I huddled around us. One of them said, “Hey, listen to our poem.” We asked, “Which one?” “I want to claim the sun.” “Tell me when you have claimed it.”

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