Field notes from south India

I drafted the field notes presented here as part of a larger study conducted by NIAS, Bangalore, to bring out a perspective paper on issues pertaining to the education of the tribal peoples of India. In March 2012, NIAS submitted a final report of its study to UNICEF. The report was titled ‘The Education Question: From the Perspective of Adivasis: Conditions, Policies and Structures.’

By providing the field notes for reference through this forum , I hope to make amends for invisibilising the voices of the actors in the report, in the making of which I was part.

Note on South Zone Consultation Meet Held on November 25 and 26, 2010

 On the 25th and 26th of November, 2010, the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, in association with the Adivasi Solidarity Council (ASC), Ambur, held a consultation meet with various individuals and organizations working for the education and progress of the Adivasi/ Tribal people.  The meeting was held in the ASC’s premises in Ambur.  About forty participants, representing various organizations from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, participated in the consultation.

On the first day, the representatives, who included many tribals, as well as the leaders of the organizations, presented their views.  The talks were interactive, and the session was followed by an open discussion.  The post-lunch session consisted of focus group discussions with three groups of people – community leaders, teachers, and NGO representatives.  Each group had separate discussions, and drew up charters listing issues, possibilities and directions for the future.

On day two, the NIAS team visited the Nayakaneri [also spelt Naickeneri] village, which is on a hill, an hour’s drive from Ambur town.  The team spent some time in the Government Residential Tribal School and the Government High School in Nayakaneri and had discussions with the teachers in the schools, besides interacting briefly with the school children and the community members.  This note gives an overview of the consultations and observations over the two days.

DAY ONE [25-11-2010]

Presentation by individuals, organizations and open discussion

 The purpose of the consultation meet was briefly outlined as:

  • To understand how far education has helped in the progress/ development of the Adivasi/ Tribal people;
  • To identify what government policies/ facilities are available for promoting the educational attainment of the Adivasi people;
  • To recognise the issues or problems that Adivasi people continue to face in their attempts to educate their children.

The following important points emerged from the interactive presentation and open discussion that followed:

 Medium of instruction: For the tribal villages on the Tamil Nadu- Andhra Pradesh border, the school language is a major problem.  Though Telugu is the mother tongue of many of the tribal children settled in these villages, the schools that are available to them are all Tamil-medium schools.

In the Denkanikottai area of Tamil Nadu, the tribal people speak Kannada, the mainstream society speaks Tamil, but the schools teach in Telugu.

One tribal student, who is about ten years old, and whose mother tongue is Tamil, said that in his village there are about 35 children like him, all of whom want to study.  But due to various problems they are unable to study: the bus stand is 8km from their village; the teachers come to school only at 2.00pm and go away after two hours; and, the lessons are all taught in Telugu, which is not their mother tongue.  The boy admitted, on being asked, that he did not know how to read or write because he had not attended school.

A representative from yet another Tamil tribal cluster of 20 villages reported that the nearest Tamil Balvadi for them was 7km away, and there was the threat of elephants as well, due to which the children had to remain at home till they were ready to go to regular school.

Livelihood imperatives and challenges: Poverty is a major issue.  While in many areas most tribal people do not own land and depend on NTFP collection to meet their livelihood needs, even in areas where agriculture provides a means of livelihood, the tribal holdings are small and provide sustenance for no more than about 100 days a year.  They pack ragi flour and salt, collect chilli and tamarind  from the forest and go away into the deep forest for twenty and more days at a stretch.  Children are often taken along to supplement the collection of NTFPs as monthly earnings often amount to only around three hundred rupees.

In many areas, for at least three months every year, the Adivasi people migrate to towns and cities in search of work, sometimes taking their children with them, and at other times “neglecting” their children due to the force of circumstances, or leaving them with family elders or relatives.

Some parents place their children in “jobs” after taking “loans” and refuse to consider the education of their children.

Often, the Forest Department’s “rules” obstruct the tribal people’s natural lifestyle, preventing grazing of animals, collection of firewood/ bamboo, and other NTFPs.  This further pauperizes an already marginalized people.

Poverty also affects the way children are clothed and dressed.  Teachers were said to have punished students who were not dressed in clean clothes and these students also became the butt of jokes among co-students because of their lack of good clothes.  Many tribal students stopped going to school because of this reason.

Acquisition of caste certificate: A caste/ community certificate is a basic requirement for proving one’s tribal identity/ antecedents.  Unfortunately, most of the attendees at the consultation meet reported harassment at the hands of the officials concerned, who often expected a bribe for providing the certificate.  Those Adivasi people who were unable to afford the bribe were denied the certificate.  This, in turn, meant that they would not be eligible for getting many of the scholarships for tribal children, particularly girl children, as caste certificates are mandatory in these cases.  One person said that as an expression of his frustration against the persecution by the official concerned to “prove” his tribal roots, he actually donned just a loincloth and presented himself before the official, as this was the traditional attire of his tribal community.

In Kerala, however, there does not seem to be a problem with obtaining the caste certificates.  The representatives from the state, speaking about Waynad, said that it was easy to get a community certificate in their region.

Accessibility: One of the most recurring complaints was about the lack of roads, which in effect meant poor transport, teacher-absenteeism, indifferent attention from officials and the consequent poor performance of the schools concerned on all parameters.

There was demand for schools to be set up within the forests so that children would not have to absent themselves from school due to the indifferent transport or the inclement weather.

There was also a strong feeling that teachers should get quarters in or around the village schools where they were posted, in addition to the existing allowances for teaching in remote locations.

The impact of the absence of good roads and transportation was particularly telling on the girls, who were denied the opportunity to pursue their education beyond the minimum levels for which schools available in the vicinity of their villages, provided.

In one village, it was reported that an individual started a convent school and sent a van to collect the students.  Such initiatives can be emulated by the government, it was felt.

Focus Group Discussions


Discussion with teachers:

  1. The situation across the states is not uniform.  While Kerala and Andhra Pradesh reported that both residential schools and government schools provide “quality” education, “including computer education,” the schools in Tamil Nadu seemed to be largely dysfunctional, mainly due to the apathy of the teachers and the officials concerned.  One representative reported that teachers considered being posted in tribal/ remote locations a “punishment posting,” and seldom turned up to teach.  If someone threatened to “report” them, the teachers encouraged them to do so since a teacher against whom a complaint was registered would be transferred to a different place, and this was something they were looking forward to.
  2. The majority opinion was that the schools run by the Forest Department, within reserve forest areas, were superior to those run by the education or tribal welfare departments.  One of the teachers noted that there was a “military” discipline in the Forest Department run schools, which was a positive thing.  Another teacher raised a question regarding the contrasting picture in the Forest Department run schools and the others, though “they are catering to the same population, in the same locality, and with the same learning materials.”  Is there a difference in the allocations?  How are teachers recruited and what are the facilities provided for them in the FD schools?
  3.  The teacher recruitment and training rules came in for much criticism, particularly from the teachers hailing from Tamil Nadu.  The teachers in their state are provided training under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the selection process follows certain rules.  However, the teachers who get trained are not necessarily those who ultimately take classes for the students.  Often, these are teachers with insufficient qualifications to be selected for the SSA training module, though they are the ones who actually teach.

There was also an observation about the rigid recruitment rules, which followed a ‘queue’ system for making appointments based on the candidate’s registration number in the employment exchange roster.  One of the villages had many vacancies for teachers, and many candidates as well, who were eligible to be employed in these posts.  The community was demanding that these youth be made teachers without waiting for them to be selected through the due process.  The youth are willing to work in and for the village children, and were oly waiting to be given the employment order.  However, a demand placed before the visiting officials in this regard elicited a matter-of-fact response: no such recommendation could be made, to allow the youth to “jump the queue.”

This issue acquires importance particularly in the light of the fact that the teacher-student ratio in most schools, other than in Kerala, is very poor.

  1. Across the states, the demand was that residential facilities for the tribal children be provided for all classes, from class one through to the tenth or twelfth.  A failure to do this resulted in making the schools only a place to serve meals, it was pointed out, as a majority of the students turned up only for the meals, and then went back home.
  2. Most of the representatives who participated in the teachers group discussion, who were from tribal groups themselves, stated categorically that discrimination had not been an issue in their experience.  They said that they did not face discrimination as school children either at school or among friends.  However, they did feel that society discriminated against tribal people at various stages in their adult life.  One person reported that a person identified as a tribal would be seated in a remote, back corner of the public transport bus.  Another teacher felt that tribal people, in order to avoid the “stigma,” had to give up their culture, symbols and identity, and merge with the mainstreams.  This, she felt, was a rather unfair, subtle force exercised by the society to make the tribal people “conform” to the mainstream lifestyle.
  3. All schools in Tamil Nadu have adopted the Activity-based learning methodology [ABL].  Schools in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh attempt to teach the tribal children in their own tribal languages, at least in the primary classes.

DAY TWO [26.11.2010]


Field visit

Nayakaneri village, which gets its name from the Nayakan-eri, Nayakan’s lake, is on a hill, a few kilometres from Ambur.  Situated in sylvan surroundings, the lake, and the ‘Ellaichchaami’ [‘Guardians of the Frontier’ represented by a group of miniature painted clay horses] mark the beginning of the village.  Isolated huts and huts in clusters are scattered across the hillsides, with many huts having kitchen gardens within fenced in bamboo enclosures.  Brick and mortar constructions are not completely absent, and there is even a modern temple under construction close to the road that led up to the village.  The road from Ambur to the village is metalled only in stretches, the reason being the denial of permission by the Forest Department to pave those stretches that come under its jurisdiction.   The lack of an all-weather road is a major drawback for the village and its impact on education is considerable as became evident from the discussions with the teachers in the schools that we visited.

School 1: We first visited the Government Residential School for Tribal Children, established in December 1988. Called ‘Undu Uraividap Palli’ in Tamil, meaning a school where one eats and resides, this is similar to the Ashramshalas situated in tribal areas in other states.  The school has vast grounds and classes up to the sixth standard.  While classes five and six have separate classrooms to themselves, the smaller classes seem to be all gathered in a single large hall.  All the children were seated on the floor, with writing desks, comfortably accessible from floor-level, provided only for class five.  The school has a recorded strength of 106, but hardly 50% of the strength was in evidence on the day or our visit.  In class five, for instance, the class strength, according to the record on the blackboard, was twenty-two.  But there were less than ten students in the class on the day of our visit, and one of them had brought along a much younger sibling, who was not in uniform as she was not studying in the school.

There were four teachers appointed to the school, including a headmaster.  The headmaster, it was reported, had gone to meet the CEO [Cluster Education Officer ???] on an administrative errand.  The other three teachers were present.  All of them are recent appointees, the oldest of them having been appointed since one year.  All appointments are made through the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department, which draws from the database of registered candidates in the Employment Exchange.  The teachers in this school receive the same salary and benefits as those recruited by the Forest Department for its schools and by the Education Department for the municipal and other government schools.  However, teachers recruited by one department cannot be transferred to schools run by other departments.  The school also has a watchman and a cook.  The watchman doubles up as a resident help to keep the premises clean, we were told, but two girl students were seen sweeping the corridors during our visit, in the middle of their class hour.  Is this is a “shared” activity, with all children, regardless of gender, taking turns to keep the premises clean?

It was evident from their conversation that all the teachers would prefer a transfer to a different place.  The teachers drew up a litany of complaints, on expected lines: they had not been provided with facilities to reside in the village or in the school and had to commute from nearby towns; the commuting time and effort takes a toll as the buses that touch Nayakaneri are few and far between; however, in the perception of the public, the “teacher always comes late”; the teachers also said that the children are very “difficult to teach” as their parents are “uneducated,” do not appreciate the importance of education, sending their children neatly and regularly to school, etc. and are, in general, “apathetic”; in the plains, the tribal parents are somewhat interested in sending their children to school, and so the situation is somewhat better, said one of the teachers who had about two decades of teaching experience; all the teachers felt that some special training was required to teach tribal children, which, however, the government was not providing at present.  There is, apparently, no communication between the community and the school.  The teachers do not take the initiative to visit the parents in their homes and only requisition other students to go to the homes of the truant students and get them to school.

The children were friendly, eager to talk, and seemed quite healthy.  The students in the multi-grade class, which apparently had students from classes one to four, voluntarily wrote out on their slates numbers up to hundred, Tamil and English alphabets, and showed them to us.  They did not exhibit hesitancy or shyness in answering our questions about which subject they liked the most.  They showed some hesitation in singing a song together as a class.  One of the teachers, in order to motivate them to sing, said “There is a prize waiting,” at which all the children sprung up and spiritedly sang “A-B-C-D,” to completion. There was, however, no “prize.”  Then they sang a Tamil song, in the middle of which they got a bit confused and trailed off. All the children, in all the classes, stood up to greet us with “Vanakkam amma” and “Vanakkam aiyya” when we entered their class rooms.  On being asked to sit, they thanked us, saying “Nandri amma,” and “Nandri ayya” before sitting down.

School 2: The government upper primary school, which has been upgraded to high school only since a year, has 240 students on the rolls and five teachers, including the headmaster.  On the day of our visit, only one teacher was present.  Here too, it was reported that the headmaster had gone to attend to some administrative work.  The other teachers were all absent.  However, the teacher who was present seemed to be an enterprising and dynamic person.  She had made the children of all the classes sit out in the fairly spacious grounds, as it was a pleasant day and the sun was not beating down as it usually does in Tamil Nadu.  This was probably her way of ensuring fair supervision of the classes.  Surprisingly, most students were full of concentration, leaving off their work only for a few moments to take in our presence.

The only teacher on the premises, who teaches Tamil, has joined government service only one and a half months ago and this is her first government school posting.  She has twelve years’ experience, teaching in private schools in Tamil Nadu and feels that there is a stark difference between them and the government schools such as the one she was working in.  It is like the difference between a mountain and a molehill – an unbridgeable difference, she said.  The reasons she gave for this are: in the government school, teachers do not prepare lesson plans, they are not punctual; as far as facilities are concerned, the government provides for very little: the office room and the seventh standard classroom are the same; the sixth standard and the dining hall are the same; the cook has not got sarlary since ten months, probably as a consequence of the school’s upgrading; and though the school has got wiring, it has not yet got electricity.

Though highly motivated herself, with many ideas to implement once she gets a stronger foothold in the school [she joined only one and a half months ago], particularly with regard to children’s values and discipline, she feels that it would be very helpful to have facilities to stay in the village or in quarters allotted to the teachers.  She too complains of the transportation problem, but says that she decides to extend her classes by an hour on evenings when she misses the only bus that runs in the area.

She too feels that parents are somewhat disinterested in their wards’ educational attainments because of their own lack of a proper education.  However, she says that parents never fail to turn up if asked to come to the school.  “They are cooperative, but illiterate,” she says.

The school achieved 100% result in the 10th standard public examination last year.

For more notes from the field, click on links below:

West India

East India

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