U-M-B-E-L-L-A. “Rudraa…, where’s R?” asks Kartik Bhatra, smiling fondly and a touch embarrassed that Rudrapriya, all of 6, hadn’t got the spelling right. Kartik, 38, has “studied till class X in gaon ka school” so he knows a bit of what his daughter is saying.
U-M-B-E-L-L-A. “Rudraa…, where’s R?” asks Kartik Bhatra, smiling fondly and a touch embarrassed that Rudrapriya, all of 6, hadn’t got the spelling right. Kartik, 38, has “studied till class X in gaon ka school” so he knows a bit of what his daughter is saying. Rudra ignores her father and flips through her ABCD picture book — front to back, back to front, upside down.
Rudra, the youngest of Kartik’s three children, is a nursery student of the English-medium Mother Teresa Public School in Nabarangpur town, 4 km from their home in Pujariguda gram panchayat. Last year, Kartik, who earns Rs 7,000 as a machine operator at the nearby Mangalam timber factory, enrolled Rudra in the private school as part of the Odisha government’s Anvesha scheme, under which children of BPL SC/ST households are admitted in private, English-medium schools. The government spends Rs 36,000 per student per year, plus a stipend of Rs 750 a month. In Nabarangpur, 137 children were enrolled in three such schools in 2015-16, 22 of them in the Mother Teresa school. This academic session, the scheme will be scaled up and 250 students will be enrolled in seven schools across the district.
It has just been four months since Rudra joined school, but Kartik and his wife Nila can’t stop talking about how she has “changed” — “She says 1, 2, 3, 4… with such speed. She already speaks town ka Odiya and English too, though we don’t understand much. And she can sing… Rudra, sing for them, babu,” says Kartik, who has, by now, forgiven Rudra for that little slip. Rudra stands smiling, her lips firmly pursed to hide the tooth she has just lost, but won’t sing.
The couple’s eldest daughter studies in a residential school in Korchamal, 18 km away, and their second daughter will move this academic session from the village school to the residential Adarsh Vidyalaya, a school in Hirli, 6 km away. “The village school is okay, but we wanted something better,” says Nila, who says she has studied up to Class VII.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the Anvesha scheme only takes in children at the entry level, Kartik says he would have put all his three daughters in English-medium schools. “English-medium gives you respect. Rudra keeps telling me, mummy, learn to speak Hindi and English,” says Nila, beaming.
Kartik says, “My eldest daughter Preeti is at her residential school and will be home only for the summer break. Rudra is here for the term break and will go in a few days. So will Madhusmita (his middle child). People ask us why we send all our children out to study. What’s the point having children, they ask, if you don’t have them around you. We don’t like being alone, we miss them too, but it’s for their future. We want them to have a better life than we do now.”
Nabarangpur, the focus of a year-long Indian Express investigation tracking poverty and change in what is arguably India’s poorest district, has some of the most dismal indicators for education. According to the 2011 Census, literacy in the district is 46.43 per cent, way below the national figure of 74.04. Besides, over half the population — 57.35 per cent — has never attended school. But for a district that has such a low base, what stands out is hope, as Kartik says, of a “better life”.
District Education Officer Kulamani Nathsharma is convinced that under his watch, Nabarangpur “is advancing spectacularly”. “This time, our Class X pass percentage is 91.87 per cent, up from 82.60 last year. We stand fifth in the state. Enrollment in our schools has been steadily increasing — from 2.41 lakh students in 2014-15 to 2.56 lakh in 2015-16. The number of children who are taking the Class X Board exams is going up, so is the pass percentage. All our children have been enrolled. We have upgraded 14 upper primary schools to high schools and we will have one model school in each block,” says Nathsharma, who attributes this “success” to “persistent monitoring, inspection and tracking of teachers’ attendance”.
But there are some Nabarangpur numbers that don’t quite add up. According to the District Information System for Education (DISE) data for 2014-15, the drop-out rate in Class VIII, the grade after which the Right to Education (RTE) umbrella folds up, is a high 24.23 per cent — it’s 4.88 per cent for Odisha and 6.88 nationally.
The district also faces a crippling shortage of teachers. According to 2015-16 data provided by the District Education Office, Nabarangpur’s elementary schools are short by 985 teachers and secondary schools by 290 teachers.
Another problem is of access to higher education. Until now, the district didn’t have a government degree college — a new Government Model Degree College is now being built at a cost of Rs 8.87 crore. The district’s unaided and semi-aided private colleges are too few and far apart.
“While there are enough schools in the district, the crisis is at the level of 10+2 and degree colleges. Previously, there were very few students who cleared their Class X. But the numbers have been increasing every year and these students will need to get into colleges. Only 700 students in the district cleared Class X in 2000, that number went up to over 8,400 in 2015. But that year, more than 3,000 students couldn’t get admission in Plus 2 colleges because there weren’t enough seats. All this is changing. The plan is to have 10 model CBSE schools with classes from VI to XII, one in each block. Of these, four are ready and will take in children this year. Last year, we also upgraded four high schools to Plus 2 level,” says Nabarangpur MP Balabhadra Majhi of the BJD.
Radhanath Behera, a retired principal of Nabarangpur College, one of the only two degree colleges, both private, in the district headquarters, says that “while these are welcome steps, something drastic needs to be done”. “Without access to Plus 2 and degree colleges, girl education becomes the biggest casualty. Very few parents would want their daughters to travel long distances or stay in hostels to study,” says Behera.
Besides, Nabarangpur faces a problem that’s typical of the state’s tribal districts — while children speak dialects such as Desia and Bhatri, teachers, usually posted from distant districts such as Cuttack and Bhadrak, speak a different tongue. “It’s very difficult for teachers and children to understand each other. Of course, teachers gradually learn if they stay in one place for long and children too learn to speak Odia as they get into the senior classes, but by then, the formative years are lost,” says Behera.
“Yes, there are these problems. But Nabarangpur is a relatively young district (it was carved out of Koraput in 1992) with a predominantly tribal population (55.79 per cent). So you’ll find 35-year-olds who have never seen the inside of a school but who send their children to school. Many of these children are first-generation learners. I think it’s unfair to call them backward without giving them a chance. Give them at least a generation,” says Nabarangpur District Magistrate Rashmita Panda.
Santemera, a village in Jharigam block, is what many call “backward”. It’s in places like these — remote and distant — that the Nabarangpur education story stutters somewhat. The road stops 5 km before the village and the mud path into Santemera churns up during the rains. The village has no health centre; only a homeopathy centre with no doctor. The nearest health centre is in Jharigam, 25 km away. “During the monsoons, we all get malaria. Some of us go to Jharigam, the others wait for ASHA didi (the Accredited Social Health Activist) to come and give injections and medicines,” says Tuna Das, a villager.
Santemera is a village of 134 households, majority of them Gond and Jani tribals who work as subsistence farmers, growing maize, pulses and rice on forest land.
“They barely make enough for themselves. Since Santemera and the other 13 villages in the panchayat are on top of the Chandan Dhara hill, there is no water and no irrigation either,” says Panchayat Executive Officer Naresh Chandra Jal. Outside his office in the nearby Badatemera village, villagers sit on their haunches in the summer heat, waiting to collect the Re 1 rice that’s being distributed under the Antodaya scheme.
The only money villagers earn is from collecting jungle produce and selling it in the nearby markets of Chacha and Jharigam — tendu patta, wood and, during February-March, mahua, that sweet smelling yellow-green flower that villagers use to make a heady local brew.
What Santemera does have is a school, the Government High School that has classes from I to X. It’s the only high school in the panchayat. Banvas Majhi’s sons Durjan, 11, and Devsing, 5, go to this school. The 35-year-old has never been to school himself, but made sure he enrolled his daughter and four sons. The daughter, now married, and his eldest son later dropped out.
There has been a wedding in the family — Banvas’s eldest son got married the previous day — and their mud house is teeming with relatives. After a quick discussion about whether the boys should skip school, Banvas decides they will go. “What’s left for them to do anyway? At least they can go to school and eat their lunch,” he says.
But before that, there’s another routine they can’t skip: pick mahua flowers. Every morning, the boys carry their wicker baskets and join their parents, siblings and cousins and head to the nearby forests to pick these flowers. Early mornings are the best time for mahua and they have to get there before the cattle graze on the carpet of flowers.
Around 7.45 am, after an unhurried bath in the village pond with their cousins, Durjan and Devsing cycle home, drink black tea and change into their school uniforms. It’s well past school time, but no one’s rushing them. School can wait. After all, says Banvas, “the teachers are never on time themselves”.
They then walk past the school and head to a small patch of land near the village pond to a mahua tree. “It’s already the end of mahua season. And the boys are late today. In February and early March, there is a carpet of flowers. Each person collects 4 to 5 kg of flowers and leaves them to dry, after which villagers sell them in Chacha or Jharigaon markets for Rs 20-25 a kg. Of course, only after keeping some for ourselves,” says Banvas.
The boys then go home, pick their jute bags and head to school. Principal Devsing Gond and the two high school teachers break into nervous excitement as they arrange for chairs, hurry the children into classrooms and get the attendance registers out. Classes have finally begun, at least two hours behind schedule. Besides principal Gond, Kalindi Malick, teacher of ‘Classical Sanskrit’, and a science teacher are the only two teachers for classes VII to X, both on contract. The primary and middle classes have only one regular teacher, two gana shikshaks and one teacher on deputation.
“Teachers get posted here, they report for duty and then don’t come back. The school management recently passed a resolution asking for more teachers and sent it to the Block Education Officer. We had 196 students last year and need at least five teachers for high school and four for primary school,” says principal Gond, before going on to list the “other problems”. “We have no electricity — the wiring is done, but we haven’t got the connection yet,” he says.
Back at the Majhi household, Banvas’s father, 90-year-old Debo Majhi, sits on his haunches, chewing a mango twig. “These children have no option but to study. When we were young, we had land and at least did some farming. But now, these boys don’t want to do that. So they spend all their time looking at their cellphones. They must go out and study. Only then will they get jobs and be able to look after their parents,” says Debo.
Pabitra Mohan Pradhan, the District Welfare Officer, says there are many parents who want their children to go out and study. “They realise that education can change lives. These people would have never studied themselves, but want their children to go to school. For instance, for our tribal residential schools, we don’t have to put out advertisements, parents just bring their children here every year,” he says, talking about the schools run by the ST/SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare Department of the Odisha government.
There are 36,584 students studying in 85 such ST/SC schools in Nabarangpur, all with attached hostels. “The government spends Rs 800 per girl in these hostels and Rs 750 on each boy. Everything is taken care of here — besides their education, they get free food, clothes, writing material, etc. I went to one such school myself,” says Pradhan, sitting in the staff room of the Korchamal Government Girls High School.
With an annual pass percentage of 100, it’s one of the schools the district administration holds up as a success model. The school has 789 students — 645 in hostels and 144 as day scholars — and its students usually come back winners from the annual state-level Sargiphula festival. “In the last academic year, our school stood first in the science competition at Sargiphula. Two of our students designed a ‘Swachh Bharat vending machine’ — if you throw a plastic bottle into the machine, it dispenses a Re 1 coin,” says headmistress Indumati Rath.
But these successes are tinged with niggling problems. “This year, three girls of Class X dropped out to get married,” she says.
Rashmita Harijan, 14, is determined she won’t drop out — that she will complete school and become a teacher, or even a writer. Standing in one of the dormitories of the Korchamal school, Rashmita narrates the latest story she has written. “It’s a story of two sisters, Sankha and Koila. Their mother dies early and their father marries again. The stepmother doesn’t like them so she throws the two girls out of the house. Their mother appears as a bhoot and rescues them. She then turns the girls into two rivers, who finally meet as Baitarni nadi.”
Rashmita has written this story in a notebook that she has left behind at her grandmother’s home in Phampuri village in Kosagunda block of Nabarangpur. “There isn’t much space to keep things here,” she says stopping at the bunk bed she shares with her younger sister Sargarita, a territory the latter has marked out with an “I plus U” that’s scribbled on the hostel’s wall. “My youngest sister Sarita is with my grandmother. She will join us this year, in Class I, but she won’t have space on this bed,” laughs Rashmita.
The girls lost their mother six years ago and father a couple of years ago. “I miss them, my mother more. But when I’m here, in school, I don’t think of her that much. This place is home now. I have been here since I was eight,” she says.
“Kaam ho jaye bas. Khane ka koi tension nahin,” Ravi would say every time I asked him if he was hungry, if we could push back our lunch to late evening because we had one more village to cover, one more student to meet, one more family.
Nabarangpur was Ravi’s last big assignment. We spent five days there, trying to understand what it takes to study in India’s poorest district. On our second day, a school teacher told us, “If you have to understand the problems that children and teachers here face, you must go to some of the most interior villages of Jharigam block. Thoda Naxal area hai. Ja sakte ho?”
“Of course. Naxal bhi toh gaon wale hain,” he said before I could respond. That’s how we chose Santemera village.
In these parts, before children go to school, they go to pick mahua, a flower that locals use to brew a desi drink. “Achcha picture banega,” Ravi said. But we had to reach very early, at 5.30 am, because that week, with Odisha going through a heat wave, the government had declared new timings for schools — 6.30 am to 10.30 am.
We decided to do a recce of Santemera, tie up with a family and tell them we would be there next morning. But the road stopped a good 5 km before Santemera. From there, it was just earth churned inside out. The driver refused to go any further. Ravi, who sat in the front seat, tried his best to coax the driver to keep driving – “eyes on the road, tyre to the left”. Finally, he asked the driver to let him drive. “Aise chalate hain. We have driven on worse roads,” he said, turning to the driver, smiling all along.
That’s when I realised this was a man with a resolve few others had. Two nights later, around 10 pm, when we walked down the main Nabarangpur road looking for an ATM, I was a little unsure. Was it safe? There’s Ravi, I thought.