A Fellow’s Perspective on AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (Part III)

In continuation to my previous blog wherein I advocated the setting up of seasonal hostels in government schools to ensure children continued to learn despite parents migrating to sugarcane plantations as well as elaborated on some of AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAMP)’s interventions wherein remedial support was provided to tribal children through community classes in view of prolong closure of schools. In this blog, I will further examine the causes which leads to annual migration in the district of Dang and also talk about some challenges posed by the pandemic to residential schools in the region.

Rural Indian Women Harvesting Sugar Cane Crop
Rural Indian women harvesting sugarcane crop.
Variety of crops being harvested in the field which includes Sorghum, Green Chickpeas, Pigeon Peas and Finger Millet
(Top): Jowar Plant – Sorghum & (Bottom): Tender Green Chola – Green Chickpeas (L), Tuwar Dal – Pigeon Peas (M), (R) Nagli / Ragi – Finger Millet.

The vast majority of scheduled tribe population in Dang primarily depend on the monsoon rains to grow a variety of crops in their fields. However, after the harvest season, many of the families travel to the neighbouring districts of Valsad and Surat during the months of October-November to March-April to work in sugarcane plantations.

The endogamous groups of Bhil, Warli and Konkni primarily constitute the larger scheduled tribe population which lives in the region. The majority of people belong to the Bhil tribe whose socio-economic condition is poor with more stomachs to feed in the family because they depend on farming and working in sugarcane plantations to earn a living. The Warli and Konkni tribes are financially more stable and since the last couple of years, they have stopped migrating as they have ensured access to water throughout the year by building check dams as well as provisions such as storage tanks and bore wells. Lately, some of the locals have also ventured into the business of selling dairy products in addition to farming since many of the households’ have long been rearing cattle. Parents from Warli and Konkni tribes are also aware of the importance of educating children and the need to send them regularly to school. On the other hand, as the Bhils do not have the economic means to sustain farming during the non-monsoon period, they are forced to migrate and work in hazardous conditions on the plantation sites. Meanwhile, their children stay back in the government set up hostels within the same premise of the school campus.

View of the landscape alongside a traditional mud thatched house and clay tiled roof
(T) View of the landscape. (B) Traditional mud thatched house.

The distressed families who are left with no other option than to migrate form koitas and report to a local representative known as the Mukurdam. A koita comprises of two individuals who can belong from different families. This way, a total of 15 koitas work under a Mukurdam. The group leader is the direct point of contact with the contractor at the plantation site and he is given payment based on the number of tonnes harvested and loaded onto the trucks. The Mukurdam then divides the amount evenly with all the 15 koitas. The koita system is practised across all the villages in the region, however, before the start of the migration season, members can decide to form a different koita as well as report to another Mukurdam. Besides, many individuals who migrate to sugarcane plantation use this opportunity to pay back any loan amount which they might have earlier borrowed to procure seeds. However, if there still remains an outstanding amount, the individual will need to keep an asset mortgaged until he can repay the full amount with due interest. Also, there is a prevalent culture of drinking in the community, so many of the male members in the family use the hard-earned money to buy local alcohol made from distilled sugar cane syrup.

Poor living conditions in the make-shift tents by the sugarcane plantation
Poor living conditions in the makeshift tents by the sugarcane plantation.

The living conditions at the plantation site are hazardous because people somehow sustain themselves in the makeshift tents during the migration period. They get to work early in the morning and continue till sunset, however, there are days when they are required to work late in the evening in loading the harvest onto the trucks. The Mukurdam has officially recognised that children above 14 years of age can work in the sugar cane plantation and in return eligible to receive cash money. Although living in the makeshift tents is not at all safe for children, last year, a large number of children migrated with parents as there was no arrangement of seasonal hostels in government schools in view of the pandemic.

View of a residential KGBV school alongside its dormitory and smart classroom
View of a residential KGBV school alongside its dormitory and smart classroom.

The children who lived in the residential schools of the Ashram Shalas and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) were asked to vacate the campus within one week after the national lockdown was declared last year. Both these residential schools provide basic amenities and a conducive learning environment to children to ensure continuity of their studies despite poor socio-economic condition in the family. In addition to academic tuition classes, cultural activities, sports, dance, music and yoga are encouraged to foster all  round development in children. The major difference between the two institutions is that the Ashram Shala has been started with the aim to provide better schooling facilities to scheduled tribe children across all the schooling stages right from class I to XII, whereas the KGBV only admits girls from disadvantaged communities post primary education.

View of an Ashram Shala campus
View of a residential Adivasi Ashram Shala campus.

Both these institutions have a certain eligibility criteria to admit students because of their high demand in rural localities. A deciding factor upon which the admission can stand cancelled is based on the residential schools’ proximity to the child’s house. Therefore, children who are admitted in these residential schools generally travel anywhere between 10 to 100 km.

The declaration of a nationwide lockdown last year forced the vast majority of children studying in these residential government schools to return back home on foot as the public transport system had become dysfunctional. Moreover, given the poor socio-economic condition in the families and bad internet connectivity in remote interior villages, it is not feasible to conduct online classes. The community culture will likewise not support children to stay back at home and study online while parents are slogging away in the fields all day long. This would somewhere also prick the child’s conscious and discourage him to study; hence, such socio-cultural barriers first need to be overcome by sensitising parents on the long-term benefits of education.

Interaction with the warden of the Ashram Shala
Interaction with the warden of a residential Ashram Shala

In view of the prolonged closure of government schools in the district of Dang, teachers resorted to community classes to address the learning loss since online learning is still not a viable option in the region. Teachers from residential schools however did not have the possibility to either shift online or conduct community classes as children came from distant villages. Nevertheless, they tried to call them over the phone and follow up on the learnings, but, not all children could be contacted as many had resorted to helping parents with livelihood activities.

A recent article by B.S. Rishikesh highlights that the pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities with technology further increasing the inequity and not bridging it. [1] Therefore, it becomes important to reopen schools wherever the positivity rate is low since ‘schools are not just centres of learning, but are also a support system that provide nutrition and social security’ (Rishikesh B.S.). [2]

Notes: 

[1] We are facing an ‘Education Emergency’ today – Rishikesh B.S.

[2] In the midst of white noise (Meaningful education is a complex socio-human endeavour that can take place only when humans interact with each other; a mere enhancement of internet connectivity will not help) – Rishikesh B.S.

Utsarga is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Shaishav in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and strengthening life skills training, self-designed learning techniques, and sustainable living practices for children and locals of vulnerable tribal communities. The self-paced, student-centric approach fostered at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (SAICE) provided Utsarga with ample opportunities to develop his interest in the field of alternative education. After his graduation from SAICE in Arts and Humanities, he pursued his Master’s in Education from Azim Premji University. During his Master's programme, Utsarga learnt about various issues plaguing the public education system and acquired a first-hand understanding of some of the challenges pushing children out of elementary schools in rural communities. His latest engagement has been a research internship with the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, where he studied school leadership in the context of organisational culture and community participation and its effect on children’s overall learning outcome. He contributed in strengthening the physical education program and raising funds for the school apart from conducting household surveys to understand the socio-economic condition of families, sources of livelihood and management of natural resources. In 2019, he participated in a 15-day entrepreneurial train journey to interact with social change-makers and explore alternative practices to bring quality education in the government schools of rural India. Utsarga is grateful to be serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow; he is looking forward to broaden his understanding of the education sector and experiment alternative practices in the public school system by fostering an all-round development in children.

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