The village of Galkuva lies deep in the heart of southern Gujarat, in Tapi district. On July 16, light droplets of rain pattered down as we made our way to a spacious mud house amidst fields of freshly sown paddy and verdant sugarcane. Out on the porch, young children sat on the ground playing carrom. Inside were two rooms divided by a wall, both with long tables and several chairs occupied by children playing chess or doing homework, and older youth poring over heavy textbooks. The sides of the rooms were lined with large steel and glass cupboards containing scores of books. From the back wall, a lone portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar gazed down at the children.

“We are yet to put up portraits of Birsa Munda and Tantia Bhil,” said 27-year-old Hardik Gamit, naming the two Adivasi freedom fighters, who are revered in the Adivasi-dominant district. According to the 2011 census, almost 85% of Tapi’s population was categorised as Scheduled Tribes.

The mud house serves as a library for the children and youth of Galkuva and neighbouring villages. It is open from 8 each morning to 9.30 at night.

Hardik set up the library in August 2022 with the support of like-minded youth in the village. Before that, for two-and-a-half years, he and others had been helping youth in the neighbourhood prepare for government exams in a classroom at the local primary school, and a disused poultry farm. For years, Hardik had wanted to open up a library space. “When I was preparing for exams, there were no decent library spaces nearby,” Hardik said. “I went to Surat with my brother to study. This was possible because we could afford it, but most people cannot.”

In July 2022, an Adivasi couple from Galkuva who are teachers and live in Vyara, 14 km away, donated the house to Hardik and his group for their use – a month later, he and his team launched the library.

“We coach those who can’t afford coaching at all, they can’t even afford to go to Vyara – the closest city from here,” said Hardik, who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and works as a supervisor at the Industrial Training Institute in Dang, 60 km away. The coaching efforts are slowly reaping success: two young people have successfully landed jobs, one as a junior clerk and another as a police constable.

After the launch of the library, younger schoolchildren from Galkuva and surrounding villages also asked to be allowed to use the space. And so the older youth decided to start tutoring them in the evenings, from Monday to Saturday, after wrapping up their own studies. “While helping people with exam preparation, I realised that if we paid attention to kids from a young age we’d have to worry less later,” Hardik said.

He explained, “Our tribal people from villages don’t aim for higher-level exams like GPSC or UPSC,” referring to the Gujarat and the Union Public Service Commissions. The main reason for this, he added, was that they attended government schools where the teaching was of poor quality and didn’t give children a strong educational foundation. “Children then become disinterested in studies because they don’t understand anything and fail to plan for their future,” he said. “Now that we’re coaching them at a young age, many have decided to apply for IAS or IPS,” he added, referring to the Indian Administrative and Police Services. “I see that happening in the coming years.”

Hardik manages expenses such as of electricity with the support of around 20 working youth from Galkuva and around. The group also drops children back to their homes safely in a pickup truck owned by one of the youth.

The library in Galkuva, in Gujarat’s Tapi district, was set up by Hardik Gamit and his peers. An Adivasi couple from Galkuva who live in Vyara, 14 km away, donated a house to the group for their use. Photo: Nolina Minj

Hardik and his peers’ effort is not an isolated one. Over the past five years, Adivasis from the Chaudhari, Gamit and Vasava communities have organised 60 such libraries and coaching centres in Adivasi-dominant villages of Surat, Tapi and Valsad districts in Gujarat.

While each library is independently run by concerned local youth, a collective of well-to-do Adivasis in Vyara, the district headquarter of Tapi, have come together under the banner of the NGO Sparsh Knowledge Centre to provide support with furniture, books, stationary and other expenses. The organisation typically identifies individuals or groups that are already serving their community, and encourages them to find an unused space to set up a library.

“Most of our people work in agriculture or wage labour and don’t have much of an idea about education,” said Bipin Chaudhari, a founding member of Sparsh. “Their children need additional support to find jobs. They are unable to afford travel to big cities and study there. We thought that if libraries are available, they can study near their homes.”

While Galkuva’s was the only library that Scroll visited where schoolchildren are also tutored, youth associated with the Sparsh network are helping younger children in other villages too. Bipin explained that in many other villages, Sparsh had encouraged the young people who studied for exams at the libraries to visit local government schools to teach primary school children.

He added that the work receives steady financial contributions from older members of the communities. “The people who struggled on their own and made something out of themselves, they are now giving back,” he said.

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The emergence of these community-driven libraries in southern Gujarat is particularly significant in light of the contentious history of Adivasi education in the state.

The idea of focused education for children from Adivasi communities was first formally implemented in Gujarat before Independence. According to a paper by Bipin Jojo, an Adivasi academic, in 1922 the Gandhian activists Indulal Yagnik and Thakkar Bapa set up the first residential school, known as an ashram shala, in Mirakhedi village in Gujarat’s Dahod district. In 1923, Bapa founded the Bhil Seva Mandal, an organisation devoted to the welfare of tribals, which opened more residential schools in the district. Over time, Bapa expanded his social work activities into Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Odisha, and opened ashram shalas in several areas of those states.

While each library is independently run by concerned local youth, they receive support from an Adivasi collective named Sparsh. The collective helps youth set up libraries, and meet expenses. Photo: Nolina Minj

After Independence, in the 1950s, the government took over the task of opening ashram shalas for tribal children, according to a 2014 report of the ministry of tribal affairs.

Scholars have documented how these schools were largely run on the Gandhian philosophy of “nai talim”, or basic education, under which vocational work such as farming and spinning yarn on the charkha was an integral focus of the education.

Over the years Adivasi scholars have sharply criticised these schools for segregating Adivasi children from their families and cultural milieu, and for imposing upper-caste Hindu culture on them. The 2014 report, whose lead author was the academic Virginius Xaxa, stated that the guiding principle of these schools was the idea that “tribal people were savage and wild” and “needed to be civilized by the means of education outside the tribal social and cultural life.”

The report described the programme as the “Ashramization of the whole program of tribal education.”

In a 2020 book chapter, sociologist JC Patel noted of the ashram schools in Gujarat that used the nai talim system, “Teaching of science, mathematics and English language was neglected in this system. Since the 1960s the tribal middle class resented this.” He noted that many middle class Adivasis felt that this education model “restricted their chances of competing with the non-tribals for new opportunities.”

This problem continues to the present day, the report noted. It argued that Adivasis in Gujarat are “poor in the midst of prosperity”.

Indeed, a 2017 World Bank report observed that Scheduled Tribes in Gujarat “have a very high incidence of poverty and slower poverty reduction than other social groups in the state.” Citing 2012 National Sample Survey data, it noted that Scheduled Tribes were the social group with the largest percentage, 36%, living below the poverty line. Illiteracy was also the highest amongst Scheduled Tribes, at a stark 44%.

Patel’s report linked the problems faced by tribal people to the poor state of education, noting that “tribals lag behind in education and, hence, are deprived of new opportunities emerging in the modern sectors.”

Activists’ and experts’ arguments about the failure of education programmes to serve Adivasi communities rang true when I visited the library at Gadat village in Tapi on July 15. I met several students in their mid-twenties who belonged to agricultural families. The majority are the first in their respective families to ever pursue higher education and apply for steady jobs.

The role of the village’s library in filling the gap left by the government was apparent from the students’ stories. Established in 2019, the Gadat library was the very first of the Sparsh network. The previously abandoned single-storey building was owned by the Gujarat Electricity Board. Well-off members of the village came together and renovated it with the aid of corporate social responsibility funds from ONGC. The library opens at 7 in the morning and closes at 11.30 each evening – students who are preparing for exams for jobs come and go according to their personal schedules. The inside walls are decorated with blocks of Warli art and portraits of Adivasi and Bahujan icons. Two large tables span the rectangular room, which is lined with several chairs.

The library in Gadat was the first in the Sparsh network. It was set up in a previously abandoned single-storey building owned by the Gujarat Electricity Board, with the help of funds from ONGC. Photo: Nolina Minj

I was accompanied by three members of Sparsh from Vyara who take every trip to these libraries as an opportunity to interact with students. At first, the students, most in their mid or late twenties, were too shy to speak. Then, Bipin Chaudhari broke the ice by recounting that he used to have a high-pitched voice and was initially afraid of public speaking, but that he overcame this fear slowly by practice. The students then introduced themselves and one read out a list of 23 names, of those who had studied at the very same library and gone on to find employment in positions such as police constable and multi-purpose health worker.

At first, many of the students said that they had been happy with their schooling – but details that emerged later in conversations told a different story.

Ashish Gamit, who is 26 years old and has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural studies and a master’s in social work, is among those who uses the library to prepare for exams – in his case, to become an agricultural officer. Ashish explained that in government schools of the region, it was not uncommon for a single teacher to be handling students from three different classes. He mentioned that the local school nearby only had four teachers for classes one to eight. “You need at least one teacher per standard for a proper education,” he said.

Rahul Chaudhari, who is 27 and is from the neighbouring Jesingpur village, has been coming to the library since 2021. As a child, Rahul’s family shifted to Surat, seeking better financial prospects. Rahul studied up to Class 6 in his village – because the quality of education was fairly poor, he felt like he had a lot to catch up on when he started school in the city. In Surat, he worked in the diamond industry as a diamond cutter for eight hours every day, and studied only after that.

In 2021, having secured some financial resources, Rahul and his parents returned to the village. Rahul was determined to keep up his education and eventually secure a well-paying job. “Farming and cattle-rearing are the two main sources of income here, which aren’t always enough to run a household,” he said.

He is currently studying to become a police officer, and spends between six and eight hours a day at the library, absorbed in his books. “There’s nobody in my extended family who is working a steady job,” he said. “I feel if I get one, others may follow. Things will improve for the coming generations.”

All the students I spoke with were grateful for the library space. Many said that their home atmosphere wasn’t conducive to prolonged study with undivided attention. “At home there’s always some work or the other which comes up, so we aren’t able to study uninterrupted,” said Rahul.

This was particularly true in the case of Manoj Gamit, who is 24, and whose father died during the second wave of Covid-19 – this left him with the primary responsibility of looking after his family, comprising his mother and younger brother.

His schedule differs according to the seasons – at the time I visited, since it was sowing season, Manoj’s day began at 6 am each day. He worked on his farm until 5 pm, reached the library around 7 pm and stayed until 11 pm. He has a bachelor’s degree in Gujarati and is studying to become a multi-purpose health worker. “My schooling was okay,” he said. “But we never got guidance about what to study to become employable later. We receive such guidance at the library now. We’re even given the necessary books. We’re taught about our community and how we need to work hard and give back to it.”

Besides Gadat, the village whose youth have had the greatest success in clearing government exams and securing jobs is Nani Bhatlav in Surat district. The resident behind the village’s library is 26-year-old Ankit Chaudhari, who currently has a furniture and fabrication business in the village.

In 2021, inspired by the start of other libraries, Ankit mortgaged his bike to obtain a loan for renovations of the village community hall, to turn it into a library. In the two years since, 23 youth from the village and around have successfully passed various government exams, including for the police, the forest department and the state electricity board.

“People in the village survive on agriculture and animal husbandry,” said Ankit. “There is no suitable atmosphere for studying. The nearest library is at least an hour away by bus.” He noted that youth of his generation did not get the guidance and support they needed. “I got a BCom degree but couldn’t study more because of financial issues,” he said. “So I thought I should do something for the youth.” Through his fabrication business, he also provides low-cost tables to other libraries in the Sparsh network.

As expenses for renovations increased, the block development officer encouraged Ankit and his team to apply for a grant under the state government’s Vatan Prem scheme for rural development in Gujarat. The application was selected and under the scheme, the state government covered 40% of the expenses for setting up the library, while Ankit and his team secured 60%, from private funds raised by the board of an ashram school in Bardoli.

In the two years since the Nani Bhatlav library was set up, 23 youth from the area have passed various government exams, including for the police, forest department and state electricity board. Photo: Special arrangement

A year and a half ago, Ankit was elected to be the sarpanch of his village. After this, he expanded his efforts.

As a first step, he decided to address the bootlegging of alcohol and the consequent alcohol addiction among residents of his village. “I noticed kids were increasingly taking to alcohol,” he said. “If I wanted them to focus on their studies, I realised I would have to do something about this.”

Although the production and sale of alcohol has been banned in Gujarat since the state was formed in 1960, locals said illicit alcohol remained widely available. “Alcohol addiction is not just a village issue but a larger community issue too,” Ankit said.

After he complained to the police, they began forcing bootleggers to shut shop. But the work was far from smooth. “There were threats to my life, it became difficult for me to get out at night,” he said. But he remained undeterred. As the police kept up the pressure on bootleggers, over time almost 80% of alcohol sales in the village stopped, Ankit said proudly.

Ankit also undertook other measures that he believed would help youth focus on their education and work goals. For instance, in order to combat teenagers’ addiction to mobile phones, every evening he organised football training with a coach, as well as computer classes. Additionally, since many young people intended to apply for police jobs, for which they would have to clear physical exams, Ankit and his team had a ground in the village cleared, where these job aspirants could train under the guidance of older youth.

Often, Ankit also ensures that youth can reach exam centres by organising buses from the village to cities like Gandhinagar, where the centres are located. He explained that he funds most of this work with money from his business. “If I spend Rs 2,000 on clothes then only I can use them,” he said. “I’d rather buy books which many more can use.”

Like in Galkuva, it’s not only youth from Nani Bhatlav who frequent its library. Twenty-six-year-old Twinkle Chaudhari, who is preparing for various government exams, travels over 8 km to get to the library daily. “I have become attached to this space,” she said. “I feel bad if I miss coming here for a day. I can’t study at home like I do here.”

While the library programme is significant in the context of the history of Adivasi education in the state, it is also an important intervention when viewed in light of the current debates over the matter.

In October 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a new programme called “Mission Schools of Excellence” in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Partially funded by the World Bank, its aim is to set up smart classrooms and computer labs and otherwise upgrade existing government school infrastructure. The prime minister also visited Vyara and gave a speech on tribal development in the region. He boasted about his party’s work in the education arena saying, “20-25 years ago the entire tribal area had only a few tribal ashram schools,” and that the BJP had opened “more than ten thousand schools in the tribal areas in the last twenty years”.

But these claims were undermined in mid-June, when Adivasi education in Gujarat, made headlines for its poor quality. On visiting six schools in the tribal belt of Chhota Udepur as part of a school enrollment programme, IAS officer Dhaval Patel was shocked to find that several Class 8 students could not do simple addition or read basic words in Gujarati. In a letter to the state’s education secretary Vinod Rao, as reported by the Indian Express, he wrote: “These poor tribal children do not have any other source of education. It is my strong opinion that we are doing injustice to them by giving them this rotten education. We are ensuring that they continue doing labour work generation after generation and not move forward in life.”

Pradip Chaudhari, president of Sparsh, agreed with some of Patel’s observations. “The things that Dhaval Patel observed, I too have observed them,” he said, referring to poor standards in students in his school visits.

Though Patel had noted that teacher numbers were satisfactory in the six schools he visited, Pradip argued that, in fact, according to his own observations over several years, low numbers of teachers was a key problem, and that two or three teachers are often expected to run an entire school with several classes. “If there’s no teacher minding the students the whole day, the children start playing by themselves,” he said. “They are kids, it’s in their nature.”

Pradip maintained that the problems with Adivasi education were a result of an obsession with visible or tangible development. “There are two types of development,” he said. “There’s one which we can touch by hand and see in the form of roads and infrastructure. But there’s another one which we can’t see so soon. When you work on health and education, it takes years to show results.”

While the village-level libraries provide the space and material for students to prepare for exams, Sparsh also felt the need to have a dedicated space to offer more formal coaching to students who want to appear for these highly competitive exams.

In March this year they opened a study centre at Vyara. Funds are sourced from Sparsh members and donors in their networks. While other buildings in the area are of concrete, the centre’s outside foyer is built out of pale green bamboo wood, and its outer walls are decorated with Warli art. The art depicts stick figures engaged in a progression of activities, from traditional Adivasi activities like farming to reading books and writing. Despite this traditional exterior, the classroom inside is modern and well-equipped, with a projector and a digital board.

In March this year, Sparsh opened a formal coaching centre at Vyara. Twenty-seven students who attended a six-week residential coaching camp at the centre cleared the NEET exam. Photo: Special arrangement

When I visited in mid-July, coaching classes for the Gujarat Public Service Commission were underway for around 60 students from low-income families across social groups from villages in the area. The classes were free of cost, as was the study material. The teacher had been brought in from Gandhinagar. “We wanted the very best for these children,” said Ashwin Chaudhari, a founding member of Sparsh. “Over 300 students had applied, but we only had space for 60 of them”. Bipin added that they hoped to expand the programme in the future and accommodate more students.

Earlier in the year, Sparsh had organised a six-week residential coaching course for 50 NEET aspirants at the centre. The students were housed at a housing society adjoining the centre. “Today, city kids go to classes like Aakash or Byjus and they pay Rs 2 lakhs to sit for NEET exams,” Ashwin said. “Meanwhile, our kids in the villages don’t even know the full form of NEET.” He explained that the space was meant to give children from rural areas a fighting chance when competing against children from cities.

Out of the batch of 50, 27 students cleared the NEET exam. Ashwin said that Sparsh was now supporting the university fees and other expenses of some of these students, who couldn’t afford them. In five years, he hopes to see between ten and 15 students who benefitted from the centre continue this work, starting a self-sustaining cycle.

Indeed, the zeal for reciprocity seemed to have caught on with the students at Sparsh. “The work happening here is nothing less than a revolution for tribals,” said 29-year-old aspirant Kaushal Gamit, who is studying for the GPSC exam. He added that whether or not he secured a job, he would try to give back to the community. Other students I spoke with said that they had struggled to study for these exams on their own, and were grateful for the guidance they now had

Sparsh has a wide network, and it regularly invites community members from different walks of life and jobs to interact with the students. Amit Chaudhari, a member of Sparsh, explained that he visits libraries in the network to talk to students about matters other than their studies, such as their history, and Adivasi and constitutional values. “Not everyone will get a job, it’s limited,” he said. “Say in a village out of a 100, maybe two will find jobs, but at least the rest will know their history, geography and constitutional values. This is how mass awakening will happen.”

Hardik Gamit noted similarly that education was not just important for jobs, but for life itself. “Earlier, when something bad happened, Adivasis would hesitate to even approach the police, but things are slowly changing,” he said. “The knowledge we impart here, will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.