Sitting on a rock under the shade of a tree, friends Momita Batra and Karma Mandali giggled as they recalled their first day in school. They were about five years old when they had started to overhear older boys in the village who attended school, including their brothers, speak about the benefits of education. They had asked to be sent to school, but their parents had firmly refused.
The only school in the vicinity had been a residential one, several kilometres away. “We packed some clothes and escaped one day,” Batra said, laughing. “The school’s cook was from our village. She admitted us and later informed our parents.” The girls, now 14 and only a few months away from appearing for their secondary school board examination, have since visited Podeiguda, their remote village in the hilly terrains of southern Odisha, only during vacations. The hostel has been their home.
Podeiguda in Malkangiri district is home to the Bondas, recognised as one of 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Odisha. Many parents here no longer deny their daughters a school education (female literacy in the community was 22%, according to the 2011 Census).
About 160 km away, a mother grieves the death of her daughter, also about 14 years old, who was found dead in the government-run residential school she attended in Sikhapali. “It was a girls’ school, an ashram school. We thought it would be safe, that is why we sent her there,” she said, wiping away tears with her sari pallu. The family are of Bengali origin and have been living in Odisha for generations.
According to the local police in Malkangiri, the young girl is alleged to have taken her life after having been sexually assaulted by the headmaster, who was arrested but is now out on bail. The parents, however, are adamant that she was murdered, but say there is nothing they can do to get to the truth or receive justice.
For decades, residential schools have been Odisha government’s answer to the challenge of taking school education to remote tribal hamlets, where the girls are especially deprived of educational opportunities and compelled to shoulder the responsibility of running the household. It is also meant to keep youngsters from falling into Maoist company.
By 2016-’17, 550,000 girls from tribal communities were living in state-run residential schools. These hostels, however, have also reported a number of deaths and cases of sexual abuse. In Mayurbhanj in 2017, 100 girls had walked 15 km to lodge complaints of misbehaviour with the collector. In Kandhamal district in July 2019, the pregnancy of a minor had come to light. In Angul district just a few days ago, 250 girl students vacated their hostels for lack of food and hygiene.
Beginning with a 10-day trip in December 2018 across five schools and seven villages in Malkangiri and Rayagada districts, this reporter has investigated the conditions at Odisha’s residential schools, particularly for girls.
Visiting, speaking to and following up with numerous students, parents, school staff and NGO representatives over a period of months, we found that despite the attention that tribal girls’ education receives from the government and the investments purportedly made, residential schools are poorly run and ripe for abuse.
The first-generation students’ experience in an alien and often unsympathetic environment is not conducive for personal growth. Students are constantly reminded that they should be grateful for the free education and lodging, and not complain when facilities and services fall short – which, we found, they frequently do.
Girls are especially vulnerable and have few means to share grievances without fear, much less seek redressal or justice. Experts were of the opinion that by providing substandard quality of life and education, residential schools are further perpetuating class and caste divides and discrimination, and are not the answer to Odisha’s education challenges.
‘Pioneering’ residential schooling
Odisha’s overall female literacy rate of 64% is almost on a par with the Indian average of 65%, but the rate among Odisha’s scheduled tribes is lower, at 41.2%, despite seeing a steady increase over the last two decades.
The state has recognised this gap, and has responded by pushing for an institutionalised system of education for children from tribal communities, calling itself the pioneer of residential schooling. In 2016-’17, the government shut down 828 village schools, mainly in tribal-majority districts, purportedly due to low enrolment. It allocated those funds to residential schools, thereby compelling parents to send their children away from home.
In a statement to the state assembly in July 2019, state minister for scheduled tribe and scheduled caste development Jagannath Saraka said there were 330,000 girls from SC and ST communities in these hostels, and assured the house that adequate measures were being taken to ensure their safety and security.
“A thought has been imbibed in the tribal communities that hostels are the only place for good education,” said Bikash Kumar Dandasena, education coordinator at the non-profit Centre for Youth and Social Development, based in Malkangiri. “But the children are not really safe... There is an atmosphere of fear and many incidents happen as a result.”
Odisha reported 155 deaths and 16 cases of sexual abuse in residential schools between 2010 and 2015, in response to a Right to Information report filed by The Economic Times in August 2015, though some districts were yet to respond.
Isolated incidents have been reported for years – the government was compelled to set up a helpline for hostels as far back as 2010. The government issued fresh guidelines for girls’ hostels in 2017, and is reportedly working on updating these for SC/ST school hostels.
In his office, Debendra Chandra Mahari, project officer of Bonda Development Agency, a government body that was established in 1976 to look into the development of the community, pulled out a thick binder. It was entitled “Guidelines to ensure safety and security of students in schools and hostels under ST & SC Development Department, Govt. of Odisha” and was provided to authorities in the year 2014. An attached letter written by the then commissioner-cum-secretary to the government acknowledged that “there have been increasing instance of sexual harassment and abuse of the school and hostel mess in many residential schools in recent past leading to distress among the students/boarders”.
The guidelines included information on mandatory reporting and response under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, environmental safeguards inside school and hostel premises, and interaction between staff and students. Mahari said that educational complexes which fell under the purview of BDA had been strictly advised to follow them.
Yet, in January 2019, the situation in the state warranted a communique from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, ordering a probe into incidents of sexual abuse, as The Times of India reported. “The Commission is anguished over the recent cases of sexual assault of minors in residential schools in various district of Odisha. Such regular episodes of abuse create a sense of doubt about the well being of the children living away from their families.
Vidhya Das, co-founder of the non-profit Agragamee that works with tribal communities in Odisha, said the situation is alarming at many levels. “We’ve had an official telling us that tribal children cannot learn in a free atmosphere, and they need a controlled atmosphere where they’ll be able to learn, so put them in a hostel,” she said. “So many children run away but they don’t talk when they come out. There are so many incidents. What we get to know is only the tip of the iceberg. Within a few months they’ve been silenced.”
On the last day of school in December 2018, students at Sikhapali ashram girls’ high school were dressed in bright salwar-kameez and frocks, waiting for their guardians to pick them up for the Christmas vacation.
Ashram schools are state-run residential schools that provide upto secondary education to boys and girls who belong to the Scheduled Tribes. To supplement these efforts, the central Ministry of Tribal Affairs began a scheme in the year 1990 – which is now operational in 22 states, including Odisha, and two union territories – to provide grants-in-aid for states to construct ashram schools.
Fourteen-year-old Kamaleshwari Durga sat on her bed, wrapped in a lavender shawl, waiting for her brother. She belongs to the Dhurva tribe, and said there were almost no girls of her age in her neighbourhood back home – they have all been married. “It is my own drive to study. I want to make my mother and brother proud,” she said, smiling. Durga lost her father as a child.
The 14-year-old who died was her classmate. They would speak occasionally, Durga recalled, describing her as a quiet girl who usually kept to herself. Nobody knew exactly how she had died, Durga said – the police had asked them if the principal had ever misbehaved or misspoken to them, and they had said no. They said they did not receive any counselling or safety training after the incident.
The school headmistress Manorama Swain countered this, saying that officials from the Childline India Foundation had visited for a session, and that the children are regularly provided life skills sessions that include information on abuse. “We are constantly worried about the girls,” Swain said. “But I think if the teachers and the staff do their job properly, the hostels can be run well.” Since the incident, the school has become stricter and does not allow men to enter the premises without prior permission, she added.
Durga and her friends said they did not confide in their parents if anything was wrong or things got difficult.
Like many other ashram schools that IndiaSpend visited, this too, had no mattresses in the dorms. The girls said they washed their own clothes and cleaned their own rooms. “We have no problems,” they repeated when asked if they faced any issues.
Towards the end of a 30-minute conversation, when asked if she would confide in anyone if she faced any form of harassment, Durga went silent. She bowed her head, stared at her hands, and shook her head to silently say no.
Of the many students enrolled in ashram schools that this reporter interviewed, only two said they had used the helpline, to complain about a lack of teachers. They were all aware of the landline available in the hostel but said they only used it once a week to report back to authorities that everything was alright.
Elsewhere, at a school in Rayagada district, girl students said they, too, never complained to their parents. “They would say we were lying to get away from the hostel,” 15-year-old Nidravadi Nundruka said, laughing. Five girls in the group agreed.
Quality of education
In 2017, the media had hailed 14 Dongria Kondh girls for passing their 10th standard exams and creating history for their “backward” community. Just 3% of the women in the tribe were literate, according to the 2011 census.
Purnima Huika, one of the 14 girls from the Dongria Kondh community to pass the 10th standard exams in 2017 and the one with the best result among them, enrolled in the Eklavya Model Residential School in Rayagada following her results.
EMRS were started in the year 1997 under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs with the aim of imparting free, quality education to students of the Scheduled Tribes. Students have to pass entrance tests to be selected for admission.
When IndiaSpend visited in December 2018, Purnima was shy and giggly, preparing for her senior secondary exams. “I’ve given so many interviews,” she said, laughing, and introduced two other girls from her community who were also enrolled there. In a school dedicated to children from tribal communities, they still stood out.
Pinki Wadaka and Minoti Nishika, both aged 14 and from the Bissam Cuttack constituency, said most children from their villages had dropped out of school but they wanted to continue. “We like studying; that’s why we are here,” Wadaka said. “When I am in the village, I am of the village. I follow all the rules and traditions. When I am outside, I am like any other outsider.”
During a follow-up telephonic conversation some months later, Santosh Kumar Patra, the school principal, said 20 of the 61 students from Huika’s batch who had appeared for their senior secondary exams had passed. Huika was not one of them.
Patra attributed this to a paucity of teachers. For Huika’s batch, there were no teachers for physics, maths, botany and Odia. “We got tired of sending letters asking to fill these vacancies,” Patra said. “They want us to be on par with Kendra Vidyalaya and Navodaya Vidyalaya, but unlike them, the Eklavya schools only have children from tribal communities – so there is an extra effort and support that is required. That does not exist.”
(Kendriya Vidyalayas were started with the aim of providing uninterrupted quality education to children of government employees with transferable jobs, but admission has since been opened to other categories as well and the fee continues to be subsidised. Navodaya Vidyalayas, on the other hand, are residential schools that provide free quality education to rural children, selected through a merit test).
Patra said the biggest hindrance was the fact that teachers were hired on contract, paid a low salary and offered no job security. This, he said, left them frustrated and lax in their attitude. While the funds for Eklavya schools are released by the central Ministry of Tribal Affairs, their monitoring is the responsibility of the state government. Observers all agreed that the monitoring of residential schools overall was irregular and sub-standard.
“We’ve seen that the learning is very poor,” Das said. “Okay, the residential schools are very bad, but at least the children [should] learn to read and write, but even that is not the case. Quality of teaching is lacking.”
According to Dandasena of CYSD, students face the challenge of having to first learn Odia to be able to understand the lessons. “Because of this they fail to receive age-appropriate education and it is also one of the main reasons for drop-outs.”
Once they learn the state language, they forget their own tribal languages or prefer not to use them. “They start looking down upon their own villages’ situations and they get completely alienated,” Das said.
In a primary sevashram school for girls in Kolnara block of Rayagada district, students sat on the floor and did not have sweaters or umbrellas despite the chill of a rainy December day. “The challenge we face is with the youngest ones. Children as young as five are admitted here by the parents,” said Jayanti Haprika, who works as a cook and caretaker at the school. “They do not understand the language. They don’t even know how to hold a plate or have a bath. We have to teach them everything from scratch.”
The headmaster, Pramod Kumar Patra, 52, said the school received Rs 800 per student per month for all expenses ranging from food, uniform to toiletries. “Some of the students have schools in the vicinity [of their homes] but parents still enroll them here because of the [free] food and living facilities they receive,” he said. There are 140 students enrolled, with one hostel warden in charge.
When children are separated from their parents – whether the parents do this willingly or otherwise – and placed in cultural situations completely different from theirs, cultural and psychological upheavals are inevitable, Das said. “But what is also important to note is that [the schools] are run very badly,” she said. “They’re run like a charity is being done. As if the children are of no worth, no value, that is why they’re put into residential schools where these teachers don’t care for them. The financial support that is given to them in residential schools is also minimum. Bare essentials are there.”
Dandasena recalled visiting a girls’ ashram school for life skills education on a Sunday, noticing that students had received no meals until 2 pm.
In a village about 6 km from Muniguda town in Rayagada district, 15-year-old Nidravadi Nundruka said she had dropped out of an ashram school because there was no water. The school did not provide books, so she periodically undertook wage labour at construction sites to earn money to purchase them.
Yet, she brushed it off as a minor hindrance. “I feel very happy. No matter what we have to do, at least we are able to study,” Nundruka said. “Our mothers couldn’t study themselves so they don’t know a lot of things. At least we can work hard and study.”
Nidravadi continues to study as a day-scholar even as many of her friends from the village are discouraged or have discontinued. “It is hard to manage time for studies along with household responsibilities. But I am trying,” she added.
Another resident, Savitri Saraka, 13, said the single borewell in her ashram school was perpetually crowded. She continued to study there.
The way forward
In Patangpadra, a village with about 21 households located at a distance of 20 km from Muniguda, the primary school was shut in mid-2018. While the older children are all in hostel, the younger students now have to walk 3 km to attend the nearest school, keeping their mothers worried.
“It’s not like we aren’t worried for our children,” said Jhunu Sikoka, a mother of three. “But if we don’t send them away how will they become literate? The current trend is to send children to residential schools so we should. We can’t teach them. At least there [in hostels] they’ll be paid attention to and made to study.”
Sikoka and several other mothers admitted they felt relieved the school was taking responsibility for their children. However, most girls, they said, dropped out after 10th standard and were married soon after.
In some other villages, residents thought differently. “We don’t want to send our young daughters far away,” said Arji Kutruka, head of the 20-family Dongria-Kondh village of Kesarapadi, located deep in the forests of Ratnagiri district. The residents seemed wary of speaking to outsiders, and insisted that this reporter leave shortly.
In a distance, four young girls were out working in a make-shift agricultural hut, and later came to join the discussion. None of them went to school. Three girls from the village had enrolled in an ashram school, but dropped out within a few years, the residents said.
The skeleton of a never-built primary school remained. “If they finish building this, we’ll enroll them,” another resident, an aged woman who did not give her name, said.
But the government is striving to build more residential schools. In the 2018 budget speech, it announced that by 2022, every block with more than 50% ST population and at least 20,000 tribal persons would have an Eklavya model residential school.
“This will not solve the problem of education for all,” Das said. She said closing down village schools is a bad idea. “Why can’t every village school be a model school with all the amenities and good teachers? This will save costs incurred for boarding, and also help children have a quality education.” Village schools must be allowed to carry on even if they have few students, because communities would grow and need the schools, she added.
Dandasena emphasised the need for involving the community in decisions and processes aimed at their development. “For urban people, education means reading, writing and basic mathematics, but apart from that, tribal communities have a different quality of education, knowledge and a whole set of skills,” he said. “The urban people do not understand this. They continue to think that the community is not educated and they need to be streamlined by pushing them into hostels. This thinking needs to change.”
For Batra and Mondali of Podeiguda, the desire to study and live outside the village remains strong even a decade after they first escaped to attend school, they said, even though their schools do not have an adequate number of teachers for all subjects – something they have been complaining about to no avail.
They seldom have vacations during community festivals and say they do not like to dress up in the traditional way. But at the same time, they carry a sense of confidence about the fact that their parents will allow them to continue their education and not marry them too young.
“We feel bad when we see other girls who couldn’t study. So many of our friends are already married,” Batra said. “But I want to be a teacher. The college is further away. I’ll convince my parents to send me there.”
Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist reporting on human rights, development, and gender.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.