Jaylal Dhikar wakes up at 4 am. While it is still dark, the 22-year-old climbs up a stony hillock a few miles from his home. He walks from one end of the flat hillock to the other looking for a mobile network on his basic smartphone. All by himself, the second-year student of mathematics sets up his class and prays that the network stays and the phone battery lasts for the four hours he has to study before another day of back-breaking work begins.

Dhikar belongs to the Korku Adivasi community. He lives in Potilawa village of eastern Maharashtra’s thickly forested Melghat region, which made national headlines two decades ago when over 5,000 children died of malnutrition within a year. Even now the region’s Adivasi communities – Korku, Bhilala, Balai, Basor, Gond and Ozha – battle chronic poverty, hunger and isolation. Dharani block, where Potilawa is located, gets cut off during the monsoons.

Despite these challenges, a few young Adivasis like Dhikar have made it to college. But the disruptions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic are threatening to end their dreams. And the government is letting that happen.

A life of struggle

Dhikar lives with his father, grandmother and three brothers, two of whom are married. One brother works on farms in the village, another as a labourer in Akola city, 175 km away. The rest of the family cultivates wheat and soybean on their five-acre land but the earth does not support growing food to last the family the whole year. Their joint family income comes to Rs 10,000 per month, which is not adequate to support the 11-member household.

As he reached adulthood, Dhikar became painfully aware that while she was pregnant with him, his mother Ramku Dhikar had gone without a nutritious diet and other support. Two of his sisters had died within 15 days of birth. As the youngest in the family, he survived. And his mother worked hard to send him to school, but she died of cancer in 2015 since the family could not afford her treatment costs. Dhikar, then 15 years old, was away, studying in an ashram school in a village in Nagpur district. He felt broken.

In the face of personal loss and hardship, Dhikar persisted. Helped by a system of government aid for Adivasi students, in the form of free of cost education, accommodation and meals in ashram schools and hostels, and honorarium for reading material, he became the first member of his family to reach college. He enrolled in Takshashila college of Amaravati, 160 km away.

But after the pandemic struck in March 2020, the Maharashtra government closed down all schools, colleges and hostels. Returning home, Dhikar found his family was struggling to maintain its earnings. This forced him to take up part-time work.

In July, when the college started uploading lessons online, unable to access them from his home because of lack of mobile connectivity, Dhikar set up a punishing routine for himself, walking up to the nearby hillock every morning before the crack of dawn.

At 9 am, he returns home. He eats a meagre meal of sokada or corn roti before heading out again – this time, to work as a part-time mason repairing houses or to dig wells under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme for a daily wage of Rs 238.

Later in the evening, after work, he returns to the same hillock, to take the remaining of his online classes in the feeble light of his mobile phone, which his older brother bought for him, out of his hard-earned wages.

Caught between the pressure to fill his stomach and the stress of online classes, Dhikar is gradually forgetting his dreams. “I wanted to study Mathematics and become a teacher,” said Dhikar. “But I fear I will end up digging roads in the village.”

Young children in Melghat have been sucked into work because of school closures and economic uncertainties. Photo: Prashant Rathod

A deepening crisis

Jaylal is not alone.

A generation that managed to enter the annals of formal education from among the most vulnerable and marginal tribal communities of this hilly and remote region of eastern Maharashtra is set to drop out of education and return to backbreaking labour to support their struggling families. They are disappointed and anxious about their future. They have started to feel helpless.

Like Dhikar, Ghisulal Kasdekar is an Adivasi student in Class 12 at Chikhali Ashram School, a government-funded residential school. “I came home for Holi last year and never went to school again,” he said. “I hope at least I should get the education required to apply for police recruitment.”

In Maharashtra, all private and government schools and colleges were shut down on March 15 last year. In this period, educational institutions shifted all examinations, admissions and classes to digital-only processes.

In mid-July, the Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra launched the “Unlock Learning Scheme”, under which it said ashram school students would get textbooks at home and teachers would visit the village to solve their problems. The news was widely covered by the media. But neither the textbooks nor the teachers reached their village, students in Melghat say.

“Our teachers did not try to even contact us and they did not share any information with us about the exams, study, and notes,” said Kasdekar. “Till now, in the past seven months, the teachers have visited us just once. One of them took some photographs showing students wearing masks and told us to study at home. But how will we study at home when we don’t have any books or study material to study at home?”

Visibly upset, he continued: “We do not even have enough money to buy new books. When I went to college to submit an examination form, I asked the staff again for the books and in response, I got nothing.”

Ghisulal Kasdekar, an Adivasi student in Class 12 who lived in an ashram school, came back home last year. Photo: Prashant Rathod

On November 23, the state government allowed colleges and high schools – Class 9 to 12 – to resume physical classes. But the residential buildings or hostels remained closed, making it nearly impossible for thousands of Adivasi students to return to their studies since they cannot afford the cost of living away from home.

According to the Tribal Development Department, in Dharani and Chikhaldara, the Adivasi-majority blocks in Melghat, 2,515 students of Class 10 and 1,834 students of Class 12 were staying in subsidised government hostels.

“When I was in the ashram school, I used to go running every morning,” said Kasdekar. “I had started studying and preparing for the police recruitment exam last year but my life suddenly changed after the lockdown. I am not able to even think anymore about the preparation for police recruitment. For now, I am more worried about how I will even pass the HSC exam.”

Kasdekar said he worked on his family work in the morning and then picked up whatever wage work he could around the village. Many of his peers in Class 12, he added, had left their villages to find work in nearby cities.

The predicament of girls

Not only have the Adivasi students of Melghat been deprived of their right to education in the past year, they have also lost out on nutritional support the government provided, such as iron supplements for girl students.

Divya Bhurelal Mavaskar, a student of Class 11 at the Dhakarmal Ashram School, underscored the difficulties faced by girls in Melghat in accessing higher studies: “My father was an understanding person, and he gave me the opportunity to learn because of which I was able to get admission in an ashram school. Now, even though there were announcements that schools are open, our school remained closed, and I don’t know when it will open.”

Mavaskar said that when she returned to her village during the pandemic-induced lockdown, she initially tried to teach the younger children in the village. “I did this because I have a strong inclination towards education, but if I am not able to resume my own education soon, I fear that my family will force me into getting married. All hard work and my dreams will become unsuccessful.”

Nisha Bajirao Kasdekar, a student of VN College in Class 12 said like several others, with her studies disrupted and without being able to access online classes, she felt forced to do wage labour. “Last year, around this time, I was very happy when I had passed Class 10 with 61% marks,” she said. “I got admission in Arts at Dharani for Class 11. I thought I was going to learn a lot. My plan was to enter a hostel there. But nothing of that sort happened.”

A girl student in Melghat carries her textbooks to the field. Photo: Prashant Rathod

Nothing short of an obstacle course

Jaylal Dhikar, the second-year BSc mathematics student from Potilawa village, said it took courage for Adivasi students from Melghat to pursue education in a city.

“We have grown in difficult circumstances,” he said. “The torment we carry within ourselves is just incomprehensible to others.”

“At every single moment there is some fear and trepidation when we first go out, even from walking on the street, which we keep to ourselves,” he continued. “I see children from near my village in the schools trying to hide their faces behind the desk when they first come to school.”

Tackling their inner torment and external competition, only some make it to college.

In Potilawa, for instance, Dhikar pointed out of hundreds of teenagers in the village, only 25 students were pursuing their bachelors or masters. “But now, only three of them – 1% of the total strength – are continuing,” he said. “The remaining 99% are working.”

According to the 2018-’19 report of All India Survey on Higher Education, only 5.5% of India’s tribal population accessed higher education. The numbers are much worse for Melghat.

The Socio Economic and Caste Census done in 2011 found only 321 students from Dharani block which had a population of 1,82,638, were able to pursue graduation. Nearly a decade later, the situation isn’t significantly better, as a prospective plan of Amravati University for 2019-’20 revealed. Of 1,851 students from Dharani block who appeared for Class 12 examinations, 1,629 students passed. Of these, only 437 students accessed higher education. In Chikaldhara block, 1,077 students sat for Class 12 exams, 899 students passed – only 362 students turned to higher education.

Further, the plan showed not even a single student from Dharni and Chikhaldara blocks was admitted in any engineering college under Amravati University in 2018-’19.

This reflects a pattern found in other tribal areas. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education, not even 50% of the seats reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities in professional education in India were filled up.

Is the government listening?

In this context, education activists said the pandemic-induced crisis in education would set academic progress for students here back by a decade.

“In the tribal areas, for all its claims to Digital India, the government completely neglected education for those who do not even own android phones,” said Raju Jijabhai Kendre, a researcher and founder and CEO of Eklavya Academy, a non governmental organisation which works to improve education for rural children. In remote areas like Melghat, he said, children may fall back on learning outcomes even further.

“If this is not addressed at the policy level,” Kendre emphasised, “this digital inequality will only increase discrimination against nomads, tribals, labourers, workers, and Bahujan Samaj will be further removed from education.”

But tragically, those in the government don’t seem to be listening.

“Saving lives was everyone’s priority, so we followed the instructions given by the government,” said the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Sant Gadge Baba Amravati University, Dr Rajesh Jayapurak, responding to questions about the difficulties faced by the Adivasi students of Melghat.

“The students in Melghat have the same solution that other students are getting now,” he said. “The college is sending online notes to the students. We cannot take a different role for students in Melghat when all the rights are with the collector.”

Shailesh Nawal, the district collector of Amravati, denied any gaps in the “Unlock Learning” scheme. He said as per the state government estimates, teachers had maintained contact with 90% of the students during the pandemic. He did not think Class 10 and 12 students would have trouble passing their exams. “We are working on some areas that may have problems,” he said.

Mithali Sethi, an official of the Dharani project under Tribal Development Department Maharashtra, acknowledged there were problems in tribal areas. “Not only the loss of education was incurred by the students but also the children in the dormitory stopped getting nutritious food,” she said. But she added that she “cannot take any decision beyond the government rules”.

Sudhir Chavan, a superintendent in the Education Department of the Dharani project, admitted that students had not received the books yet. “But they will soon be accommodated,” he claimed.

In Potilawa, Dhikar, the second-year mathematics student said he no longer thought it was possible to carve out his professional existence in a world of intense competition. He seemed to be ready to give up his education forever.

“Even if the colleges get started again, nothing is going to change because the hostels are still closed. Neither my friends nor I would be able to afford paying rent and mess charges,” he said. “Moreover, now if we fail in exams, the doors will be closed for us to study further forever.”

Prashant Rathod is an Amravati-based freelance journalist who worked on this story as part of the National Foundation for India’s Fellowship program for independent journalists.