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 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 that he has for his studies.

By 9 am, he returns home. He hurriedly 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 digging 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 rest of his online classes in the feeble light of his mobile phone, purchased by his brother out of his earnings as a daily wage labourer.

Dhikar belongs to the Korku Adivasi community. He lives in Potilawa village of eastern Maharashtra’s thickly forested Melghat region, which made national headlines over two decades ago when 5,000 children reportedly died of malnutrition in five years. 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 Adivasi students like Dhikar have made it to college. But the disruptions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic are threatening to end their dreams. And they say, with despair, that the government is letting that happen.

A life of struggle

Dhikar lives in a large household, with his father, grandmother and three brothers, two of whom are married and have children. While one of his brothers is an agricultural worker, the other is a daily-wage labourer in Akola, a city about 175 km away. The rest of the family cultivates wheat and soybean on their five-acre land, but the dry soil does not support growing food to last the family the whole year. Their joint family income comes to about Rs 10,000 per month, which is not enough to support even the basic needs of 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 had survived. His mother had 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 studying in a government-run residential 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 assistance for Adivasi students, in the form of free admission, accommodation and meals in residential schools called “ashram schools”, and honorarium for reading material, he became the first member of his family to reach college. In 2019, he enrolled in Takshashila college in Amaravati, a town that lies 160 km from his village.

India’s tribal communities are poorly represented in colleges and universities, despite government aid and reservations in seats. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education in 2018-’19, only 5.5% of students in higher education belong to the Scheduled Tribe communities, which form 8.6% of the country’s population.

The marginalisation is more acute among Melghat’s tribal communities. The Socio Economic and Caste Census in 2011 found only 321 students from Dharani block, which had a population of 1,82,638,were college graduates. Nearly a decade later, the situation shows some signs of improvement – more students seem to be making it to higher education. A prospective plan of Amravati University for 2019-’20 shows that of the 1,629 students who passed Class 12 exams in Dharani block, 437 students went on to take admission in colleges. In neighbouring Chikaldhara, another Adivasi-majority block, 899 students cleared Class 12 exams, of which 362 students joined college.

But now, the pandemic has created a fresh set of hurdles in their path. In March 2020, after the pandemic struck, 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 his college started uploading lessons online, Dhikhar found it impossible to access them from his home because of lack of mobile connectivity, which forced him to set up a punishing daily routine for himself.

Caught between the pressure to earning a living and the stress of online classes, Dhikar said he is losing sight of his dreams. “I wanted to study Mathematics and become a teacher. 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. These young Adivasi students are anxious about their future and 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.

Four months after it closed down all schools and colleges last year, in mid-July, the Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra launched the “Unlock Learning Scheme”, announcing that ashram school students would get textbooks at home and teachers would visit their villages to solve their problems. The announcement was widely covered by the local media. But neither the textbooks nor the teachers reached their villages, students in Melghat claim.

“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 for the books but 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 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 as of March 2020.

“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. Now, I am more worried about how I would 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

The Adivasi students of Melghat say not only have they 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 would force me into getting married. All hard work would go waste.”

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

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 said. “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 both their inner torment and the external competition, only some make it to college, Dhikar said. In Potilawa, for instance, he 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.”

Is the government listening?

In this context, education activists said the pandemic-induced crisis in education could set back academic progress in Melghat 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, this digital inequality will only increase discrimination against nomads, tribals, labourers, workers, and Bahujan Samaj will be further removed from education,” Kendre said.

But 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 said he was on the verge of quitting college.

“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.