How a middle-school is helping first-generation learners emerge from their long-neglected forest villages

Kodakarai now boasts of a middle school that goes up to class eight as well as a newly opened primary school a few hundred metres away. Sibi Arasu
20 February, 2016

“Gooood mooorning Saar,” a bunch of 40-odd children wailed as we entered one of the classrooms at the Government Middle School at Kodakarai, a cluster of villages deep inside the Ayyur Reserve Forest in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district.

Nestled inside the hills of Krishnagiri, to reach Kodakarai is to drive up from Denganikottai, the taluk (sub district) headquarters 33 kilometres away, cross the forest check post after 20 kilometres and take a kucha road for the last 10 kilometres of the stretch. Any semblance of basic medical or other essential services are available only at the taluk headquarters. I was here on 19 January, to observe the effectiveness of the Right to Education Act (RTE) in this remote region and how education was changing these village hamlets.

While a horde of children is not an uncommon sight in any school, it is only in the last five years that Kodakarai’s children have a middle school to go to, as opposed to having to commute the distance to the taluk headquarters on a daily basis.

In the last five years, through proactive implementation of the RTE with a little help from two NGOs, the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) and Nanhi Kali (an organisation that provides primary education to underprivileged girl children in India) and land donated by villagers free of cost for setting up the school. Kodakarai now boasts of a middle school that goes up to class eight as well as a newly opened primary school a few hundred metres away.

While these may seem like minor improvements for a state which boasts a literacy rate of 80.33 percent, this is still a giant step for this tribal cluster of villages where any kind of formal education was only a dream. The school has been running since 2011. Prior to that 2011, classes did not extend beyond the fifth standard and one had to travel far to study further. There is no documentation for how many actually did attend the school, but there could not have been many, considering the difficulty in doing so.

Kodakarai, which includes seven major village clusters Keel Kochavur, Mel Kochavur, Karisithapanur, Kadur, Karimarathur, Schedule Tribe Colony and Dhottiyur is home to 600 odd families with many of the families having at least four children. A tribal sub-group of the Lingayat community, the people here consider themselves “Iyer” because of their staunch vegetarianism and the Irular, Schedule Tribe community are the primary residents of these hills. The people here grow ragi, rice and broad beans, apart from rearing sheep and cattle. Both communities speak a dialect of Kannada and Tamil mixed together, which people in the rest of the state find difficult to understand. While there was a school building for over a decade here, it was seldom visited either by government appointed teachers or by students, who found their time better spent in the nearby forests. The prevalence of child marriages has also prevented many of the children from continuing their education. While the NGOs are working at combating this practice, it is not entirely gone or as Lakshmi Narayanan, an Education Officer with ICCW told me, “done in a more hush hush way than earlier.”

It was only in 2011, when ICCW intervened by setting up a bridge school for class six students, since at that time the village school only went up till class five, that things started looking up. Along with the NGO’s assistance, the teachers also made serious efforts to stall the alarming dropout rates.

“Here, some child would say they can’t come tomorrow because of a village function and that would be the end of it. I wouldn’t see them coming again to school ever again,” says A R Gunasekaran, who has been a teacher for 17 years and is the current headmaster at the school. The functions last for week or a few days and coupled with parental indifference, often result in disrupting the routine of the children. The school now has 22o children up to class eight who are supervised by three government-appointed teachers and two ICCW appointed staff members who are from the village itself. The nearby primary school has around 55 students overseen by one teacher and a staff member appointed by Nanhi Kali. While this is inadequate in itself, the situation now is a tremendous improvement from 2009 when there were only 80 children enrolled in the school according to an evaluation report released by ICCW in 2014.

ICCW has also tried to place some of the children at residential schools in Denganikottai and Anchetty for their ninth standard but more often than not they have returned, unable to cope with the culture shock or the language barrier. In the scools, instructions are in Tamil. There is no plan to address the linguistic gap. The children speak their dialect outside school and in school, they learn to read and write in Tamil. “Kodakarai’s people are very different to people below. The children who go from here feel completely out of place and end up coming back many a times,” said Narayanan. “But in the latest batch of students, a couple of them are trying to continue through and we hope they stick on. One of the girls from the village, S Suseela, has even gone onto finish her B.Ed and is working in Chennai now.” He added, “We think she is an inspiration for the others.” Suseela’s story, of studying till 12th at Thali and attending college in Krishnagiri is a rare example of success in Kodakarai and one the students hope to replicate.

There are plans to extend the school uptill class nine in the next few years. While this may seem to merely put off the eventual problem of travelling for further education, the optimism of the village stems from the attention paid to the village in the form of development. A study conducted by ICCW and CIAI (An Italian development NGO) in 2013, stated that school enrolment in Kodakarai had improved from 80 in 2009 to 290 in 2013. The report also stated that the state’s education department upgraded the school from primary to middle school immediately after the 6th class was established by the project. Anecdotes abound of parent’s sharing stories of their children being able to write their names and the names of their family members.

For the people here who have sustained themselves on growing ragi, avarakkai since forever, the school is proving to be a crucial first step towards a connect to the world that has so far eluded them. The promises of a pukka road in return for votes this coming election has also got people’s spirit up here. “When we were young, there was no way any of us could even dream of studying till more than fifth standard,” says M Basappa, a long-time resident of the village. “My children are studying now, we have sent our eldest outside for his ninth standard and if he wants to study till 12th or even go to college, we’ll support him,” he added. In the last two years 26 children have completed their schooling till class eighth. Of this, around six students have gone onto class nine, and one boy is completing his 11th standard. M Basavaraju, whose son Murthy is in the sixth standard now said, “When we were children, there was no school to speak of here, let alone till eighth.” Basavaraju, like many others in the village is a seasonal farmer. “While we love our village, in today’s world, you need education. I hope my son finishes school properly and maybe even goes to college,” he said.

Leaving the middle school in Kochavur, I asked one of the children, Sithamma, who was in the fourth standard, what she wanted to be when she grew up. Standing up in a demure fashion, she replied with certainty, in the the twang of the people here, “I want to be a doctor saar.”

This article was produced with assistance from Building a Voice for Children, a PII-Unicef fellowship.