Having released two books Bringing them to School and Ethnicity and the State, eminent poet and anthropologist Sitakant Mahapatra shares his ideas on primary education for tribals and onethnicity vs the State.
You have brought out two books in quick succession. Please tell us about them.
Bringing them to School is a close personalised study of nine villages, three each from primitive communities: Bonda, Dongiriakondh and Juang, understanding how primary education is progressing and what prevents it from taking off. A school must be made attractive to the child, something to be loved; not hated or feared. Several factors are involved, particularly the teacher. He should not be merely a teacher of alphabet but play a role in social leadership.
You also speak about involvement of the village community. What is the best way?
Officially, village committees are attached to each school but there is hardly any involvement. Punctuality of children and regular attendance of teachers can be ensured if the community takes interest. Quite often, teachers are absent. The myth of “first generation learners” not being interested in education has to be broken. My discussions revealed that many parents are keen on educating their children, but don’t know how to go about it. So, leadership of the teacher is essential. But how does he provide true leadership without knowing the language? Most teachers in tribal schools come from outside and don’t learn the local dialect.
So what is the solution?
Education in the mother tongue at the primary level is vital, particularly in languages that have no script. The books can be in Oriya or any other language but the words should be of their own tongue. That way, the child will take better interest and feel at home.
Another aspect is the school building. I come from a coastal village where villagers built the school and maintained it. Each villager contributed thatch for the school roof before covering his own house. I have also strongly advocated a kitchen garden for every school. Education is not about learning alphabets and lapsing back to illiteracy. It should also be creative and skill-based.
You talk of building schools with local material and labour for easy maintenance.
The problem is with deep interior schools that cannot be easily reached. The quality of construction is poor, and it takes a long time to repair them. Here, it may be a good idea to build schools in the same pattern as local houses, but larger in size. Also, the children can paint the classrooms and outer walls according to native custom. That brings a sense of “ownership” and “belonging”.
Given the inaccessibility of most tribal villages, don’t you think there is too much rigidity about qualifications for a teacher?
There should be great flexibility. The ideal would be a teacher with required qualification from among the tribes. But often this is not possible. So, flexibility in terms of age and initial qualification is necessary. Basically, the teacher should be equipped to teach in the child’s mother tongue. In today’s world with all the audio-visual aids, it is possible for teachers to be trained in the tongue of the taught within three months.
The Orissa government has made a good beginning by printing primers in nine tribal languages. But good intentions don’t percolate to deep interior pockets. Supervision is a vital component of the entire scheme.
It is interesting that you found that the higher you go up a hill the lower is the rate of literacy, particularly female literacy. Is this a universal feature?
Yes. The main reason is absenteeism of teachers. To reach the school, a teacher has to walk across streams and hills. So, teachers from outside sometimes even “sub-let” their jobs! Supervision is also slack due to the difficult terrain.
You talked of flexibility earlier. Please elaborate.
Working hours can be modified to suit the village needs. Mid-day meals can be suitably adjusted in such cases. In fact, it should be possible for some parents also to be in school if classes are held in the evenings. Residential schools and hostels are coming up in tribal areas of Orissa. This is a good step, since rapport among students and between students and teachers will be better when all live on one campus.
What do you think of land for schools and the mid-day meals scheme?
I’ve seen schools where two classes are held from the same room, facing opposite directions. Sufficient land with enough space for a large kitchen garden should be made available. There should be space for the teacher to live close by, and for a separate kitchen for meals to be cooked. Many women volunteer to take turns in cooking for the children, and this should be encouraged. A sense of pride should be inculcated among villagers who should feel it is “our school”.
What is your latest book about?
Ethnicity and the State is the third of a trilogy on tribal societies’ transformation. The first two were Modernisation and Ritual and The Realm of the Sacred. Both deal with the impact of modernisation on ritual-based societies and success of schemes meant for them.
This last one talks of how the all-powerful State comes face to face with ethnic identities.
6 months ago