“Meri maa ka shikshan nahin huan. Mere ghar mein koi nahin sikha hai. Meri badi behen aur mera bhai, unko bhi meri ma ne kaam ke liye bheja. Toh unki ichcha thi ki main aisa kaam nahin karun. Mujhe seekhna chaihiye. Isliye meri maa ne idhar mujhe seekhne ke liye bheja hai. Toh mujhe seekhe ke liye bahut ichcha thi.” (I mother was not educated. Infact, no one in my family is educated. Even my elder brother and sister were sent to work. But my mother wanted me to study, not work. That’s why she has sent me to school. I really want to study. )
This is what X-year old X told me when I met her. She is one of the 200 girls currently enrolled at Vidhayak Sansad’s residential school for tribal girls – Eklavya Parivartan Vidyalaya. Pretty much all the girls, like her, are first generation learners in their families.
Another common thread amongst these girls is that they belong to the Katkari tribe. The Katkari have been categorised as a scheduled tribe. Infact, in Maharashtra, they have been designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group . Their vulnerability derives from their history as a nomadic, forest-dwelling people listed by the British Raj under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, a stigma that continues to this day.
History reveals that they used to engage in a wide range of livelihoods including the production and sale of catechu, charcoal, firewood and other forest products, freshwater fishing, hunting of small mammals and birds, upland agriculture and agricultural labour on the farms of both tribal and nontribal farmers. The making of catechu declined sharply after independence when the felling of khair trees was banned by the Forest Department. Later restrictions by the Forest Department on dalhi or shifting cultivation undermined the forest-based livelihoods of the Katkari. These interventions left the Katkari with few options but to move seasonally in search of employment and new places to live.
So, beginning in the 1950s, Katkari families began to migrate permanently from ancestral areas in the hills to the outskirts of agricultural villages on the plains. Which is why many small Katkari hamlets are found on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Today, the Katkari are a fragmented and scattered community, highly dependent on others for their livelihoods and for a place to live. Most Katkari are landless workers with only periodic and tenuous connections to their original nomadic, forest-based livelihoods. Many have become bonded labourers working on the brick kilns and charcoal units serving the urban and industrial interests of greater Mumbai. Given this background, it comes as no surprise then to learn that they have just begun sending their children to school.
Set up in 1979, Vidhayak Sansad is a Thane-based organization that was set up to support the development of marginalized communities in rural Maharashtra. With a vision to provide “a just and equitable society where every individual lives in dignity,” their programs are primarily focused on education, organizing the rural poor for their rights, women’s empowerment, training in human rights activism and economic development.
A survey done by them many years ago in 300 padas in Bhiwandi taluka, revealed that there were over 3,000 children who were completely out of the education system. They were either Katkari, Warli tribals or Gowaris (cowherds) and were busy working at brick kilns, feudal lords homes or as agricultural labourers. Even if they were persuaded to join an open school class, they would be out within hours, compelled either by their relatives or their work.
Vidhayak Sansad’s residential school provides comprehensive education to girls who would otherwise have limited or no access to schooling. With many families of the Katkaris migrating seasonally, their children, especially girls, never see a classroom. The girls commonly work as a balgi (caretaker for younger siblings or a landlord’s children) and a gowari (cattle herder). Poverty is so acute that parents must take the help of their children to survive. Child marriage is also widely practiced among this community. The school offers these girls the rare opportunity to become literate and aware of their rights as citizens and as women.
Tribals have been exploited for generations because of their illiteracy. But the challenge in breaking this cycle is the grinding poverty that requires every member of the family, young and old, to work. This is why the free, residential education offered by Eklavya Parivartan Vidyalaya is so important. It contributes significantly to the socio-economic empowerment of the most deprived and neglected tribal communities.
In all of Thane District there is only one primary residential school and two secondary residential schools run by the government exclusively for girls. One important reason for this is that parents are not ready to trust institutions with their young daughters. Vidhayak Sansad’s residential school is possible because the organization has earned the trust of tribals in Thane District during its over 25 years working with them. The organisation achieved this objective through a unique system – their teachers who are trained are not graduates, but one amongst them. They have been trained not to merely educate but to live with the students in the villages, counsel them and take the parents into confidence.
“Our activists and trainers would go personally to each and every house to increase the awareness of education, understand the problems of the families and even intervene where necessary, ” reveals Hindaprabha, who took me around their X-acre campus.
Currently, over 200 girls aged 6-16 from the Katkari tribe live at Vidhayak Sansad’s campus in Usgaon where they not only study, but also learn singing, dancing, painting, and karate.