Project officer Ramana Akula at the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) set up a residential school in Maddibanda village, East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh.
In the Maddibanda village of Chinturu Mandal, generations at end have never seen a school, and the concept of education has not existed in their lives. This is because the villagers belong to a tribal community known as Kondareddy, which has been classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
The tribals continue to live a nomadic lifestyle of shifting cultivation, and rely entirely on forest produce for their livelihood. The primitive and shy community speaks aboriginal Telugu, and are natives of the land. The hamlets are geographically separated, each having five to ten houses on a hilltop.
Every Friday, they descend the hilltop to sell forest produce and buy weekly supplies, before returning home. The nearest hamlet in the village is an hour-long walk, and the farthest is situated about four hours away from Boddu Gudam, after which there is no road. The tribals are unaware of the specific distance, and their only way to measure it is in the context of the number of hills they cross before reaching the hamlet.
However, six months ago, Venkata Ramana Akalu, became the first Deputy Collector in 20 years to walk the distance and reach the remotest hamlets in the area. The officer has reached out to these villages by convincing the tribals to build a residential school for the children in the area.
Thanks to his efforts, today, 28 children sit under the bamboo and thatched roof structure every day, to take informal education. Ramana says that a few of them will perhaps one day move to mainstream education, and no longer lead a primitive lifestyle.
“I travelled for half an hour from the office, and then walked for another hour before I could reach the first hamlet,” the 37-year-old recalls. Ramana is a project officer with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA).
‘The path to the hills’
It all began with the concept of Kondabata, which translates to the ‘path to the hills’. The officer paid fortnightly visits to the hilltop hamlets in the villages of Edugurrlapally, Vegisagandi, and Sadrai, including Maddibanda, of the east Godavari district. He began his visits around February 2020, but the trips were stalled due to COVID-19.
Ramana resumed his initiative in October last year. “On reaching Maddibanda village after a four-hour trek, I learned that no officer had visited the hamlet in the last couple of decades, because of its remote location. The children had no access to a school, and education could not reach such a place,” he says.
The officer says that government programmes like the Right to Education (RTE), among other such initiatives, that aim to bring children into mainstream education cannot work in such remote areas. “The children cannot walk for hours to attend schools in nearby villages. It’s also difficult for teachers to reside in these areas or visit the schools daily. Moreover, multiple schools cannot exist in such widely dispersed hamlets. A person named Chandra Reddy has the highest qualification in this village. He dropped out after Class IX due to personal reasons,” Ramana says.
With the help of social workers Vijetha and village local Chandra, he identified 167 families from 21 hamlets, which had 80 children who were of school-going age. The trio managed to convince the tribals to educate the children.
“We told them that if their children studied, they wouldn’t face issues like being cheated while selling their forest produce in mandis. We also promised that education would give them a better life, and told them we’d help with their Aadhar and ration cards. They were told about the various rights they held as forest dwellers. After successful meetings with the villagers, a combined gram sabha took place,” Ramana says, adding that necessary items like water purifiers and solar rights were also provided to the villagers to win their trust.
A village initiative
While the villagers agreed to the initiative, setting up a residential school was the only way the idea would succeed. “It wouldn’t have been possible to set up a school on hilltop hamlets. Hence, the villagers identified a strategic location, where parents from all the villages could meet their children during their weekly visits to the town,” he says.
In October, the villagers began gathering forest resources like bamboo and grass to set up the residential school. To create a sense of ownership, the administration entrusted this responsibility to the villagers. The school infrastructure was ready within a month.
“Funds from the ITDA were used to hire a teacher who would teach through activity-based learning,” Ramana says, adding, “The children are taught rhymes, and mathematics using local resources like mud. They’re taught basics like numbers and alphabets in Telugu and English using seeds.” He says the school aims to act as a bridge that can allow these students to eventually enter mainstream education.
Watch tribal children from Maddibanda learning alphabets through activity-based learning:
The school started functioning with 25 students, which increased to 28 by January 2021. Ramana says one challenge the school faces is moving weekly groceries for a large number of students, without proper means of transport. “It is also difficult for the teacher to be highly motivated to work in such an area and keep providing quality learning to students,” he says.
“After assessing the progress the students make in the next six months, the teaching patterns will change accordingly. If any child makes it to mainstream education, we’d have succeeded. We hope the remaining 52 students join our school as well,” he tells The Better India.
Ramana says the initiative became a success solely because of the community’s willingness. “Parents from other hamlets are closely observing the school’s activities. I hope more children take to education, and if successful, this model can be replicated in other tribal villages as well,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu