Childhood Interrupted: No School, Hard Labour in Store for Tribal Children

With schools shut for over 500 days, several children in tribal areas have been pushed into labour.

6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Gurubari showing her amputated finger while holding her youngest sibling </em></p></div>

“One has to be careful when venturing into the jungle,” reflects 14-year-old Gurubari Munda, who has a thumb missing. Talking in her native Ho language, she recalls having spotted a bear at least once and elephants several times. She has been making regular visits to the jungle to chop firewood since returning from her ashramshala (residential school) last year.

It was during one of these visits earlier this year that her thumb was severed in an inept swing of the axe, only to be amputated, more ineptly, by a local quack. A few days later, her 46-year-old father, who made up to Rs 4,000 a month hunting pigs, deer, and rabbits, complained of chest pain and died undiagnosed.

Left to fend for herself and her six children, Gurubari’s 38-year-old mother Suru has set up a small handia (rice wine) shop outside their house in Raighati village of Odisha's Jajpur district. She makes about Rs 200 a day from this shop. And Gurubari continues to chop firewood despite the amputation, walks five kilometres to the local market, and sells it there to make between Rs 40 and Rs 100 a day.

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Gurubari with her mother and siblings.</em></p></div>

Gurubari with her mother and siblings.

(Photo: Shameen Alauddin)


Online Classes Out of the Question for Most Kids

Members of the Munda Adivasi community, Gurubari and her family live in a one-room unfurnished mud house without electricity or water supply. A brick slab with utensils in one corner, and the space under it, serve as the kitchen area. After her return from the market, she helps her mother in cooking and takes care of her five brothers. There is no bathroom, so they bathe at a waterfall nearby.

Gurubari does not understand much of the new syllabus, she says:

“I don’t get time to study during the day, and it’s not possible to read anything after sunset as there is no light.”

The first in her family to ever go to a school, she was in Class 5 when her ashramshala shut amid the coronavirus crisis in early 2020. A year-and-a-half later, she has been officially promoted to Class 7 but received no further education. Online learning was out of the question, as she could not afford a smartphone.

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>At the time of writing this story, Gurubari was ill. Her mother is taking care of her.</em></p></div>

At the time of writing this story, Gurubari was ill. Her mother is taking care of her.

Photo: Shameen Alauddin


The wry smile on the face of 54-year-old Balaram Nayak, a government school teacher in Danagadi block in which Gurubari’s village also falls, betrays incredulity when the subject of online education is broached. “This is a jungle area in a tribal pocket. Most people here are poor and uneducated. They don't have the money to buy a smartphone. And even if they do, where is the mobile data network,” he asks.

A survey by A Society for Promotion of Inclusive and Relevant Education (ASPIRE), a non-governmental organisation that works on child rights and education, found that only 14 percent of the children in Classes 3 to 9 had access to smartphones in the region; the rest had to be reached physically. The survey was conducted among 1,52,679 children across 17 blocks in Odisha (Sukinda and Danagadi in Jajpur district, Koira and Kutra in Sundargarh district, and all 13 blocks in Keonjhar district) and two blocks in Jharkhand (Noamundi and Jagannathpur in West Singhbhum district).

Dwarkanath Das, 44, the sarpanch of Kiajhar panchayat, of which Danagadi block is a part, says:

"Only 1-2 percent of children in this panchayat are able to take online classes. The rest are put to work, either at home or outside. NGOs are trying to help children, but they do not have the scale that the government would have. At the ground level, we (the Panchayati Raj Institution) try to stop child labour with the help of the local community. But when we see the abysmal situation in which these people are, we are compelled not to take any action against them."

Orphans’ Struggles

“If I had a mother, would she not do anything to make sure I did not sleep hungry,” wonders 14-year-old Sanjay Munda as he recalls the taunts and treatment he received from his aunt. Sanjay lost his mother when he was eight, and his father died two years later.

He and his sister Sumitra, who is two years younger to him, were sent to live with different sets of relatives. After a year, with his relatives unwilling to raise him, Sanjay was sent to an ashramshala in the Dharamshala block of Odisha's Jajpur district, in Class 6.

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Sanjay Munda playing cricket, his favourite sport, at a residential hostel.</em></p></div>

Sanjay Munda playing cricket, his favourite sport, at a residential hostel.

(Photo: Shameen Alauddin)

When the ashramshala was shut because of the pandemic in March last year, all students were sent home. Since Sanjay did not have a home, he had to return to the same relatives who had shunned him a few years earlier. His treatment here this time was no better; his aunt nagged and jeered at him and gave him little food, even as the family ate decent meals, he says.

Sanjay began grazing his neighbour’s cattle in return for some cash or food. In June this year, he took up a job at a local nursery to sow plants for Rs 200 a day. He would work from 7 am to 4 pm, then spend the evening alone by a lake, and return to his relatives only at night. But after a month, he learnt that Sumitra had taken ill. So, he took part-payment of Rs 4,000 from his workplace, visited his sister, gave her one half of the money, and purchased some clothes and a school bag for himself with the other half.

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Sanjay sporting his new purchases.</em></p></div>

Sanjay sporting his new purchases.

(Photo: Shameen Alauddin)


A flicker of hope and some relief has come to him now since he has learnt that he has been promoted to Class 8, though he has not received his new books yet. "I was worried that I will have to drop out again; I cannot wait to return to my ashramshala," says Sanjay, who wants to join the Indian Army.

Even as institutions are shut, school-going children are entitled to books for their respective grades, and government teachers along with the school management committee (SMC) are tasked with distributing these books. Reena Bhattacharjee, 39, an SMC member at a primary school in the Joda block of Odisha's Keonjhar district, says:

"Many children have been promoted to higher grades but their books are yet to come. When we ask the block-level staff, they blame it on higher authorities. The government seems to have turned a blind eye to the education of children in these parts."
<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Sanjay using a skipping rope to exercise.</em></p></div>

Sanjay using a skipping rope to exercise.

(Photo: Shameen Alauddin)

How ST/SC Children Are Suffering Way More

A recent study titled 'School Children’s Online and Offline Learning,' or SCHOOL, revealed that only 4 percent of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes children were able to get online education. For other rural children, this number was 15 percent. Among rural SC/ST parents, 98 percent wanted schools to reopen. The study was conducted among 1,400 school children of Classes 1 to 8 from poor households across 15 states and Union Territories, including Odisha and Jharkhand.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Access to online education</p></div>

Access to online education

Photo: The Quint

Child labour and child marriages can be stopped only with a change in norms and mass mobilisation in support of child rights, says Shantha Sinha, the founder-chairman of the National Commission for Child Rights (NCPCR). “You have to energise the entire community, youth groups, anganwadi centres, self-help groups, SMCs, panchayats, other local bodies, and even parents and children themselves."

With public institutions now closed for over a year-and-a-half, children in rural and Adivasi communities, exposed to various social evils, are struggling to survive. And the gap in their foundational education is only widening.


(Shameen Alauddin is a freelance writer from Odisha who writes on issues of child rights. She is currently working with an education and child rights NGO-- ASPIRE. She tweets @shameenalauddin.)

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