CHILDREN OF NUAPADA – Kabir Sharma

Naupada

It is evening and I am sitting in a Learning Enrichment class at Khamtarai in Nuapada, Odisha. There are children from classes 3 and 4 here. A lot of fun, creative methods and materials are being used to explain things. The teacher, Devang, is vibrant, energetic, very active about the classroom and popular with the children. With the help of Oriya alphabet cards, children are writing names of their friends which start with different letters. There is a good, noisy atmosphere in the class, everyone here is very responsive and completely involved in the happenings. Groups of six children, each a mix of students with a low, medium and high learning, are sitting together in circles on the floor. The class room is full up with noise, screams, answers and excitement, a lot of movement and waving of hands. Singing and activity. The class is now singing a rhyme in Oriya while I step out to look outside, hearing rain and thunder and feeling the rain breeze on my face. It is a beautiful cool, wet, green and grey evening. I re-enter to a loud, resounding chorus of numbers.

E-e-k, d-o-o, t-e-e-en cha-a-ar : A classroom bellowing after a small boy calling out numbers as he moves beads on a ganitmala, an instrument like an abacus with beads on a stretched string.It is mathematics class now. A little tube light has come on, as the class continues into the growing evening. Soon a girl stands up and recites the numbers from 1 to 60 in multiples of ten: 10,20,30– shifting beads ten at a time…. everyone repeats in a loud chorus. The chorus from the children is assuring of something in the becoming, and very sure of itself. The rain is beating on the ground outside and the thunder is crackling loudly: two sounds from outside the room are merging and competing with the loud shouting of children inside it. I am part of something right here, in a little village, lost among Odisha’s hills and rivers, in one of India’s most backward areas, watching these children shout out their numbers after school hours. Shouting out for everybody to hear, shouting for a new beginning, out, into the night. I had the opportunity to go to Nuapada, Odisha some months ago, to do an assessment of an education based project of the American India Foundation, being run by a local NGO called Lokadrusti.

I was assigned to go and talk to the people there, and try and understand the impact the project had had on their lives. It was thought that my being young, the people would not be as affected by my presence, and I would be able to get their true opinions. I don’t know how far this was true, or how far I managed to succeed in this: but it was a huge experience for me. Huge in the sense of breaking and confirming a lot of my beliefs, in making me meet some amazing people and in helping me understand my place in the world. Nuapada is one of India’s poorest districts, located deep in the forest and away from any major city. It was carved out of Kalahandi district in 1993.

There is a large population of Majhi tribals that lives here. The western, hilly half of the district borders Chhatisgarh and is affected by Maoist activity. The eastern half is where Lokadrusti works largely. The area is very drought prone, and sees a drought almost every other year. Due to the droughts and lack of work opportunities, a major concern in the villages of this area is migration of families to brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere to find work. Most of these kilns are known for their inhuman work conditions and their cruelty. The families go there for about 6-8 months at a stretch in the year. In the prevalent ‘pathria’system for granting work that exists, man, wife and child, all three, are required to get a work contract. There is a specific job waiting for all three of them. The child, by virtue of his small hands and light weight, is ideal for certain tasks too, such as being able to walk on long lines of drying bricks to find the ones that need to be turned over to face the sun to dry. This migration is affecting the children’s education: missing school for long stretches of time, getting into child labour at a very small age and getting used to earning money this way, the children drop out of school altogether. Leaving them with this only way to earn money all their lives.

The LAMP(Learning and Migration Program) project began in 2004 with the opening of hostels for children to stay in during the migration period of November to June, so that they could stay back in their villages and continue to go to school. The hostels, also called Residential Care Centres (RCCs) are run in the school buildings after school hours. They allow the kids to sleep in a safe environment, eat proper food and to get some help in their studies from the hostel caretaker. Later the project was expanded with the commencement of Learning Enrichment classes to help weak students understand subjects through innovative techniques. More recently, after the Right to Education act was passed in 2010, the project has also been emphasizing raising awareness about the act and its provisions like the School Management Committee (SMC).

—– This is an account of my understanding, as it developed. —– I am staying in Khariar, the major town of the area. A usual Indian small town, dirty and uneasy. Built around the main road, with banners of telecom companies all around. Town centres in India can now be told apart by their walls: decorated with the red of airtel and vodafone and the blue of reliance and samsung. Garbage and filth is spread out all over. The first morning, I went to meet some families that migrate on a regular basis.I understood the compulsions and needs of migrating to brick kilns, and about the way in which this labour is paid off. How scary, how much in a different world this is from ours, how cruel, and how essential.

Migration

Bhubhaneswar Ji, Devang and Mithun from Lokadrusti have come with me.In the shade outside a house made of mud, we all sit down on charpais and wait for the families to come. One by one the people trickle in. There is some reluctance to my recording the conversation, so I switch off my recorder. All the people talk to me very softly. Rs. 12,000 per person is what they are given, a lump sum for 6 months. They work from 6 am -noon, and then 1-5 pm. They are made to wake up at about 3 am by watchmen to make meals and get ready. Some kilns have longer hours, like 4 am- 8 pm, they add. Making 1000 bricks a day translates to Rs. 360-Rs. 450, carrying a 1000 from one place to another only to Rs. 70. This amount is cut off from the Rs. 12,000 that they get in the beginning, and which they owe the sardar( head of the kiln) after that. Gurvayur and his wife Jaipaka Majhi have been migrating for 4 years, leaving their three children in the hostel every time. “There was a cover, a tin roof. And that’s all. For food, 200 rupees per person, to last a week. We would buy rice from the market. We couldn’t afford dal, we ate brinjal and tomato every day. Life in the kilns is horrible, there is a small jhoprithey give us where we have to sleep and eat. It is very small, the entry to it is very low, we have to crouch to get in. The sardars are very demanding and pull and push us around to get work done. Each person has to pick up 10,000 bricks in a week to get the promised amount to eat, otherwise they reduce the amount from 200 to 100 rupees.” When the families started to migrate, there was no provision of the hostels, so they used to take the kids to the kilns as well. After the hostels began in 2004, all children are left behind to study. No parent takes their children along anymore. Devang, the teacher from the Learning Enrichment class I was in yesterday , who has come along with me adds “For 3 yrs I have been here and been doing surveys, no children from here go anymore” “Do you feel your children will do something different from you in their lives?” “We have laboured all our lives, we want them to study. If she gets a good division, then maybe she will get a chaakri(small job)…otherwise we will get  her married, maybe her children-to-be-born will be able to have a better education, as she will be literate unlike us. Our work is to make sure our children study and we want to do that. There are a lot of government schemes as well which maybe they can benefit from.” The children like going to school and the enrichment classes and don’t miss a single class. “How do you check that he is learning something at school?” “They talk about what they do, we see them studying at home, we may not know what they are doing, but they do something.” Devang adds, “I remember their children used to be very interested in studying, and after the hostel shut for the season, being used to studying till 9 pm daily, the children made a group and collected people here, and would study till late, which is unlike the way things are done in villages. I would come in the evening and see them all studying. Under the light of a bulb they got from people’s contributions.” The parents are sure that if the RCC shuts down, they will not take their kids along with them anymore. Theirs is not a life to be continued. “How do the dalals(agents) who come to take you to the kilns and the sardars who employ them, behave? Do they force kids to come to the kiln?” People get stirred up and are speaking a lot more. “These days the sardars are more scared, if they get caught employing children, there is trouble. Checking of migration takes place now, the police are more strict. Where we work… there is no case of torture… but in other kilns, there are.” Some sardars are bad, some are good. Two years ago at a brick kiln, a nine month old child was thrown to the dogs, killed and eaten by them. He was the youngest child, the only son, and had six sisters. The dalals had sexually harassed and tortured two of his elder  sisters. His parent protested. He was thrown to the dogs in response.  Rape and sexual harassment of  young girls at the kilns is a routine affair. None of the labourers make complaints as the police is bought off by the sardars. Theirs is to work and suffer in silence. Year after year. Another son has been born to them now, and despite the case, they migrated again last year. They are part of a system. There is a cycle. There is hunger. Another seven month old child’s tongue and eye were cut off and given as a ‘bali’ at the temple in a kiln, what is not even done with goats or animals was done with a boy. This too was two years back, and the police was bought off by the sardar. “How many dalals come?” “Many.” “Do you know whose sardar is good and whose is not?”  A vehement response. “ Yes.” Bhubhaneswar ji adds “Nuapada has 78 % people below the poverty line, and out of the families that migrate, 80% are distressed” “How are the train journeys from here to the kiln, and then back here? Reserved?” They laugh. “No, but things are okay till Raigarh… after that there are too many people, and also because of the language problem with the organisers, they are often not nice to us Oriya people. Only those who can push, yell and are strong stay okay.” “Will you go this year?” “Yes. Depends a bit on the rain, if it doesn’t rain like most years, than as usual, we will go. Large expenditures, marriages, medical bills, mortgage etc leave us no choice but to go.” The dalals strategically give the lump sum amount as an advance around Nuakhai,the farmers’ big harvest festival: which is when their major spending normally happens.Thus, they deal with their expenses, and then go for seven months.

image008

Getting the money in a lump sum is too difficult to forego.  “We migrate because there is no source of income here and no government schemes work. They give us money in bulk together, which is a big thing for us, government scheme payments are always late, and that too, by some years.” The employment of these people in the inhuman conditions of kilns is only an exploitation of their poverty. Even people who live next to the kiln locations in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, do not work in them. More importantly, it isn’t necessary for them, they have some other option: agriculture, or something else. This is left only to these desperate people. —— A woman, Manjula, died this year at a kiln. I go to her village and find her brother, Nirupama Majhi there. He was himself working at the migration site where his sister died.In a verandah outside a mud hut, we sit and are given nimbu shikanji to drink. This is Gudipa, a hamlet of a larger village that still doesn’t have any access to electricity. Nirupama Majhi tells me about how his sister Manjula died, and was made to run away from the work site. Working hours were too strenuous, and conditions very difficult. Because of the stress, she became seriously ill one day and was taken to the hospital on a motorcycle, where she died. After the death, the sardar didn’t let them go back to the work site at all, not to get their belongings, not for anything else. They were made to leave all their luggage and go straight from the hospital to the cremation site, and then directly to the station, all in the same day.  They were not allowed to do the kriyakram (last rites) either, which they wanted to, but which would have taken three days. The sardar forced them out of there, told them to go to Odisha, and do all their rituals there. He didn’t give them any money either, but got them tickets. He was scared that if the other people at the kiln saw what had happened, they might instigate her family to file a case or cause an agitation among the other workers of the kiln. Manjula Majhi’s children always stayed in the seasonal hostels, and are there even now, a daughter in the 8th and a son in the 10th. Nirupama Majhi won’t go back to Andhra this year. As we talked to him, a few people from the village came and sat around us. The circle. From death, to life, and back again. — One of the girls is Baidahi Majhi, a young girl who has been a Lokadrusti seasonal hostel helper. Her mother is sitting nearby. Balo Majhi. A lady of about 60. She has four daughters and a son. Baidahi Majhi is the youngest. Her other 4 siblings never went to school. “Did you ever go to school?” I ask Balo Majhi. “I go everyday “, she replies, smiling. She is talking about her role as a village leader and SMC member, now. “But did you ever study in a school, as a child?” “Yes, I went to class 1, but my mother asked me to leave after I got a fever”. “But then, why didn’t you educate your children at all?” It takes some time for it to come out, eventually she tells me, “We are from an ST family. It was believed earlier that because children from SC communities also come to the school, any touching or fighting among the kids would spoil our caste. So I didn’t send any of my children… …After Lokadrusti came into the village about 10 years ago and began its work, a lot of awareness about things began spreading; we learnt how important education in this day and age is. I joined a self help group and became more aware and grew in confidence as well. People realised that in education there cannot be any caste divides.” Balo Majhi is a village leader, SMC and Panchayat member now. And a part of a women’s self help group. The SHG works in education too among other things: going to every house, ensuring all the kids are in school, talking to the parents, explaining the importance of education, telling them about the mid day meal, and scolding them if they do not send their kids.

Her youngest daughter was still small back then, when all this change was beginning. And so, got a chance to go to school. Baidahi Majhi is a very soft spoken girl who is always smiling. She explains her day to me, staying in the hostel with the kids and taking care of them. In the morning,  they wake up at 5 , take their morning snack, have their learning enrichment class and then go to school from where they return around 4, eat their evening snack, attend their learning enrichment class again, pray and then study some more. She assists with all the activities, and even helps them with their school studies and the homework that they get from their learning enrichment classes. Studying herself, in +2, she leaves for college once the kids have gone to school. She wants to study more, and do a BA in political science, even though she says after that she will have to get married. Her love of education, her own and that of the children, is amazing. A lady sitting nearby says “My son just passed 10th but didn’t have the required marks to get admission into plus 2 in a government school. Government schools now only admit students with the highest marks into +2 in the new ‘online’ system. He wanted to study. I wanted him to study. But I had no money to put him into a private school. He lost hope. He is in Bombay now, doing construction work.”

Shakuntala Majhi

Shakuntala Majhi, a lady wearing a green sari who was sitting there listening to a lot of our talk adds “My two daughters just finished their class 10 and they want to study more. But I don’t have money for the fees.” A sum of 3500 rupees is enough for admission. This, and passing with a poor division in class 10 is what keeps children out of class eleven and twelve over here. In a place like this, how can a child be denied the right to study when he or she wants to, in a place like this? What makes sense to us in cities: competition, ninety percent,  does not make sense over here. This is a different world, and this needs to be understood. —– We are now going towards Mahulkot, to meet some SMC members and youth. On the way, we come to a small mud hut, surrounded by a stick and twig fence. Outside there is a man sitting on a charpai, a very thin man, sitting very straight. Sharat Bhoi’s father.

Sharat Bhoi's father

Sharat Bhoi is from a family that is extremely poor,  having to migrate to brick kilns to ensure its survival. He alone stayed back in the seasonal hostel at Khamtarai last year, while his parents and all his siblings went to Andhra. He is the eldest boy in the family, with an elder sister and three younger siblings. It has now been 2 months since the family has come back from Andhra. The first months were okay at the brick kiln, his elder sister tells us, standing just inside the house. After that, our father’s back gave way, he was bent, and couldn’t get up. It was because of the excessive work that he was made to do there, non-stop. The owner of the kiln had him taken to the hospital, but there was no improvement. They waited, and after some time asked the sardar if they could go back home.  He declined, saying they had already been paid, so they were bound to work here. It took a lot of convincing before they were finally allowed to return. They have been back since the last two months; he is not better. He is unable to get up from the bed. The Khariar hospital hasn’t been able to diagnose his problem. Yesterday they went for a blood test, and were made to pay 200 rupees. They tell me a total of 1000 rupees have been spent so far. 1000 rupees in a place where the monthly government authorised pension for the old is Rs. 300.  Sharat is the eldest boy in the family, and with his father in the condition he is in, unable to work , his mother and elder sister are the ones going to be earning money.

There is certainly going to be pressure on him to earn soon. For the moment, he is an outstanding student at school, at the top of his class. He wakes up at three every morning to study. He is in high school now, and wants to take up science in +2.He wants to become a doctor. I hope he is able to. ——- It is now night, and I am on the way back to the Lokadrusti office, in the jeep. There is excitement among people. Loud, frenzied talk of the India One Day International cricket match. After all the work all day, it seems finally something exciting and fun has come to talk about. But something so far off? Happiness derived from such a different world, Completely in other people’s lives? Must life be exciting only for a few people, and the rest live only through their living?

To Salebihidi, Sinapalli

Early in the morning the next day we cross the block tehsil of Sinapalli . This is an area with maoist activity nearby, a large army camp has been set up recently to keep watch. We have a glass of tea and walk around. Army men are to be seen everywhere in the town. We drive further up. Salebihidi is a very poor village. I sit in the school building courtyard, to talk to the people who have been asked to come.

Jawahar Shah is a long faced, cheerful man with mellow twinkling eyes. He is a labourer and has migrated to the brick kilns many times. Once the seasonal hostel opened here, he left his three children every year to study, coming back to find them doing well in their studies and healthier. The eldest, Deepanjali is the only girl in the village to be studying Science in +2, and is a role model for all. She is a bright student and got a first class in 10th.  On her insistence, Jawahar hasn’t been migrating for the last two years now. He too is a role model, everyone in the village sees a man who has laboured all his life, but is making sure his children study. He talks to parents of girl children who stop their girls from studying and tells them what they are doing is a crime. Deepanjali is keen to study further. “Will she?” “Only if our financial condition allows it, my financial condition is not good……she needs Rs.1200 a year for tuition to understand her science subjects properly, but I cannot afford  even that.” —– Soon after, Lalita Tandi, Hirmani Kata, Sarawani Kaiwarta and Subarni Tandi are sitting in front of me. They are mothers of children who have stayed in the seasonal hostels, and they have all been migrating for the last 7-12 years. “It is only through our hard work in the brick kilns every year that we have been able to save up enough money to buy these clothes.

“Thank you Odisha and thank you Andhra for all this pain and difficulty. Now, for the last 4 months we have been home, so we are looking okay, at least visible. When we come back from the kilns, it is certain that we will spend some money on medical expenditure, saline drips, etc. There is a lot of brick dust all over at the site, and in our food etc .It is very hot and sunny there all day,our skin becomes like the colour of your pant….. Black.” “I have been going to the same sardar for the last 8 yrs in Andhra.. I know his entire history… he used to be a labourer… used to climb coconut trees… now he has become a maalik and scolds us.” “Did you ever go to school?” “No”  “ Yes, till 3rd ..I know how to write my husbands and my name ..Even though I was the only daughter of my dad, he could have got me educated me .. but he didn’t.” “Why do you feel your children must study?” “We have seen how difficult it is to migrate.. we know about this sadness.. we do not want our kids to go through this… now the world is changing..” “Do they like going to school?” “Yes… they even stay up late till 1-2-3 AM to study. The kids think that we have gone through such hardship for them so they must make the most of it and study well.” “Do you help them?” “Yes… I make them sit down and tell them to study, and  give them their books.” Do you have a light at home?” “I have a chimney,  that is first used for cooking and then for my children to study under”. “How do you make sure they are studying well?” I ask them if all the teachers came to school . If on a day some teachers were absent, I know the studies were not good.  We are all fools. We know nothing about studying and reading … but when a letter comes and the kids read it out, we get to know they have learnt.  They even try to teach us how to write our names and other things.. they tell us ‘you have done so much for us .. paid for our education, left us in hostels..why don’t you study for yourself?’ But we can’t learn now.”

“A job is not the aim.. even if they can’t get one, unfortunately, they should be educated enough so that they have courage and can go anywhere and earn their rozi-roti… it will be good for them.. and also will be a support for us when we get old..we won’t be able to do then, all the things that we can do today…

….If only we knew Hindi.. we would have spoken to you fully.” “Will you go to the kilns this year?” “Yes, All four of us will go, we have no other option…” “If you can get us some work here, we will stay..” There is always some hope that a person from Delhi can help them out in some way or another. And they are right. They can. “If Lokadrusti goes away, will you be able to take things forward by yourself?” “We will ensure our children go to school daily. If hostels close, they can stay at home by themselves now, we can use mobiles to keep in touch. Though, it is hard for us to leave our children behind even in the hostels when we go. We tell the hostel caretaker that he is their father and mother till we come back.” —– None of them have a BPL card despite being the poorest among the poor.  In this whole village of 212 households, most of which should come under BPL, there are only 2 listed BPL families. I don’t know what nationwide BPL numbers and statistics mean, when so many people just don’t count.

—- Sarawani Kaiwarta

Was one of the four mothers I was speaking to, and was the quietest of them all. When I spoke to her separately, I froze. She has two children, Jairam who is studying in class 8 and Tikey Lal who passed class 10 in 2011. She is a widow. She has no land, no solid house and no BPL card despite being the poorest in the village. She has to migrate every year for her family of three to survive. “Ask any villager, they will tell you we have no money, no land, no house.”

She has been migrating every year for the last 7 years, but is very particular about her children’s education, and has left them in the hostel since it came into the village. She has no relatives who would keep her children while she goes to find work. Her elder son has had some physical weakness from the time he was born. His limbs are not strong, she says his hands have become small. After he passed class ten, his condition became worse, now he is unable to ride a bicycle by himself to go to college and finish his +2. She says that she had taken him to a local hospital when he was small but the doctors hadn’t found anything wrong. He cannot even walk properly any more. “Till I have the strength, I will take care of him, but the day something happens to me, then what?” She tells me she has tried to ask other children who cycle and go to college to study, but no one has agreed to let Tikey Lal sit behind them on their cycle. No one wants the responsibility for the two year period; it is too much of a liability. No one she asked agreed and she feels that someone who might agree will ask for more money than she can afford. “If only the college was closer” she says. I insist she must take her son to the hospital again, there must be something wrong with him. She sort of agrees and says she will take him in a month’s time and see what they say at the hospital this time. The year before the last , while she was working in Tamil Nadu, someone said or did something to her which made her go mad. She lost her sensibilities, and threw all her belongings out of a moving train. Even tried to jump off herself. People from her village who were with her then, supported her and made sure she came back alright. Whatever it was that was done to her, she spent some time in a temple and the pujari and some mantras are what made her okay and brought her sensibilities back, not medicine. She says she is fine now. I ask her what she will do this year, “Will you migrate again?” “There is no option, I have to, otherwise what will all of us eat? The children are old enough, they will stay at home and cook and live.” Her second son, Jairam, is in the eighth and is a strong boy. She is determined to make him study. “Does Jairam like studying?” “Yes, he keeps asking me ‘Ma, till which class will I be able to study?’ I tell him  ‘ Till 10th for certain son. Beyond that, if I still have the capability, I will definitely provide you means to study. If not, then son, only god is my master.’” The Lokadrusti staff and I had a discussion that day about what could possibly be done for Tikey Lal.  Some days ago, when I called up the LAMP coordinator he told me Tikey Lal has taken admission into +2. He will study at home, and they will make some arrangement for him to go upto the school and take his exams. Just a little hope among these very difficult lives.

—— Rajiv

I meet a boy next of twenty. A sharp boy with a roughened face. A scattered past. A symbol of determination. Rajiv Tandi stood first in his schoolwith a remarkable 75 percent in his plus 2 exam and has taken admission in +3 BA Political Science Honours .

This is the story of a boy whose life has been a strive for education, who has been able to defeat a lot of things through will power and want. And the story of a boy whose parents have migrated non-stop for twelve years. He remembers going to brick kilns in Jammu and Kashmir for two years in 2002-2004, when he was small, to hold his younger brother while his parents worked. It was cold there, and they lived in a tin house. He says he was just big enough then to hold his younger brother. He then remembers going to an Andhra kiln the year after that. But he doesn’t remember exactly what happened with his education in those early years. He remembers going to the third and the fifth standards through a haze of migrations, money problems and brick dust. From what I have assimilated, I think the migrations happened when he was between classes 4,5 and 6. When he came back from Andhra, his Chacha , who is a teacher, helped him, taught him things, revised his alphabets, reading skills, etc over a few months before he joined school in the 7th.  He remembers studying in class seven, and came first in his class that year. Seeing this, he says his parents decided not to take him with them on migrations in the future. Then, he spent 3 years in the seasonal hostel run by Lokadrusti, in classes 8,9 and 10. He remembers going to Bhubhaneswar too with the Lokadrusti team as he was an exceptional student, to meet people who had come from Delhi and America and answer the questions they asked him.

After finishing his class 10, he took admission in a college in Nuapada for his +2, which was supposed to be relatively inexpensive. He says he somehow collected the money for the admission, a sum of Rs. 2500. But on going there, they asked him for more money, for hostel and food etc. He didn’t elaborate on this, but he came back from there soon, as the food and place didn’t suit him. He says he then came to Lokadrusti and asked for help. He asked Lokadrusti to get his school leaving certificate, which is a procedure that costs money too, and help him with admission either in a college or in the open school. He says the people at Lokadrusti promised to do so, but nothing happened even though he went to the office in Khariar a few times. His father didn’t let him migrate that year too, as they were hopeful of an admission. Two years were wasted this way. He does believe the time he spent in the seasonal hostels was very good for him, and that the coming of the seasonal hostels changed the way the village people thought about education.

Lokadrusti’s coming helped explain them the importance of education and also gave them means to leave their kids when they went outside to work. But he does not go to Lokadrusti for help any more. His dad migrated the next year, and this gave him money to take admission in +2. Then his father paid for his dress, etc through migrating.  Later, he himself went on migration to Chennai after his class 11 exam for two months, and came back with some money which he used for his second year admission(12th) . This year too , after finishing his class 12 exams, he went to Chennai to earn money. His result came while he was there. He had come first in +2 too. He came back last month, and used the money for his college admissions and to help his younger brother get admission into +2.

He has admission in the autonomous college at Bhawanipatna. He says his father is migrating to Chennai this year to earn again, Chennai being Rajiv’s suggestion as he had found paying work there. Rajiv adds that his father is migrating this year for his son’s sake, 3 months earlier than usual, so that he can pay the fee and go to college.  The counselling of his college is on the 23rd, and they will take about 3500-4000 rupees in that. He adds now that he has an admission in Bhawanipatna, it will be difficult for him to migrate himself, but his father will continue to do so, so that he can study. He says people understand his family’s financial situation is very poor and when he went to get his school leaving certificate, they even wavered the 500 rupee charge. He hasn’t thought what he wants to do after his +3 gets over, he wants to finish it first. His life has taught him there are many struggles that can come up in finishing something you manage to begin, and it can be very difficult. The ways and means of doing so may change your life entirely, so it is best to take things at a time, and take whatever comes next, next.

—— Rajiv called me up when I had come back to Delhi and asked me if we could help in any way, just the initial bit, he would manage once there, just so that his father didn’t need to migrate earlier than usual( as the advance is only got just before you migrate). But we didn’t think it to be a wise decision to help a single boy, as things must be done with a policy in mind, for everyone. Yet sometimes forcing oneself to just look at the larger picture doesn’t make sense. —– We are going back now in the jeep. It is dark and rainy outside. Snakes have come out on the road. We men move in jeeps and pause to watch. Ooo and wow. But men get bored soon. And there is more chance of running over the third snake than the second. Such are we. — Satellites for TVs are to be seen, and symbols of vote for the hand.

Hope and Helplessness

Next morning, driving to the village of Brahmaniguda we pass through lush green fields with lots of puddles of water. Three girls going to college on cycles, schools full of children, 3 children with their backs to us walking with pitthoo bags on their shoulders and 2 girls in blue uniforms down below the road, near a wide brown muddy river, possibly washing off some dirt, begin climbing back up. The sarpanch in Brahmaniguda has been here since  2012. He has seen changes in the thinking of people regarding education with the hostels and RTE etc. But, “There is no help towards education from the Panchayat”. He sends his son to a private school, Shishumandir, as he feels there are problems in the government school. He is in a hurry to go somewhere. Brahmaniguda is a very remote village and backward village with only kaccha houses.

The population is poor, composed mostly of OBC and ST families, with a lot of SC houses as well. The rate of migration to brick kilns in Andhra is alarmingly high. Up to 100 households migrate. I am told of a girl who just finished her class 10, migrated out to Delhi herself to labour, and has just come back. She needs money to fund her own education. I am sitting on a charpai in an open space between some houses. A group of five girls and four boys, who have stayed for a few years in the seasonal hostels run by Lokadrusti are sitting around. All have finished their tenth; some have started their +2, all the rest want to. I begin with talking to the girls. They are shy and reluctant to speak much. In a little while, it begins to rain, and we move to one of the girl’s Mamaji’s (uncle’s) house.

Once indoors, they seem a lot more at ease and are more talkative.  They begin slowly, and go on to tell me their stories, which are so painful, and so ghastly. – The Right to Education Act provides a free education up till the 8th standard. But studies after that are to be paid for. Admission into 9th and 10th is still affordable for them. But into class 11, admission is Rs. 3500. A distant dream. Sushila Bag (16) has finished her class 10, having stayed in the seasonal hostel for four years. Her mother is dead. Her sister, Dhanmati (18) is studying in the 10th standard, and had migrated twice when she was in the ninth, coming back with money to buy books and meet the other costs of education.

Sushila says if she cannot find money to take admission this year in +2, she will migrate herself to earn, and come back and take admission. Just like her, Kuntala Bag (16) lives with her mother, her father passed away when she was small. She too, has finished class ten, staying back at the seasonal hostel or at her grandfather’s. She wants to study more and is keen to do a BA degree. Her mother has many dreams for her and wants her to study and do a job when she becomes older. She is the girl who has just spent five months working at construction sites in Delhi with her mother, trying to save up some money to fund her admission to+ 2 and also to pay for her grandfather’s kidney operation. The operation is more important to her. It means saving his life and she thinks if he gets okay, maybe he will start earning and that will allow her to go to school. Otherwise she will migrate again. The admission fee is Rs. 3500, and the only way she sees to get it, is by migrating out and labouring at construction sites or brick kilns for months. She says her grandparents cannot earn now, so she has to work herself to study, and must migrate this year, to fund the operation. I ask her what the plight of the other girls in the village is, do parents want them to study beyond the tenth or do they want them to work, or to marry?

“There is no money, sir. If there was money, girls would study.” Again, Parvati Rana(15)  has finished her class 10. She had migrated to Andhra in her 5th standard, and later spent 3 years in the seasonal hostel. She says if there hadn’t been a hostel, they would have gone on migrating, and even the idea of staying back together with her brothers and sisters at home and studying while parents migrate would not have come.  She also wants to study, but isn’t sure how to get money. Migrating seems to be the answer. And again, Neela Suni Mahananda(16) has finished Class 10.Her mother is dead and she and her siblings live with their father. She spent class 4 and 5 in the seasonal hostel and after that at her grandmother’s house.

She has worked as a labourer, either under someone, or under the NREGA since the time she was in 7th. She gets Rs. 40 for toiling half a day. This, too, is a childhood. The labour rates are less for women than those for men she says, both for labour work and for NREGA work.  Their grandmother gets Rs. 200 a month as old age pension and they all survive on what Neela Suni earns and this. All four of them, including their father, who has an acute back pain and cannot work. And again, Manjula Mahanand (18) has finished her 10th standard. She migrated to Andhra for three years, around the time she was in the 3rd or 4th . She speaks very softly and quietly ,as all of them did. She wants to study further, but her parents and uncle are not supportive, as there is a money problem. She has admission into +2, but because her 20 year old brother Rohit also has to study and her parents do not have enough money for both, so far only he is being able to study. Rohit also migrated for 3 years after 10th to earn money, and now has taken admission in +2 in a good college.

The girls ask us to help them with money to study, when we say we don’t have any provision with us at the moment, “Then what is there, we will migrate and earn this year and hopefully study this year or the next.” There are only 2 girls who have studied till +2 in this village, because their parents had money. I ask about the children who went to the Lokadrusti coaching class last year (for classes 9,10). 15 boys and 5 girls were there, all of them passed out. Of the 5 girls, 2 can get admission into +2 in government schools , 2 have not got into government schools, but can get into private ones. Money is a problem for all of them, and the 5th girl has already left the village, is in Delhi at the moment, working to earn enough money to study. And again, the boys, Dev Das Nag (18) has finished one year of plus 2 and now has to take admission into the second year. He stayed in the seasonal hostel for 5 years from 2004-5 till 2010. He migrated once when small to Andhra Pradesh, and once now, recently, again, in the holidays. He needs to earn money to get readmission in class 12, and migration seems to be the only sure way to earn money, so he migrates to brick kilns and construction sites during his holidays. He says if he doesn’t get admission this year, his family will get him married. And again, Dinesh Kumar Rana (17) is the brother of Parvati Rana. He migrated as a child to Andhra, and spent 5 years in the seasonal hostel later. Having finished one year of +2 in the commerce stream, he is very keen to study. He wants to take admission into the second year, but money is a problem. His parents would like him to study, and would have paid if they had the money. He says his dad is going to be migrating this year, so his fees will come from the advance that his father will get. The advance that will bind his father to work under that brick kiln owner for 7 months. There is a repetition in these stories, they tell the same story of poverty, yearning to educate themselves, and move away from the endless cycle they are a part of. A sort of hope that the amount they have studied has given them, good or bad I do not know, but hope nonetheless. But, there is no money to go on studying. Helplessness. Hope and helplessness. Saroj Rana(18) a is doing his BA. He spent 4 years in the RCC. He has 4 sisters, two elder and two younger. The way their lives have turned out gives a picture of how the outlook to education has changed before and after the coming of the  RCCs. His two elder sisters, 32 and 25 years old, have studied till the 3rd and the 5th respectively. But his two younger sisters and he stayed in the RCCs and studied. The two elder sisters are unmarried and continue to go to the brick kilns to earn, while he and his two younger sisters continue to study. Both parents used to migrate earlier, but now their mom has stopped migrating too, to stay with the two young girls, who are studying.

We ask them if book support can help them, and if they can fund only their admissions. They say they cannot. Education has become the reason for many migrating parents to leave their kids behind in the hands of the Lokadrusti or government run hostels, but it seems it has now become a reason for the children themselves to migrate. When I came back to Delhi, I brought up the matter at the AIF office. An immediate process was begun for the girls, and 6 girls from Brahmaniguda among others have taken admission in private colleges, the AIF organizing the funds. What is disturbing is how much a matter of chance everything was. Lokadrusti’s coming here. Even my coming to this village. My talking to these girls, and Sarawani Kaiwarta, and Rajiv Tandi, and everyone else. I happened to be here just before admission time and just happened to meet them. My birthday bill was Rs. 7100. Admission for two children in class 11. The gap between us people.

  ——– Stirrings

The people always ask me, what will we get out of this work that you are doing? I tell them I am not from the government, I can take their problems to Delhi to the AIF, and maybe they can incorporate them into their planning for the future. I feel the disappointment, theirs, and mine. I know I could probably do much more. ———- I met Phalguni Rout in front of his mud house, a quiet, reserved and very sharp boy. Phalguni Rout is one of the only two children in his village who is studying science in +2. The other is his friend and classmate from school, Sunderlal. His elder sister Padmabati used to study with him, and they were in the 7th together. That year their father fell ill, and the family fell into a bad money crisis. He had to collect firewood from forest and sell it in nearby villages to make money.  He had given up hope of school, but fortunately their father recovered. But they couldn’t afford to be schooling both of them, so his sister had to drop out of school.

When he was in class 8, the Lokadrusti seasonal hostel program came to their village. Living in a small mud house, studying was difficult, there were space and light problems. His family was unable to provide electricity or an oil lamp. Sunderlal and he decided to stay at night in the Lokadrusti hostel, made in the school building, where there was an electricity connection.  They would study there till late, and then sleep there. In the tenth, they aimed to get a first division and worked very hard towards it. And they succeeded. But Phalguni’s family did not have the Rs. 3600 needed  for his +2 admission into the science stream, so his father sold  the one bull that they owned, for about four thousand rupees. He says he likes science because studying it is fun. He likes all subjects, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. He has a younger sister, Anita , who is now in the 9th standard, and he feels girls should study to a high level too. He doesn’t want her to drop out like Padmabati. I asked his dad how he feels about his son’s education. “They will do as their luck is. Earlier, I had heard only rich people’s children can do science. I thought, if my kid wants to study science, I will do my best.  My bull is now sold, but god will give me another bull.” They tell me that they had no one to look up to for inspiration or guidance. They are the first people ever in this village to study science. But now, there is someone who looks up to the two of them, and wants to do what they did. He is in the tenth.

— As we walk back to the school compound from Phalguni’s house, the Lokadrusti staff and I discuss Phalguni. Such a story gives one a little hope, and something positive to talk about. — It is late evening now, and the crickets have taken over from the birds. I sit in front of the school building, and will talk to the two Lokadrusti workers I have been with today, before I go on my way back to Khariar. My last night in Odisha, I leave for Delhi tomorrow.

—— There is news of a strike to happen today, a joint effort of the BJP and the Congress, against the in power BJD. The problem is that Navin Patnaik’s relative has been found to be involved in a scam involving fertilizers. We leave early to avoid any road blocks, a tradition of the local strikes. Today we will visit two villages where Lokadrusti has not yet reached.

——– The meeting I am in is going to become a meeting of angry workers who are frustrated by people coming and taking their interviews, doing surveys, making promises , none of whom ever do anything. They migrate to UP every year, and are forced to take their children with them as there isn’t a single seasonal hostel in the entire panchayat here. Thus for 8 months in the year, their children don’t study ,and so they fall very behind.

“Sir, I have a request, not for the children, but for us. If we had work here, we wouldn’t have a need to go anywhere…”

I ask about the NREGA and other government schemes. What happens here is that the surveys for BPL cards, NREGA job cards, and other government schemes are carried out during the period they are at the kilns, year after year. So, they don’t exist in the eyes of the government. They have no BPL cards, no job cards, nothing, even though the other people in the village do. So it becomes all the more inevitable for them to migrate every year. Humaare paas kuch bhi nahi hai” (“We don’t have anything”) Another thing that happens here, that Arif from Lokadrusti explained me later in the day is this. The people are called to the NREGA site; but they do not do anything, all the work is done by the JCB machines that are called in by the government officials. People are registered, and their job cards are filled. So the money is released, and they are given the full pay. Then later on, they are told that as they didn’t do any of the work, most of the money is taken back from them, leaving them with only around Rs. 15-20 for the day. Not all are willing to do this, but there are many people desperate enough to be okay with this much. And the officials find them.

“Today you will do a survey… and run away and forget about it all, you will forget everything tomorrow and we will forget too and go to the kilns. Why isn’t anything ever done?” I tell them I have not been sent by the government, but am from Lokadrusti. “But sir, you can make some requests for us.” Hume eenta hi banana aata hai na, yahin pe khulwa do, hum yahin banaa denge” (“We only know how to make bricks, right? ..Please open a brick kiln nearby, we will make bricks over here.”) They begin to leave, rice is being distributed today. But before they go, they ask me “Isn’t there some document for us to sign? Some authentication for this meeting?” They are used to signing papers for people, in the hope of some change coming through. Something maybe, somewhere, sometime. I take down their names and their children’s ages.

—— Well, it’s good to know the story behind those bricks we use in construction isn’t it? We can look at them now and know where they come from. How they become and who makes them. And maybe also look at those people who labour away in our houses and around, it’s good to know where those hands and legs come from and how they get here, and what they leave behind to build the things we dream up. The very same people who went to the kilns last year .Or to another city. Not a brick in their homes, to make bricks and houses. Who left their school in 7th because they were told there is nothing waiting for them even if they study.. who left after the 10th because they were not rich enough to go to tuition like the rest of us and score enough to deserve admission into 11th... into the system that asked them for the 3500 rupees which none of them had… and those who didn’t study at all because they just worked all their lives. Only because they were born into the wrong household. The people who actually do the work. The work we could never do. The work we never  do but gets done. The walls that stand up in those hot afternoons by themselves, the tiles that get laid out while we sleep. Quite effortlessly, by themselves, as we watch, or don’t . The little else that is there to those hands and legs.. Those women and men who don’t know how to see dreams. Who do all the things we want, because they have to. It is a train that they take , leaving their houses and friends, to feed themselves. And their children. A train they take, the train that separates their village from the kilns, their village from the cities. Cities are kilns and kilns are cities .. It is a train that goes to the kilns where they make bricks for us ..  and a train that comes to the cities… the places where they spend most of their years, but where they are never welcome, the places they are never allowed to call home.. where no one knows them but the others that come with them.. where no one talks to them or sees any difference among them. Where they aren’t wanted, but required, only till they function. It is a train journey. The train journey on which Sarawani Kaiwarta lost her mind and almost through herself out. The train journey to the brick kiln where a boy was thrown to and eaten by dogs, where Sharat Bhoi’s father developed a back paralysis, where Mangrey Majhi lost her husband, where a boy’s eye and tongue were cut off and offered as a bali for good luck. The brick kilns where it is so hot you turn black as tar, where you are made to work fourteen hours a day and wake up at 3 am for 7 months. The brick kiln where Rajiv Tandi lost his memory of childhood. From where they come back home for 5 months- the time it takes for them to become alive again. From where they come back to go to hospital and be put on a drip, every year. A few months of living back at home, before they go back there, like machines, to churn away, another year, before the next. The brick kiln that ensures their survival, that pays for their sons’ educations and their daughters’ marriages. The brick kiln that feeds them, feeds on them.

—— Painted pictures in my eyes as we drive away from Nuapada. Things I see outside the window as we drive through the lush green scene. Early morning, the sun is just coming out. 5 little girls walking to school side by side, carrying bags, talking about something with concentration, 4 in uniform and one in a green dress. A little later, 3 girls walking into the rising sunrise into a field in blue salwar kameezes and white chunnis. One behind the other.. And a single small girl, walking alone towards us on the road ..quick and purposeful in her stride, carrying a very large white bag, at about rib level, jutting out on one side, not very comfortable with it, but hurrying.  Matter of fact and very preoccupied. There is some place she has to be, somewhere she has to get to. Maybe the next time I come, I will see Kuntala Bag and Dev Das Nag on their way to class 11, boys helping Tikey Lal to reach school and take his exams, Parvati Rana in school maybe, not having to migrate to earn money for admission. Maybe see Rajiv Tandi’s great determination and fight having been worth it, his father maybe not having to migrate and find work every time his son needs to pay a fees, Sharat Bhoi maybe on his way to becoming a doctor, Baidahi Majhi inspiring more children to study, more dreams in the eyes of more children maybe. Maybe.

First Published in SMALL- TOWN -NIGHT- SKY
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