Ours is largely a tribal society that is rural, backward, poor and uneducated by conventional standards.  All 60 of us children who come to Imlee Mahuaa School are Gonds, Kalaars, Gaandaas or Pankaas (members of scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and backward classes).  Our families are classified by the Government as falling below the poverty line.  More than 90 percent of us are first generation school goers.

In our families, going to school is not a must for any child. Most of us children enjoy the freedom at home to join or drop out of school whenever we wish to.  You probably know that tribal culture is liberal.  It respects individual freedom and cares for the group too.

Just about 2 percent of our friends who enroll in schools manage to go past high school (grade 10).  The balance drop out of school at different stages due to various reasons such as economic necessity or their inability to cope with the educational system which is largely designed keeping urban children in mind.  Less than one third of our friends who manage to go past high school go on to study further in higher secondary schools and colleges.
We rarely see any glimpses of village or tribal life, or read the stories we hear from our grandmothers in the textbooks that the state publishes and distributes free of cost.  There is no reference to ancient tribal knowledge of plant and animal life, medicinal plants, tribal ways of arithmetic, tribal languages or tribal history in these textbooks.   Yes, sometimes we do see a few pages illustrated with tribal art forms.  It seems as if mainstream society does not acknowledge our existence.
Interestingly, till a few years ago we had a robust tribal educational system called the Ghotul.  It catered to our every need.  But our elders have abandoned it over the last few years (for it was labeled as backward by the mainstream) and have unknowingly thrown us at the mercy of the so called modern educational system that most of us have difficulty in connecting with.

More than 95 percent of us at Imlee Mahuaa School hail from families of forest gatherers and subsistence farmers.  About 10 percent of us come from homes that manage to provide us just one square meal every day.  These few routinely eat unbalanced meals at home and then suffer from malnutrition and related conditions.

Many of us come from homes that still do not have electric supply from the grid (our school got its electric supply from the grid on February 16, 2015 almost eight years after it was established) or access to clean drinking water.  Our villages do not have fully functional health centers and we are all at the mercy of semi qualified medical service providers.  It is not uncommon in our climes to see children and adults succumb to diseases such as malaria and diarrhea.  The incidence of mental illness and suicide is also high in our society, though neither is stigmatized as they are in urban society.

Just about three percent of the adults in our society can read or write. Many of our elders who went to school can barely write their names.  We see our elders being routinely cheated by the literate and wealthy classes in buses, markets, government offices and the streets.  Violent conflict between the state and the Maoists is just 30 kms away in nearby Narayanpur.  We continue to mutely witness our forest wealth depleting rapidly as the state and unscrupulous elements exploit it with impunity.  If left to us, we would have used this wealth with care and sensitivity.

We are used to being referred to as backward, poor and uneducated by people from the so called mainstream.  But when we see our elders and relatives having liberal, tolerant, accepting and respectful world views and approaches to life, we question these stereotypes in our minds and question this way of the world.

Our social and economic backgrounds perhaps put us and our friends amongst the most vulnerable children in society at large.  Moderate financial demands on our families towards our educational expenses could adversely impact our continued participation in the formal education system and could force many of us to work at home or away from home.

In this context, real and relevant education (not just literacy) seems the only hope for us to be able to make any concrete attempts to come out of the vicious circle of poverty, exploitation and violence in which we seem to be stuck at present.  Real education can perhaps help us to engage with life and its complexity intelligently, sensitively and wisely.”

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