Insights from Social Contexts

The Education of Scheduled Tribes in a Conflict Zone

The schooling of tribal children in conflict zones is riddled with severe challenges. We study the work of a relatively small and new NGO, Shiksharth, which is trying to support the public education system. In light of this, we present the situation, the challenges and some possible solutions.

Practice Insights Insights from Social Contexts

The Education of Scheduled Tribes in a Conflict Zone: Lessons from Sukma, Chhattisgarh

By: V Santhakumar and Anant Gangola 


1. Introduction

It is obvious that schooling is likely to encounter severe challenges in conflict zones. These challenges are aggravated in the case of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) in India who are already encountering other challenges in education. Their situation becomes worse when these communities are caught between two warring factions – the state and the extremists claiming to represent the interests of these tribal communities. It is difficult for a non-government organization to exist or function under such circumstances because both the state and the Maoists may be adversarial to the functioning of independent organizations. Also, since mobility in these regions is restricted, it limits their interactions with communities residing in the interior areas.

The details of these challenges emerge out of this report, which looks at the situation of the schooling of the STs in the Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. We have initiated this field study by looking at the work of a relatively small and new NGO, Shiksharth. This report is based on a short-period field-work in the region in September 2018.

2. History and nature of the conflict in this area

The districts in Southern Chhattisgarh along with the adjacent ones in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have been witnessing actions by the leftist extremist organizations or the Maoists, for almost five decades. These organizations came into being to highlight the landlessness, poverty and exploitation of the marginalized groups (including the tribal communities), but the proponents of these organizations do not have faith in democracy or the democratically elected state to address these issues, partly due to the ideology that they have inherited. Though the intention is to mobilize the marginalized social groups, how far the leadership of this movement is from these social groups is suspect. The underground actions; the long period of armed and violent conflict with state agencies; the need to mobilize resources through illegal actions; the lack of an ideological commitment to democratic mobilization are factors that have made this into an underground extremist activism. There are periodic encounters between the security forces and Maoists leading to casualties on both sides. This has also encouraged the state to strictly restrict the movement of people around the region and view the interventions by external agencies that are not sanctioned by it with suspicion. There is abundant literature available on the dynamics of this conflict, 1 and we will skip that here.

In 2005, a counter-militia outfit, known as, Salwa Judum, was mobilized by the state to counter the influence of left-extremists among the tribal communities in the southern districts of Chhattisgarh. It was led by a few leaders from these communities but was supported financially by the state (and possibly by other non-state actors). It was later declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India2. One strategy used by this group was to put tribal people into camps (through compulsion and coercion) which are closer to or fortified by the armed police camps so that these people could be isolated from the influence of the Maoists. This led to a castigation of those who were not willing to move to such camps as Maoists or their sympathizers, and to a situation where they became easy targets of punitive action by the police. This affected the mobility of tribal communities and they could not carry out their normal livelihood activities. It also discouraged any kind of democratic social mobilization among them since that could be easily categorized as extremism by the state agencies. Salwa Judum is now disbanded but Maoists are still active in the interior parts of the district (though not in the towns and district headquarters). These militia activities and the associated state action have had a negative impact on the education of the children in the region and we discuss some of these issues in the following sections.

3. The dominance of residential schools

Due to the conflict situation, day-schools located in the vicinity of community settlements are uncommon. This is partly due to the closing down of day-schools in villages during the period of the anti-insurgency operations of the Salwa Judum. The Maoist presence also deters the functioning of day-schools since the teachers from outside cannot travel to or stay in villages in the interior regions and there are not enough people among these tribal communities with appropriate educational qualifications to be appointed as teachers. This has led to the setting up of residential schools or ‘ashram shalas’ established by the government’s Tribal Welfare Department, or hostels run by various agencies in which the children who stay go to different schools. There are also private residential schools run by Christian missionaries and other agencies. However, one type of school is unique here, called, `pota cabins’ locally, these are portable schools (built with portable materials) set up adjacent to police camps as a safety measure. These cabins now have permanent concrete structures.

Some parents find residential schools relatively safe. A teacher who had, in the past, as an Assistant Project Coordinator of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) helped in setting up residential schools narrated an interesting incident. They were planning to set up a residential school in a locality for one hundred children. When this came to be known, parents dropped nearly four hundred children there and went back immediately without waiting for any confirmation of acceptance of these children by the authorities. (Some of these children could be from areas where Maoists had a strong presence then or whose parents were part of the insurgent group). The administration was forced to make temporary arrangements for the boarding and lodging of all these children.

Government administration sees residential schools as a way to wean away children from the possible influence of the Maoists. They may presume that the facilities available in such schools; the exposure to television; and, the probability of getting a government job after education would discourage tribal youth from joining the Maoists forces. The conflict and the response of the state to minimize its impact have given a substantial amount of financial resources and power in the hands of district collectors (and police officers). Some of these officers are sincere and interested in the welfare of the tribal population and they use these resources and the power in their hands to bring about desirable changes. But there are officers who are corrupt and/or inefficient. Also, when there is a change of guard, it is not uncommon for a new collector to discontinue the good work being done by his/her predecessor and the power and resources they have, give them the opportunity to test their fancy ideas, for example, that computer-training or such skills would enable students from the tribal community to become software engineers. Children coming from such disturbed circumstances, need a very different socio-emotional net to carry them through the schooling. However, one can see a lack of commitment to a coherent idea of education behind these efforts leading to lack of attention on content and pedagogy. The absence of requisite skills among officers and others may make the schooling less educational in these contexts.

All the issues related to the choice of residential schools as the main mode of education of the STs prevail in this case too3. Even if we discount issues related to the (lack of) context-connectedness of the education of these tribal communities or the difficulties faced by young kids in residential schools, it is important to note that their parents have limited interaction in these schools. However, the conflict creates a situation where residential schools may be the only option in these localities. There is no shortage of demand for such schools from the parents, and most of these schools have to accommodate more children than their capacity. This has an impact on the quality of facilities too. However, since these children are from very difficult economic backgrounds, they may not see these facilities as inadequate.

4. Conflict prompts investments in visible infrastructure

There is a perception among development administrators of the country that development is the way to minimize the influence of Maoists in the region. For this reason, governments are willing to spend resources on infrastructure development and education. In addition, there are other sources of funding such as the District Mining Fund (a royalty provided by private and public companies which are involved in the extraction of mineral resources within the district). As noted earlier, the district administration (especially collectors) have the power of deciding the utilization of these resources.

Given the availability of these resources, and also the persistence of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations in the interior parts, there would be a greater spending on certain centralized facilities in the district headquarters. In Sukma town there is an ‘Education City’4 with many different kinds of schools and training institutes. There is also a very good facility for the education and rehabilitation of children with disabilities there. Though it is useful, it also has some limitations. For example, such a public investment for the education of children with disabilities benefits only a certain set of these children since others may not be identified or may not be in a position to come and stay in this type of facility. Those who come to this would have to leave their home and parents, same as in the case of children in the residential schools. On the other hand, a decentralized improvement in education and care of children with disabilities would be impossible due to the persistence of conflict.

In brief, the power and resources in the hands of the district administration may create some flexibility in development actions. However, it may also work against sustained improvements in any one domain. The tendency of the officers who are newly appointed to the district to start fresh projects and discontinue those started by their predecessors has been mentioned. There is no institutional memory of what has been done by officers who have served there in the past, their successes and failures. This leads to the wastage of resources. The power structures are such that the field-level departments of education do not have the power or inclination to do more than simply follow the instructions of the district level administration.

5. Conflict and development interventions by NGOs

The persistence of insurgency and counter-insurgency discourage a number of funding organizations from financing activities in this region. The CSR of organizations which fund may have a specific interest since their operations in the district may be impacted by the persistence of conflict. There are speculations of some private companies and foundations funding Salwa Judum. Those involved in education like the Azim Premji Foundation may not be able to operate in such regions. The relatively small NGOs which function in these areas may encounter a number of opportunities as well as challenges. The flexibility available with district administration may enable it to engage NGOs for interventions even in the governmental system. We have seen cases where district collectors have used specific NGOs for activities which are carried out usually by government officers. However, it is difficult for any NGO to work without the blessings of the district administration; no autonomous development interventions independent of the government can be carried out caught as the region is between insurgent and counter-insurgent operations. It is very difficult for NGOs working in the domain of education to work with these communities that cannot freely interact with non-state development actors. We take up the case of one such an organization, Shiksharth, in the following section.

6. The work of Shiksharth

This organization has its origin in the will of a software engineer and a Teach-for-India fellow, Ashish, to contribute to the education of tribal children in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. He initially started work with Bachpan Banao as a co-founder and founding director, which is another organization involved in education in the Dantewada district. After a couple of years, he moved out with a few others and started operations from Sukma where they registered a new organization called, Shiksharth, in 2016. The contacts developed when he was working in Dantewada, helped them to establish links with the district administration and government schools in Sukma. The key advantages of the organization, according to us, are that they have a set of committed and sensible young professionals who have made this choice of work willingly; their objective is to support the public education system in whichever way possible; and they have a fairly good understanding of the issues based on their three to four years of work in this region.

The members of this organization initially started working as additional teachers, as well as, action researchers in the `pota cabins’ and other residential schools. They did not have too many resources, either of their own or from the district administration. According to Ashish, working in residential schools helped in reducing their operational and personal expenditure (since food and the basic facility for stay are available in these schools). Ashish collected some funds from his friends and personal networks. They started using innovative practices in science, language and maths education. In addition, they provide assistance to the educational plans of the district administration and have played an active role in the design and implementation of the project to create the Education City. Over time, they have received certain financial commitments from the district administration to recruit more people (to be part of Shiksharth) and to take up specific intervention programs.

Currently, Shiksharth is managing a bridge course program for the children who have dropped out of school. At the end of this six-month program, different (residential) schools admit these students into age-appropriate grades. The role of Shiksharth is limited to the academic activities and the selection of students. The residential arrangements etc, are all taken care of by the concerned government department. Four members of Shiksharth work as fellows (or teachers) of this bridge-course. They are from different cities outside the state and have training in engineering or political science. Shiksharth has also recruited a couple of people locally (from tribal communities) with graduate and post-graduate degrees and the facilities for this bridge course program are apposite.

There are other fellows of the organization who are posted in the ‘pota cabins’ and residential schools. These members either teach or manage the affairs of the school. Though they have the support from the administration, they initially face resistance from the teachers who are intimidated by them since they see these external people as the watchdogs of the administration. However, later the teachers start trusting these outsiders and may also like these members of Shiksharth to involve more in teaching, especially the subjects in which they do not have enough proficiency.

Shiksharth is also involved in developing bilingual content for the education of tribal children and context-specific pedagogy. However, more systematic work needs to be carried out in this domain. There are other organizations working in different tribal areas in India, which are involved in the development of context-specific bilingual education materials. It would serve Shiksharth well to learn from their experience. We are happy to note that the organization is open to this suggestion and has no intention to `reinvent the wheel’ merely for the sake of it or for ideological reasons.

One of the challenges this organization faces is the issue of the relationship with the district administration which depends on the attitude and interest of the district collector. The officer who helped them to establish their base has moved out. The current officer does not like to engage with NGOs and has his own ideas of how to strengthen public education (for example, by conducting an exam for all teachers and compelling those who do not pass to go through a mandatory three-month residential training). Since Shiksharth has also established good linkages with the officers of the education department, their engagement may continue at some level even with the adversarial or indifferent attitude of the district collector. Moreover, they have learnt to be patient and to stay focused on the needs of the children from marginalized social groups. If this means ignoring some hurdles, they do it. They have also decided not to depend on the funds provided by the district administration for their core activities. They explore other sources of funding including that from high-income individuals. Such funding from individuals provides greater autonomy. Another big challenge is not being able to attract employees to work in this region. Though the education of tribal children has some attractions for urban youngsters, they seem to prefer to work in the North-eastern states and not in places like Sukma. The persistence of conflict could be an additional disabling factor in this regard too.

Shiksharth has realized that a complete dependency on district administration does not allow them to do any comprehensive intervention. For example, in some `pota cabins’, they are engaged in just one class. We are not sure how this engagement will work educationally without any control over activities before, after or outside this class. However, by looking at the difficult situation of Sukma, one cannot undermine Shiksharth’s presence and association with the public education there.

7. Impact of conflict on quality of schooling

As noted earlier, the education of children belonging to the STs encounters serious challenges. For example, the difference between their own language and that of schooling. However, the persistence of conflict in Sukma aggravates these difficulties. Though there is an interest in sending children to residential schools, the non-availability of functional day schools impacts the enrolment negatively. There is a higher drop-out rate and since the bridge course for the drop-outs is centralized, the number of children it can cover is uncertain. Our interaction with the people who run the bridge program indicates that the interest of the district administration (which may vary depending on the collector) would determine the number of children enrolling in it.

There are not enough teachers even in residential schools which are not far from the district headquarters. Teachers from other districts may opt for such conflict-ridden areas initially to get the job but may seek transfers as and when there are opportunities. Given the history of formal education among the tribal communities, one may not have enough well-qualified teachers among them. There can be issues of motivation and cultural distance when teachers from other communities work in these schools. Needless to mention that most students are first generation learners, and they do not get much support in their education from parents. The parents hardly interact with the schools and hence, the expected role of the communities in the affairs of schooling through school management committees and other such forums if not non-existent, are very limited.

For all these reasons, the learning levels of children continue to be undesirable. One teacher told us that not even 30% of the children may have the learning achievements appropriate to their respective grades. The efforts to improve the situation that can be carried out by external organizations are also limited due to the issues already mentioned. Based on the experience in Sukma and also the work of Shikharth, we put forward a few observations on the need to mitigate conflict as a way to address some of the challenges in the education of tribal children in these areas.

8. Need for inter-cultural education

There is a notable difference between the language of tribal communities and that of the mainstream society in Sukma and the Bastar region, in general. This is not surprising since the main tribe – Kond – and their language is part of the Dravidian family which is very different from that of Hindi. However, there have not been adequate efforts to provide a language-appropriate and context-specific education to the tribal population there. The focus of the state which is concerned about the influence of extremist forces is to provide education in the mainstream/dominant language to tribal communities. An appropriate education need not be only in the language of the tribal people but can be a bilingual as noted in the case of other tribal groups in the country. It can also be an inter-cultural, in which the tribal population acquires an education that helps them not only to reflect on their culture and traditions but also to deal with (and understand) others, including the mainstream community. Such an inter-cultural education is important for the mainstream community too. The crucial point is that the political and social environment of areas like Sukma is not conducive for planning and implementing an appropriate education for tribal communities.

9. The Need to avoid armed conflict but facilitate political mobilization

It is quite obvious that the real political and financial power lies in the hands of the non-tribal people in this region. Political leaders who have emerged from tribal communities have become local functionaries or operators of the mainstream political parties. They act as dealers of vote banks and filling up the seats reserved for the tribal population in the assembly and the parliament. However, it is not unusual for them to mobilize a substantial amount of resources through corruption. This impacts the quality of public services including the facilities available in residential schools. Local officials cite the need to provide money to these political leaders to justify their corrupt deals. We have heard a number of complaints where basic facilities are not provided in residential schools. Where these are available, they are not good or adequate and this cannot be due to the non-availability of resources. Corruption is rampant and is not is unique to this region or to the leaders from tribal communities.

There are a few genuine tribal leaders who raise the issue of access to natural resources for the tribal communities. However, they have not been very successful in persuading the state government to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in letter and spirit, which is a major stumbling block. We have seen that the community rights under FRA have the potential to improve the livelihood and human development of tribal communities (as evident from parts of the Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra). However, such rights are not adequately recognized in Chhattisgarh.

The curbs on free mobility which limit the possibility for a better livelihood from land and natural resources has affected the welfare of these people. This forces them to either depend on the uncertain means of survival within their village or to migrate to towns and cities in the hope of getting some support from the state, including jobs. Their economic opportunities are shrinking due to extremism and the response of the state towards it.

In our view, a tangible improvement in the education of the tribal population and in their lives requires a normalcy in the law and order situation and a social and political mobilization which is rooted in democratic actions. The absence of a viable and democratic mobilization of the tribal communities is the major casualty of the Maoist influence and counter-insurgency operations there. Organizations like Salwa Judum, even if controlled by tribal leaders, are not democratic and can only aggravate the difficulties of people living here. Any kind of democratic mobilization of the tribal people is almost impossible in the current situation, which has decelerated the organic political and social development of these communities and the region.

In the absence of such a democratic mobilization, development would depend on the charitable actions of state actors including government officials who, however, are more concerned about the containment of insurgency rather than the empowerment of tribal people. Also, any meaningful development of a set of people will not happen if they are passive recipients of the welfare schemes of the state. It requires people to participate collaboratively and in an adversarial manner when there is need for such. This kind of participation is impossible in the current environment. For example, the participation of parents or the community in the affairs of schools where their children study (which is an example of collaboration) is impossible in residential schools where parents have little access. On the other hand, even a hint of criticism (adversarial participation) can be construed as a sign of insurgency and the people involved can become the target of forceful actions by the state.

The situation in Sukma and adjacent regions should encourage social scientists, intellectuals and concerned citizens to develop a balanced view of the impact of Maoist extremism. This should not be accepted as just a law and order problem. In fact, most government officials too currently view the influence of the extremist forces as a reflection of the lack of economic opportunities and human development and their response is to address this by providing more development services in a centralized and top-down manner.

There should be no more attempts to glorify Maoist extremism, which certainly may have given a sense of empowerment to a section of the tribal people or a set of cadres, in the past. Also, certain kinds of exploitation by the outsiders may have declined due to the fear of possible repercussions by the Maoist forces. It does seem now that the tribal communities are as fearful of the Maoists as they are of the state armed forces. This extremist political movement may have already got trapped into a mafia-cum-ideological group, and the people involved may be finding it difficult to leave it. There could be pecuniary gains for some and that may encourage them to value the status quo. Some of them may be fearful of the possible consequences of a violence-free path for their own life (including possible legal actions) and that could be another factor for the continuation of the status quo.

The costs of insurgency can be very high and in numerous ways, including injuries and loss of human life on both sides; the huge amount of money required; and the tendency to increase the presence of the armed forces in the region. However, in our view, the biggest casualty that is created by Maoists in the current context is the hurdles that they impose on the democratic, social and political mobilization of these marginalized people.

Those who are sympathetic to Maoists should strongly persuade them to abandon the path of violence and join the democratic process. Given their hold on the tribal communities, they may be able to make electoral gains if they participate in the democratic process. If such a process of conciliation is possible in Nepal or Colombia, it must be tried in India too. However, this is not to abandon political action among the tribal and other sections of the society. There is an urgent need to mobilize these people and for them to take up non-violent actions for asserting their rights including the implementation of the FRA. There has to be a greater concern and ownership of the process of education among the tribal communities. Whether it is Brazil, Bolivia or Mizoram, it was through political and social mobilization that notable improvements in the education of the tribal or indigenous people have been achieved. Hence, there is a need to facilitate an organic and democratic political development among the tribal people, and that requires the disbanding of Maoist extremism.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University

Anant Gangola, Associate Director, Field Practice and Students Affairs, Azim Premji University


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