“The online method of teaching is still a challenge in the villages,” says Asha Purty, a government teacher at the SPG Primary School in Bichagutu, a village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, “but with support from CInI we have been able to reach out to children in the villages.”
The ‘CInI’ that Ms Purty is referring to is the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts. Among other initiatives, CInI is partnering with educators and communities in Jharkhand and in other states to prevent COVID-19 from derailing the collective future of millions of rural and tribal school-going students.
In the last two years, the pandemic has exposed the digital divide between rural students and their counterparts in cities. For the tribal children living in Jharkhand’s remote villages, the situation was especially dire as they had limited or no access to technology.
It was time for educators and administrators to think creatively and holistically to find a relevant solution that would meet the educational requirements of these children – with or without technology; using low-tech means; or with local resources. This was when CInI stepped in.
CInI was set up with the mandate of making a sustainable difference in the quality of life of tribal and rural communities in the Central Indian tribal belt. For over a decade and half, CInI has worked towards this goal by building knowledge and scaling programmes in agriculture and allied livelihoods, forest-based livelihoods, water, sanitation, resource development, education, and digital literacy.
The organisation, which operates in Jharkhand, Odisha, Gujarat and Maharashtra, has a two-fold directive: a) Be the pioneer in developing high-quality field programmes that improve the lives of tribal communities at scale; and b) Build stakeholder partnerships to empower communities and create solutions that achieve deep, large-scale impact.
Furthering its mandate, CInI took a multi-pronged approach through initiatives to mitigate gaps in the educational requirements of children and to support teachers. CInI also roped in the community. Along with parents and School Management Committee (SMC) members, the CInI team found diverse ways to enable children to keep learning through the pandemic’s disruption.
Community partnerships play an important role in any CInI initiative. When communities take ownership of their problems and actively become a part of the solution, the benefits are manifold. To keep learning going, the team invited volunteers from the community. Despite the absence of any remuneration or benefits (besides guidance and a certificate of participation), the volunteer response was overwhelming – more than 700 applications poured in. The response was a clear indicator that communities can play a very important role in the education of children.
The CInI team also mobilised and trained SMC members. With the latter’s help, chosen volunteers were trained to help children study in small community groups where COVID-19 safety protocols were diligently followed. Mukti Tuti, a volunteer from Khunti district says, “I want to become a teacher. While helping children with their academics, I learnt new ways of teaching. This will be helpful to me in the future.”
With a little motivation and support, Bal Sansad (Children’s Parliament) members also reached out to other children in their vicinity and supported them in their education. The older children ensured the active participation of the younger ones in educational activities. As a result, they have learnt leadership and collaboration skills and gained in confidence. The SMC members also actively worked to disseminate digital content and personally helped children engage with the content.
Rising to the challenge
Conducting online classes was a trial. Initially, when the team organised classes, only a couple of children attended the sessions. Fixing a time for the online sessions was also a challenge because the children were engaged in farm activities. Then there was the challenge of smartphones not always being available during daily class hours. Streamlining processes and mitigating these challenges took time.
“There are very few digital devices available. But with support from CInI, I have been able to send digital content to the children in my school and have also been able to show the content to them. Their interest has also increased,” says Lepo Munda, a government teacher at the Upgraded Middle School, Gadamada village, Khunti district.
Slowly, the number of children attending the sessions increased because they found the inputs beneficial. The CInI team motivated children to encourage their friends in the neighbourhood to attend the classes. The children were also sent practice sets via Google forms.
The CInI team also introduced ‘Jhola Libraries’ and ‘Mini Libraries’, through which library books were made available to children at their doorstep. More than 500 Jhola Libraries and Mini Libraries were started. The books were displayed at a common place in the village from where children were issued books to read.
Through these initiatives the team was able to reach more than 50,000 children, 2,000 teachers and 2,500 SMC members. Ms Purty was very appreciative of CInI’s efforts. “The stories being shared by CInI are very good,” she says. Vishwamitra Ram, an assistant teacher at the Government Primary School in Jamuadag village, Khunti, concurs. “I welcome the efforts of CInI to bring teachers together to support children in their education during these times.”
The way forward
CInI’s experience makes it clear that a holistic mix of educational approaches must be deployed to reach tribal children in rural areas. It is the only way to ensure that no child is left behind.
It is also clear that tribal children, too, have choices to continue their learning through alternative means. What is necessary, however, is wholehearted participation from every single stakeholder. Whether it is the state, teachers, parents or the community, everyone plays a crucial role in furthering the cause of education.
While there are more challenges to overcome, the spirit with which the community gathered to help their own has been heartening. Many volunteers also came up with ideas and innovations for educating tribal children, which are worth sharing and replicating. The engagement of the community in this scenario has also led to wider outreach and helped create a learning environment in the community.
When adversity strikes, it is everyone’s responsibility to grab every opportunity to keep children in school. And that is just what the communities in Jharkhand have done.