CHENNAI: According to a 2016 report by UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring, India has the highest number of adolescents in the world who drop out of schools at a staggering 47 million. A big chunk of this alarming number comes from rural India, where kids drop out of school even before reaching the age of 13. Lack of infrastructure, abysmal financial and living conditions make education a far-fetched reality for them.
But one organisation has taken a small step to bring a giant change. Ashok Leyland along with their NGO partner Learning Links Foundation decided to develop and implement a holistic education and health improvement programme. The Road to School programme that started in 2015 with 36 schools in Shoolagiri and Thally has expanded to 333 schools impacting around 31,846 students in four years.
On a pleasant Friday morning, we begin our journey from Ashok Leyland’s Management Development Centre at Hosur to Belpatti, Manchukondapalli, and Kesthur villages that come under Krishnagiri District. After an hour-long drive, we reach Denkanikottai, a town panchayat in Krishnagiri district, which is the nearest town to the three villages on the hill. We pass through Jawalagiri, another neighbouring town, to reach the base of the hills, 10-km away, on which the three villages are located.
The ride from the base of the hill to the villages is a bumpy one. The roads are steep and the rocky terrains can be used only by heavy-duty vehicles with sturdy wheels. Twenty-four-year-old S Gauda is the only driver here who ferries people, provisions and medicines in times of emergency. “I take two trips a day. It costs Rs 40 per person. The jeep can accommodate 12. I also pick up medicines and grocery for the villagers from the nearby town. Driving becomes challenging when it rains. The roads get sluggish and there are landslides. Sometimes I have to be the ambulance service too,” says Gauda, who lives in a nearby hamlet.
The three villages are located on no man’s land. The first three-km bumpy stretch from the base, falls under Tamil Nadu border. We then enter Kodihalli, the border post of Karnataka. The road beyond this for another seven km is laid with tar. Locals tells us that in a tiff between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, the villagers are left at stake with no proper roads for connectivity. The struggle for a concrete three-km stretch has been going on for several years.
“Either one of the governments should compromise. If this stretch is laid, then the livelihood of the villagers is sure to become better. The villagers vote in Tamil Nadu elections but speak Kannada. Even they are uncertain as to where they belong. So when a problem is raised, we do not know which government to approach. It’s been a hypothetical situation for many years now,” shares a local who wished to remain anonymous.
Belpatti is the first of the three villages en route. In 2015-2016, Leyland’s CSR team surveyed the school and situational analysis to inspect the home conditions in Hosur. The results indicated a low literacy rate, acute shortage of teachers, lack of proper infrastructure, and the problem of migratory and economically weaker population in many government primary and middle schools. Data analytics of learning levels indicated that over 55 per cent of the students did not have minimum grade level learning competencies, resulting in wide learning gaps across all subjects.
In Krishnagiri district, Thally is one of the backward blocks. The most backward and remote areas in this block are Manchukondapalli and Belpatti. Both the villages got their first government primary schools on October 19, 1977. “But even after the school was started, parents preferred to send their children to work rather than school. Despite the government introducing schemes like free education, mid-day meals, free book, notebooks and uniforms to increase literacy rate, there has been no increase in literacy rate beyond primary education,” says E Venkatesan one of the headmasters. Both the schools were upgraded to middle schools on December 28, 2015.
Besides the problem of low literacy rates, child marriage has also been rampant here.
Around 1,546 students have studied in these schools till date, but none have passed class 10. They need to travel 70 km to get admitted to a high school. Finding jobs to support their families was an almost impossible dream. But 2018-2019 has brought winds of change. In the history of Manchukondapalli and Belpatti, 12 boys and 10 girls were admitted to class 9. Both boys and girls of classes 9 and 10 lived in hostels, unwilling to let their dreams be clipped.
The road to school was not easy for the team to convince parents of these children, who were caged by social norms and beliefs of education. But, the project has now transformed the village. Of the 22 students from both the schools, 17 passed class 10 this year. The highest score in this village was 391/500 by Eresh D. Following this, four students joined Ashok Leyland’s Basic Training Certificate course. This is a milestone — not just for the students but for the villages too.
One step at a time
District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) is for districts established by the state government under section 106 of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015. On September 15, 2017, Suthakar from the DCPU and Rajinikanth, village administrative officer visited Panchayat Union Middle School at Belpatti. They conducted an awareness programme for children on child marriage and child abuse. They also explained the government schemes which help and support students below poverty line.
The CSR team visited every house in the hamlet to find out their annual income by explaining the scheme. Working as a bridge between the officials and the villagers, the team discussed the output with the DCPU and streamlined the process for eligible children to apply for schools at Belpatti and Kesthur.
“To apply under the scheme, they needed to produce an income certificate with an annual income of less than Rs 24,000. None of the parents had the income certificates which forced them to apply for one. They also applied for scholarship with supporting documents like Aadhaar card. Following this, the DCPU surveyed the socio-economic conditions of the families and submitted a detailed report to the DCPU head,” says Suthakar, resource person, Road to School.
After six months of follow-up, nine children were considered eligible for the scheme and granted scholarship in 2018. Each child will receive a sum of Rs 2,000 per month for a minimum of three years. Around 41 children have been selected from Krishnagiri district out of which eight belong to the Road to School Programme.
“Every village has a set of resource people who take care of teaching and other extra-curricular activities. They report to us directly with an analysis sheet every week. This way, we can also monitor the performance of children and ensure all their requirements are fulfilled. People who come for this job also need a high level of patience, people skills and dedication or it’s not possible to produce results. These resource people are like godmen to these villagers,” says the spokesperson of CSR team.
A safer place
The three villages have one school each, where students from neighbouring hamlets study. Every school has a headmaster who addresses the problems directly to the CSR team. There’s a dedicated kitchen where nutritious noon meals are prepared for the children. The breakfast comes from Akshaya Patra. RO water systems are installed to ensure clean drinking water. Bathrooms set up near the school are hygienic. Health camps are organised every year. We’re told that the water here has a very high level of TDS (Total Dissolved Solids), resulting in yellowing of teeth, reduction in bone density, and greying of hair among children.
The school in Belpatti has a one-of-a-kind shop called the honesty shop or ‘Nammakadai’. It sells stationery for schoolchildren. The shop has been running without a shopkeeper for the past three years. Children buy an item, make an entry in the accounts book and drop the money in a box. The initiative aims to inculcate honesty when they are still young. The only source of entertainment for kids living here is school.
Kesthur has a population of 582 males and 262 females as per the 2011 census. It is located in Manchukondapalli panchayat, Denkanikottai taluk, Krishnagiri district. People living here are daily wage labourers. The literacy rate is less than 20 per cent. The highest education is till class 8. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupations. Ragi is their staple food.
Panchayat Union Primary School in this village started in 2015. In the current academic year, 42 children have been admitted. After primary education, students have to attend high school at Manchukondapalli. “Near Kesthur is a village called Basuvannapuram which has 15 tribal families. Twelve students from this village go to Kesthur school. The families have been buying ration rice for money by paying Rs 45 a kg. Through the Road to School project, they’ve been receiving oil lanterns, mats and dresses,” says Joseph Robin, resource person, Road to School.
The absence of ration cards was a long-standing problem. The intervention of CSR managers through constant meetings with the collector brought hope and ration to these families. They finally received their ration cards on December 17, 2018. The joy continued even when this reporter met the villagers, who flashed the cards, indicating that the sun has dawned upon their village.
But, suffering is yet to make an exit. The poor economic condition has forced women to take up sericulture as a part-time occupation. Silkworms, both dead and alive, are purchased from Kanagapuram in Karnataka. There are two varieties — yellow and white. The latter is the expensive one. Both the varieties are grown for 23 days, fed, and after they die, silk is extracted. A kilogram fetches anywhere between Rs 270 to Rs 570 depending on the quality.
The project is only the first step to weed out the basic problems that the villages are riddled with. “We have no electricity, our houses have thatched roofs and there’s leakage when it rains. Many from the village migrated to Karnataka in search of a better living. We still practice open defecation. Our villagers are visible only during elections. We don’t even know if we should hope for a better future,” says Muniamma, a senior villager. The women of the house gather outside their homes for some chit-chat after their chores. This is their only entertainment, apart from daily visits to the local temple of Lord Shani.
Uncertainty and a sense of helplessness can be felt in the air here. The only hope? Their children who will be the first-generation literates. “The main motive is to encourage children and convince parents to send them for higher education. We hope to achieve a better literacy rate by next year. These children are the future,” says spokesperson of the CSR team, Ashok Leyland. The road ahead might be bumpy, but change is inevitable.
The Road to School
programme that started in 2015 with 36 schools in Shoolagiri and Thally has expanded to 333 schools and impacted around 31,846 students in four years.