In the inner courtyard of a school in Nabarangpur municipality, a quiz is on. Who is the collector of the district? Who does Ma Durga slay in her battle? Who knows the spelling of ‘quiz’? Hands go up in a flurry, children speak nervously into a mike. One hand, especially, goes up a lot. Priyanka Benia, a restless 13-year-old, is determined to impress. She had goofed up the first one she rushed to answer: What is the full name of the Odisha governor? S C Jamir, she had blurted out and then blushed when she could go no further.
But this one should be easy. “Name three of our neighbouring districts.” “Malkangiri, Rayagada, Koraput,” reels off the resident of Nabarangpur district, Odisha. Bingo. Every correct answer earns you a ballpoint pen. By the end of the quiz, Priyanka has five clutched in her fist.
Nabarangpur is India’s poorest district, and the focus of a year-long assignment by The Indian Express to track poverty and transformation.
Among the many indicators of its deprivation is education — its 48.2 per cent literacy rate is significantly lower than the national average of 74.04 per cent. And its performance is especially shoddy when it comes to women’s education: at 37.22 per cent, it has one of the lowest female literacy figures (the national average is 65.46 per cent). It is difficult to keep girls in school once they are of a certain age, says Rajalakshmi Panda, the education coordinator of the district’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). “Poverty is the main reason. It isn’t as if there is a marked gender divide. In certain seasons, families need all hands on the fields, so children are pulled out of schools to work at home. Adolescence is the crucial phase — they fall in love, run away and get married,” she says.
A couple of years ago, Priyanka Benia was just such a statistic, swelling the ranks of girls opting out of school. She spent a year at her home in a village in Kholliguda, helping her mother with chores. She had studied up to Class V — and that would be it. “My parents never went to school. My father goes from village to village selling clothes, my mother looks after the house,” she says.
Then a teacher in a neighbouring village told them of the hostel 18 km away in town, where girls like her would live, be fed regular meals, clothed and sent to school till they cleared Class VIII. All free of cost.
And so Priyanka arrived in Nabarangpur town, a two-hour bike ride away, and took up quarters at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Hostel (KGBV) for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC girls above the age of 10. Here, she shares a bed with another girl, in a room packed from end to end with beds: 12 for 24 girls, six on each side. She walks down the narrow aisle, showing us around with pride, talking ceaselessly, followed by an excited chorus of curious girls. It is an impersonal room but scrupulously neat, with a tree peering in from a window. Outside, in a tiny lobby, is a television set, where the girls watch Dance India Dance once a week and the day’s news every day. “News channels say that women are unsafe in Delhi. Is it true?” she asks.
Her day begins early with a prayer and a bath, followed by remedial classes meant to bring children up to speed on their lessons. Initially, she struggled to follow the maths, English and Oriya being taught in class — but the “tuitions” morning and evening have given her confidence. “Some children need to be taught from scratch: beginning with the alphabet and simple sums. It’s difficult but they also learn fast,” says Aruna Panigrahi, a part-time remedial teacher who teaches Class VI students at the hostel.
There is one KGBV hostel for each of the 10 blocks in the district, and the eleventh is in Nabarangpur municipality. “Every March, KGBV project workers visit villages to convince parents to send their children to our hostels,” says Kamini Sahu, headmistress of KGBV, Nabarangpur. One of the biggest draws is the five-meals-a-day promised to girls — eggs thrice a week and chicken, fish, mutton once a week — with the money allocated for each child Rs 1,500 a month.
In a district faltering to educate its girls, where both lack of access and awareness makes schooling a low priority, this network of hostels/residential schools for both girls and boys is a potential multiplier: it not only gets children to school, but also ensures that they turn up in class and stick to the end of term. “There are about 85 such residential schools in the district, run by both the Centre and the state government, housing 25,000 boarders, with the girls outnumbering the boys. About 92 per cent of the students of the hostels passed the last matriculation exam,” says Rashmita Panda, the district collector. Most of the time, these first-generation learners grab a second chance at an education. It offers them a glimpse of alternative futures. “When they come to the hostels, they see more. Their vision gets bigger. They want to achieve more, for their parents and themselves,” says Panda.
Three roads fork off the highway and lead to the Rajamatu village in Papadahandi block of Nabarangpur district.
None is good enough to withstand the rains, or allow a bus to reach the village. On a Saturday afternoon, children huddle in one of the few homes with television, watching Riteish Deshmukh in Apna Sapna Money Money. A sense of languor hangs over the village; three women sit and chat idly; another runs after a clutch of clucking chicks.
Like many tribal women who work in the fields, Mangori Jani wraps her yellow sari like a knee-length toga — her arms and legs free of their encumbrances. She is bemused when asked her age. How would she know? In her fifties, says her son.
This little village has been her world, she was born, grew up and married here. She gave birth to her four children here — at home, without the care of health centres or hospitals. No, she has never been to school, there was none when she was growing up.
“Pehle hota tha aise, ab nahin (This was the norm earlier, not now),” says her daughter Kumudini, reluctantly emerging from the house. “All girls go to school now, at least till they clear Class X.” She is dressed in a salwar-kameez and dupatta.
Her attire is not the only thing that marks her off from an earlier generation.
The 20-year-old is a second-year undergraduate student of arts at Nabarangpur’s
B B College, about 40 km away. To go to college, she first cycles to a nearby village, and from there, catches a bus to town.
She studied till Class V in her village primary school, but it was the three years she spent in a residential school in Dholaiguda, a village near Nabarangpur municipality, which propelled her ambition. Like Priyanka, she was 10 when she left home. “I wasn’t scared of living alone. In class, I realised I was behind others in studies, but I worked hard to catch up,” she says.
There were some teachers who would look down on tribal students and pull them up for their “village ways” if they didn’t do their homework, but they were few. “There were many in the hostel who took care of me, they encouraged me,” she says.
One of her teachers offered her a chance to study in Bhubaneswar, but that wasn’t to be. “My parents just won’t let me go that far,” she says in resignation, if not resentment. But she is determined not to get married early, and to sit for the Odisha Teachers’ Eligibility Test. “Paisa kamana hai, baahar jana hai (I have to earn money, travel),” she says as her mother nods sceptically.
Supriya Mudli sleeps in peace, wrapped tightly around her mother, a piece of cloth holding her in place. She was born on a morning six months ago at their home in Dhongiagoba village, Khursi panchayat, Umerkote block — the youngest of three girls. Her mother Boidi, in her 30s, says she never considered checking into a hospital for delivery even if the government would pay for it — it was “too far”, 18 km away.
This is a village that conforms to the moniker of District Zero — it has no electricity, no primary school, no anganwadi, and no ASHA worker who visits regularly. A small group of children, between the ages of three and five, idly walks in and out of huts. A few months ago, the villagers say, a 12-year-old girl was married into another village.
The long arm of the sarkar hasn’t reached here much. Boidi has never seen a doctor in her three pregnancies, and except for a dose of pulse polio, Supriya has not been immunised. Here, poverty combines with tradition to tie women down to cycles of childbearing and house work.
If you are a woman in Nabarangpur, the odds are that you are a farmer and that you are poor — given that 90 per cent of the district’s population is employed in agriculture. In a village, especially, a woman’s work is never over: from cooking, cleaning and tending to children, to working the fields at the time of seeding and harvest. Late afternoon, a trail of tribal women emerges from forests, carrying firewood, herbs and tubers that supplement their diet. They are mostly barefoot, like 16-year-old Lakshmi from Sirisi village, Papadahandi, who is in tears when we meet her in a grove — there’s a thorn stuck in her feet. Quick, with an expert hand, her sister Gomati comes to her aid. The sisters are out every evening foraging for firewood that their mother needs to cook dinner.
Unlike in many parts of north India, women are not a hidden presence in this largely tribal district. They are not inhibited by veils or the purdah. They power the weekly haats that are an important feature of the rural economy, selling vegetables and fruits sown on their fields.
The district has a healthy sex ratio of 1,019, and a child sex ratio of 998 (Census 2011). Nevertheless, doctors at the Christian Hospital, Nabarangpur, say that there is a strong son preference in the district, driving women to more and more pregnancies. “Almost 90 per cent of the women who come to us are anaemic, which leads to post-delivery complications and high maternal mortality rates (MMR),” says Dr Solomon, a 23-year-old on deputation from CMC Vellore. According to the Annual Health Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in collaboration with the Registrar General of India, the district had an MMR of 297 in 2011-2012.
The afternoon sun dispels the smudgy darkness in the classroom, which till a while ago had been packed with 85 students. A group of Class X students of Government Girls’ High School, nearly all in pigtails, sits in a circle on desks. For them, the absences in District Zero are clear: they wish for a “good” cinema in town so that they do not have to trudge to nearby Jeypore; as well as a mall. A loud cry — “Yes”— goes up in response to whether girls and boys are treated equally at home. No one tells them off when it comes to their clothes — “of course, we wear jeans”— and they are out of their homes till about 8.30 pm or 9 pm, when their tuitions get over.
There is the usual list of goals they have set for themselves: school teacher, nurse, government service. “I want to be a police constable when I grow up,” says Snehlata Pathak, who belongs to a family from Allahabad, and is one of the most confident in the group of girls. Telugu speaker K Saroja says she wants to study medicine but is more realistic about the opportunities available to her. “My brother did his college in Berhampur, and then went to Bengaluru for a job. But he is a boy. I don’t think my parents will allow me to go so far for a job. At the most, Jeypore or Koraput,” she says.
The quieter ones are those who come from nearby villages — or those who live in the residential schools. Jeosini Sogoria, a 15-year-old, cycles to school from Dedespali village 5 km away. “We want good roads,” she says.
As anywhere else, education too here is a matter of class and caste. At this school in Nabarangpur, there is not a single teacher from the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Teachers speak of the girls and their lack of aptitude with resigned paternalism. Or worse. What accounts for such low education levels for women in the district? Manjula Patnaik, 54, who teaches literature in the school, explains it thus: “There are not enough general candidates.”
Still, here is Manasi Jyoti Bhotra, 14, from Namjodi village, who lives in a residential school run by the tribal welfare department. She speaks slowly and only when prodded. Village girls drop out because there is work to be done or they get married, she says.
Why have your parents sent you here to study? “Because they haven’t studied themselves,” she says.