THERE ARE giant ants in pink and green, there’s a boy holding red balloons, there’s a bright green parrot perched on a fading brown branch. And then, there’s M M Rajan. All of them, together, are making a gaggle of noisy children at a remote school in Wayanad want to come back to the classroom, every day.
Over 150 km from Attappadi in Palakkad, where a tribal was lynched last month by a mob who accused him of stealing food, Rajan is a vital cog in a new government scheme that’s fighting dismal school dropout rates and unemployment among Scheduled Tribes.
Launched nine months ago, it has placed at least one “gothra bandhu”, or a tribal mentor, in each of the 241 government and aided schools in Wayanad district, where Scheduled Tribes form 18.5 per cent of the population of 8,17,420, the highest in Kerala.
These mentors, chosen from within the district, help bridge the language barrier between students and teachers in Class I, and make sure children reach school using free transportation provided by the government. “Our people speak the gothra language ‘nanku math’ (our language), which outsiders can’t understand. A tribal student who joins Class I struggles to understand what a teacher from another community is saying. Also, a teacher from another district finds it difficult to understand what a tribal student is saying. As a mentor, that’s where I help,” says Rajan, a member of the Kattunaikka tribe and mentor for the 20 ST children out of 27 students in Class I at the Vadakkanadu school in Kalpetta.
“A tribal youth as a mentor in the classroom also helps in removing the feeling of alienation among the students. When they feel that a senior from their colony is with them, it makes a lot of difference,’’ says the 29-year-old who obtained a teachers training certificate in 2011 after clearing Class 12.
For those like Rajan, the scheme is changing lives in more ways than one. The mentors are paid Rs 750 a day, which works out to Rs 15,000-Rs 17,000 a month, depending on the number of working days. “With Rs 15,000 a month, I can ensure the education of my younger brother, who is pursuing a diploma course in manufacturing. I could also repair our dilapidated house and help my parents, both farm workers,’’ says Divya B, 21, who belongs to the Paniya tribe and is a mentor at the government primary school in Munderi.
“I had been working at a school in Alappuzha, over 300 km away, for Rs 5,000 a month. Now, this new job has helped me return to where I belong and improve my confidence levels,” says T S Yemuna, a 23-year-old from the Kuruma tribe posted at the primary school in Meppadi. The scheme was launched at the beginning of the academic year last June by the Tribal Development Department in association with the State Education Department and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA). This was after the education department had invited applications from tribal communities, and the SSA organised a three-day training camp for those selected.
“We received 500 applications from tribals, all of them professionally qualified. We were shocked to see such a huge number of qualified unemployed youths among tribals,’’ says G N Baburaj, district project officer, SSA. Says C K Saseendran, CPM MLA from Kalpetta, who was among those who pushed for this scheme: “The high dropout among tribal children and unemployment among qualified tribal youths have been a major concern here. A qualified tribal youth once told me that despite attending five interviews, he didn’t get a teacher’s job. The reservation for STs in state government jobs is 2 per cent. Since STs form only 1.5 per cent of Kerala’s population, this quota looks reasonable. But it’s not so in Wayanad. Here, several tribal youths who have completed teachers training programmes are sitting idle.”
At Rajan’s school, M J Thresia, the class teacher, says the scheme is changing mindsets in the tribal community. “Rajan’s presence has encouraged parents to send their children to school regularly. During the harvest season of coffee and pepper, parents have a tendency to take the children away to work in the fields. This scheme has helped us stall that trend. Students are also able to pick up easily in class with the mentor guiding them,’’ she says.