Ganesh and Arun Mukane should be in school, in Class 9 and 7 respectively. Instead, they are whiling away their time at home in Koloshi, a hamlet on the outskirts of Mumbai in Thane district. Using whatever scrap is available they make cars and other objects. Or they spend time sitting around while their parents work at a brick kiln.
“They no longer study with books. This younger one [Arun] is busy making toys out of scrap and wood. His entire day goes just in play,” Nira Mukane, their mother said. Arun cuts her short by saying, “How many times do I tell you that I get bored at school?” The exchange between them does not end well and Arun walks away to play with a make-shift car that he has recently fabricated from waste materials he finds in and around his home.
Nira, 26, has studied till Class 7 but her husband Vishnu, 35, left school after Class 2. The Mukanes are firm that their boys should get a formal education so that they will not end up doing the only work their parents can find – fishing in local streams or working in a brick kiln. Many Adivasi families migrate to the Shahapur-Kalyan region to work at brick kilns there.
“I could not study much. But I want my children to be educated well,” said Vishnu who belongs to the Katkari community which is listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), one of three in Maharashtra. The Katkari community in the state has a literacy rate of 41 per cent, says a 2013 report by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
So four years ago when the local government school was going to be shut down because there were not enough students, Vishnu and wife put their boys into the Government Secondary Ashram School in Madh village (referred to locally as the Madh Ashram Shala). This is a state-run day and residential school from Class 1-12 and is located 30 kilometres from Murbad in Thane district. Of the 379 students, 125 were residential students like their sons. “I was happy that they were getting to eat and study at the school. But we missed them,” said Vishnu.
When the covid-induced lockdown was announced and schools shut, most children from Koloshi who were studying at the Madh Ashram Shala returned home to their parents.
Vishnu’s boys also returned home. “Initially, when they came back we were happy they were home,” he adds, even if it meant that he had to search for more work. Vishnu used to catch fish – two to three kilograms – in the small check dam nearby and sell it in Murbad to support his family. With the boys at home now, the income from fish sales was no longer sufficient. So he took up work at a nearby brick kiln to supplement his income. He is paid Rs. 600 for every thousand bricks but that figure eludes him as despite working long hours he can only manage to make roughly 700-750 bricks a day.
Two years later, the school has reopened and the Madh Ashram Shala has started classes, but despite their parents’ pleas, Ganesh and Arun Mukane are unwilling to return to their classrooms. Arun says the two-year gap is too much to overcome and he can’t even remember what he last did in school. Their father is not giving up and even made an effort to get the textbooks the older son, Ganesh needs to join back.
For nine-year-old Krushna Bhagwan Jadhav who was in Class 4 and his friend, Kaluram Chandrakant Pawar, a student of Class 3, the desire to rejoin the Ashram Shala is there: “We like to read and to write,” said Krushna and Kaluram in unison. But since they had spent only a few years in a formal schooling before the two-year gap, they no longer have the skills and will need to start over.These two boys have been travelling with their families to extract sand from the banks of streams and rivers in the area since their school shut down. The pressure on earning for their families was greater as with children home, there were more mouths to feed.
Across the country, the dropout rate among children from Scheduled Tribe communities is 35 per cent after Class 5; it jumps to 55 per cent after Class 8. Koloshi’s population is predominantly tribal and there are around 16 Katkari Adivasis families residing in this hamlet or wadi. Murbad block also has a large population of Ma Thakur Adivasis; children from both these communities studied at the Ashram Shala.
Unlike other schools that thought they had a chance with online classes during lockdowns, in March 2020, the Madh Ashram Shala school with its largely tribal student population, simply shut down.
“It was impossible to implement online schooling because not all the students or their families had smartphones. Those who had a phone would be with the working parents when we called,” says a teacher who did not want to be quoted. Others added that many areas did not have mobile network and they just couldn’t reach the students.
It’s not that they didn’t try. In late 2021 and early 2022, some schools resumed regular classes. But many children like Vishnu’s sons Ganesh and Arun, as well as Krushna and Kaluram, had lost touch with classroom work and academics and were reluctant to return.
“The few children who we persuaded to return to school had forgotten to read,” a teacher told PARI. A special group of such students was formed and their teachers started reading classes for them. They were slowly getting back when the second wave forced another lockdown in Maharashtra in February 2021 and the barely literate were back home once again.
“Should we eat [with my earnings] or get mobile phones for the children? My husband has been sick for over a year and bedridden,” said Lila Jadhav, Krushna’s mother. She adds, “My elder one has gone to the brick kiln in Kalyan.” There is no question of her spending money to buy her young son a mobile to be used exclusively for his schoolwork.
Krushna and Kaluram are eating lunch – a plate of rice with nothing else, no vegetables or accompaniment. Lila slides the lid off a top – the vessel in which rice was cooked, to show the quantity of cooked rice for her and the family.
Lila, like others in Deoghar, extracts sand from the banks of streams for a living. A full truckload fetches Rs. 3,000 and it takes three to four people working over a week to fill a truck. The money is then split between the labourers.
Still eating Kaluram asks no one in particular, “When can we start studying again?” A question that Lila would also like answered as it would mean not just an education but also assured meals for the children.
The Madh Ashram Shala finally reopened in February 2022; some of the children returned but around 15 children in middle and primary school (Class 1-8) did not come back. “We are doing all that we can to get them back in school. But these children are with their families working in Thane, Kalyan and Shahapur. It is very difficult to trace them now,” said a teacher who did not want to be named.