My Vanyatra – To The World Of The Tribal Belt
(In Gujarat-India)

From Mumbai, one early morning, on 15th January 2015, I left by car to cover a stretch of 1600 kms to visit various EKAL schools – operating in the tribal areas of Gujarat.

At this time of the year, the weather is favourable to take up such expeditions; it is not raining, neither are the temperatures soaring. The days are just perfect, and the evenings can be mildly cold.

This time, I wanted to cover a new state – which meant that my Vanyatra would take two full days with an overnight halt in Surat. Well, no sooner had I left the hustle-bustle of my city life, I was in conversation with the driver, and Kashinath sent by F.T.S. (Friends of Tribal Society) – Mumbai. The driver, Shivaji Megraj Rajeghatghe is a full-fledged Naval Officer in Mumbai who has a mark of the highest possible kindness towards EKAL. He has taken me on my earlier trips also. In my own interest, I had requested Ms. Anjani Munshi, a qualified historian friend to accompany me on my journey – she was ready without any persuasion! My travelling companions certainly fortified my trip.

Shivaji Megraj Rajeghatghe was no doddering driver. He is a seasoned man who knows Maharashtra and its neighbouring states like the back of his hand. So we never had to stop and ask, as we covered the initial lengthy route of 130 kms from Mumbai to Vapi to Navsari and then onwards. We briefly halted for breakfast at a roadside inn, and then we were bound for Bardoli. At Bardoli, Ramesh Bhai was waiting for us.

To return to our itinerary, as soon as we reached Bardoli in Gujarat, we had Ramesh Bhai informing us about where we were about to go. As a karyakarta of EKAL, his services were required to take us into the Adivasi belt to see the EKAL schools in action.

The roads were not bad, some portions were uneven, or a turning was doubtful. Therefore, without a person like Ramesh Bahi, we would quite easily lose the time and our way.

The six Adivasi villages I visited were at a distance of 20 or 30 kms. All the locations I visited contained hamlets which nestled one besides the other. The population of the hamlets varied; some possessed 600 inhabitants, others around 1000 to 2000. The teachers had the jan sankya – population figures, on their lips!

Naturally, I was keen to know what impact the EKAL schools are having by the way of any advantages. The greatest reward of my journey was to see relatively 'decent' conditions in this backward region. I was making a comparison with Maharashtra.

Here, people looked in better health – I think. I kept asking the same things: Are the EKAL schools running well? Are the EKAL teachers receiving their monthly stipend, regularly? Are the kids attending the EKAL schools every day? How good are the government schools? How is the mid-day meal supplied at the government schools? Well, though nothing is durable – the answers I got for the present raised my hopes for my beloved India.

Actually, 15th January was Sankranti Day – the day when kite flying is the supreme sport. However, in these tribal area, there was no sign of kites, or, kite-tournaments. There was no holiday, government schools were either having sports day, or batches of kids were away to Rajasthan on school outings. So, I could see that there was enough happening in the lives of the tribal kids.

On the first day, we drove to Dadakvan, Panchol, Patti, Kapadvan and Songarh. I saw green fields cultivating crops. Depending upon the season, cotton, groundnuts, sugarcane, wheat, jowar, vegetables are grown. It was interesting to learn how the tribals are meeting the expenses of their families through cultivation – how they are seriously engaged in farming. They grow seasonal vegetables and take it by carts or tempos to a market which would be about 20 kms from their cultivated land.

Many families are owning cycles, motor cycles, carts and even a tractor or two in these areas. Wow!

The day flew away in no time. For today, Kapadvan was our ultimate halt – the third EKAL school had been inspected here. Now we were to drive to Songarh which was 30 kms from Kapadvan.

The sun had already set, the evening was absorbing the darkness of night. Today was a day, the Gram Smiti Baitak had been in session in Songarh, updating on EKAL related activities in the area; the members are abreast with village matters; they sit together to hear from the karyakartas, as to what are the challenges faced by them – why a child is not coming to the EKAL school, is it due to sickness, or for any other family problems. The Gram Smiti Baitak is a body which is in touch with the village sarpanch (leader), also.

The members asked for my observations which I expressed. I was told by them that NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) from Gujarat are supporting EKAL's efforts.

On my second day, while in Ambia, I had the moving and inspiring declaration to make. This place was outstanding! The kids were brimming with energy, they wore crisp uniforms, they looked well-groomed. The place was clean, the clay walls of their homes were glistening in the sun – not a crack in any of them.

It was in Ambia, in particular, I shared with the village elders my observations, and wanted to know how Ambia was in such a good shape. They chorused, "Shiksha! Education!". I had a dialogue with them to get their views on education. It was a small group of men and women who spoke about their thoughts in the most genuine way. They spoke collectively about the importance of education for their girls and boys. They were happy to embrace the modern views of how education is the lifeline for their progress. They wanted even more and more interaction with the EKAL karyakartas – good sign! I said to myself.

I recommended to all the teachers and village-elders to make it a part of their daily habit to converse in Hindi; I suggested, the teachers ought to speak to their respective communities in English, too.

I also pointed to all the school teachers to ask for better quality black-boards, these black-boards were new-looking but their surfaces were not absorbing well the writing of the chalk. The first-aid boxes were without adequate first-aid kit or, there might have been a risk of expired stuff in them. I brought this to the notice of the karyakartas and the villagers.

By late afternoon, we returned to Bardoli and dropped Ramesh Bhai at the same spot from where he had received us. With his long association with EKAL, the man had provided me with answers to my queries. I knew, though I was in remote regions, yet, I was closest where India's heart dwells. There was a kind of stillness within me.

Somehow, my Vanyatra was offering me a fresher dimension of hope. However, it did not prevent me from realizing that the inhabitants of these regions have the undisputed authority of poverty oppressing them in their day to day life. They have no money to cover any major illness that may occur in their families. They have no social security of any kind. Old age, or, the natural disasters of heavy monsoons, floods or earthquake can erase every hope they might have nurtured. On top of all this – jobs are difficult in coming to them.

What is the remedy to cure the plight of the tribals? Education.

As per Population Census of India (2011), the Literacy Rate of India has shown an improvement of 9 percent in the last 10 years. However… India has by far the largest population of illiterate population at 287 million, amounting to 37% of the global total – according to a report by United Nations – highlighting the vast disparities existing in education level of the country's rich and poor.

How much will the lifestyle of the tribal communities change for the better, it depends how much we want to do for them in terms of their drawbacks. While valuing what the government has achieved in Gujarat, while appreciating the good work being done by EKAL, I strongly feel, the overall mindset of our society has to be changed... our society must derive more fulfillment by helping the weaker strata. Even a tiny fraction of our time, a bit of financial aid, some of our emotions invested for the welfare of tribals can uplift the whole of India.

If we consider the philosophy of dharma – (righteousness), then, the duty of protecting the weak should be a way of life. Why wait?

Geeta Chhabra

The diarist thanks FTS-Mumbai for their assistance.
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