How education was taken to the children from the Chenchu tribes in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh

Rural Development Trust (RDT) has been working in the Nallamala region for over a decade now and this is why they will continue working for the noble cause of education  
Children and education | (Pic: RDT)
Children and education | (Pic: RDT)

Bringing education to a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group like Chenchu doesn't just mean handing over a few gadgets or starting tuition classes, it means making them realise the importance of education, ensuring that inter-personal education and communication happens between them and their classmates and all this while, ensuring that they remain rooted in their tradition. This was the task ahead for Rural Development Trust (RDT), a non-profit that works for empowerment of rural communities.

At the school | (Pic: RDT)

It was in the year 2010 that the organisation decided to work on the uphill task of helping education permeate to the deepest regions of the forest, where the reclusive Chenchu tribe is known to dwell. Kurnool, Prakasam and Guntur districts in Andhra Pradesh and Nagarkurnool and Nalgonda districts in Telangana — basically the Nallamala region of these two Telugu-speaking states that the tribe is spread across — and it is here that RDT works. Low enrollment in schools, lack of good quality teachers, lack of transport plus other tribes dominating over Chenchu tribes in residential schools, many problems plague the community and once the problems were identified, community-based officers (CBOs) were appointed to tackle them one by one. First came the sensitisation workshops for parents conducted in many villages along with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) — at least one per month. "We would often involve doctors and engineers, basically achievers from the same community, and they would talk about the importance of education at these sessions," says ITDA PO (Project Officer) Mannanur, G Ashok. Parents of 6,976 were given a token amount of Rs 700 to keep them motivated towards educating their children.

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Chenchu and their culture
To keep their cultural identity intact, cultural activities were organised and children were encouraged to perform tribal songs and dances. "We noticed that these children are particularly good at archery, a skill they pick up from their parents at an early stage. So we organise archery competitions (participation has even gone up to 240). In fact, in a school in Mannanur, Telangana, archery is taught as a subject," says Pushpa Latha, the Regional Director of RDT, while talking about retaining their cultural ethos. Also, offering us an insight into the psyche of these children from the Chenchu tribe, the Regional Director says that living in isolation makes them reluctant to mingle, which serves as a bottleneck when children from deep forest areas are put up in residential schools. Yet they are courageous, confident and active in sports and cultural activities as well.

Children at play | (Pic: RDT)

Area Team Leader B Sudhakar expands further and says that one can detect a major lack of motivation when it comes to education, from the side of both parents and teachers. "Children often run away from schools and we need to counsel and get them back," he says and Pushpa Latha helps us understand this by giving the example of Nagaamma, who was studying in a prominent school, where RDT had put her up. She met a boy in Marripalem and ran away into the deep forest and for 20 whole days, wasn't to be seen. Upon coming back, she had to be counselled, encouraged to pursue her education and is now pursuing her intermediate second year. There are other instances when parents take their children into deep forests for foraging and they don't return for 20 days at a stretch and lose out on classes. Another girl from Achampet was facing abuse at the hands of her parents and was shifted to a shelter home where she is attending online classes now. But not every effort bears fruit. For example, a tribal girl from Class X was married off before anyone could even intervene.

Food and other forms of discrimination
There are other problems that these tribal students are riddled with when it comes to mingling with fellow students in school. Sudhakar brings to our notice one such instance. The staple food that the Chenchu tribe carries for their lunch is white rice with chilli powder and at one school, they were belittled by other children who would come with rice, dal accompanied by a vegetable and even pickle to boot. It got to a point where Chenchu children did not want to even step into the school. Both sets of students were counselled and made to understand the realities of life. Such specific and heart-rending issues are solved only through counselling and one-on-one conversations.      

Out of coverage | (Video credit: RDT)

Usually, due to a lack of schools, students have to opt for residential schools from as early as Class III itself. There are also 23 tuition centres set up by RDT to help facilitate education in the areas where schools, even up to Class III, haven't been established. When teachers are missing, they are appointed by RDT and remunerations are provided by the organisation itself. A note about RDT's Special Education Programme where they conduct an annual common entrance test to recognise meritorious students and fully fund their education, including residential fees. From the 92 students selected till date, 36 dropped out because they would have to move away from their native place to pursue their higher education in an English-medium institution (another persistent problem in the tribal community). In the Srisailam forest area, students below the age of ten with disability were identified and are now enrolled in fully residential programmes and in Dornala, RDT is building a centre for intellectual disability which will be a school and offer accommodation as well.

What COVID did to their lives
The pandemic was tougher on the tribal areas, especially during strict lockdowns. So the focus shifted to supplying food grains with the help of other NGOs in the area and for the last three months, since lockdowns have been eased, RDT is collaborating with ITDA to gather school and residential principals for talks to accelerate the process of bringing children back to school. But there are tales of fierce children from the deep forest area, like that of Nagalakshmi, who weren't bogged down by the pandemic. Being the last orphan child who was left unmarried in her family, the fact that she would be married off at any time weighed down hard on her. Yet, with the ambition to pursue education, she would get up early in the morning, pack lunch for herself and trek to a small mountain nearby where two bars of network would miraculously facilitate online classes. Currently, she is pursuing her long-term coaching for entrance examinations. "I hope to be a doctor and work in the health field," she says with a quiet passion.

Nagalakshmi | (Pic: Roberto Rodriguez)

Shivaram Dasari completed his Engineering four months ago and is waiting for a job now. His father passed away and through labour, his mother would earn around Rs 5,000, barely enough to support his education or the family. "RDT helped me pursue my education in Hyderabad," he shares. In this way, the organisation has impacted 4,845 children from Classes I to V; 2,357 children from Classes VI to X; 305 from intermediate; 89 from degree and above plus 92 children studying under their Special Education Programme. "For tribal children who have completed their bachelor's and enrolled in professional courses, we will support them with an additional scholarship of Rs 50,000. We are in the process of identifying these children so that they can avail these funds," says the ITDA PO officer with regards to their plans in the near future. Working in tandem with RDT, who they have been working with for many years, and other organisations, they hope to bring education to the remotest areas which the Chenchu tribe inhabits.

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