In a small, asbestos room in Madhya Pradesh’s Amarkantak town, a group of students is busy debating the merits of English as a medium of instruction. Most of them speak for the motion. Very few speak against it.
The catch — none of them knows how to speak the Queen’s language. English is necessary in a ‘globalised’ world, they argue in Hindi, haltingly using some of the unfamiliar English words they’ve recently picked up. They have to learn English if they want jobs in the cities, is the general view.
The debate was part of a programme organised by the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University (IGNTU) in Madhya Pradesh’s Anuppur district, 548 km east of Bhopal.
The children hail from the Baiga, Gond and Panika communities, some of the most backward tribes in the country, which primarily rely on agriculture and forest produce for their livelihood.
In July 2008, the Union Human Resource Development Ministry launched India’s first central university for tribal students. Its mandate: Taking education to tribal children. It has been authorised to open centres in states with more than five per cent tribal population.
Even after 60 years of independence, only 6.61 per cent of students from India’s tribal communities have access to higher education. That’s half the number that goes to colleges from non-tribal communities. The gross enrolment ratio, a measure of the level of education at various levels, is lower for tribal girls — at just 4.69 per cent.
According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the number of college students in the country in 2008 was 11.61 million.
The last census in 2001 put India’s tribal population at 84 million.
Struggling to survive
More than a year after it was launched, all that the university has to show for infrastructure are three rooms that act as makeshift classrooms in an unused industrial building.
The second ‘campus’ is run from five rooms in the Chandracharya Charitable Hospital.
In 2008, the university did not have any land, no administrative staff, teachers, or even students. Eighteen months later, the Madhya Pradesh government has still not managed to allocate land for it.
But the students – 95 per cent first generation learners — are there, thrilled at the prospect of studying under a central university, and surprisingly, so are a set of committed teachers.
The topper for the B.Com first year is Shanti Chura.“I dropped out after Class XII because I could not afford to travel several kilometres every day to the nearest college in Anuppur,” says Chura, clad in a faded brown sweater. “But when the university opened, I immediately applied. Today, we have good teachers and some books,” she says.
Before Chamru Singh Banjara, son of a construction labourer, enrolled at the university, his parents and he were daily wage earners at the upcoming Jain temple in Amarkantak.
“They can hardly manage to feed my four siblings,” he says.
Today, Banjara, among the top scorers at the university, joins his parents for work on Sundays. “I earn Rs 70 a week building temporary shelters for labourers at the temple site,” he says.
In its first year, the university admitted 282 students, 171 of them tribals like Banjara, for courses in arts, commerce and business administration. This year, 132 have been admitted so far.
“In the first year, we distributed pamphlets and held street workshops to spread awareness,” says vice chancellor C.D. Singh, former Dean of Social Science at the Awadhesh Pratap Singh University in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh.
“Since most students were from far off areas we had promised to provide them hostels, else no one would have turned up,” Singh said.
“We finally managed to get a dharmashala (charitable lodge) for girls and housed the boys in the industrial training centre.”
For Singh and his team, the land issue has become a stumbling block. A surplus budget of Rs 275 crore is lying unutilised and the university has not been able to buy too many books because there is no space to keep them. Classes are often held on the hospital’s lawns.
Surrounded by Sal trees and bordering the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh, Amarkantak is a nature lover’s delight.
However, the state government has offered many reasons including the protected forest area to delay the process of acquisition. The proposal is pending with the state revenue department.
The University Grants Commission has still not sanctioned permanent teaching posts and all the teachers are on contract.
“It is extremely difficult to find good teachers. Finding accommodation is a problem and there are no social and recreational facilities. Most teachers stay in nearby ashrams,” said officer-on-special-duty Akhilesh Singh, dining at a dhaba on the main road, the only option available for teachers.
Despite the challenges, the aspirations of tribal students spur the teaching and administrative staff to do their best.
“The master plan is ready on paper — we will have staff quarters, student hostels, dining space, library and state of the art classrooms,” Singh said.
Till that happens, both students and teachers will have to chase a pipe dream.