Belmati Jhankar's father died two years ago. Her mother barely manages to put together Rs 20 (US$1=Rs46) on those days that she sand-fries puffed rice and travels up to 15 km to distant villages to sell it. When her father died, Belmati (then in class III) dropped out of school and began tending the neighbors' goats. Last year, the head teacher convinced her mother to send the child back to school. The mother agreed, persuaded in large measure by the fact that with the free midday meal, the free school uniform, and the free textbooks, Belmati's education would cost nothing at all. And she would be ensuring a better future for her child.
"Next year, admissions will see girls outnumber boys in our school," says Lily Behera, vice-president of the Village Education Committee (VEC) of Kutrukhamar UPS (Upper Primary School). In 2006, the school, which caters to six large villages, enrolled 16 girls. The ratio of girls to boys is now 144: 153.
Chance plays no role in this tide of female enrolment in schools in the Kutrukhamar panchayat of Bhawanipatna block in Kalahandi district. Kalahandi has a Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste population of 28.65 per cent and 17.67 per cent, respectively. One of the country's poorest districts, more than half its population comprises agricultural laborers. Nearly a fourth of the state's population is tribal. But in some Adivasi pockets of Orissa, the initiative, and the incentives, to universalize elementary education under the flagship of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme have begun to show radical changes in the prevailing parental attitudes to educating children, particularly girl-children.
In Kutrukhamar UPS, classes II and VI have the highest number of girls - 26 and 30, respectively. All over India, these two classes have the highest dropout rate for boys and girls: they drop out from class II because they either cannot cope with the learning and/or lose interest. The dropout rate in class VI is high because, first, girls attain puberty between 11-13 years of age and social restrictions on physical mobility and gender interaction kick into place; second, in economically disadvantaged households, after they are 10 years old, girls begin contributing to the family income or take care of siblings so that their mothers can go to work.
This dropout pattern is changing. The education of Adivasi girls was also hampered by the sheer distance between schools and habitations, particularly when roads wound through wooded, uninhabited and unsafe patches. That's changing, too. Aiming to provide a school within one kilometer of every human habitation, Orissa now has 47,000 primary schools.
On the hilly terrain of Kandhamal district of Orissa, a little school nestles amidst natural greenery. Rugudipali village, little more than a hamlet, has just 13 Adivasi families: they now have a primary school next door. This school started with 18 students - 14 girls and four boys.
This year, three girls and a boy passed out of Rugudipali PS (Primary School) and moved up to Suhagam UPS in Tutuluba village. Had this PS not been established so close to the village, many of the older girls would still be minding their younger siblings, fetching water, gathering firewood, and learning to light cooking fires.
Lupuri Patra, 14, would be out from sunrise to sunset herding goats. She also gathered dry twigs and branches for a head-load of firewood. "Most of our children had never even seen a book before," says Ramsingh Patra, her father, who now minds the goats.
In Orissa's tribal districts, accessing interior habitations often means traversing rivers and hills. Tiny hamlets are scattered kilometers apart. For such deprived communities, the 19,000 schools under the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) - which works in a non-formal teaching format - is a boon.
Community involvement has become a leading feature of the EGS - for the education programme, in general. By 2000, disquiet among the 57 families of Bandhapada village - merely four km from Kalahandi district headquarters in Bhawanipatna - had peaked: there was no education facility for the village's children. The families petitioned for a school in the village. In 2001, a single teacher primary school was sanctioned under the EGS. The villagers themselves selected Tuna Swain, a local graduate, to be Education Volunteer.
In February 2001, the first class of the Bandhapada EGS was held with 25 students under a banyan tree. For 75 days thereafter, that was where the school remained. But enrolments increased. In 2004, when all four classes were running to capacity, the school had 73 students. The approaching monsoons made a school building imperative. Bamboo poles and wooden rafters came up. A 30 ft by 10 ft room took shape. Mothers gathered cow-dung and plastered them over the mud walls. The harvesting over, sheaves of fresh straw lined the roof. A structure this size would normally have cost Rs 7,000, but here not a single rupee changed hands: the community contributed both material and labor.
After the building came up, the community's sense of ownership over education has grown exponentially. Now, if schoolchildren are caught playing truant, mothers - not necessarily their own - frog march them to the teacher. It was a proud moment in 2005 for all of Bandhapada village when 20 of its children, promoted to class V, were seen off to the Purunapada UPS. This pride finds an echo today in many tribal communities in Orissa.