Tulasi Benia gives a sly 'don't say' jab to her friend who complains that there is no regular mathematics teacher in their school. Not surprisingly, five of the six girls who appeared for the matriculation examination last year failed in mathematics. All six girls are from Dabugaon Girls High School in tribal dominated Nawrangpur, the poorest of Orissa's 30 districts.
Tulasi Benia apart, many of the adolescent Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) girls - on an exposure trip to Bhubaneswar from five Kanyashrams of Nawrangpur - are unwilling to speak out. With 70 per cent of its population on the ST and SC list, Nawrangpur has five Kanyashrams and only one residential girls' high school. It continues to record the lowest female literacy rate in Orissa.
Kanyashrams are government-run residential schools up to class 7 for the poorest of tribal and scheduled caste girls in Orissa. The state is home to 62 tribes and 93 depressed caste groups; together these add up to 38.4 per cent of the total population, dominating 13 backward districts, which are declared scheduled areas. Education is one of the top priorities in these districts. The school dropout rate in Orissa for ST girls in the upper primary classes is a high 78 per cent and for SC girls - 70.2 per cent. The government sees a solution in these residential educational institutions; there are 37 Kanyashrams in Orissa.
The 140 girls visiting Bhubaneswar have ample reason to fear voicing their complaints. Most of them, say their teachers, have been sent here by their parents, not so much for the education as for the assured two daily meals and the clothes the state provides. Otherwise, the girls would have been laboring in the paddy fields, collecting forest products or tending goats and doing their bit for the family's subsistence.
On the last of their three-day exposure trip to the capital of the state, the girls are fired by ambitions. At this point perhaps, they cannot see much beyond becoming 'school teachers with Rs 6,000-a-month pay packet' (1US$=Rs 47.5), but they already feel superior to their folks back home who have not gone beyond the weekly village market.
Although much munificence exists on government files for these welfare educational institutions, not everything is well with them. For one, all of these kanyashrams have not received their stipend amount for several months, one for as long as a year.
One month's stipend for the Dabugaon high school - with 170 resident-students, at Rs 325 per person - is Rs 55,000. In dire need, the school has already borrowed Rs 20,000 from Khadi Bhandar, which has refused a further loan. The individual stipend covers food, two school uniforms, under-garments and toiletry. A separate amount is paid for textbooks and writing materials but these invariably reach five to six months after the new session has begun. While some schools try and manage with old books, the lack of books seriously hampers studies.
Failure to be promoted (to the next class) even once, is enough to discontinue the individual stipend. Most girls fail in Science and Mathematics because the subject teachers are almost always in short supply. In Nayakaguda kanyashram, the teachers have collectively hired a mathematics teacher through contributions from their own salary. If teachers are sincere, they sometimes request their relatives to chip in and take a class or two. The incentive is a Cash Reward Scheme under which Rs.100,000 was disbursed by the government last year to teachers, for improving their students' performance in scheduled area high schools and residential schools. The matriculation success rate of students however remains dismal.
While the government has provisions for vocational training centers in residential schools, these subject teachers are the first casualties of a deficit budget. Schools hoard their two tailoring machines but there is no teacher. Music and Physical Training are part of a holistically conceived syllabus but not only are the teacher posts vacant; games and sports equipment is never replaced. Besides, power voltage in the hinterlands is so low, the bulbs refuse to light up; the two solar lights provided to each Kanyashram are invariably ill maintained. Hand pumps break down so often that in the Bhimaguda Kanyashram, girls up to class 3 bathe in the nearby river - body hygiene is poor, scabies is rampant.
According to the girls, the absence of teachers is not the only hurdle. The medium of instruction is Oriya, whereas all the 62 tribal communities that live in Orissa - 10 of them primitive - use a dialect distinct from the other. The girls find it difficult to follow Oriya or to express themselves through it. Rarely is a local tribal teacher hired, even though qualified ones can be found. "If language is a block, perhaps more of the visual medium could be used, a special course of studies for tribal students could be formulated," suggests Dr Mamata Patnaik, who was until recently, part of the health and educational intervention provided for adolescent girls in Nawrangpur by the Integrated Population and Development (IPD) project.
Such ground realities are simply not part of the education policy and no one in the government is in a hurry to spare a thought. In fact, it is generally considered that postings in these under-developed areas are punishments. Teachers who have to live away from their families, work in uninspiring classroom conditions, and get their salaries late, soon lose enthusiasm.
While the teachers claim that they try not to deprive the girl students despite the fund crunch, the penny pinching does show up. In Nayakguda kanyashram, the girls are given just two meals a day - at 9 am and 9 pm. Both meals consist of just rice and dal (lentils), and sometimes, a cheap seasonal vegetable. For snacks, the girls are sometimes given starch (derived from boiled rice) with a handful of rice in it, or watery millet gruel. It is alleged that when teachers do not get salaries for months together they manage from the stipend meant for the students. Students are also made to work in their teachers' homes or baby-sit their children, even during school hours.
The mismanagement is spilling over alarmingly - social workers active among the tribals in Nawrangpur have observed a rise in the number of adolescent unwed mothers. They think that lessons in reproductive health need be introduced in these schools urgently. A recent study found that tribal girls - for whom free mixing with the opposite sex is not taboo - become easy prey to sexual exploitation by non-tribals.
For reasons of extensive poverty, more and more of these girls will turn to prostitution, social workers point out, as is happening in neighboring Malkangiri, another backward, tribal dominated district in southern Orissa.