After spending month in Kalahandi, experiencing almost all sorts of adventure, I ask myself, “Could there be anything left to see?” I have seen death as well as new life coming into this world in front of my eyes. One week I was supposed to visit a village on the border of Rayagada and Kalahandi districts, it goes by the name Kandelguda. The Kandelguda cluster is managed by one of our field animators; he lives in a small room there, which is where I was also going to stay. I had planned to visit 3-4 villages nearby Kandelguda and talk to the School Management Committee (SMC) in order to see what the status of schools in these villages is. This is a story of that encounter.
On the first day, we gathered the village members of Kandelguda and asked them who the members of the SMC were, but no one was aware of any such committee, and neither did anyone know what an SMC was. On digging deeper, we found that the headmaster came to the school once in a blue moon. When we checked the school building it initially seemed like a dilapidated haunted house that had been left empty years back. Not a single child from entire village was enrolled in the school. The parents would send their kids to school if the head master was regular, but the villagers didn’t know whom to complain to. The meeting was a disaster in terms of the agenda I had set, although productive. We established a small committee to monitor the school for the next month, so that we can have a proof before giving an official complaint to the BDO (Block Development Officer). Through it, I was trying to be optimistic, but the situation made me helpless. We finished the meeting after assigning the responsibility to certain villagers to monitor the school; post which we went to our small room had dinner and dozed off.
The next day we took an early morning walk to a village called Bilamel, which is a small village on the edge of Kalahandi and Ragayda, the same old story was repeated there by the villagers. Surprisingly, there was a chairperson and vice chairperson of the SMC in Bilamel, the vice chairperson was totally high, I felt like he had more alcohol in his body than blood. He couldn’t stand properly but was very eager to start the school. With our heads down we came back to Kandelguda, deciding to go to the next village in the evening. Leaving for Silet, I was very skeptical about the visit because I knew it would get dark soon and rain heavily, ignoring those factors, and keeping in mind that we needed to cover this village this day, we left off.
The road to Silet is very narrow and there is a high probability of slipping into the river next to road. But with the experience and precision in driving that my field animator has, we reached safely there by 18:15. We met the Sarpanch and asked him to gather the SMC as soon as possible, and again the same story of the headmaster not showing up was recited by the members. But I saw a ray of hope here, there was a young guy with some education who was running the school every day and all the kids were attending the school, I requested him to continue the good work until we can collect enough evidence and report the absence of the headmaster to the higher authority. By the time meeting finished the meeting, it was extremely dark, the clouds were singing a terrifying song. It felt as if they were warning us not to move anywhere. It started raining and gathering all the courage in our hearts, chanting prayers in the mind we left on our bike back to Kandelguda.
The journey back was a herculean task, the road was very muddy, and we had to drive with extreme caution, also the fear of nocturnal animals heavy on my mind. At a steady pace we were making progress, when suddenly my eyes flashed at a bonfire, about 200m from us, and it was evident that we would cross the fire at a very close distance. My field animator immediately told me, “Sir, ekdum shant rehna thodi der ke liye, bolna mat”. I took the advice and we moved past and finally reached Kandelguda, by the time we reached it was raining very heavily, but we had managed to avoid most of it.
“Sir, ekdum shant rehna thodi der ke liye, bolna mat”
Once we reached back I asked my field animator, “Vahaan fire ke pas kaun tha? Apne merko shant rehne ko kyu bola?” (who was that near the fire and why did you ask me to keep silent). To this he replied, “Sir, mujhe pakka nahi pata, lekin shayad vo bhailog ho sakte hain, barish main vo aise shelter lete hain aur maas pakaate hain, lekin pakka nai hain, shayad gaonvale bhi ho sakte hain”. (I am not too sure, but this could have been naxalites. They usually take shelter in the rain and cook meat on a fire. It could have also been some villagers though). This gave me goosebumps, we ate dinner a bit later and went to sleep. It was difficult to get rid of the fact that there was a slight probability that we passed by the bhailog just a while ago, if we really did or not I will never know.
The next morning we started walking towards a village called Maltipadar, the only way to reach this village was by crossing a river. We started walking, as we approached the river, the women bathing on the other side started staring at us and as we were walking they were enjoying the occasional mishap we would encounter. Listening to them giggle at our misadventure gave me the confidence that it was not as bad as it looked. This village had neither SMC nor a school building, forget the enrollment of kids. They were in a bad shape, and this was my predominant thought as I made my way back to Kerpai. We would have to step up efforts to make the reality of these villages known to the District Education Office. That too with enough evidence on our hands, and setting up processes of school monitoring with the help of some willing villagers.
In these 2 days, I got to experience the conditions in which our field animators live in, I have to really appreciate the work they are doing. It can get very lonely when you are living in a small room in such isolated areas, and I can see the reason behind the slight resistance they offer to work here. They have no contact with their family, there is no network, no water and no electricity. I wonder if the government is ever planning to make these services available. I myself felt very de-motivated after spending just two days there, in such scenarios the self-drive and purpose is what can keep you going. Knowing this, I see that it is my responsibility to ensure that my field animators do not reach a stage where they feel like giving up.
Living and working in an area like Kalahandi, where much of the stories of exploitation and lack of services have been ignored, are tough spaces for young men and women to work in, even those with a desire to work as much as my field team. But in them, I see the willingness to keep going, and together we will bring the voices of the community to the forefront.