A school in Konta, Chhattisgarh
As an India Fellow, I have been working with Shiksharth, in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. All this while, I’ve been listening a lot of stories about Konta, a block in Chhattisgarh. Local people here have been following their own traditions for centuries. They get everything from their forest, be it food or medicine. They do not depend on any external facilities. It is arguably a place where one can experience pre-agriculture era with slight penetration of technology. All the resources come from the forest, with the exception of solar lights, mobile phones and a few other such amenities.
Folklore has it that the forests were home to several deadly creatures and exiled people. Some people also believe that lord Ram was here for his 14 years of exile. Even though rich in beauty, resources and tribal culture, the forests are infamous for maoist and troop conflict.
I went there for a two day visit during which we were in a rush to finish the school inspection. The purpose was to see how Shikshadoots (local educators) are working. These are youth who have completed their education until 12th grade and are now teaching in schools. These schools were destroyed in 2005, in violence, and have been reopened by the government only in 2017-18.
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My team members and I visited ten schools in just two days. In fact, we were ambitious to do it in just one day because in another block, we had visited seven schools in just seven hours. But Konta was different. We were nearing the end of day one and had to stay back.
It was evening. We were getting out of a village with the help of our local navigators because by this time, Google maps had already failed us. It was risky to ride in the dark. We didn’t know the way and there was no proper road. They asked us to just follow the narrow trails between the dense forest full of trees. I didn’t see any sign board or milestone at all. We crossed hills and water streams. It felt like we were doing mountain biking and off-roading on a rough terrain.
On reaching our place to stay at night, we sat close to the earthen-stove while the dinner was being prepared. The locals had gotten a chicken from their home and followed a simple recipe to cook it with just a few ingredients – turmeric, chilli and salt. It was so delicious that I ate double than usual. Post dinner, as we sat in the open, close to a bonfire, I saw a blanket of stars above, and a yellow-orange moon rising above the trees, making the sky look heavenly.
It felt like a dream but it was real because I could hear others talking. I was content with looking at the moon; my imagination forming images of zodiac signs on its surface. The sound of a helicopter flying with headlights off brought me back to reality. I had never had such an experience before.
Next morning, we woke up and went to a river where we could take bath and freshen up for the day. While getting ready, we were told that the elders of the village want to meet us at a spot decided by them. Everyone was talking in Gondi, the local language and I was merely trying to understand the conversation through expressions, tone and gestures. All I could gather was that they were concerned and disappointed. We then moved for our school visit at Ilmagunda.
Here, we decided to meet the villagers with Shikshadoot. I now realized that they were all discussing the same issue as the other group s in the morning. They all want a better future for their children but are concerned about Shikshadoot‘s irregularity in the school. They also bring up his drinking habit. The intent is to make him understand their concerns and reasons behind not sending their children to school.
When I looked at the Shikshadoot, he was teary eyed. He told everyone how he wasn’t aware of his misconduct and the issues arising because of it. Our local volunteers appreciated the villagers for raising their collective concerns, and assured them that this will not repeat again. He requested them to give one more chance to the Shikshadoot so that he can prove his worth, ensuring that he won’t let them down this time.
The life of people in Konta is not easy. They have to face multiple issues on a routine basis. In villages as well as schools, I saw children who appeared afraid. Their faces displayed scare, specially around outsiders. On the other hand, the adults enquired about us, why we are here and if we have permissions. It was a bit overwhelming for me but I realized that there are certain things under our control and certain things out of our control. This is one such reality that may seem out of control but I can’t ignore it.
These forests host tribes like Gonds, who, in their language, do not have a word for “future” or “breakdown”. However, the irony is that they have been facing breakdown of systems at individual and collective levels almost every day. The future looks uncertain. Being a maoist infested area, the place is a conflict zone between government troops and left-wing extremists, leaving tribal people in a flux. It’s hard for them to trust anyone.
The issues of malnutrition, healthcare, clean water and education have largely remained on the sidelines. The roads are non-existent. There’s neither a decent school nor a permanent teacher. People often call it Dandakaranya, the jungle of punishment. The locals seem to be living in exile.