THRIVING ON CHALLENGES – A case study on a Gram Panchayat Maths Contest

The Biligiriranganabetta Gram Panchayat (GP), Yelandur block, Chamarajanagar district, has two schools in its domain, in tiny villages embedded in wild, untamed jungle. The Government Higher Primary School (GHPS) in Biligiriranganabetta village has 13 students in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade and the GHPS in Yarakanagadde has 40. A total of 53 students.

The Panchayat Development Officer (PDO) Mahadevappa didn’t think it worthwhile to conduct a GP Maths Contest here. He forestalled it, with all good reason. There had to be reach and sweep and scale, an ambition to it. Half the children may not come, he predicted gloomily. They belong to the Soliga tribe, a community of forest dwellers, so rooted to their earth, tied to their culture and identity, the parents, not too keen on education in the first place, may not allow them to participate in an out-of-school, extracurricular event like this. “Let’s not have a Contest in the Biligiriranganabetta GP,” Mahadevappa said, disheartened in advance by the possibility of a poor turn-out and negligible results.

Akshara’s Divisional Field Manager, Ranganath, whose territory this is, Chamarajanagar one of the 11 districts in his field of work, held firm. “Sir, we must not give up. We can’t always have a big attendance. We can’t exclude anyone whatever their circumstances. Our GP Contests thrive on challenges. You will get blessings, good karma, for doing this, Sir.” Ranganath was at his persuasive best. Listening to this rousing assertion, Mahadeva stopped in his tracks, reversed his defeatist stance, and “became a big support,” turning the outlook in a matter of moments from hopelessness to hope.

The stakeholders of education with the question papers

To everyone’s astonishment, all 53 children participated in the GP Contest held on December 3, 2022. It was one of the most meaningful successes for Ranganath and his three-member team who from early December 2022 have catalysed 415+ Contests covering 79,510+ children in their 11 districts. At each Contest, attendance ranges from 80 to 120 children.

What makes the Biligiriranganabetta GP Contest special, spectacular even? Fifty-three is a small denomination, easily lost in prodigious numbers like 79,510+ children. Interwoven in the tapestry of Contests this team has spread across village locations, some way out in the interior, is this that’s in many ways unique.

Biligiriranganabetta or Biligirirangana Hills is a lofty, leafy, emerald region of high peaks and variegated forest land. Biligiri or ‘white hill’ in Kannada represents the rock here over which a near-permanent whiteness settles for much of the time, the colour of mist and cloud. The villages of Biligiriranganabetta and Yarakanagadde are surrounded by a 539.52 sq km wildlife sanctuary[1] of dense forest. The site is also a tiger reserve. Wild elephants, the most ubiquitous animals, roam freely, owning all they see. The Soliga tribe that inhabit this jungle are a gentle, nature-worshipping, animal-loving people, gatherers of forest produce – it’s their livelihood. They venture out shrinkingly, only when necessary, or they’re content to live within, amid the trees and animals.

Their children, among them the 53 in the two schools, are withdrawn and inhibited. More fear, less confidence, Ranganath says. The best way to strike up a conversation with them, he discovers, is to lock into their worldview. “I saw a leopard,” one says in Kannada. “I saw a barking deer.” “I saw a sambar[2].” They become competitively chirpy discussing the animals they see almost every day. “They live with these animals around them,” says Ranganath. “Their relationship is more with nature than with education.”

Placed in the context of their cultural and socioeconomic milieu, it’s hardly surprising. Poverty is extreme, awareness at its weakest, life at a low ebb. But living takes on deeper hues when they can keep their culture intact, supreme and inviolate. They’re suspicious of outside influences, and education they perceive as one such contaminator of lifestyle. “They don’t encourage the education of their children. It’s only the pressure from the government schools that keeps these children in school.”  Their environment keeps them confined and suppressed, says Ranganath. “They don’t want to send their children out of the community.”

     Sitting for their test

Nine years at Akshara, and Ranganath has a toolkit for any conversational impasse. He draws the children out, even manages to talk to the parents. “Talk to the children individually and they understand the idea of a future. ‘What do you want to become?’ and they say, ‘Police officer, teacher, doctor.’ They know.” There’s a chasm, though, between their privately nursed aspirations and where they are now. “It’s a big challenge for these children to study. They don’t understand….. Then they drop out.” The frustration is intense, the pointlessness of it discouraging.

The GP Contest is low-key. Some parents show up impressed most of all by the mental picture they have of prizes. The prizewinning children of each grade receiving cheque rewards is an honour, they realise, and are happy to see them perform well. The marks, 60-70%, don’t mean much, the distinction does. The 1st rank holders get a cheque of Rs. 1000 each, the winners who come 2nd receive Rs. 600, and the 3rd prize-winners Rs. 400, monetary contribution from the GP. All nine of them are awarded certificates of commendation for meritorious performance from Akshara with their name, grade, and school imprinted. The parents can barely contain themselves; they’re indigent and money is manna in hand.

Ranganath uses this softened moment, now that he’s connecting with them, to drive home that “Your children study well. They understand. Now they’ve received Rs. 1000 or Rs. 600. They’ll earn much more going ahead. We respect your culture. But your children need progress. You look on your forests as God. Your children are also God. They can be Forest Rangers or environmentalists.” It makes sense to them – they understand some Kannada. The Akshara team is not so sure however if the parents will allow themselves an emergence from seclusion and isolation.

It goes without saying that most children at this Contest score below 50%, two children are at zero and five at 1-10%. PDO Mahadevappa says, “The Education Department and the GP have given the children a lot of facilities – uniforms, textbooks, midday meals, scholarships. We can’t go in opposition to the people. We have to take their culture along. We have to approach this issue with sensitivity and humanity.”

When enlightened officials like Mahadevappa set the tone and momentum, impacts snowball. His consent for the Contest escalated into a bigger amplification, with the Department of Education and the GP at all levels issuing orders in synergy. Not to ignore the media in this supportive orchestration. Vijayavani, the widely circulating Kannada daily, sent its reporter from Chamarajanagar to cover the Contest and highlighted the news story with a picture of the prizewinning students standing in a row with their cheques and Akshara certificates.

The prize-winners with their cheques and Akshara certificates – At the Yarakanagadde school

For Ranganath and his team, the Biligiriranganabetta GP Contest will remain vivid, etched. All the children participated; Ranganath can’t get over it. Participation at a Contest is not enforced. “These are tribal children.” The forest is their little universe, their radius of awareness, their reference point. “For them to sit in an open ground and do a test collectively is a new experience. But they did it.”

To have taken the GP Contest to this remote area and given the Soliga children a taste of the world they don’t experience gives Ranganath a heightened satisfaction. To have given them a glimpse of what education can do, the possibilities unimagined, that life can be enriched and enlarged – “It made me personally very happy. To see these children receiving their prizes was a very different kind of pleasure.”

– Lakshmi Mohan for Akshara Foundation

  [1] [2] Large deer native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.