April 15, 2010 / 5:39 AM / 7 years ago

Tribal project in West Bengal lends a hand to education aims

A tribal boy plays with an unused bicycle wheel in Santiniketan, about 165 km (103 miles) northwest of Kolkata in this December 11, 2005 file photo.Jayanta Shaw/Files

SANTINIKETAN (Reuters Life!) - It's an ambitious plan -- giving all children under the age of 6 a free education among India's 1-billion plus population -- but at least one local initiative is making sure millions of tribal people with oral traditions don't get left behind.

In Santiniketan village in West Bengal -- the home of Nobel literature prize winner Rabindranath Tagore -- a voluntary initiative helping local Kora and Santhali tribal children to read and write Bengali is now so popular it needs a second building.

Bengali is the language used in local government schools and many tribal children cannot speak it when they start state school, putting them at a disadvantage and risk that they may fall behind from the start.

The Suchana project operates on a tight budget, using voluntary contributions, and last year, it had to cancel the annual picnic to ensure every rupee was spent for construction of its new three-room building.

This year, the picnic "has to happen, even if it's just rice and daal," says Jhuma Gonrai, one of the teachers.

Suchana hopes to add a second floor to the existing building and a separate structure with a clinic and more latrines -- giving more space for books, art and other learning materials.

Suchana's library has around 1,500 books and the children take one home regularly. There are also now six second-hand computers, given by friends and family, on which older children learn computer skills.

The project is currently working with about 115 children from the Santhal and Kora tribes. In this area in West Bengal, tribal people make up about 18 percent of the population.

In the district of Birbhum, which accounts for about 4 percent of West Bengal's 80 million population, the literacy rate among tribals is about 44 percent for men and a scant 18 percent for women.

Many of the children in these families are the first to go to school. Shanto Kora, another teacher at Suchana, was the first from his Kora village to go to college, where he studied Bengali and history.

Now, he's keen to teach at university and in his spare time plays cricket. "I'm an all-rounder. I'm a spin bowler and I'm good at fielding," Shanto says.

The lack of schooling for tribals is not just a problem in Bengal but in other areas of India where there are peoples with their own languages, often with only an oral tradition.

The government's Education Act of 2009, which came into force on April 1, calls for teaching in the child's mother tongue where possible. But there are few qualified teachers in Santali or Kora -- and little in the way of literature.

Suchana has just published the second-ever book in the Kora language, an alphabet primer, written by Shanto Kora, as part of its efforts to give local children crucial literacy skills.

"It's an alphabet with pictures. We have distributed it to the Kora children," the 28-year-old Shanto says.

"I wanted to teach. I like small children," he adds, sitting cross-legged on the red tiled floor of the building, where children gather in groups with their teachers in the open air or under the wide eaves of the building to learn.

"The first thing all the teachers did when the building was ready was to grab their own special space."

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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