Until three years ago, little children from the Rolugunta settlement in Vishakhapatnam’s Chintapalli mandal were not going to school. The reason: they would have to trek more than six kilometres through the hilly forests of the Eastern Ghats to reach one.
However, if you were to go there now, residents of Rolugunta and Venam (a nearby village) will tell you with pride about their school, and how their children no longer have to take an arduous trek to get there, thanks to a road they’ve built with their own sweat and labour. These structures are far from perfect. However, the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) who live there exemplify self-reliance.
Villagers from these tribal habitations in Andhra Pradesh were compelled to build a school and roads themselves. Even though there is a scheme called Development of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the people were forced to take time off work and build their schools and road themselves due to lack of intervention from the state government.
Building the road
Pothuraju Padali, who lives in the nearby Lambasingi village, tells TNM that the Venam residents have been toiling for nearly 10 years to construct the five-kilometre-long road leading to their village in order to make it accessible for motor vehicles.
“There are around 30 households in Venam. Men, women and children from every household have volunteered to work on the road by taking turns. Once or twice a week, they would take some time off to work on the road before going for their daily work,” Pothuraju says. Most residents of Rolugunta work for a daily wage in villages 6 to 7 kilometres away. “It is just a basic mud road. It is uneven and is difficult to use when it rains. But they wanted a motorable road for their village to avoid trekking through the forests and the rocks,” Pothuraju adds.
While there are Anganwadi centres here, children were not attending schools because of lack of accessibility. So, the villagers built their own.
Things were set in motion three years ago, when Pothuraju met Pradeep Karuturi, who was then a consultant with the Andhra Pradesh government. He was working on digitising classrooms in government schools. Pradeep went on to visit Rolugunta, a settlement with around 45-50 households, in 2016. He learnt from the community leaders that there were around 25 children who needed a school, and were very enthusiastic about it.
Pradeep tells TNM that the villagers strongly believed that formal education can provide many opportunities for their children. “Once the villagers were on board, my friend Mallik Polineni and I raised funds for the school. Initially, an NGO helped us identify the land and begin its construction. After that, the locals pitched in to complete the construction work,” he says.
The school in Rolugunta, which has been running smoothly since 2017, caters to children between 6 and 10 years of age, providing formal education up to the equivalent of class 3. Once children cross the age of 6, they are sent from the Anganwadi centre to the village school, where early literacy and math skills are taught. The school has three staff members, which includes a full-time teacher, a cook, and a community manager. While the cook and the teacher are from Rolugunta, Pothuraju, who now works as the school’s community manager, lives a two-kilometre trek away.
22-year-old Satyavathi, who teaches at the school, has completed her education till Intermediate, the equivalent of higher secondary education. Satyavathi teaches Math, English and Telugu to the students, but the curriculum is not limited to math and literacy. “Students also learn drama and sports. They play volleyball, kho kho and kabaddi. We also conduct workshops with local doctors for parents and students regarding healthcare and nutrition, especially for children,” says Pothuraju.
Pradeep adds that teachers are provided with on-ground training, and some external guidance is also given. “We’ve made an arrangement with a retired school headmaster from Vijayawada to visit once a month to help improve the curriculum and provide feedback. There is activity-based learning through art, sports, games, stories and role-play. There is a blackboard painted on the walls all around the classroom so children can just draw or write whenever they feel like it.”
The school does not have an administrative head like a principal or headmaster. Instead, Pothuraju, the school’s community manager, visits the school regularly to keep track of the students’ status.
“Every Monday, I check with the teacher to know about what the students have been learning and what progress has been made. I also check in with the parents regularly to discuss their child’s performance in school. We also conduct a monthly meeting with parents where we discuss the children’s progress, and take their suggestions on what they think we could do to make the school better,” Pothuraju explains.
“On Thursdays, I take groceries to the school. We provide a mid-day meal every day, just like in government schools. I inspect the food quality, whether it is nutritious, whether the children are fed eggs regularly, and if there is sufficient clean water for drinking and sanitation,” he adds.
The school had 25 students earlier, but now it has 18. The rest of them have been admitted in class 4 in a residential school.
On seeing the success of the school in Rolugunta, Pradeep says that the people of Venam approached him in December last year, asking if a similar school could be built in their village too. “We were excited to build another school. Again, we raised funds from local donors and NRIs. This time the work happened much faster. The design is also more sustainable. Construction has been done with iron and boulders, and very minimal cement. We hired a few skilled workers from Vijayawada, but most of the work was done by people from the village. That reduced the construction costs as well,” says Pradeep.
The Venam school is set to begin operations this year. It will follow the same model as the Rolugunta school, and Pothuraju will work as the community manager here as well.
Utilising local knowledge systems
Pradeep, who visits the Rolugunta school regularly every two months, says that the curriculum ensures that the local knowledge systems are not undermined.
He talks about how they have turned difficulty in getting people to work in such remote areas, into their strength. “We’ve hired people from the local communities in the schools. We wanted the education to be rooted in the local context.”
The larger goal is to make these schools even more independent. “We want to withdraw external intervention in 5 to 10 years. We’re working with the local government to get a permanent government school and road access to these hamlets,” Pradeep says.
“Once a government school is set up, the present school building can be used as a community centre, for gatherings, workshops and after-school activities,” he adds.