The success and struggle for indigenous rights in India

NGO worker Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports on how indigenous children have overcome the struggle for an education in India

Credit: ACCORD (Action for Community Organization, Rehabilitation, and Development

Congratulations and celebrations are in order. It's been a proud day for the indigenous Gudalur Adivasis of the Nilgiris in South India. Subin and Maya, two of our students, just graduated from a superb Bangalore university.

We consider them to be like our children, since they were born into the ACCORD family, an NGO started in 1985 for adivasi rights, health and education. Subin and Maya have now made it - graduating from a centre of excellence, The Azim Premji University. Not a sub-standard college, which is the fate of most under privileged Indian children. It's a bit like saying a non=English speaking kid from a poverty stricken UK council estate, made it to Oxford or Cambridge.

Subin said as much when I phoned him in faraway Assam. 'My parents were in the audience. I felt proud and happy. Compared to our classmates, we are from such a different background. But we made it.'

'What was the most important thing you learnt there?' I asked Subin. He said: 'Since I was a small child I've heard my parents talk about socially-driven health issues. 'Here I came to understand the theory behind it all, how drinking water is polluted by fertilisers and pesticides. How untreated waste is ruining our rivers.

'I've travelled really far from the Nilgiris to the North East, over 3000 kilometres by road. Here too I see pollution, in the cities not villages. So I hope by joining FES, (the foundation for ecological security) we can do something useful'.

Rama Sastry and her husband Ramdas, founded the Vidyodaya school, a sister organization of ACCORD. We've worked as a family and all of us are bursting with pride. Rama, who taught both Subin and Maya, along with hundreds of other adivasi kids, said: 'I certainly feel proud they've got this far. But I'm even more thrilled that Subin and Maya are looking at alternatives, not just to earn a lot of money. Subin has gone a long way from home and Maya has opted to get a masters in development studies'.

'I'm proud of our other kids too,' Rama continued. 'Some are working on conservation issues. Others have returned to teach adivasi kids in our school , or work in the local hospital. So they've opted out of the mainstream really, to work for their own communities.'

Most people would be starstruck in the presence of Azim Premji, one of India's richest, but also most philanthropic men. Maya is no exception. 'I was thrilled to be standing on stage as he handed me my certificate, but couldn't say a word. But I realisedafter coming to the university, I stopped being shy. I became more confident and learnt a lot. I was studying biology but found the development course more interesting. We learnt about the Niyamgiri tribal struggle for land and I could relate this to my people’s struggles in Gudalur.'

'What about after your degree?' I asked. 'I think I might try for the civil service,' she said.

It was certainly one of those 'you've come a long way’ moments.

One of our major concerns is that with the dominant society closing in on adivasi communities, the melting pot effect makes kids lose their culture as they assimilate with the larger group. Even worse, many adivasi are often taunted by other kids and non-adivasi teachers. They are made to feel ashamed of their ancestors, traditions, forest dwelleing lifestyle and history.

This is one of the biggest challenges for indigenous and ethnic people the world around. But both Maya and Subin have been exposed to cultural studies in Vidyodaya. Certainly, their graduation from an important university is historic.

For the Gudalur family which extends all over the world, it's rewarding that decades of hard work from Vidyodaya has paid off. Something to shout about, for sure.