How an Adivasi youth in Wayanad organised his community to restart transport service for school kids
Rakesh, a young Adivasi leader from the Kattunayakan tribe in Kerala, part of Haiyya’s Nilgiris Advisai Leadership Program, mobilises for the education of the children in the region. Here’s how the community’s collective action resulted in allocating a Government jeep to transport local children to school and back.
We met Rakesh, a youth from the Kattunayakan tribe in Wayanad Kerala, during the first training session of our Nilgiris Adivasi Leadership Program. He is recruited as one of the 9 teaching fellows for the program across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. As a youth leader, his primary responsibility has been to recruit and develop more youth to become leaders by supporting and mentoring them through projects that they have collectively selected. I remember noticing Rakesh’s dynamic energy, his love for theatre and the arts, and his vision to ensure every child in his community has access to education. During the first training session which was an introduction to community organizing, he was not afraid to stand up and speak out on the failure of the current education system, and its lack of addressing the aspirations and culture of his people, who belong to the Kattunayakan tribe in Wayanad and depend on the forest for their livelihood. Rakesh has recruited 10 more youth to be part of this programme, who agreed to participate in the training with the hope and aspirations of creating a bright future for their community. It took them some time to open up, but in the second training session on storytelling and building their collective narrative, Rakesh and his youth aligned on a shared vision and value of making the dream of education come true for children in the Kattunayakan community.
Experiences over achievements
Later that evening when I was speaking with Thiru, the senior associate trainer in the program who anchors and leads the work in Kerala, mentioned that when he recruited Rakesh to be part of this leadership programme, it was Rakesh’s values of education for all, that resonated with him and his ideas around using art and culture to encourage the children of his community to pursue studying. The thing to note here is that the recruitment process of young leaders for this programme was unique, as people’s stories, struggles and hopes were the basis of selection rather than their academic or professional achievements. And I have to say, it works, as we now have a powerful leadership of teaching fellows who have managed to organize close to a hundred youth over the last 5 months!
The power of relationship building
Together Rakesh and his youth leaders Rajeev, Jishunu, Shalini, Suthish, Mithun, Anusha and Subramani held several community meetings in the local hamlets to understand solutions that will keep children in schools as the rate of dropout is extremely high after the eighth grade. They were excited to see the solutions emerging, from having conversations with their community members and other youth. Some solutions suggested included the introduction of cultural activities in the school curriculum, providing mentoring and motivation to children in the community to attend school, ensuring basic facilities like electricity and working toilets in schools and finally school transportation for tribal children. Rakesh and his team were quick to realise after a few such conversations with community members that the Government of Kerala provides a jeep for school children from tribal hamlets, but it was not provided to his community. Some parents were not even aware that there was such a provision, so Rakesh and his team mobilised community members to create awareness. They faced several challenges initially as the elders of their community did not trust the intentions of the youth, but gradually through one-to-one conversations, the youth built relationships with different members of the community and this created a willingness to participate in the meetings and collectively seek solutions.
Once they gained the trust of the community, the youth met with the school headmaster to put in their plea for a government jeep and also met with the ST promoter to take up their demand. In Kerala, ST promoters are recruited by the Kerala Scheduled Tribes Development Department to link tribal communities to the Government and facilitate accessing schemes.
Collective action and result
Two weeks ago, Rakesh informed us that their collective efforts had resulted in the allocation of a Government jeep to his community to transport children to school and back. Rakesh is very proud of what his youth have achieved in a few months, something he was unsure of when he started the leadership program. His pride comes from seeing young people take on leadership in his community but also from the huge smile on the faces of children who are now going to school. Something that stuck with me when Rakesh was narrating this win for his community, was that this program among other things has given him and the youth the courage to ask “Why” do these problems exist in the Kattunayakan community. They have asked this of their own people but also in the process of building their leadership, asked this question to officials. Of course, they didn’t find a satisfactory answer to that question, but what they did find is a sense of power and agency that will stay with them for a long time to come.
Rakesh and his community’s win is a start of a change that is coming, and they’re not alone. Similar powerful experiences are emerging from our youth leaders in Tamil Nadu as well! Prathicksha, who is the Senior Associate trainer there, was sharing with me that whenever she reflects on the journey of the youth it gives her goosebumps. And not so much the outcomes they are achieving, which is commendable, but the fact that these were young people who had never met youth from other communities or spoken up on issues that are impacting them. But today, they are challenging norms and oppressive structures, they are setting the agenda for change in their community and most crucial of all, referring to themselves as leaders of their community.
About the program:
Haiyya in collaboration with Keystone Foundation, an NGO working in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve with indigenous people and local communities designed and launched a leadership & capacity building program of 100 Adivasi youth. With on-ground training in Kotagiri and Wayanad regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the program is training the youth in the community organizing pedagogy by building a dynamic front of young Adivasi leaders.
This article is Part 2 of a multi-part blog series on the Adivasi Nilgiris Program. Read Part 1 here.
Written by Neha Saigal. Neha is the Senior Programme Lead at Haiyya and is a passionate organiser and campaigner and has experience of over 14 years of designing campaigns and projects which address social inequalities.