MURALI MOHAN

India,

Beginning with the Lambada tribe in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Murali Mohan is developing new ways to educate the children of rural migrant workers and facilitate a culture of democratic participation in long-isolated tribal communities. Through innovative mechanisms geared to keep children in schools while their parents are away, as well as leadership programs for older children, Murali Mohan is giving shape to an entirely new community structure that has already begun to impact the region.

This profile below was prepared when Murali Mohan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.

INTRODUCTION

Beginning with the Lambada tribe in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Murali Mohan is developing new ways to educate the children of rural migrant workers and facilitate a culture of democratic participation in long-isolated tribal communities. Through innovative mechanisms geared to keep children in schools while their parents are away, as well as leadership programs for older children, Murali Mohan is giving shape to an entirely new community structure that has already begun to impact the region.




THE NEW IDEA

For Murali Mohan, education is a fundamental building block of development. By finding ways to keep children of migrant tribal communities in school and engage them in civic life, he is creating long-term opportunities for tribal groups to connect with mainstream society and participate in India’s democratic institutions.

His innovative program includes mobile schools to move with children, residential camps that help them maintain their grade level, and home-stay programs that let children stay behind in their communities to continue their education while their parents work. It also includes a leadership development component that encourages youth participation in governance at the village level (the panchayat system) and mobilizes them to tackle larger issues of cultural identity, rights, and resource allocation that affect their lives.




THE PROBLEM

A gypsy community of more than four million that traces its roots back to the Roma of Eastern Europe, the Lambada comprise the largest tribal group in Andhra Pradesh. Although the Lambada today have by and large discarded their nomadic lifestyle and settled in small villages called thandas, severe droughts in the Telangana region where their population is great, forces them to migrate seasonally in search of work.

For a period of about six months every year, Lambada families travel to the neighboring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra to work as agricultural laborers. The impact of this migrant lifestyle is more than economic; the Lambada tribes are disconnected from each other and their traditional social systems, as well as from mainstream civic and political systems. They speak their own languages and dialects and retain their distinct customary laws. Living in clusters bordering the nontribal villages, they have little or no participation in local governance, nor bargaining power, and find it difficult to access even basic services like water, electricity and health care.

Children suffer disproportionately. Forced to migrate with their parents, they are often unable to keep up with their schooling, and many drop out altogether, perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy, lack of opportunities and poverty. Children of these communities are highly susceptible to recruitment by rebel groups, many of which espouse Naxalism, a violent, Marxist-based peasant movement that has gripped the region in recent years. Local administrations run a few programs among the tribal groups and multistate border populations to contain the menace, but the states sharing borders prefer to pass the buck around, disowning immediate responsibility, and failing to address the underlying issues of poverty, lack of education and employment opportunities for youth.




THE STRATEGY

Murali Mohan’s migrant schooling and youth empowerment program evolved from a pathbreaking open house he ran in 2004 to give members of the Lambada community an opportunity to express their immediate concerns and needs in the presence of several district officials from the departments of tribal welfare, education and revenue and the District Collectorate. Schooling for children was a key issue, and Murali Mohan, through his organization, Sadhana, began crafting a community-based structure for managing education in the region that would reach out to both young children and teenagers while garnering the confidence of elders by strengthening their social and political reach.

The migratory Lambada communities of the Medak district where Murali Mohan works travel to more or less the same locations every year, staying within a radius of 100 kilometer. This regularity made it possible to start mobile schools, each with two teachers, that move with the community from location to location. Murali Mohan also succeeded in getting space from the District Collectorate to start three Residential Bridge Camps (RBCs) to help migrating children who had fallen behind, reattain their grade level. Arrangements were then made for them to stay in government hostels in the areas where their regular schools were located. Following the success of these early RBCs, the district administration has opened 10 such camps.

Murali Mohan also pioneered a home-stay system, where up to five school-aged children are housed with a senior member of their community who does not migrate. The very young, old and infirm share the same problems of insecurity when family members are away. This foster care system allows the children to enjoy uninterrupted education while providing company and support for the elders. Foster caregivers also get government welfare funds for each child they take on. The program has allowed about 80 children between the ages of 8 and 16 to stay home during the migration season, helping to free space in the residential camps. Murali Mohan is also trying to arrange for the home-stay program to get a portion of the district administration’s RBC funds.

To complement his new migrant schooling system, Mohan created a retention program to ensure the children do not drop out again. Integral to his strategy is a children’s forum, which allows youth to participate in education-related and community activities. The children keep attendance registers, maintain complaint boxes, and devise solutions to whatever issues come up. In one village, for example, girls were not attending school for lack of toilet facilities. Murali Mohan raised funds to build one toilet, and then encouraged the youth forum to fight for more. The children succeeded in getting the government administration to build 80 toilets, which changed the life and sanitation habits of the villagers, especially the women. The youth forum has also lobbied for better roads and transport in the villages to help teachers reach their schools. Projects like these build credibility for Mohan’s programs and garner support for his work in the community, while giving youth a sense of empowerment.

Another unique component of the retention program is the bilingual textbook. Mohan began his work in the region that borders the two states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The tribes there speak a mix of dialects from these areas or their own language. The government schoolteachers, however, teach only in Telugu, the language of the state. Tribal children tend to drop out quickly when they are unable to follow instructions. Mohan has devised bilingual primers in the Lambada language and engaged 35 volunteers to help teach them in the government schools.

Mohan’s schooling and retention programs have also helped solve the problem of absentee teachers during the migrating seasons. Previously, children who stayed back still could not attend school because with the majority of students away, teachers stopped coming to work. Now with full enrollment and year-round attendance, teachers must keep them open.

Leadership development for older children is another key aspect of Mohan’s work. Through his youth-based Jan Chaitanya Vedika (People’s Enlightened Group), he is building the foundation for meaningful civil participation and training a new generation of changemakers. He begins by creating a common platform and inviting young people to come and debate on various topics, creating awareness of the issues that deprive tribal communities of their basic rights and hinder development. He then uses this forum to identify natural leaders and, after a stringent selection process, recruits them to participate in village governance.

One hundred youth were selected last year. These young leaders are first assigned small jobs, like keeping track of teachers’ attendance, auditing village resources and government services, and preparing the village schools’ midday meals. They are then encouraged to come up with solutions to issues they identify, and deal directly with the local panchayat (government) or the district administration to implemented them. This strategy of engagement creates the perfect training ground for active participation in the democratic process and future leadership of the panchayat. It also helps young people learn about employment opportunities and avenues to pursue higher studies; knowledge that is currently lacking.

Mohan is now working in 100 Lambada villages in the Medak district and last year achieved 100 percent school enrollment. In the past two years, he has admitted 6,500 children to mainstream schools and is currently preparing another batch of 3,200. In 2006, the first Lambada girl to ever complete her schooling will take the graduation examination.

Mohan’s future plans are focused on expanding the school program, ensuring that the current crop of children stay in school, and strengthening this new generation of leaders. He is also preparing to share his experiences in all the multistate border areas with migratory populations, from Kashmir in the north to Orissa, West Bengal in the east, and Rajasthan and Chattisgarh in the west and midwest.

Many of Mohan’s methods and strategies, especially the youth forums, are already being replicated by 15 civil society organizations working in areas with similar problems. Child Relief and You (CRY), one of India’s most well-known organizations and donor agencies working for child rights, has showcased Murali Mohan’s work in its Childhood Matters series and has made it mandatory for beneficiaries to replicate it.




THE PERSON

Murali Mohan, comes from a family of freedom fighters. His father made history in his village of Nakarekal in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh by inviting lower-caste people to participate in family functions.

During his student days, Murali was greatly influenced by the Telangana Peasant Movement of the 1950s. Responsible for setting up the students’ union in college, Murali brought about a number of changes in the government’s education system including scholarships for tribal children. After completing his post-graduate degree, Murali began his career as an education advocate with the M.V. Foundation, a large civil society organization working to combat child labor.

Murali started his own organization, the Sadhana Educational Resource Centre, in 1992, and initiated a small education program among children from the Koya tribe. Soon the Andhra Pradesh government adopted the program and printed the books and materials he had prepared. In 1994, he started working in five villages in the Medak district, the most underdeveloped district in the state. He won praise for the community science centre and library he built in the Hatnura block, credited with increased reading, improved discipline, and a reduction in child marriages and superstitious beliefs.

Today, with over 20 years of experience in the social sector, Murali Mohan is widely respected in the area of education for his success in training teachers and activists in nonformal education methods, and for developing child-friendly models of education. Strongly opposed to the current education system’s focus on only literacy, Murali’s vision is to nurture children and youth to grow into aware, alert and conscious citizens.