From software to nowhere

Ravindra Reddy (right) and his uncle Srinivas Reddy ... yearning to do a course that is out of his reach.  

VERY few dhabhas have menial help as highly qualified as C. Ravindra Reddy. Only, he is qualified to do something else. Ravindra is a B.Sc. (Computers) "First Class" graduate — but works as a waiter in rural Andhra Pradesh. He also helps run the small store at this dhabha in the C. K. Palli mandal of Anantapur district. Ravindra graduated from P.V.K.K. Degree College, Anantapur, in March this year, the first of his family to cross Standard X. If he got a first class it was "because my family helped with what little money they had". They had four acres shared by seven people.

Hit by the ongoing agricultural crisis, the family tried running a dhabha. "Still, they put up Rs. 25,000 for my fees at a private college, and supported me all the three years that I studied in Anantapur town, away from home." And his unlettered parents and uncle also "supported my younger sister Madhavi". She is now in her first year in a degree course.

Ravindra is desperately keen on a Master's in Computer Applications. But he has no way of making the money for it. "I tried at Bangalore, but they wanted too much — a donation of Rs. 1.2 lakhs plus Rs. 50,000 a year. Nor can I afford the MCA `coaching class' in Anantapur that costs Rs. 25,000 for just a six-month course." No way, as by this time even the dhabha was hit by the financial crisis coursing through the countryside.

Only six students in Ravindra's class of 26 passed the B.Sc. Computers course. He was one of only two who got a first division. Yet, three others who scored lower marks than he did are into the M.Sc. Computers course in Hosur. Ravindra does not grudge them that. "But they could pay Rs. 1 lakh as `donation'. Where can my family find that kind of money?"

He cannot earn his way because there are no jobs. Also because, as his uncle Srinivasa Reddy says in anguish, "we had to keep him as a waiter here in the dhabha. It saved us that much money. He's a bright boy and we're proud of him. We would send him today if we could. However, the past few years in agriculture have been a disaster.

"We spent Rs. 45,000 on three borewells, but all of them failed. This drought comes on top of our other problems. We can't earn anything." The money for the borewells came from private loans with crushing rates of interest since formal credit for small farmers dried up in the 1990s. The amount has piled up and they could lose both dhabha and lands. Now, with the shrinking purchasing power of their clients "even this dhabha is in trouble. We might have to lease it out to someone. We're totally broke." Ravindra, though, hopes something will happen. "I really want to do that course, sir."

The huge farming crisis has claimed many casualties in education. Ravindra is merely one of the more qualified victims. Bankrupt small farmers are pulling their children out of school and college to work on the farm. Landless labourers are taking their children out to join the family on long journeys as migrant workers. This exodus goes well beyond `normal' or annual drop out rates.

Manjula passed her Standard X exam with a first class and was excited about studying further. "I got 68 per cent in English, my favourite subject." Overall, she scored 378 out of 600 and topped the class among girls. Manjula's landless family lives in Gangavaram village in Belguppa mandal of Anantpur. Few people in Gangavaram can follow even a couple of phrases in her favourite subject. So she has no one to practise her English on. Her family is broke, so tuitions are out. Remarkably, she still does well.

But Manjula is now, like her father was, a landless labourer. "We were very poor anyway. Then my father died, so I had to quit school and help my mother run the home." But she sees to it that younger sister Shailaja, in Standard IX takes school seriously. Of herself, she says: "I want to study too, sir. But you can see our condition. I can't afford a seat."

Mahbunagar district in Telangana fares no better. In the mandal headquarters of Ganpur, B. Tiripathaiah has dropped out of Inter second year from the Government Junior College here. He believes a third of all the students in his college may have quit. Meanwhile, another section attends on and off whenever the situation does not compel them to do manual labour.

The crisis has hit all three government high schools here too. Most of those dropping out to help their families survive will never return to studies again.

The labour contractors taking them out of the district will ensure that. Every day, more families enter the bondage of the contractors.

Ganpur ex-sarpanch K. Ramesh asks: "People migrate taking the bigger children for work. How can the smaller ones be left behind alone?"

In the dalit basti of Ganpur, very few reach Standard X. Krishna did, but had to quit this year. He says he will return to school if his parents didn't need his labour.

"Fifteen others dropped out with me," he says. Including students from better-off social groups. Krishna's labour contractor takes him to Satara in Maharashtra. There he labours 12 hours a day at construction sites for Rs.20 to Rs.25 daily. For food, "just bad rice with some dal or some days a little vegetable (with no dal). No bidis, no chai, nothing else."

Kondaiah, his neighbour, points out: "In this basti, 500 people are just back from such contract labour. Another 500 have just left. There's not a day's work to do here. How can the children go to school?"

In many villages, we found 30 or more students had quit this season. "Several are not showing up even to collect their scholarships," says lecturer Jairam Reddy at the Government Degree College, Kalyandurg in Anantapur. "Scholarship money worth Rs. 28,000 has been returned this year." A scholarship is worth Rs. 250 a month. But by migrating to work as manual labour, poor students have a chance of earning a little more than that. Principal G. Mallanna is hopeful things will improve. But, he says, education in general has been hit by higher rates of "seasonal absenteeism" this year.

Other factors, such as the growing commercialisation and privatisation of education, sharpen this fallout of the farm crisis. "Self-financed" courses, for instance, have had profound effects. One is that poorer students get squeezed out. Another is that there are almost no girls in them. These courses are the "good ones" — computers, commerce and the like. Cash-strapped parents simply withdraw girls or push them to the "free education" stream. Which means that girls are out of those courses holding hopes of jobs. The liberalisation years have not been good for education in Anantapur.

At the school level, dalit and adivasi students are worst off. In Anantapur, the Rural Development Trust, a leading NGO, has come up with startling data. The RDT surveyed just 10 SC/ST colonies — not their whole villages. Those colonies saw 63 students drop out this season, 30 directly citing "financial problems" as the cause. Yet, even that appalling figure does not tell the whole story.

"Detained" students make up the second biggest group — 28. Many students are "detained" for lack of attendance. Simply put, they were working for their families and lost on attendance. Others "discontinued", unable to cope with the burden of work and studies together in a time of crisis.

Well over a third of the dropouts were from Standards X, XI and XII and would not have quit in better times. At least not so many of them. Most of those dropping out at this stage were "detained". Mainly youngsters absenting themselves a lot to help their families stave off collapse.

The staff in many colleges confirmed a higher dropout and absenteeism rates. "With this financial crunch," says one Principal, "how can it not happen?" However, this rarely finds its way onto the record. Principals telling the truth are likely to be penalised for "poor performance". Better to cook up the numbers. "That is how governments lie to themselves," says a top district official. "An officer recording figures honestly will be seen as an inefficient one. More so when a neighbouring district produces figures that are music to the ears of the Government."

As we leave Gangavaram, Manjula intercepts us at the edge of the village. "I really would like to do a degree course. If you meet the collector, please tell him. You know the other girl who got a first class along with me? That's Geetha. She's also a good student, sir. We do joint studies and work even better that way. We want a chance."

P. Sainath is one of the two recipients of the A. H. Boerma Award 2001 granted recently for his contribution in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian media.