“The times are changed, even as we are changed in them,” sings the Munda community of Kantalsuan village – a village surrounded by forest and streams and carved out of forest land in Padang panchayat of Telkoi block in Keonjhar district.

As darkness descends on Kantalsuan village one could see a small group of men in their forties or fifties heading to a particular destination. It is revealed that the place is the home of Laxmidhar Chatar in his sixties fondly called “Kaka” by the villagers. There are a few others including women, huddled before the television set enjoying some program. Kaka’s is the only television in the hamlet and hence the gathering. But there is another pretty good reason for the huddle. Soon the elderly group is busy learning alphabets and their own signature with help from Kaka. This has been the scene almost every evening since Kaka first came to this village after getting married. Empowering the Munda community by teaching them to read and write has been his life mission, a constant – only the lantern around which people huddled when there was no electricity and which was synonymous to Kaka’s literacy drive has been replaced by an electric bulb and newly acquired television set.

Yet not so very long ago when wild animals paraded the forests around the village the Munda community had no idea what education could do to them. They languished in darkness. Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy engulfed them like vices. The adults toiled as manual labourers and children went to graze cattle and goats instead of going to school. In case of sickness or medical requirements reaching hospital was an arduous affair. During the four months of rainy season it was nearly impossible to venture out for work. Flash floods in the streams surrounding all the hamlets made it impossible for the people to venture out for work.

Contrasting the times, Laxman Munda, the village Head reminisces, “Our fathers used to go for labour in exchange for two Pie (1 Pie = half Kg) grains but now finding labourer is not easy, even for 4 Pie of grains, food and handia (rice beer) people are not willing … they want to work in mines and factories… And children! Now you won’t see a single one in the village grazing goats … all are in schools. These children want to do government service and join Army … Just some time back, during nights we used burn wicks and there was only one lantern in the village … that of Kaka. He used it to show us light and was the one to stoke the first flames of transformation in our community. Today with support from ASHA-ChildFund India we have electricity and school in our village though we had to fight for it.”

From starting a school in the village to effecting the construction of a bridge over the Balangi stream at the village entrance solidarity shown by the community is quite evident. This transformation has been mainly due to the initiatives of ASHA-ChildFund India in educating and spreading awareness among the people, the fire of which was first ignited by Laxmidhar Chatar, Alias Kaka. Since the entry of ASHA-ChildFund India it has been the back bone of the village; ASHA-ChildFund has lent voice, credence and support to the community.

When Kaka came to the village in 1998 he saw the squalor the Munda community lived in. Since he had some education, he understood that the only way the community could come out of their desperate condition was through education. The first thing Kaka did was to induce the village elders into discussion regarding various problems the community faced. He involved the youth, instilled self confidence in them and made them realize their potential. He talked to them on the importance of education and how it can transform their society. He organized the children from all the three hamlets of the village and asked them to learn alphabets. Under the government’s Adult Education Program Kaka received one slate, one lantern and kerosene. With these resources he started a “Chatasali” (Introductory informal School) where both children and adults would come and learn how to read and write. Suresh Majhi, one of the earliest learners in Kaka’s Chatasali, and the first one to set foot in high school, speaks of Kaka, “Every evening we went to Kaka’s place. He would teach us to read and write. We would then eat the rice we brought along with us and slept there at his place… He is the first person who showed us light and gave us hope … We began believing in ourselves, Kaka had ignited our minds.”

From nearby village Makapada, another educated youth Baikuntha Mahanta, visited Kantalsuan in search of labourers. He heard about the efforts of the Munda children to study and volunteered to teach them in the Chatasali. That evening the village elders called for a community meeting and discussed the matter. They allowed Baikuntha to go ahead. Twelve children continued in the Chatasali till class V and took lessons from him in lieu of a handful of rice per child. However he got a teaching job elsewhere and left. The Chatasali broke down and with it the community’s initiative for children’s education was left orphaned. These twelve children discontinued schooling after class V.

When ASHA-ChildFund started its intervention in 2005 the flames of education that had wiped out in the community were again tweaked. Its workers interacted with the villagers. They conducted frequent meetings with mothers, village elders, youth and children. They explained the importance of education and undertook awareness campaigns on health and child rights. ASHA also identified children to provide financial assistance to them under the sponsorship program of ChildFund. They revived the Chatsali in the village. Subsequently ASHA transformed it to a Balwadi center with 26 children between 3 – 5 years of age that gradually increased to 40. ASHA-ChildFund India also started a WRIP (Writing and Reading Improvement Program) center and a child club with 40 members.

Having taken care of the small children, the Munda community wished for a school in their village. The nearest school was far away and children would not go there. Many children (6 – 14 Years age) were still out of school and wasting themselves and it was necessary to mainstream them. ASHA stepped up its contact programs and at the same time capacitated the community members. Through the child club and WRIP center ASHA imparted knowledge and education on child rights and social issues such as early marriage, malnutrition and schooling. The child club continued with activities well supported by ASHA. After getting life skill education from ChildFund the members of the child club organized 87 children from the village and held meeting every month to build their confidence. The members conducted rallies and awareness campaigns in the community. They along with other adolescent girls and boys from the village also met the Block Administration to pursue the issue of opening the school in their village. The sponsorship program also generated a lot of steam and the child club played stellar role in building up momentum for what seemed to be a long battle for getting a school in their village.

In 2008 it was decided that a demand letter would be presented before the Government for opening the school in the village. The community organized themselves behind ASHA and presented their demand before the village meeting. Devanand Sahoo who first taught in the nearby school helped in the paper works. The demand was then presented before the Block Development Officer (BDO) who assured the villagers that he would help in the matter.

After a gap of few months they again met the BDO who once again assured them of action. This contact program with the BDO and concerned officials continued for almost a year but it could not move beyond the Education department. Patience was running out among the community and they prepared for fresh agitation. In the meantime the BDO was transferred and a new BDO came in his place. The process was renewed with ASHA taking the lead. Finally the community members mobilized by ASHA decided to meet the District Collector. The women folk too joined the struggle and sat on dharnas before the district officials. The members of the child club also held protest rallies. The government finally took notice of the struggle in the year 2011. Soon after, the school was started by admitting 40 children from the village.

The impact of this commendable initiative by the community spread to other parts and as a result girls who never ever enrolled too wanted to go to school. With the help of ASHA 6 girls were admitted in Krushnapur Sevashram School out of which two would be entering graduation next year. Udaynath Munda, former ward member of the village felt happy about the increasing girl child education. He said, “Earlier, ‘girls going to school’ was something unheard of. They worked at home or looked after the goats… Now girls are more interested than boys to go to school and even outnumber them in education… All the girls of our village are either in regular schools or in Sevashrams and many of them are getting stipend from the government.”

Today the community vibrates with positive mindset. It feels proud of its success and never forgets to give credit to ASHA-ChildFund for the turn around. They are now effectively monitoring the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) and availability and use of Teaching Learning Materials (TLM) through the School Management Committee (SMC). They are ensuring the regular attendance of teachers in the school. Bate Munda, SMC Chairman remarks “This year (2014) just after the Dussera holidays both the teachers remained absent for nearly 15 days … children were left without the MDM. We called at the Toll free number. The very next day a team from Education department visited the school and issued notice to the teachers. Both the teachers joined the school the next day itself and after this incident whenever the teachers go on leave, they apply to the SMC …”

The villagers prepare this time to initiate the process of starting an Anganwadi center in the adjoining hamlet and a youth club in the village. A glimmer of hope shown by Kaka at the beginning and ASHA – ChildFund India taking up every cause has transformed the community to meet new challenges as they happily sing, “Still ending and beginning still.”