Why is Suchana’s work necessary?
Poverty in Birbhum, West Bengal
Birbhum is a poor district in West Bengal, ranking 14th out of 17 districts on the Human Development Index. West Bengal’s HDI ranks 20th of 32 states in India. Social and economic inequality means that certain groups of people are worse off than average – here that means indigenous adivasis and the lowest caste groups, scheduled castes.
In primary education in West Bengal, the problem is now less about enrollment (92% of primary aged children are enrolled) than about the quality of learning achieved in schools. Primary schools have a variety of difficulties: many schools teach several class groups in one room; some ‘schools’ have no room at all; teacher student ratios are high (1:47); many schools consist of just a room with a blackboard. One result of this is that many children do not get basic skills in literacy and numeracy from primary schools, and most of these children are from socially disadvantaged groups. The literacy rate in West Bengal generally is 62%, but for adivasi and scheduled castes it is much lower, and for adult adivasi women it may be as low as 5%.
Many children do not have the opportunity to learn even in the early primary years in their mother tongue, and very few get support in the transition from mother tongue to the language of education. Here, this means that adivasi children struggle to acquire literacy in Bengali, a language which they do not understand when they start school.
The demand for education is growing and more children are progressing to secondary school than a decade ago. But with standards of attainment low at the primary stage, around ⅔ drop out before their Class 10 exams because they cannot cope with the curriculum and demands of exams, do not get much attention in schools with huge classes of over 100 children, and cannot get help from their parents who hardly went to school. Not surprisingly, a high proportion of dropouts are from socially disadvantaged groups.
Conditions in the villages are basic. Virtually no-one has a latrine; people and animals live very close together; nutrition is poor; and many children do not get fully vaccinated, despite the proximity of the diseases for which vaccines are available. There are high incidences of chronic skin diseases, diarrhoea, worms, anaemia especially amongst women and ‘viral fever’, especially during the monsoon when sanitation is difficult to maintain. Ante-natal care and medically supervised childbirth are rare privileges.
Health services in the area do exist, but they are under-resourced, overcrowded, erratic, and not easy to access for the socially excluded. Although they are nominally free, the costs of transport, medicines, and the requirement that a family member accompanies a patient at all times, and whose wages are therefore lost, can turn even ‘routine’ health crises into financial disasters which can take months or years to recover from.
Structured forms of social inequality such as caste and gender are very deep-rooted in most societies. Here, caste and gender are both sources of relatively rigid ideologies which place people in unequal relationships with each other. This means that adivasi women and girls from Santal and Kora groups are disadvantaged both by community-based social exclusion and by gender. Although some aspects of this are changing, generally it remains the case that most women, and especially those from disadvantaged groups, are excluded from decision making and public life and face additional difficulties accessing basic services such as education and health.