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In his happiest childhood memories, Suraj is outdoors. He would run to the primary school where preschool children gathered to play and have their meals. At other times, his parents took him along to fields lush with finger millet, ginger and paddy, where he was free to wander as they tended to the land.
When he was five, Suraj was sent away to the government-run Sepaiput Ashram school about 20km away from his village in Odisha’s Koraput district. This brought an abrupt end to his traditional education: soon, he would have begun to learn the ropes of the outdoor world from his father, in the time-honoured ways of his Kondh Adivasi community.
Three years later, concerned that Suraj was neither learning nor keeping well in Sepaiput, his father enrolled him in the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), a private residential school for Adivasis in Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital city.
KISS was overwhelming. It was over 500km from his village. Education and board was free, but life was tough. The food was watery, hostel supervisors were often strict and abusive, the dorms felt stifling, and he could never celebrate Chaitra Parab and other Kondh festivals, part of his customs. Despite all this, it was still school and he wanted to study. He seldom complained to his parents, but when he did, they told him to “adjust,” because it was better than “returning to herd cows in the village.”
When things started to settle down, he harboured dreams of a job in a “company” in the city. Then, the pandemic struck, the school was closed and he returned to his village.
Here, he began to attend meetings of the Maliparbat Surakhya Samiti with his father. At the time, the burning issue was the government’s renewal of a lease that allowed Hindalco Industries Limited, part of the Aditya Birla Group, to mine Maliparbat for bauxite. 
The Samiti was established in 2003 to safeguard jal, jangal, jameen—water, forest, earth—from mining. The site was sacred to local Adivasis and Dalits, home to a revered cave called Pakuli Debi. The forested hill was also a source of several perennial streams which nourish the Kolab, a river that is the lifeline of 44 villages in the region, including Suraj’s. Locals believed that mining activity would strip the hill bare, dry the streams and have a disastrous impact on agriculture in the region.
It was at one of those Samiti meetings that Suraj first encountered a dilemma that the elders of his community were confronted with: their children were studying in schools funded by the very corporations that they were fighting.
Suraj is 17 this year. Like all the children you will meet in this story, his name and that of his village have been changed or screened to protect their identities. “I used to play kabaddi before but I’ve been training at the gym these days,” he told me when I met him in June. In his brief time back home, he had been through a lot: the might of mining companies, police harassment, the fear of losing his home. “That’s why I want to be strong,” he said.
Integration And Assimilation
disha has the second highest Adivasi population in India after Madhya Pradesh. Sixty-two diverse Adivasi communities live in the state and form close to a quarter of its population. Hundreds of thousands of Adivasi children study in an array of government- and private-run residential schools meant largely, if not always exclusively, for them.
Odisha’s Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste Development department manages 1,734 residential institutions.  The state runs 6,500 hostels for over 570,000 SC and ST students. The government continues to open more such schools, including “mega” complexes in mining districts that will be built as public-private partnerships.
In 2020, while inaugurating the Adani-KISS residential school in Mayurbhanj, Odisha’s chief minister Naveen Patnaik declared that education was the most important tool for the “transformation” of Adivasi children. The private school was built at the cost of ₹60 crore, spread over 50 acres and has the capacity to house 1,500 students. 
But politicians’ speeches are not the only headlines emerging from these residential schools. Every other month, regional newspapers carry grim news of sexual assault, pregnancy or death by suicide in hostel premises. According to an RTI response received by The Economic Times in August 2015, Odisha reported 155 deaths and 16 cases of sexual abuse in state-run residential schools between 2010 and 2015. These were the raw numbers after some districts had not sent in any data, and with no data at all to account for private schools.
On paper, and for decades now, the goal of India’s, and by extension Odisha’s, educational policy has been integration: the idea that indigenous people can maintain their culture while adapting to a national mainstream. But with their continued emphasis on residential schooling, the schemes have functioned as assimilative, and tribal students are grappling with a sense of deracination as their own identity gets wiped out by exposure to non-inclusive curriculums.
Fundamentally, mining interest in Odisha and the government’s single-minded pursuit of development through industrialisation demands an actual uprooting of Adivasis. Malvika Gupta, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford who has researched and written extensively on the issue, said it essentially amounts to “companies extracting children from their communities through education.” 
Corporate commitment to education is “widely praised on a very superficial understanding,” Gupta said to me, but it is in fact systematically eroding young tribal people’s connections with their parents, values, and land.
We don’t force people to come and attend residential schools,” Abdaal M. Akhtar, collector and district magistrate of Koraput, told me. “Those who wish to be educated in normal village schools can be educated there. It is open to the parents’ choice.”
Akhtar acknowledged the concerns that Adivasi communities might have. “Being separated from family for long periods, losing out on traditional knowledge and culture, these concerns are often raised. Which is why it is an optional system.”
But neighbourhood schools have been disappearing for some time now. In 2014, the School and Mass Education Department of Odisha began closing schools with low enrolment.
Even where local schools exist, the quality of education is so poor that many Adivasi parents are convinced that they’ll open very few doors for their children. In the face of a dismantled traditional economy, Gupta said, parents want their children to receive modern education and become literate at all costs. In some cases, this idea has been crystallised by their own bitter experiences.
“We met Adivasi parents who consciously try to ensure their children do not speak their tribal languages, knowing how they themselves were humiliated or punished for speaking them,” Gupta told me. Roop Singh Majhi, one of the many parents I met in Kalahandi district this summer, said he preferred that the children lived in hostels because they “become useless when they live with us.”
Since 2017, a Niti Aayog programme has been aiming to improve the quality of education by essentially merging low-enrolment schools with bigger schools so that resources, including teachers, could be pooled. Akhtar himself attributed the push for residential schooling to a lack of teachers as well as the unwillingness of teachers to serve in far-flung villages.
Officially, 4,800 village schools have been shut for merger with schools nearby. Anil Pradhan, convener of the Odisha Right to Education Forum, said the number is likely higher, and that Adivasi districts have seen the greatest number of closures. In such circumstances, he added, many parents hardly had any say or choice.
Virginius Xaxa, author and visiting professor at the Institute for Human Development in Delhi, described it as a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Local day schools are disappearing because of the emphasis on residential ones. “You find that since people are going to boarding schools, there are not enough children in the village,” he told me. This kicks off a cycle that leads to the closing of primary and upper primary schools, and an eventual depopulation of villages over generations. Eventually, Xaxa said, “they’ll take away the land because there has to be mining” and “there will be no people left to resist.”
Akhtar, the bureaucrat, argued that the state had moved away from infantilising Adivasis. Instead, it was taking the view that Adivasis could think for themselves, whether it be about mining, jobs, or education.
But the official view is not as straightforward as that. Some years ago, a government official reportedly told Vidhya Das, co-founder of the non-profit Agragamee, that tribal children couldn’t be expected to learn in a free atmosphere. “They need a controlled atmosphere where they’ll be able to learn,” she recalled him saying when I interviewed her for a different story in 2019. “So, put them in a hostel.”
The “controlled atmosphere” often creates a pall of fear in the children. Over two different reporting assignments in 2018 and 2022, I spoke to several children who go to residential schools, almost all of whom told me that they did not confide in their parents or teachers if things went wrong at school.
In Dekapar village of Koraput district, Asmita Hantal, a mother of three boys, two of whom live an hour away in hostels, said she often spent her days wondering if her children were sleeping and eating adequately. But, afraid of the school staff, the boys rarely shared what their days were really like. “If my heart feels too heavy,” she said, “I go visit them.”
n the 1920s, the educator A.V. Thakkar established Ashram schools for tribal communities in Gujarat. They were supposed to be inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams and his principles of basic education, centred around local knowledge and working with the hands. Thakkar’s Ashram schools were also meant to provide an alternative to—even counter—the missionary-run boarding schools. 
“If it is desired to make him a hard-working citizen, it is necessary to tackle the Adivasi child first,” the man known as ‘Thakkar Bapa’ proclaimed in a 1941 speech. “Hence the necessity for residential vocational schools, where the child can be moulded into an industrious citizen. Such education must be made absolutely free in most cases.”
After independence, the Indian government started establishing its own Ashram schools, which borrowed heavily from the ethos of the ones set up by Thakkar. They were meant to serve as “inter-village” schools for children in small, scattered hamlets, as recommended by a government committee chaired by anthropologist Verrier Elwin in 1960. In the committee’s report, Elwin had highlighted the “dangers” of separating young boys from others in their village, which would “undoubtedly make it more likely that when they grow up, they will want to go away from their villages and homes.”
In the years since, many government committees have made recommendations for integrating aspects of the tribal way of life in the school curriculum: textbooks in tribal languages, revising material to make it more relevant to tribal culture and environment, considering agricultural cycles and local festivals in school timings. A report on education published in 1994 by Odisha’s tribal welfare department even drew up a calendar of rituals and periods of forest collection so that school calendars could be in sync with them. 
Simultaneously, and almost in contradiction, the same committees and reports also recommended the establishment of many more residential schools. The reasons were centred around ensuring higher enrollment, retention, and literacy rates.
By the 1990s, thousands of government and private residential schools, including many run by Hindu religious organisations, were dedicated to the education of Adivasis across India.  But few had integrated their culture into the curriculum. Gupta, the doctoral student, attributed this selective implementation to pervasive “anti-tribal prejudice and cultural racism.”
A 2014 committee report on development indicators among tribals, headed by Virginius Xaxa and the latest such Union government report to date, explicitly acknowledged that the government’s “guiding principle” in the years after independence was that “savage and wild” tribal people “needed to be civilised by the means of education outside the tribal social and cultural life.”
This importance placed on residential schooling, the report explained, later led to the “Ashramisation” of tribal education.  Odisha, whose most recent evaluation of Ashram schools in 2019 begins by referring to the “backwardness” of children from Scheduled Tribes, provides among the starkest examples of this.
Losing Their Tongue
very other Sunday for several years, Mayuri and her classmates sat in their dorms and cut each other’s hair until it was only a few inches long.
“I think they asked us to cut our hair because we were so many children and we wouldn’t be able to take care of it,” she said. “We’d spend all our time combing and get late for class.” It did not feel bad, she quickly added, “but I would often cry. Because no one else back in the village would have hair like mine.” Later, she got used to the “boys’ cut.”
Mayuri turned 16 this year. She spent almost ten formative years in KISS, hundreds of kilometres away from her village in Koraput district. When I asked her to talk me through her first day at KISS, she recalled two things: the huge buildings, and her tears. The awe of being in a concrete city and school for the first time was mixed with sadness that her home was out of reach.
There were some other things she noticed about her transition, like the fact that she went from a place where she knew everyone by face or name to one where “even if you knew someone who studied there, you wouldn’t be able to locate or meet them.” (Approximately 30,000 tribal students are enrolled in KISS’ Bhubaneswar campus.)
KISS is a co-ed school, but boys and girls are not allowed to interact. Mayuri said she has stopped interacting with boys even outside the school. When I asked if her village had a similar rule, she shook her head from side to side, and went quiet for a moment. So, it has become a habit not to speak to boys, I asked, trying to get her to elaborate. “Yes,” she said, without explanation.
I spoke to Mayuri on the terrace of her home in June this year. With board exams done, she was home for a short break until classes began again. Her mother was also on the terrace, spreading out the cashew nuts that were drying on a blue tarpaulin sheet. The fact of her daughter living far away didn’t perplex her. “Our parents didn’t educate us,” she said. “At least we’re ensuring our children receive good education.”
Around us were lush green fields irrigated by streams from the Mali Parbat. Mayuri is aware that most villagers, including her parents, are involved in the movement to save the hills. It felt sad, she said, to think about how mining will affect cultivation for them. (“Will they take away our parbat?” she asked me at one point in our interview.) But she could see that cultivation wasn’t easy. “It is very difficult for us to sustain our livelihood here in the village,” she said. “It’s not like living in a town where you have jobs and all kinds of conveniences. So I want to study well and go ahead in life.”
Mayuri said she speaks her mother tongue Desia, an Odia dialect spoken by many Adivasis in the region.But almost all the children I interviewed in three different districts in the course of two weeks this summer told me otherwise. At the other end of Mayuri’s village, 19-year-old Ravi said he could barely speak his native language of Parji.
“It wasn’t like this when I was a child,” he explained. “But I come home for just two months every year.” Even in those months, he preferred to stay with relatives in a town nearby where, like in school, he could continue to speak in Odia. He was no longer very dependent on his language, he said. But communicating with his own family was not effortless. His parents spoke to him in Parji, and he spoke to them in Odia. His sister also attends KISS but he told me he isn’t allowed to speak to her on campus.
Most Adivasi languages have long traditions, said Ganesh Devy, who carried out the ambitious and exhaustive Peoples’ Linguistic Survey of India. Kondhs in Odisha, for instance, have been speaking their language for 3,000 or more years, he said. The languages “have acquired the ability to grasp the ecological surroundings” and also encapsulate some of the oldest historical memories in metaphors and myths. “The day the languages are lost,” Devy added, “the community fragments.”
Normally, fragmentation would mean people taking up another language, Devy explained. But in Adivasi culture, where most of the cultural exchange remains oral, in the form of dance, song, speech, and conversation, the impact is deeply felt.
Exclusion of tribal languages from schools is seen as one of the main reasons for their decline. And in classrooms, the language gap translates to poor learning, retention, and self-esteem.
Since 2007, a mother-tongue based multilingual education program in Odisha has mandated that lessons in early grades be imparted in the child’s tribal language, and the programme has been formalised since 2014. But the policy continues to be poorly implemented, especially in residential schools. 
“The implicit bias among officials is that tribal languages are impoverished and they cannot be used,” said Professor Ajit Mohanty, who chaired the policy drafting committee. “They know that if you bring development, tribal culture as well as language will gradually assimilate into mainstream culture. That is the kind of hope.”
The Conveyor Belt
n 5 June this year, thousands of Adivasis who live in villages inside or on the periphery of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary gathered to protest a proposed mining project in the area. In scorching heat, Adivasi leaders and environmentalists took turns to engage the crowd with chants and speeches from a makeshift stage.
One of the community leaders present was Lado Sikaka, from the Dongria Kondh community. Back in 2005, when the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti had begun to oppose bauxite mining by London-based Vedanta Resources in the Niyamgiri Hills, police and government officials often asked villagers to send their children to Bhubaneswar, more than 400km away, to access quality schooling.
“Once mining starts, we will assign them jobs,” they reportedly told Sikaka. “Why should they give our children jobs only after taking away our land?” Sikaka said. “Save our land and hills and then give us jobs. We will agree to that.” He refused the officials.
Even now, most children in Sikaka’s village stay back. It is a pity, Sikaka said, because quality education is important. “We want the government to provide us with education,” he said. “But if the government wants to help us, let them build schools in every village and teach us in our own language.”
Rayagada district, east of the Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary, is among those which have seen the most closures of village schools. It’s also where the government runs at least three residential complexes for girls from tribes designated as particularly vulnerable. In 2012, Vedanta signed a Memorandum of Understanding with KISS to fund the education of Adivasi children from Rayagada, who were primarily from the Dongria Kondh community. 
Similarly, companies like NALCO, Tata Steel and the Aditya Birla Group have tied up with KISS to enrol students from mining-interest areas like Kalinganagar,  Koraput, and Angul. Two years after the KISS-Adani school was inaugurated, a high-level clearance authority headed by the chief minister approved Adani’s proposal for mining projects worth over ₹57,000 crore, including in Rayagada.
In the corridors of government, the belief is that residential schooling prevents tribal children from being influenced by Naxal movements. In 2017, a report by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs described the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti as a front organisation for Maoists which was using “the displacement of local communities” as their “main plank.”
“What does the constitution say? It is all in the law,” Sikaka added. “But when we protest, when we revolt for our rights, they call us Maoists and arrest us.”
Since at least 2008, the Union home ministry has provided financial assistance to states to construct residential schools in Naxal-affected areas, including in Odisha.  KISS founder Achyuta Samanta has often credited his institution for keeping children from becoming “criminals” and joining the Maoist fold.  Samanta is a Member of Parliament from the ruling Biju Janata Dal party. After initially agreeing to an interview, he did not speak to me for this report in spite of repeated requests over months.
The schools do offer the promise of jobs. To convince parents to send their children to residential schools, institutions stress on the professional aspect of their education. “But how many young people from the village will get these jobs in mining companies?” asked Roop Singh Majhi of Amathaguda, whose son studies in the sixth standard in Bhubaneswar. “Some children who get jobs in the cities will stay there. They’ll chase away the rest of them.”
“Modern industrial growth requires resources of the region—minerals, water or energy. It does not require people,” noted the co-authors of a 2006 report by the Centre for Science and Environment. The report found that while mineral production in Odisha increased three-fold between the years 1999 and 2005, employment fell by 20 percent.
“Mining companies are interested in getting people ousted from mineral-rich areas,” Ganesh Devy told me.  “A good way to do that is to put children into residential schools which becomes a conveyor belt for the urbanisation process.”
Dasa Khora, a native of Bhitarkota village in Koraput, spoke to me about what he thought was lost in this process. The nights of his own youth were filled with song, dance, and the sound of the dungdunga in the traditional spaces of the community. Here, they gathered to share stories, history and pass along knowledge about the world they inhabited. 
Over the years, that tradition had disappeared in the face of formalised religion and education. Khora’s children left the village to study but he regretted that they never got to experience this part of their culture. Now, with mining in the picture, their entire way of life was threatened.
“That’s how it is for us,” he said. “Damned if you study, damned if you don’t.”
A Devastating Silence
or long periods of history, residential schools were weaponised by European colonisers. Together with the Christian missionaries, separating indigenous children from their families for schooling was part of government policy in countries like Canada, United States, Norway, New Zealand, and Australia. Several of these schools were not closed down until well into the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Patterns and policies differed across the globe, but the purpose was the same: “to assimilate indigenous people into the dominant society in which they lived.”  The boarding schools were meant to “provide a means for indigenous people to achieve status” but what also ended up happening was the eradication of entire cultures and identities.
The experiences documented by former students of these schools eerily echo some of the things I heard from Adivasi children like Mayuri and Suraj. Food and housing were of low quality; exposure to physical and sexual abuse was common; there were strict rules against contacting one’s family. Students’ long hair, often spiritually and culturally important to them as indigenous people, was forcibly cut.
Dr. Lorna Wanosts’a7 Williams, associate professor emeritus of Indigenous Education at the University of Victoria, was sent to a residential school as a six-year-old. She recalled the sadness in her parents’ eyes as they saw her off at the train station. “I was only there for three years, but it was long enough,” she said.
She was a “confused mess” at the end of those years, requiring four months of hospitalisation to recover. “I’d broken my foot, it wasn’t set properly. I was ill with hepatitis,” she said. “I had lost all my ability to communicate, so I lost my language, Lil’wat. I lost the little bit of English I knew.”
Williams equated the separation of a child from an indigenous community as forcing the latter to live in a world of “devastating silence.” “When children come home, they can no longer communicate with their family,” she said. “And they’ve been taught that they need to want something beyond their family, beyond their community, beyond their land. And then when those children do go beyond their families and their communities and try to live in that other world, they are viewed as less than.”
Since the 1980s, there has been a public reckoning of this inconvenient history in North America and Oceania. In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada acknowledged the role of residential schooling in a “conscious policy of cultural genocide” that the government pursued “because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.” 
“It’s important to learn from the experience of others,” said Williams, referring to the situation in India. “We talk about what’s happened to us here in Canada as being in the past. But it is with us today. And we are having to seek to counter that experience in history. And it takes hard work and generations of work to do that.” 
Observers have suggested that India is on an identical path. In an email to me, Gupta posited that the “assimilationism in India and other ‘developing countries’ has not been examined so critically, partly because of the idea that these countries need to ‘develop’ fast and along ‘western/modern’ lines that promote a monolithic national identity."
“If you think of residential schools as being a key feature of a policy of forced assimilation, then what happened in Canada 150 years ago is happening in India now,” Felix Padel, research associate at the University of Sussex, said when we met for an interview in Delhi. “And that’s what very few people are willing to look at.”
“How will your mind feel free?”
n Pottangi block in Koraput district, locals have been resisting NALCO’s lease to mine the Serubandha Hills for bauxite, following the expansion of its alumina refinery in Damanjodi nearby.
In Malkarbandha village here, the primary school was shut about three years ago, and almost every child is enrolled in a residential school. Over the last few years, NALCO has been funding the education of children to KISS as part of a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative.
Rabindra Guntha, who availed of this benefit for his son six years ago, admitted that it is an odd and conflicting circumstance. “But if everyone else is sending their child, why shouldn’t I?” he said. “I thought of the good it would do. I am just one person and the decision I make alone will make no difference.”
Both of Guntha’s children have been studying in KISS for several years. During every visit there, he is baffled by the packed rooms and how crowded it gets. “You can’t identify anyone. They make everyone wear the same uniform, they all look the same.”
Baidyanath Gemen, who is from a caste designated OBC and is a resident of neighbouring Sepaiput village, is convinced that the homogenous, industrial-oriented education in residential schools puts paid to any desire young people may have to join the andolan—the anti-mining struggle—of their communities. “They wouldn’t want to hold an axe and plough the field,” he told me. There will be no krantikari”—spirit of resistance—“left here then. They’ll just come and take away our land.”
But, sometimes, the andolan finds a way to creep into the lives of students.
In September last year, Suraj was staying with a relative in a town nearby so he could access online classes conducted by his teachers at KISS. But he returned to his village to join his parents and hundreds of others on a march to the site of a public hearing hosted by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board about the renewed mining lease in favour of Hindalco. 
They reached to find the meeting already underway with a select group of villagers and outsiders, who were in favour of the mining project. Protests erupted, and angry residents dismantled the makeshift tent, breaking chairs and tables. The hearing was cancelled.
A few days later, Suraj accompanied his sister-in-law who was in labour to a hospital. There, the police took him into custody without explanation to the family. Suraj was among 28 people arrested. Some of the charges were serious: rioting and attempt to murder. He spent about three months detained in a juvenile home, 300km from his village.
Government officials conducted the rescheduled public hearing on 22 November, as Suraj and others languished behind bars. The venue was fenced with barbed wire, and was watched over by a heavy police deployment. Hundreds of villagers were prevented from attending. The matter is now in court.
Suraj told me he made friends at the juvenile centre. There was some time allotted for indoor games and TV. “I realised that our schools were just like jail,” he said. “They don’t really let you out. How will your mind feel free that way?”
After he returned to his village on bail, he found that police officers were still carrying out patrols. He’d tense every time he saw them. When school finally reopened, he was torn about going back. “The company people run the school,” he told his parents.
But his parents asked him to go and complete his tenth standard. When you return a year later, they said, the andolan will still be here.
Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist reporting on gender, social justice, and global health and development. You can read more of her work on her website.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.