Altruistic Provision of Education & Healthcare: Lok Biradari Prakalp, Hemalkasa, Maharashtra

It is noted in India that ST families with a literate head of the household have a significantly lesser chance of being below the poverty line. Similarly, even a few years of school education may enhance the chances of getting rural non-farm employment which has notably a higher wage than agricultural work.


Historically, in most parts of the developing world, education and healthcare were provided by altruistic actors. However, governments started providing these services to most of the population over time. Yet, there can be contexts where governments fail to provide these services adequately. Even when the required facilities are provided by the government, equipping the beneficiaries to utilise these requires actions by non-governmental actors, especially among those communities which are influenced by traditional beliefs and practices. Altruistic actors may continue to be key providers or facilitators in a few of these contexts. Though their work is laudable and has been able to address the needs of certain sections of marginalised people, they face many challenges. This essay notes the case of one such organisation in India.

Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) has been functioning in Hemalkasa village in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra since 1974. Inhabited by the Madia-Gond tribal community, this is still a remote area so, one can imagine its remoteness 50 years ago. The organisation was founded by the well-known social activist, Baba Amte and he entrusted the responsibility of running LBP to his son, Prakash Amte and his partner who were medical doctors. There were a few other volunteers also from the beginning. After 50 years, the establishment continues to function and is led by Dr Amte’s children. It is an altruistic initiative of three generations of Baba Amte’s family.

Baba Amte, who had by then consolidated his work to rehabilitate leprosy patients in a centre near Chandrapur, had a strong reason to start operations in Hemalkasa. He saw tribal people in Hemalkasa and nearby areas without basic healthcare facilities and facing severe deprivation due to their living conditions. Hence, LBP started a small clinic and a school catering to the needs of these people. Though, initially, there was reluctance on the part of the tribal people to avail of these services, LBP could make a notable impact on their lives over time. There are interesting accounts of the work of LBP. Prakashvata, Dr Prakash Amte’s autobiography, is itself a fascinating account of the beginning, challenges and achievements of the organisation. His work is recognised nationally and internationally (recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership) and supported by institutional and individual donors from India and abroad.

This essay does not attempt to trace the development of this organisation or document all its activities. Instead, it focusses on LBP’s work in education – the need, key elements of its success, challenges, and limitations. This is part of an exercise to think about the possible contribution of LBP towards the education of tribal children in the locality over the next 20 years. This article is based on a short period field visit by Anant Gangola, Rema Devi and Santhakumar and their discussions with leaders of the organisation, other functionaries, including schoolteachers, a set of children who study in its schools, a few former students and also parents and community representatives.

Continued government failure

Interestingly, there were a few government schools in some of the tribal hamlets even in 1974 when LBP started functioning (according to Prakashvata). However, there were no regular teachers and most of these schools were functioning poorly. The prejudices of teachers and the lack of interest and enabling conditions of tribal children worked against their education.

Though, at present, there is a notable interest among tribal parents in quality education for their children, the status of government schools has not changed much. We visited two villages where LBP operates schools, but government schools there were not functioning on those days (though these were working days). The absence of the teacher was cited as the reason by the local people. Moreover, school buildings were in a dilapidated condition. The status of government schools may have improved drastically in different parts of Maharashtra, but it remains poor in the Gadchiroli district. Its geographical remoteness could be the reason for the block-level education functionaries to view their posting there as punishment posting’ and hence, they may lack motivation. Teachers serving in a remote village school which cannot be accessed easily may find shirking their duty easier. Also, parents in these villages are not in a position to demand regular functioning of these schools (though some of them request LBP to start a school in their village or give admission to their children in its schools).

Geographical remoteness, absence of an adequate number of children to make a school viable (and hence, the need for transport from other villages for which the governmental system may not have provisions currently), the presence of only one or two teachers, lack of adequate political clout in tribal communities, the presence of Maoists in the area which can delegitimise all genuine political movements of tribal people, etc., seem to have created a situation where the government’s delivery of education (and healthcare) remains abysmally poor. It is in this context that LPB continues with its schools and may possibly start new schools in other villages.

Education activities of LBP

The core of LBP’s work in education is the running of a school from LKG to grade 10 and a junior college for grades 11 and 12 on its campus in Hemalkasa. More than 95 percent of students in the school and college stay in hostels on the campus. Education and lodging are completely free. This school is aided by the Government of Maharashtra (which means that a set of teachers, not all, get their salaries directly from the government). However, this set of teachers is not sufficient for the requirement. Hence, LBP employs an additional set of teachers and meets their salary and a major part of the cost of food and accommodation of students (a small part of this cost comes from the government as the school is recognised as an Ashram Shala – a residential school for tribal children). The schools admit students from nearly 150 villages. In order to ensure equal representation for all, the school has restricted the number of children from each village to 15 and only one child from a family is given admission. Preference is given to children with single parents, orphans, etc. Wards of government employees are not given admission.

In addition, LBP runs two primary schools (with KG) in two villages which are 15 – 25 km away from its campus. Both are unaided. One is recognised but the other is yet to get government recognition. Hence, the salaries of all teachers of these two schools are funded by LBP. Each of these schools caters to about 100 children from villages within a radius of 10 – 12 km. As mentioned earlier, though there are government schools in these villages, these are practically non-functional.

Visible signs of happiness in schools run by LBP

The LBP-run schools provide a much better quality of education compared to the government schools in the area. According to Anant Gangola, children in these schools seem joyful, autonomous, and active, which are not usual features in many schools in the country. The facilities and attention that students get in schools and residences are also remarkably better compared to government-run residential schools.

Learning achievements are notably better. A set of students who passed out of the school have become doctors and other professionals and have taken up jobs in different parts of the state. There is adequate focus on sports, arts, and other extra-curricular activities. Tribal students prefer to have a lot more physical activities than usual and the school has responded to their needs by providing enough training and facilities for sports. A set of students from this school also participate in sports and athletic competitions at state and national levels regularly.

An indication of the success of the school on the main campus of LBP is the demand for admission to it among parents from tribal communities in the region. The school cannot admit all children who seek admission there. So, based on the parents’ demand for school, LBP has started two primary schools in other villages. Local tribal communities have collaborated with LBP in setting up these schools, for example, giving certain community facilities for use by the school.

The status of these unaided primary schools is also much better than government schools. The atmosphere in schools is friendly; children get better and additional food; and many children who come from other villages get a cycle to commute to school, which they can keep even after completing their education in these schools.

In the school (Sadhana Vidyalaya) which is recognised by the state government, the buildings are constructed on land leased by LBP. These buildings are a lot more attractive and suitable for children; the school is spacious and has a playground as well. The organisation may have used support from different donors to construct these buildings. Overall, one cannot miss the cheerful atmosphere in these two schools.

However, there is scope for significant improvement in the quality of instruction in these schools. This is not surprising since one may get such an impression on visiting many other government and private schools in the country. This is especially so when these operate in less-developed areas and parents are not in a position to demand quality education. Some of those who are appointed as teachers in these remote localities may not be adequately trained. Many teachers from tribal communities who teach in these schools could be first-generation school-goers. The two primary schools privately run by LBP depend on local teachers because better-trained teachers may not be willing to take up jobs in schools to which the daily commute is difficult, and the only other option for them is to stay in remote tribal villages with minimal facilities.

Approach of LBP towards education of tribal children

It appears that LBP also started educational efforts among tribal children with the intention of mainstreaming them. However, the leaders of the organisation were accepting of the real circumstances, empathetic to these children and pragmatic in addressing challenges. This has enabled them to shape an education which is a lot more appropriate for the needs of tribal children. As per the autobiography of Dr Amte, the school was started with the aim of making the tribal community aware of their rights so that they are not tricked by people from outside.

When young children or new entrants to the residential school faced difficulties, LBP created children’s networks based on their villages in the schools. The need for physical activities (or the difficulty in sitting in classrooms for long durations) was addressed through adequate facilities for sports and athletics. Classrooms in these schools are multi-lingual and address the differences in the mother tongue of different sets of students and their need to learn Marathi (state language), Hindi and English. LBP also provides them additional support when they look for admissions to professional colleges and other forms of higher education.

While students may do well in education, and take up employment, LBP leaders are concerned about their (inadequate) preparedness to address the challenges that tribal communities face in society, and their blind adoption of mainstream culture. After working for half a century with the tribal community, the organisation considers preparing their students to take up positions of power as their next goal. Hence, they are thinking of ways to make education more aligned with the individual and social needs of the tribal communities.

It is clear then that LBP’s approach towards the education of tribal communities is not driven by strong ideological positions. Instead, it is informed by the real challenges that these communities face and the practical ways that can be adopted in the specific context.

Modern education for tribal communities: Benefits

Education for marginalised groups, such as tribal communities, can have four levels of benefits. First, certain changes in the behaviour of people can have a positive impact on human development. For example, it is noted that the education of girls may reduce fertility and infant mortality rates. This is more so when girls complete secondary school education. They may be in a position to assert their reproductive rights and adopt certain healthy practices which are good for the family as a whole. Educated women also show a greater interest in educating their children.

The second level of impact is in terms of employment and income. It is noted in India that ST families with a literate head of the household have a significantly lesser chance of being below the poverty line. Similarly, even a few years of school education may enhance the chances of getting rural non-farm employment which has a notably higher wage rate than agricultural work. Of course, higher levels of education may enhance the chances of getting jobs in formal industrial and service sectors, and this may lead to higher incomes. All these may enable marginalised groups to come out of poverty (and some of them may even become part of the middle class).

Thirdly, education has (should have) non-economic benefits also. Educated people should be active in addressing their social issues and participating in politics in an informed manner. Education should enable them to assert their rights and demand greater responsiveness from governments. Such an articulation of needs is important for improving the delivery of public services, including education and healthcare. Social activism that respects democracy and is within the boundaries of the Constitution is needed to address emerging issues, such as the destruction of natural resources and excessive pollution which are created through unregulated economic activity, like mining.

Finally, for tribal communities which have a somewhat distinct culture, education should enable them to make informed and autonomous choices in terms of their cultural practices. There may be certain practices, like witchcraft or ineffective treatments, like that for snake bites, that need to change/​end. There may be a need for greater use of modern healthcare practice, for example, for childbirth. However, blind mainstreaming can also lead to the adoption of undesirable practices, such as dowry and highly restrictive gender norms (which are not common among Madia-Gonds and other tribal communities). These problems can be minimised if there are informed, reflective and autonomous choices made by tribal communities in an enabling environment.

We look at the educational achievements of LBP with this perspective in the following section.

Achievements and limitations

It seems that the education provided by the LBP to tribal students from the region is impactful at the first and second levels. Even if some students do not complete secondary education successfully, and they continue with traditional livelihoods, there seems to be an improvement in the overall educational and health indicators.

The students are also recognising the need for education in a wider perspective of becoming knowledgeable, dealing with the difficulties in the world outside or being independent while supporting their communities and villages for desired developments.

The healthcare intervention of LBP has also contributed to this improvement, like people moving away from witchcraft and quacks for their health issues. Many students at junior college want to take up the medical profession, which is a sign of their acceptance of modern medicine. One visible indicator of this improvement is the increasing demand for educating children – former students who have completed their secondary or high school education at LBP schools are enthusiastic about enrolling their children in the same schools. So, the schools have some second-generation children too. The motivation of the parents to admit their children to the same school would be based on their personal experiences in the school and the change the organisation could make to their lives.

This interest is not limited to enrolling children in schools. Parents are interested in quality education as evident from the exodus of children from poorly functioning government schools.

Education at LBP schools is also reflected in the employment opportunities of the former students. There is a focus on equipping students to do well in competitive examinations, like NEET (for medical education). A set of students have procured admission to professional colleges. The preparations for sports and athletic competitions have enabled a few others to do well in this field. The acceptance and preference they get in higher education because of being active in sports are important attractions for them.

Though successful students may constitute only a small share of the total number of students, the majority may also be witnessing certain improvements in their incomes due to education. This can even be due to migration to cities where semi-skilled service or industrial jobs are available. A set of former students may have got government jobs through reservation. Our sense is that the possibility of achieving a higher income is higher through the education received at LBP schools compared to a typical government school which also provides education to marginalised groups.

However, social awareness and social activism which could improve public service delivery or lead to interventions in policies which affect the livelihood of tribal communities are somewhat limited. This is evident from discussions with educated youngsters regarding the functioning of government schools or healthcare centres. The process by which local people influence local governance is progressing, but slowly. The discussions with students also indicate that their awareness of their community problems is limited. This is not surprising since they have stayed in hostels from their childhood. Hence, most students aspire to get jobs and move from their native places that lack modern facilities.

However, we may note that this area is affected by Maoist insurgency. Any genuine social activism can be labelled as Maoism and suppressed by the state. This can also be the factor that discourages many tribal youngsters from taking an active interest in social issues. However, activism which uses the avenues of democracy and is in tune with the Indian Constitution is yet to develop in the region. The leadership of LBP is also interested in seeing the tribal youth who get educated through its efforts take a greater interest in the developmental and environmental issues of the region.

The education of tribal communities is yet to enable them to make autonomous choices regarding their culture. However, this may not be an issue in this context alone but is prevalent all over India. There is a reduction of certain traditional practices, like unscientific healthcare facilities while people continue with certain traditions, like their festivals. Girls are relatively less restricted in tribal communities unlike in mainstream Indian society. However, there are signs of Hinduisation’ and conversion to Christianity but in effect, both seem to ingrain intense patriarchy.

Though parents of students live in forests, and they have land, which is used for paddy cultivation, there is no major improvement in their life through the better use of resources or other avenues which are available through the community forests rights.

Though many teachers and students of LBP schools use multiple languages including tribal languages, learning materials are not available in these tribal languages. The organisation had prepared a Madia-Marathi dictionary during the initial days. Presently, the students are well-versed in Marathi and fluent in Hindi. This could be the reason for the organisation not being very keen on preparing learning materials in local languages.

Getting qualified and experienced teachers for the long term could be a challenge for the organisation. Other than remoteness, the pay which the organisation can afford is lower and becomes a constraint in getting teachers for longer terms.

What may be attempted in the future

In order to consolidate the achievements and address challenges in the domain of education, LBP may consider the following actions:

  1. Though LPB provides better quality education to the children of tribal communities in the region, it may be difficult to scale up this model. The organisation may not have the resources to provide education to all tribal children in the region. Moreover, governmental resources which are used to provide education are wasted. Hence, in the long run, government schools have to function properly. This may require informed social activism on the part of the tribal people. It would be great if students who come out of schools of LBP are at the forefront of such activism. LBP may also explore the possibility of intervening in government schools.
  2. LBP may consider a youth empowerment programme for students in its junior colleges, former students who continue to live in the region and other youngsters. This programme should enable them to reflect on the community and social issues and explore possibilities of activism within the constitutional and democratic framework of India.
  3. One idea came from the leadership of LBP education, and we find value in it. It can institute a fellowship programme (in collaboration with a funding agency) to attract well-educated youngsters to be additional teachers in schools (especially those that are privately run). It would be good if these outsiders could stay there for a minimum period of one year. There may be a need for some more facilities in these villages for this purpose. Their interaction with local teachers can be mutually beneficial. Outsiders may develop a deeper understanding of tribal communities, their culture and challenges, and local teachers may also pick up better pedagogic strategies for teaching maths, English, etc., through this process.

Note: Featured photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash


V Santhakumar is Professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Rema Devi is Member, Field Practice Team, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

Anant Gangola is an educational activist; formerly, he led the Field Practice and Student Affairs teams of Azim Premji University