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26 Jan 2006
Who are the Chharas?

A class in progress at the library in Chharanagar.
In 1871, the British Government in India enacted the Criminal Tribes Act under which members of, what were then mostly nomadic tribes, were required to register with the local magistrate and report to the guardrooms several times in a day. The Act also gave broad powers to the local government to forcibly move these 'notified' tribes to 'permanent reformatory settlements'.

More than 50 years after independence, we still refer to these tribes as De-Notified Tribes (DNTs). Members of these tribes are regularly rounded up for interrogation every time there is a petty crime in the neighbourhood. Their children still fall under the needle of suspicion and get thrown out of schools on flimsiest and unsubstantiated accusations. Private enterprise and the public sector continue to refuse them jobs. They are prosecuted everyday by anyone who has the power to do so.

Things have begun to change for least one such DNT called the Charras, which populate a suburb of Ahmedabad. Sneh-Prayas, an Ahmedabad based NGO, Budhan Theatre Group, and some locals have come together to create significant breakthroughs for this community. The free evening school bustles with activity until late at night where older kids teach the younger ones and help them with homework. A library of mostly recycled books is at hand for those in need of a textbook or desirous of reading some fiction.

A child taking his first steps at the Learning Station.
An initiative for technology-driven informal education is also taking shape -- the first Hole-in-the-Wall project was commissioned in Chharanagar recently. At this centre, children will learn to use computers and use computers to learn. This will also be a test-bed to study the relationship between collaborative, informal learning and the perceptions and achievement motivation of Charra children. Children in the age group of eight to fourteen will be tracked for their formal academic performance in school, their self-esteem, achievement motivation and their perceptions about education, learning, computers, careers...

The early impressions based on our research are indeed very heartening. Majority of children [59%] aspire to be professionals, most children [89%] were aware of the significance of education and a very high proportion [66%] of children were aware of the benefits accruing from computers.

If some of these experiments and initiatives do succeed, as I hope they will, then it would be nothing short of a miracle. A generation would throw away 150 years of baggage and find their place under the sun!

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A "senior" teaches the children at the library

A HiWEL team member working ground upwards

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