writing by Alexander Deedy, Mychaela Nickoloff and Margaret Rawson video and audio by Madelyn Beck, Allison Mills and Kate Siberell
The sky was still dark a few minutes before 6:30 a.m. when the Suzuki Maruti Gypsy’s engine rumbled to life, the predawn twilight making the tail lights shine in contrast to the surrounding darkness. Tourists wandering the road hurried back to the line of vehicles that stretched down the road. The vehicles edged up to form a bumper to bumper queue in front of the black and yellow gate. As each Gypsy crossed the threshold into Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, a local Indian guide dressed in snappy camouflage got into the passenger seat.
Once through the gates each Gypsy took its own route; guides instructed their drivers along the main paved road or the dirt paths that split off. Each Gypsy’s driver, tiger reserve guide and up to six tourists peered into the jungle in search of orange and black stripes.
“Pugmarks,” a driver told his passengers as he pointed to the four by four inch tracks near the tires. The tracks were evidence of a phantom cat -- but no guarantee of a sighting -- so the Gypsy driver continued to a road paralleling Tadoba Lake, where several other Gypsies were already searching. Suddenly one Suzuki whirled around with a hurried three-point turn and raced back the other direction, dust flying from under its tires.
A passenger in that Suzuki shouted as they passed, “vāgha, vāgha, vāgha.”
Tiger, tiger, tiger.
photo by Margaret Rawson
The scene is not unusual: Around 90,000 tourists visit Tadoba each year in hopes of seeing a tiger.
Other tiger reserves, such as Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, north of the Tadoba-Andhari reserve, are more popular, but tourism to Tadoba has recently increased as the park now boasts a higher density of tigers with 43 adults counted in the 2012 census.
by Kate Siberell
Tiger tourism across India took a hit in 2012 when the Supreme Court placed a temporary ban on tourism to core tiger habitat, demanding that the National Tiger Conservation Authority create clearer guidelines for park management.
Debate over conservation in India currently centers around tourism in critical habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger. Stakeholders disagree about whether tourism and conservation are mutually beneficial or destructive forces.
The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in the Indian state of Maharashtra takes its name from the Andhari river and the God Taru, a village chief said to have died in a tiger confrontation, now remembered with a small shrine on the banks of Tadoba Lake. Tadoba National Park was established in 1955, and Andhari Sanctuary was created in 1986. In 1995, the two were combined to form Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.
More than 60 percent of tourist traffic enters the core area of the park through the main gate in Moharli village. Up to 54 vehicles carrying 300 tourists enter through Moharli each day, half in the morning and half in the evening.
“Tadoba is supposed to have the best sightings of tigers and I want my children to see,” said Karhan Gehani, who had brought his family to Tadoba on another of their traditional tiger reserve vacations. “There’s nothing better than a morning safari in a tiger park in India.”
Gehani’s attitude toward tiger tourism is a new sentiment in India. The number of tigers dropped from 30,000 tigers a century ago to only 4,000 by 1964. The country first committed to tiger conservation efforts in 1973, with Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger. Today India is home to 1,700 of the world’s 3,500 tigers, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
The number of tigers may be bouncing back, and visitors to Tadoba are proud of this progress. “It was shameful,” said Swayam Mohaptra, a student from Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in Mumbai on how low the tiger population dipped due to poaching. Mohaptra was visiting the reserve on a trip with classmates between exam periods. The nine students made the trip to the reserve by train and bus. The 12-hour train ride took them from Mumbai to Nagpur, which is still 90 miles from Tadoba.
photo by Margaret Rawson
Though the group said they had a good visit, they were critical of the crowding in the park and the fact that most tourists come only to see tigers, without appreciating the other wildlife. “There are other things in the forest to see, to enjoy than just chasing tigers,” Mohaptra said. “It’s a Disneyland.”
It's that human presence that prompted a petition from conservation activist Ajay Dubey in 2012. In July of that year the Indian Supreme Court of India suspended tiger tourism in the core area of all reserves.
Dubey brought his petition in an effort to force the court to enforce the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act which states that no human activity may take place in critical tiger habitat.
The court refused to reopen parks to visitors until the National Tiger Conservation Authority developed guidelines to balance tourism and tiger conservation. Conservationists who opposed the ban argued that tourism supports conservation by creating awareness. A complete ban on core area tourism would put at risk future support for conservation by divorcing citizens from the forest, they said. Tourism may not be as detrimental as portrayed, the opponents argued, and may be even more beneficial in the future.
Abhijeet Bayani, a Ph.D. candidate in wildlife biology who lives in Moharli, the village nestled at the gate to the Tadoba-Anhari reserve, suggests citizen science as an untapped benefit of tourism. For instance, park management could use tourists’ photos to track individual tiger movement.
Tourism may also provide financial incentive for locals to preserve tiger habitat, though stakeholders debate the direct economic benefit to villagers. Moharli locals find employment as guides, drivers and hotel staff. The village population has increased as hotel owners and forest department staff move to the area to be closer to their work.
Class differences across India add to tension as tiger tourism is seen as a luxury only the wealthy can afford. Visiting Tadoba has become more expensive in recent years. The total cost of weekday gate access, hiring a Gypsy and hiring a guide is 3,050 rupees, or $49. Anyone who enters the reserve with a camera lens longer than 250 mm must now also pay a fee of 500 rupees, or about $8. With the average Indian earning just over $1200 per year, a trip to a tiger reserve is out of reach for most.
Though some tourists say they would be willing to pay more to enter the reserve, rising costs underline a lack of transparency about how forest department revenue is spent.
“Right now we don’t know where the money is going, there’s no transparency or anything,” said Dhruu Ambegaokar, one of the medical students from Mumbai. “Right now, we pay the money and we really don’t know what is happening with the money we’re paying. So if we knew what was happening with the money maybe we’d pay more because you’d know it’s being put to some use.”
Three months after the ban the Supreme Court reopened the reserves. The new guidelines issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority allowed tourists in only 20 percent of the core area and banned any additional tourism infrastructure in the core. Tourism expansion must instead turn to the buffer zone, the less-regulated area surrounding the core of the reserve that serves as an additional layer of protection for wildlife.
graphic by Allison Mills
While some tourists, such as the medical students visiting Tadoba, agree that opening 20 percent of the core area is adequate for tourism, some conservationists disagree with any geographical limit whatsoever.
“I think that restricting all areas or maybe opening just 10 percent or 20 percent of the given tigers or given national park or sanctuary [is] insane,” Bayani said.
The problem, Bayani said, lies not in tourism itself, but in park management and attitudes toward conservation in general. Guides need to demonstrate that the the reserve is not only for the protection of tigers, but for the forest as a whole.
The group of medical students ventured to the buffer zone upon arriving in Moharli on a Tuesday, the one day a week when the core area is closed. The buffer zone suited the group just fine for spotting kingfishers and the Indian sambar, inspiring appreciation for the forest as a whole.
The buffer zone gate is a stark contrast to the dramatic core area entry: no big sign, no crowd bustling around a ticket window, no set entry time, and no villagers selling snacks by the side of the road.
Tourists sign in at the small gatehouse and pay $6.50 to hire a guide before passing through a spiky gate manually raised and lowered by the gate attendant.
The contrast to the core is immediate. Encountering another Gypsy is rare. Visibility is limited by the thick bamboo growing along the dirt road as the Gypsy driver negotiates the bumps and weaves between trees. A tiger could be feet away from the vehicle at any moment. A visitor fully expects to see a tiger’s eyes or the vanishing tail of a leopard among the branches. Without the clear-cut areas flanking the paved road in the core area, the buffer offers a jungle experience off the beaten path.
The chances of spotting a tiger are significantly lower in the buffer, an obvious damper to tourism here.
For now, tourism remains popular in the core, where the greater density of tigers means better chance for a sighting.
That morning when there was promise of a nearby tiger, the energy of the safari heightened. After the first Gypsy wheeled around, all the others followed and joined in the search. There she was. Loping down the road came a young tigress followed by several Gypsies. Soon there was a crowd of 10 Suzukis, each driver maneuvering for prime viewing - driving, stopping, turning, reversing, as the tiger walked unthreatened down the road.
For a few minutes, the cat disappeared into the foliage beside the road, only to emerge to a waiting group of drivers, guides and their eager passengers.
Photo by Kate Siberell
She continued up the road, a display of nature’s raw power, muscled shoulders swaying as she walked, led by two Gypsies and followed by eight. The rest of the jungle melted away. Every viewer was silent, eyes locked on the tiger and cameras snapping. A small pond drew her from the road, where she lapped a few drinks of water, then turned her back on the jeeps, and strode down a side road leading to a ranger station. The drivers didn’t follow, instead crowding around its entrance, watching the tiger's back as she walked calmly away, soon disappearing back into the jungle.
When the safari was finished, the tourists left content. This trip was a success, they had viewed a tiger in the core zone, an opportunity that may not be available if they ever visit Tadoba-Andhari again.
Click here for audio reporting: "Seeing the forest for the tigers"
writing by Alexandria Valdez photos by Kelsey Wardwell and Kaci Felstet audio by Corin Cates-Carney and Kaci Felstet video by Jessie Mazur and Devon Marcille
Four hours down a dirt road in central India is the village of Moharli. The town sits nestled next to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. When the reserve opened in 1995, jobs were shaped by the changes that came to the village.
The Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is one of 43 tiger reserves in India. It covers 240 square miles and is home to 80 species of mammals, 280 species of birds and approximately 50 tigers.
Six days a week, gypsy jeeps give tours to guests from around the world and India. Every jeep needs a guide, hired by the government. Vasant Sanule was hired as a guide in 1998. The reserve looked for locals knowledgeable about the forest and Sanule fit that mold.
On a safari, Sanule knows visitors want to see a tiger but points out the other beauties of the forest. He points out a green bee eater bird, a gnarled ghost tree and tells a joke about Hilary Clinton. People in the village depend on the tourism provided by the tiger reserve. They support the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 which cracked down on illegal poaching and provided better protection for wildlife.
Employment took a hit in 2012 when the Indian Supreme Court closed all the tiger reserves to reassess how tourism and conservation could co-exist. Employees sat idle for three months until the reserve re-opened and tourists returned to Moharli. New rules were put in place governing the operation of the reserves and the access tourists could have to the core zone. Sanule said these new rules can make working for the reserve a struggle sometimes.
"One time the car ran out of petrol and I ordered a couple of tourists out of the car to help push," Sanule said. Rules don't allow visitors to leave their vehicles in the core. "The forest officer saw them and I got suspended for a few days because of that. The thing is a lot of the times they follow laws very strictly and they should take into account individual situations before punishments are dealt out."
A safari guide's right hand man is his driver. These are local men hired from the village and it's seen as one of the reserve's top jobs. Drivers are not government employees, but are hired by those who own the Gypsies.
Ankalesh Sukhderi has worked as a driver for one year. He had no steady work before. Sukhderi said his life has improved and he can now provide for his mother and brother. His income has afforded him a telephone and small appliances.
In Moharli, any job is a good thing. "When you're poor, there's nothing else you can do," Sukhderi said.
The reserve has created new jobs and pumped life into work that’s gone on for decades. Drivers and guides want a professional look at work, and now they have money to hire a barber. Rushekesh, a life-long barber in Moharli, has never worked anywhere else.
Hundreds of visitors come to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve every month and many of them need a place to stay. Moharli has several hotels which offer housing, meals, and drivers and guides for safaris. But the government has put a moratorium on building these resorts even as tourist traffic is increasing in Moharli. To provide additional tourist housing, the government has a program to certify homes to take in paying lodgers. An applicant must pay a fee and submit to a home inspection. So far, only one homeowner has sought out and been designated a government-certified homestay. A homestay costs less than staying at a hotel and provides a different experience of village life.
The forest around Moharli grows thick with bamboo, but it’s illegal to harvest from the reserve or the buffer zone. For generations, villagers living in and around the Tadoba-Andhari Reserve have relied on bamboo to create household items. But in an effort to preserve tiger habitat, the government has outlawed bamboo harvesting and those who are caught face fines and possibly jail time. Some people choose to break the law, and others know a few rupees to the right person will make certain they're not arrested. But some Moharli villagers risk arrest so they can continue the work that provides for their families: weaving elaborate fencing and baskets to sell in markets down the dirt road.
The villagers of Moharli have more jobs and busier lives serving the parade of tourists entering their town. Hundreds of villagers serve those tourists through their jobs in hotels, at snack stands, and as drivers and guides for the safaris. Tourists and villagers alike depend on one man who’s been working at the same job for ten years. Ajay Kumar Gupta is the only doctor in the region and he treats everything from malaria to animal bites. HIs job carries a certain amount of prestige, but he’s by no means getting rich.
The Tadoba-Andhari tiger reserve and the tourism that comes with it have created and boosted many jobs in Moharli. But workers like forest guide Vasant Sanule still face uncertainty. Sanule has 15 years of experience as a guide but feels insecure about his financial future as he gets older. "I don't have enough to save up and once I'm physically not fit and my eyesight goes down I'll be kicked out of being a guide," Sanule said. "You never know how things are."
writing by Jackson Bolstad video by Katherine Bell photos by Kylie Richter graphics by Allison Bye
graphic by Allison Bye
As the cows filed passed Bhimrao Duryadhan along the road back to Moharli, he counted to himself: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. He was missing one.
Duryadhan looked across his small plot of grazing land expecting to see the missing jersey cow come up the little hill near the watering hole.
Instead he saw emptiness, then dense forest beyond, trees so thick he could hardly see 25 feet past the first tree.
He tried calling to her, coaxing her to join the rest of the cattle, already on the road back home for the night. Still, he couldn’t find her. The sun was setting, and Duryadhan needed to get the rest of the herd settled back in the village.
The remaining cattle, now six Brahmans and just one jersey, ambled into town and settled into the straw bedding Duryadhan laid out for them. Certain the cows were secure in the yard, fenced with branches and rope, he set back out to look for the lost cow. He didn’t have much time to look; it was dangerous to be out after dark.
Duryadhan’s land is just meters from the entrance to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Moharli, India. His pond is a popular watering spot for not only his animals but also wildlife from the reserve.
For the people of Moharli, and many other villages in the area surrounding the reserve, the tiger is one of the major predators of their livestock. The village has a large population of cattle and water buffalo — easy prey for tigers, said Abhijeet Bayani, a wildlife biologist studying crop depradation and tiger kills in the area as part of his doctoral dissertation.
Cattle provide power to plow the land and milk for the villagers of Moharli. Their dung provides fuel for cooking and warmth.
photo by Kylie Richter
“Cattle don’t have any defenses,” Bayani said. “They are slow and are kind of dumb.”
The close proximity of the village to the reserve makes Moharli, located on its western edge, a risky place for livestock, Bayani said. Nearly 95 percent of all livestock kills occur in the grazing grounds or on the way to or from, he said.
The total number of cattle killed by tigers could not be procured from the deputy director for the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve despite repeated attempts to contact him, with no reply.
However, Bayani said villagers living within 1 square kilometer of his research farm filed 55 livestock compensation reports with the government in 2012. The farm is roughly nine miles north of Moharli.
graphic by Allison Bye
If a tiger kills livestock, the owner can file for compensation with the local forest guards. After issuing an application, the forest guard performs a post-mortem assessment of the animal. The herder then receives a receipt from the forest guard to receive compensation. Herders can generally expect compensation within a month or two.
In most instances, the herder will be reimbursed based on the market value of the animal at the time of its loss, said Sachin Shinde, range forest officer at the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. A three-year-old cow would go for around 10,000 rupees or $160. Compensation for human deaths varies depending on situation and precedent.
On average Shinde pays nearly 30,000 rupees, around $480, a month in livestock compensation to farmers in the area around Moharli, the loss of three or four cattle per month.
The reserve is located in a southern tropical dry climate, perfect for dense vegetation. The range of visibility in the forest can range from 25 yards to 100 yards, which makes it difficult for not only livestock, but also humans to see predators, Shinde said.
On Jan. 9, 2014, a tiger killed a bamboo harvester as he was working on the reserve — the first ever attack within the reserve since its creation in 1992, said Mohammed Suleman, a Moharli villager.
photo by Kylie Richter
A forest guard located the man the next morning after he was reported missing by his family. Only his legs and tools were found, Suleman said.
The increase in tigers on the reserve is part of the reason for livestock kills, Shinde said. Biologists estimate tigers need around nine square miles of habitat, meaning the reserve can support approximately 27 tigers; the 2012 census counted 43 adults.
“Tigers cannot increase the amount of their kind within an area,” Shinde said. “They will fight and push one another out.”
As tigers are pushed out they can come into contact with villages and grazing lands along the reserve’s boundary, Shinde said.
graphic by Allison Bye
Villagers are not allowed to graze their cattle within the unfenced reserve. If they are caught, they can face a maximum penalty of three years in prison. But, animals don’t recognize boundaries, so tigers and livestock often interact, he said.
Another concern for livestock are “war tigers,” old tigers unwilling or unable to expend the effort to hunt natural prey. Instead they often hunt for easy prey like livestock which takes them off the reserve and into the villages, Shinde said.
Ganesh Halkare, a tribal advocate, said on average villages in the area will have a two to one ratio of cattle to humans. Moharli has a population of nearly 1,200 people in the village and surrounding area. Halkare said a government subsidy has been providing villagers with more cattle every year, which has, in many areas, created an over abundance of livestock.
“Some (of the villagers) don’t have the capacity to sustain the cattle,” Halkare says. “Sometimes they let it go into the wild or sell it for a very low price to other herders.”
The area lacks sufficient grazing grounds to feed the newly acquired livestock, Halkare says. The easiest and cheapest form of grass grows within the forested areas, so herders send their livestock into the forests.
Back in the village, Duryadhan returned to his house without his missing cow. Night had fallen, and he knew she was dead. He had called her repeatedly and even walked into the reserve’s forest bordering his farm, listening for the sound of the bell jingling around her neck.
Tomorrow he would get up early and begin his search for her carcass. He needed to find it to file a claim to receive compensation for her.
Crop Depredation writing by Amanda Bryant photos by Kylie Richter
Budhiwan Sambhaji Nawghare, 40, sets his callused hand on the metal-framed bed, leaving a faint handprint of last night’s dirt on the white sheets. Years of fatigue show through his puffy eyes and a dazed facial expression. A sleepless night in a cramped watchtower is now just another day working on the farm.
“It’s definitely hard, but there’s no option because it’s the only way to get food,” Nawghare says. “If there’s no farm, where would the food come from?”
Crop depredation is a yearlong issue for the 10 farmers that surround the village of Moharli, Maharashtra, India. The 1,200-person village borders the gate into the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. No fence separates surrounding land from the reserve, leaving boar and deer to trample farmland and eat crops, often meaning little to no yield at the end of a season.
Afternoons are resting time for farmers after a 12-hour shift. Wheat, rice and soybeans are common crops grown throughout the year on Nawghare’s farm, which is less than a mile from the core zone. After dinner, Nawghare and his farmhand spend their nights in a six-foot-tall watchtower made of wood and bamboo to make sure no animals come near the crops.
photo by Kylie Richter
“My helper and I chase off the animals with a large stick and yell at them. Then they’ll usually run off,” Nawghare says. “They usually come back in about a half hour and you can only chase them away so much with little sleep.”
Indians have the option of applying to get compensation for crops destroyed by animals from the reserve. Farmers must file a formal complaint to the government and upon review an officer is sent to inspect the damage. If granted, the compensation rate is $40 for every two and a half acres.
Abhijeet Bayani, a Ph.D. student in wildlife biology, has studied crop depredation in the villages surrounding Moharli for four years. He is currently researching solutions to a better compensation scheme and says most people who apply are never reimbursed.
“The money they don’t get in compensation is not related to what happened and the time they put in the application process. This isn’t fair,” Bayani said.
Nawghare applied for compensation in 2013 and says his rejection wasn’t a surprise.
“The Department only registers the eaten crops to be damaged, but not what’s been trampled. So we lose [those crops] entirely,” Nawghare said.
Destroyed crops are causing more and more farmers to default on their bank loans. Each March, Nawghare takes a bank loan of 50,000 rupees ($812) and must pay it back within a year.
Total costs of paying his farmhand and farming supplies leave him and his wife short by 30,000 rupees ($488) each year. Nawghare must also rely on personal loans to make ends meet.
photo by Kylie Richter
“Each year it gets harder to pay off my debts because of the high interest rates on my loans,” Nawghare says. “I can never get ahead because I’m paying for what I didn’t make last year.”
Some farmers have found a way out of the cycle by selling their land to developers. Third-generation farmer Vilas Bhagwanji Shende, 48, sold his five acres in early 2013. Wild boars ate all of his crops three months before he decided to sell.
“We weren’t making anything off of our land anymore, selling it was the only option and we earned more money doing that,” Shende said.
Selling the land was a quick process, according to Shende. Once a farmer accepts the offer, an inspector comes to decide the land’s value. Shende wouldn’t tell how much he made, but says it was enough to provide his family a better life.
“I used the money to buy a Gypsy and opened a snack shop outside my house. I make 3,000 more rupees a month from the shop and driving tourists around than what I made from farming,” Shende said.
Shende is considered one of Moharli’s leaders and knows of three farmers who made the same decision to sell in 2013. He wants to use his influence to show remaining farmers that selling can be more beneficial.
“Farming is life for the farmers here, and all their hard work isn’t paying off anymore. This is why people are selling,” Shende said.
photo by Kylie Richter
Dry and desolate fields used to be full of hearty crops about 12 years ago and animals were never a problem. When herbivores started trampling crops, farmers would often complain to the Forest Department who ignored them, they say.
“They have this viewpoint that humans shouldn’t farm or even live in the buffer zone,” Bayani said.
Nawghare and Shende agree that the government doesn’t care about the damage coming from the animals within the reserve. The Forest Department installed flimsy, solar-powered fences that shock the animals if they came too close to crops, but these fences rarely worked. Shende is pessimistic about a farming comeback in the Moharli village without government help to prevent ruined crops.
“Because of the tiger reserve the animals came here, but no one is claiming the blame or is ready to work at fixing this,” Shende said.
Working and researching on his own farm, Bayani knows any compensation or government-funded help is only temporary and that there is only one true solution to crop depredation.
“You must devise a system of livelihood in the buffer zone to provide a better life,” Bayani says.
Writing by Brea Gaudioso, Mackenzie Fenton-Conlan and Michael Hanan photos and audio by Louise Johns video by Fiona Murphy
Moharli relies on tourism from the tiger reserve to keep its economy afloat; however, there is more promise that lies in the minds of the village children. Some wish to be doctors when they grow up, others engineers. Some parents in Moharli can afford to send their children away for their education, but that is not a realistic option for most in the village. Those who don’t go away for school attend the Zilla Parishad School.
The sun beats down on the sandy courtyard as the children pile in wearing matching brown shorts paired with light brown button-up shirts. It’s 10 a.m., time for morning cleanup. One boy uses bamboo bristles to wipe the dust from base of the flagpole, while another, barefoot, carries garbage from the schoolyard to the pile that sits outside the schoolyard’s gates.
The teachers arrive soon after. They commute by bus six days a week from their homes in Chandrapur, 19 miles away.
School begins. The children organize themselves into rows in preparation for their morning routine. Chants fill the air, first a prayer, then a recital of times tables.
The grounds empty quickly as students head to their classrooms, circling the courtyard. Depending on the day and the time, each grade is assigned to one of the seven classrooms to learn a different subject. Math, social and natural sciences, the local language Marathi, and basic English are taught by different teachers.
“The most important thing to teach them is life skills and basic academics. If understood properly, then they can pursue anything they want in the future,” head mistress Ashwini Rameshnao Tatipamulwar said.
Just as the tigers and other creatures depend on the reserve for their well-being, the children of Moharli depend on the Zilla Parishad School to prepare them for life. The state government of Maharashtra funds the village school, providing teachers with books and uniforms for the students. The children also receive a free lunch until they reach the 5th grade.
Today, fifth graders spend their morning learning math. The teacher writes a problem on the board. The children yell out the answer.
Maharashtra’s education system provides ten years of education. The Zilla Parishad School has more than 110 students in first through seventh grades with only a dozen or so continuing on to the 8th grade each year. Most students attend school regularly, with about five students absent on any given day according to Tatipamulwar. However, assistant principal Vitthal Tukaram Tadghare said it’s common for several students to miss school regularly.
Tadghare feels responsible for the children’s education.
"I provide them with basic education for life here,” Tadghare said. “Their learning is dependent on me."
The measurement of an adequate education is judged by each family, and each family's expectations are quite different.
Maruti Anandrao Bandurkar, a driver for the Forest Department said he has no criticisms of the education his second grade son is receiving at Zilla Parishad. He also said that the education his children are getting is “quite better” than the education he received as a child.
Shehenaz Baig, a parent of two in Moharli, said she does not feel that the school prepares students to make much of their lives. Baig and her husband can afford to send their children away to school in Chandrapur, 12 miles away. They rent out their children’s rooms to tourists to help with the cost of private schooling.
“I’ve got my own experience. I studied in the Moharli school and I know what I can't do. I didn’t learn computers, I can't communicate in English when I go out or get things done,” Baig said. “I don’t want my children to have to go through all of this. When my kids get educated and are done with school they should be able to do all these things that I could not.”
Baig also explained that she wanted more for her children than is typical for the average Moharli family.
“The mentality is the parents will tell their kids that you get education until grade 12 and then the government has an application you fill out for a job,” Baig said.
Government jobs are obtained by completing 12 years of school. Children must also pass two standardized exams, one after 10th grade and one after 12th. Specialized training after the 12th grade is then provided for specific jobs. The government sets hiring standards as an incentive for children to stay in school.
The system's purpose is to prepare children for what many villagers consider a good future: a government job either in the reserve or the villages that surround it. Even if children do not complete school, there is plenty of work to find around the village, according to Baig.
“People know even if they don’t get a [government] job the village has other jobs, like getting a job as a private Gypsy driver or a guide or just pure labor. There is no ambition to break the stereotype, break the barricade and become something more.”
Baig said that even if the parents do want more for their children, the system is flawed. The parents are not educated enough to help their children study at home, so the students’ success relies almost exclusively on the teachers.
“If the teachers don’t do a good job our kids will end up just like us. That is what we don’t want. It is the teacher’s job to educate the children and look out for their future and safety,” she said. "The teachers will just talk about their home problems, sleep on the desk when the school is in session,” Baig said. “This doesn’t help anyone. Our kids don’t get educated; they will just wander around and walk about town with no supervision.”
photo by Louise Johns
According to Baig, in the state of Maharashtra, a government job is guaranteed for life. Although one can be reprimanded or suspended from their job, it is nearly impossible to actually be dismissed from the government. So if a teacher isn’t doing a good job, he or she won’t be fired, just transferred or suspended at worst. Baig says teachers have less motivation to do a good job knowing they can’t be fired.
Because of this, the village has made an effort to implement programs to encourage a better education system. A committee was created four years ago to oversee all operations of the school. It is made up of one director, two teachers, and some of the children’s parents. Baig explained that when the parents of the children are given a voice through the committee they become more attentive to how the school actually operates. Committee director Ram Krishna Bapurao Sakharkar said it primarily supervises the teachers’ and students’ attendance. They have the power to suspend any teacher who isn’t doing their job well.
“Before (the committee), at least half of the staff wouldn’t teach properly, or they wouldn’t come to school on time. Now, on account of the supervisory body, things have changed around here,” Sakharkar said.
photo by Louise Johns
The committee is currently working on getting new educational tools for the students and teachers. More writing utensils, books, and notebooks are some of the items the school needs. The committee is also dealing with the architectural and structural changes that need to be made at the school. They take all of their needs and demands directly to the Gram Panchayat, Moharli's village council.
Sakharkar is aware that there are still flaws within the school system; his son, Pritam, attends the school. “The school is quite small – the Zilla Parishad School – and thus isn’t as beneficial as it ought to be,” Sakharkar said. Eventually he would like to send his son to a larger school so he can study to be an engineer or doctor.
There are other efforts being made to improve the school’s educational programs as well. The Forest Department office on the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve has been working with Zilla Parishad. Once a year the Forest Department hosts a week-long workshop to teach the students about conservation and the importance of maintaining the forest.
Bandurkar said that during the workshop they explain how the reserve functions and why tourism is important for their village.
“It is a big dream for some kids in Moharli to enter into the Forest Department when they get older,” Bandurkar said.
Forest conservation is an important part of village curriculum. If the children never leave Moharli, they will always have the Forest Department. And as long as the forest is protected, tourism will continue to create jobs.
It's 5 p.m. and school is out. Bandurkar's son, Ganesh, and his friends run out of the schoolyard. A trail of dust rises from behind them. Bandurkar and his fellow villagers return home after a long day's work to meet their children. Some share stories of what they've learned while others go straight to housework. Life here is tough, but the spirits of its villagers are tougher. Although some education can get left in the dust, there is much promise that lies in the minds of Moharli.