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  • Writer's pictureAmal Dev M

Adishakthi: Where Education is Woven through Rights

Parindey: Mary Lydia

Alivelihood: Education

Region: Kochi, Kerala

Mary Lydia

“Every community is different. Not all the problems of the tribal people can be solved or understood through a single worldview.”

- Mary Lydia

Lydia Mary is a volunteer at Adishakthi Summer School. Lydia joined Adishakthi, a group of Dalit-Adivasi children, which started functioning in 2014, as part of several voluntary activities in her life. From being a volunteer to being a state coordinator, Lydia has been instrumental in providing many educational opportunities to tribal Dalit students through Adishakthi. Above all, Mary Lydia's strong volunteer work over the past six years is also a life story of survival.

Since the time of her studies, Lydia has been involved in various volunteer activities related to the environment. In 2015, as part of one such volunteering activity, Lydia met M. Geethanandan, a social activist and founder of Adishakthi Summer School. "I got to know more about the Kerala tribal community in depth from the discussion on the day Adishakthi was established at Aralam Farm," shares Lydia.

Manikandan, Rajani, Geethanandan and Lydia (left to right) attending Adishakthi's press conference in Wayanad (File photo)

Lydia entered Adishakthi with many questions, but through later life experiences, every answer to the questions were echoing inside her. Lydia recognised the diversity of the tribal population in Kerala through her work with Adishakthi students. Born into a Christian background, Lydia believes that it was her travels that prompted her to take a different path. Challenges and crises were important milestones in Lydia's volunteer life. Lydia's constant efforts to break out of the religious framework were also part of her life journey. Lydia is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Kerala. While the meagre stipend from it is comforting, the psychological and financial support from Lydia's circle of friends lights up the path ahead.

Lydia's birthplace, Thuthiyoor, was one of seven sites named for the rehabilitation of displaced people as part of the Vallarpadam development project. Lydia was an eyewitness to the fact that the rehabilitation that was said to be part of the project did not occur, and the evicted people were left stranded. It was then that Lydia began to pay more attention to the problems of evictions caused by development. For an authoritative understanding of these issues, she selected 'Eviction due to Development' as her M.Phil research topic. At the same time, Lydia was actively involved in the protests against pollution in Periyar. Lydia's resistance and struggle against environmental pollution brought her closer to the tribals who protected and adored the rest of nature. Later, Lydia travelled to various tribal areas of India to learn more about them. Lydia believes that the knowledge and friendships gained through this journey provide inner strength for her life. Lydia sees her three years of M.Phil studies at the University of Hyderabad as the most important chapter in her life. Lydia spent most of her time with children in a slum near the university. That was the reason behind extending the two-year M.Phil course to the third year. Many children living in slums were engaged in begging and other activities. In the early days, she was involved in charitable activities to meet the temporary needs of children. It was through subsequent constant interventions and observations that Lydia came to realise that the children have to work for their rights. It was that realisation that gave her the courage to move forward.

"When the tribal identity is eliminated by providing education through factory schools outside Kerala, their fundamental right to land and even freedom in using forest resources is being denied within Kerala."

- Mary Lydia

Lydia sees the relevance of Adishakthi Summer School because of the problems faced by the tribal people within Kerala. Lydia points out that education is essential to empower landless tribals to fight for their own rights.

"I came to know about Adishakthi Summer School when I was studying for the second year of my degree. Even after getting my degree, I had no idea where to apply for higher studies and which courses to choose. It was only when we reached Adishakthi that we started getting accurate guidelines. I am passionate about the teaching profession. Adishakthi Summer School has given precise guidelines on how to get there. "

-Rajani (Student of Adishakthi)

Rahul Buski, a BA Fine Arts student, paints on the wall of Adishakthi's hostel (Photo: Amal Dev)

Adishakthi is located in Thammanam, Ernakulam district in the state of Kerala, India. Adishakthi works under the slogan of 'Education is our birthright'. Adishakthi Summer School is an educational project of the NGO Indigenous Peoples Collective. The three concepts of agriculture, education and self-sufficiency are the most important. Adishakthi Summer School is not an alternative school, but a community of tribal Dalit students in Kerala. Adishakthi is formed under the leadership of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha. Adishakthi aims to help Tribal-Dalit students facing educational challenges such as dropping out, the inadequacy of guidance, shortage of reserved seats and lack of learning media such as the internet. The most important area of ​​activity of Adishakthi is to facilitate students' access to higher education. One such help desk was launched in 2017. The help desk is staffed by around 300 social work and NSS students from various colleges. With each passing year, there is a huge increase in the number of students entering the arena of education through Adishakthi. Adishakthi does not admit students to any college just for the sake of it. Instead, they start the admission process after understanding the tastes and interests of each child and making them aware of each course. Jijin, a graduate student in Sound Engineering, and Atulya, a postgraduate student in Film Studies, are good examples of the above. At the same time, two hostels function as part of Adishakthi to accommodate students who do not have access to college hostel facilities in Ernakulam. Protests are also one of the important learning tools emphasised by Adishakthi. Adishakthi's agitation in 2020 to find a solution to the issue of tribal students dropping out upon being denied admission to the 11th standard had garnered attention at the state level. In addition to the students declaring that “education is my birthright”, we can also see students in Adishakthi fighting hard for their rights through education.

Aksa Balan, MA Sociology student sharing her experiences during the Muthanga agitation on Muthanga Remembrance Day (Photo: Amal Dev)

What sets Adishakthi apart from other organisations is the concerted effort of a group of young people working and studying in different fields. Adishakthi Summer School is an example of an alternate way of visionary thinking for the youth who are confined to their activities within the framework of their own community and religious beliefs. Rather than bringing the light of education to the tribal people, Adishakthi is able to create self-esteem in the tribal personality and convey the idea of ​​tribal politics to them. Child-led movements and the art and cultural camp 'Opera' at Bharat Mata College in Kochi are good examples of this.

Adishakthi students dancing as part of 'Opera', an art and cultural camp at Bharat Mata College, Kochi (file photo)

An experimental multilingual learning centre has been set up at Kalloor in Wayanad district to address the language barrier which is a primary problem faced by tribal students in education. In addition, students from the Wayanad district cultivate ginger every year on agricultural land located at Meppadi. During the Covid period, a committee called 'Namontai' (We Together) was formed to provide relief packages to the Covid-affected tribal villages.

Adishakthi students and volunteers collecting essentials in Covid-affected tribal villages as part of the 'Namontai' project (file photo)

Adishakthi Summer School's triumphant journey continues in the face of many crises. There is no one in Adishakthi who earns a monthly salary or works for wages. Although it poses a challenge to regular activities, it is possible to overcome that crisis to some extent through the sincere efforts of Lydia and other volunteers. Currently, more than 30 students are staying at Adishakthi's hostel. The daily expenses of the hostel are also very difficult to manage. At the same time, a large amount of financial assistance is required to run the Admission Help Desk. The current funding comes from a network of volunteers working with Adishakthi and from the online fundraising website Ketto. Apart from that, Adishakthi earns a small income by selling honey and other forest products under the brand Adi in the urban areas of Kochi.

Adishakthi is pushing for revolutionary changes. There was a time in Kerala when most of the tribes were enslaved. That is not the case anymore, but the remnant roots of this oppression are still rotting inside some casteist minds. One by one, those roots are being uprooted through the strong protests and interventions of Adishakthi. Last year alone, about 250 students were admitted to various colleges across Kerala through Adishakthi. It was not an easy task. They had to protest against some of the privately aided colleges that tried to convert the SC/ST seats to management seats.

“Lydia plays a vital role in bringing together MSW and NSS students from various colleges as part of the Adishakthi Help Desk. That process is still going on.”

- M. Geethanandan (Founder, Adishakthi Summer School)

Lydia has been instrumental in coordinating all the major activities of Adishakthi over the last six years. Beyond being a volunteer, Lydia is able to guide children and support them to reach leadership positions. Lydia, who wanted to work in the field of environment, was brought to Adishakthi by the tribal people’s diverse lifestyle that is rooted in nature. Lydia's life journey continues, as the ideas propagated by Adishakthi are reflected in the children.

Lydia can be reached at:

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Translated from Malayalam to English by Riya Orison

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