Birhor children in the Giridih District of India’s Jharkhand state have been attending school recently and doing well, according to a news report last week. Credit for the advances appears to belong to administrative officials of the district.

Deputy District Commissioner Vandana Dadel put an integrated development plan in place eight months ago and the results have been startling. Birhor children who previously could speak only their native language, Santhali, have learned Hindi and, in some cases, English as well. While one six year old sang for a visitor, another recited nursery rhymes—in English.

Out of a total population of 490 Birhor living in five settlements in the district, there are 64 children between the ages 6 and 14 that are getting some schooling. Five NGOs in the district are responsible for implementing the plan, one for each settlement. The NGOs select volunteers to move in with the Birhor people and to serve as bridges to their communities. They reach out and coax the people to begin sending children to the school programs.

For instance, Mahadev Mahto, one of the volunteers, had been a teacher at a regular school in the area. He agreed to step in and help. “When I first came here, none of the children could speak a word of Hindi. So I had to learn Santhali to win their confidence,” he said. He teaches Hindi, English, and mathematics. Other volunteer teachers are doing preparatory instruction with their students.

The district government has also opened five food grain distribution facilities in what the national government of India calls anganwadi centres, education and development facilities for pre-school children provided within the purview of the government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme. The supervisor of the five food centres in the district, Gajala Yasmeen, said, “we have been told to take special care so that there is no shortage of foodgrain.”

The five areas within the district all now have schools, anganwadi centres, and self help groups. An official involved with the project commented that, while the Birhor used to flee when government vehicles drove into their villages, now they are confident enough to approach and discuss their needs. The government has also provided some livestock to help the villagers.

The news story observes that the communities are making progress on several fronts. Drinking has declined, as has child trafficking and out-migration. The hoped for conclusion is that the villagers will become alienated from the Maoist Naxalite guerillas, who have a strong presence in the district. It is not clear whether the improvements in government services to the villages are due to the tragic deaths of at least eight Birhor in October 2008, which was widely reported in the media, to the Naxalite threat in rural India, which has been growing in areas where the Birhor live, or perhaps to other reasons.