Education – a Bridge between Everything and Nothing

Tejeswar Karkora is a doctor of Social Sciences, who obtained his degree from a renowned Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India. We became friends during his exchange program at the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic in 2012 and I visited him in Mumbai in 2014. Tejeswar is an optimistic and jolly person, despite some of the hardships that he has experienced during his life. Let me tell you his interesting story.

Tejeswar, you have recently received a Ph.D. degree in Social Sciences. How do you feel?

I feel great. Getting a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree from a renowned institute is a big thing for me. I come from a scheduled caste and that to from one of the poorest Indian states Odisha. I am the first Ph.D. student from my community. My degree is an important symbol for the children of my community, who can see that through education they can improve their lives and explore the world as I did.

Tell us about your journey from a small village to Mumbai.

Well, I studied at a village primary and secondary government school in the state language Odia. When I was 16, my family moved to a bigger town called Rayagada, where I attended higher secondary education. It was challenging for me, because people were very competitive and in order to be equal with them I had to learn English and work hard more than I used to do. My parents wanted a better future for me and they encouraged me to go to a university in our state capital. I obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science Honours from Bhubaneswar, Odisha and then Master of Arts from University of Hyderabad. It was fun and hard at the same time. For the first time I met people from different Indian states and people from abroad. I felt very happy, because we were all equal – boys, girls, lower caste, higher caste, Indian and foreigner. I was one among 16 people to be accepted to do a two-years Master of Philosophy program in School of Social Sciences at TISS. It was a huge achievement for me and even greater when I got into a Ph.D. program in School of Social Sciences. The dream to complete both my M.Phil and Ph.D would not be possible without the scholarship from University Grants Commission, New Delhi and Post-Matric Scholarship by Government of Odisha, India.

Have you ever faced any discriminations because of your origin?

There were instances when I was punished for being lower caste. One school teacher used to hit me with a leg, because he thought that if he touched me with his hands, he would lose his caste. Also when I was playing with my friends, their parents would not allow me to go inside their bedrooms, prayer room and kitchen. Luckily, it got better when I was in the university. Although, there were sometimes people who were jealous about me and tried to put me down. I never really understood, why people envy each other. I was always giving my best, but never really wanted to be a topper. I experienced discrimination during my research from a local officer, who found out about my background and refused to provide me lists of households which was necessary for me to carry out research. Eventually, I had to change the Gram Panchayat and collect data elsewhere.

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As far as I know you studied the situation of women in the rural Indian countryside. What motivated you?  

It was my mother. She is a very strong and brave woman, who fights for her rights despite her origin and illiteracy. She supported me and my siblings throughout our life and encouraged us to have a better future. I thought that I would like to dedicate my research to improving situation of women like her. That’s why I wrote both my thesis ‘Decentralized Governance and Political Empowerment of Women: A Study of Gram Panchayats in Koraput District of Orissa’ during my M.Phil. and ‘Gendered Context of Vulnerabilities and Coping Mechanisms in Rural India: A Study of Institutions for Food Security in Odisha’ in my Ph.D..

What is the situation of Indian women in the rural areas?

Women are vulnerable in India, whether they live in rural or urban areas. They work whole day outside in the field, take care of households and family, but their work is not recognized. They are primary providers of food, but they eat food at the last. Women first feed men, older family members and children, but often there is no food left at the end of the day, so they go to sleep hungry. Odisha is a very poor state, where most of the people survive on cultivation of crops, collection of food from forest and felling trees in the mountains. They have so little income, that they cannot even afford to buy the subsidized rice that the government provides through public distribution system. It is quite hard to believe that people do not have 25 rupees to buy 25 kilos of rice per month. To help the people Indian government is supposed to provide employment for 100 days a year through, but sadly, it does not happen.

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How can the situation be improved?

I think that government should provide a better development policy, including skills training, promotion of education and provision of employment. I believe that the whole world is one village and everyone should help each other. I like the idea of foreign NGOs coming to India, but they should focus more on providing some kind of training and support, so that the people can generate income for themselves rather than giving them money straightaway.

How do you see the future of Indian countryside in 20 years?

If development program is there, the situation will improve, but it will not change rapidly in 20 years. The Indian society is dominated by men and even women at the highest positions in big companies are being harassed. I am not sure, how long it will take to change this, but I wish that one day we are all equal. Regarding Odisha, it is often labeled as a backward state, but I do not agree with this. My findings proved that tribal women were more emancipated than other Indian women. Besides, the tribes are happy with their life. And the term development itself is contradictory, so we should allow them to keep their culture.

In between your field work, you went abroad. What can you tell us about your experience?  

I came for an exchange program at the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, in autumn 2012. I know it sounds like a cliché, but this experience has changed my life. I learnt so much about other cultures and myself. I met many great people through International Student Club and traveled to all the neighboring countries. There were some things which really surprised me like seeing people kissing in the public, seeing snow for the first time, being the only Indian in the city. But then I got used to it. My overall experience was amazing, although I also saw some negative sides of the country – discrimination of gypsies, xenophobia and homelessness.

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What did you do after your exchange program was over?  

I returned to Mumbai for one month and then went to do fieldwork in Odisha for 7 months. Coming from a developed country to the rural countryside was a huge shock for me. At that time, I also received an offer for a Ph.D. position in Masaryk University. But I decided to refuse it, because I had already been enrolled for 3 years in TISS and I wanted to finish it. I started to write in July 2014 and by March 2015 most of the writing was done. I was terribly exhausted after the five years and my only goal was to submit the thesis. Those were very hard times, because some people were discouraging me and pressing me.

It seems that Ph.D. is a big challenge. How did you manage the hard times?

I would say that Ph.D. is a nice but depressing journey. It is a 24/7 job. You wake up and think about your thesis and you sleep thinking about it. It is extremely hard, if you have to handle a Ph.D. and your own personal problems. I had a crisis during the 4th year, I even had suicidal thoughts, because the stress was just too much. I was extremely exhausted and confused. I did not know where to start and stop and when it would finally get over. One annoying thing was that I had no privacy, because I had to share a room with two other Ph.D. scholars, which is not fun when you are 28. During these hardships, I found support in my family, my friends and supervisor. When I was tired, I listened to good Bollywood songs and got more energy. I also released my stress on Facebook, where I got lots of support, and I participated in cultural programs and parties. I was motivated by attending conferences, too. I had a lecture in Hyderabad, Kerala and even in the Hague, Netherlands. All these things helped me to finish the thing and submit a 288-pages long thesis in April 2015.

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What a relief.

After I submitted the thesis, my mind was suddenly free and there was no stress. The strange thing is that I felt completely empty. The whole time I was looking forward to submitting the thesis, and everything went so fast. Submission, evaluation, convocation and it was OVER. I had to say bye to my friends and leave Mumbai. Now, I stay in Ahmedabad at my brother’s place looking for a teaching job. But there are no open positions at the moment, so I am trying to get to a post-doctoral program in Canada and Europe. After post-doctoral study I want to come back to India and work for my people.

Your story is unbelievably motivating. Do you have any message that you would like send?

Yes. I would like to encourage people to study, especially those from my community, because education is a bridge which helps you reach out from your place and see the world. I also think that people should travel, so that they lose their prejudices and find out that we are all EQUAL, no matter what religion, nation or color we have.

Thank you, Tejeswar, for the wonderful interview! Good luck with your endeavors.

Copyright: Tejeswar Karakora

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