"Do you go to school?" I ask a young boy who is walking barefoot, lost in deep thoughts with a wooden box hanging from a makeshift belt on his belly.
He looks up, his gaze blank, his face dripping sweat. He nods his head first and then shakes it in quick denial. He starts to walk past, hurriedly adjusting the box every time it slides sideways. We follow him. We reach the outskirts of the Kalyansinghpur block in Rayagada -- a mineral-rich district in Odisha with a population comprising mainly of tribal groups such as the Kondhas (or Kondhs) and Souras.
After a short distance, the boy turns around and stops.
"Are you part of the school-money programme?" he asks my colleague in Odiya. "A boy in my village was telling me about it. I want to go back to school but I have to support my grandparents. They are very old. Even if I go to school, how will I pay for the books and uniforms? How do I get into the programme?" he asks.
My colleague Vaishali smiles and replies, "You don't have to do anything, just attend school daily and if you have more than 70% monthly attendance, you will get the scholarship money to buy books and uniform." The sun is merciless and we coax the boy to talk to us for five minutes. Drenched in sweat, we all huddle under the branches of a tree.
"What is your name?" my colleague asks.
My name is Jagdish. Can you help me go to school? I want to become a big man and go to the city...
"My name is Jagdish. Can you help me go to school? I want to become a big man and go to the city to work someday," the young boy, around 14 years of age, smiles for the first time in the last half an hour. He patiently waits for one of us to answer so that he can get some clue as to how to fulfil his dream of becoming a "big man."
In and around his village, there are not many opportunities -- most of the tribes are dependent on forest products, and some of them work either in their own or somebody else's fields; the alternative to farming is to work as labourers, hammering the huge boulders and stones into tiny bits of gravel.
Absentmindedly, Jagdish starts to recite the times tables in a rhythm and the wooden box falls on the stones nearby. The sound reverberates and slowly fades away in the forest area nearby.
We know Jagdish is an ambitious young boy just in need of the right direction to fulfil his dreams. "Can you take us to your home? We would like to speak to your grandparents," Vaishali asks. He smiles and starts to walk.
Walking through green fields, I see farmers and labourers toiling hard in the relentless weather. There is a group of tribal women carrying logs, earthenware on their shoulders -- probably heading to the haat -- the local market.
Jagdish runs past and stops an old woman by tugging her loose sari's end. She turns around and looks at him; the boy takes the wooden load off her head and puts it on the ground. They talk in whispers until we reach them. She smiles feebly at Vaishali and then signals us to walk along with her.
If you give him permission, he can enrol in the village school. He will get money to attend -- it will be credited in his bank account...
"He is my grandson and has been living with us ever since his parents passed away. He used to go to school but had to drop out and work, as we hardly had money to feed him and his elder sister. We have to get her married by this winter anyhow. How can we send him back to school?"
After walking for nearly two miles, we reach a dark little hut and enter through what looks like a backyard. As the conversation moves further, the old woman lights a fire in the mud stove filled with dried wooden twigs and a few leaves. After a few minutes, she places an earthen pot of rice on the stove as Jagdish starts chopping some roots. Vegetables and curries are luxuries for the families in this part of the world.
Determined to help the boy, I break the gloomy silence, "Jagdish is a very smart boy. He still remembers his tables. If you give him permission, he can enrol in the village school. He will get money to attend -- it will be credited in his bank account."
"But I don't have a bank account Sahib"
"We can help him open one. We just need a caste certificate from the Tehsildar and then after filling a few forms, he can get ₹2250 in a year to help him buy books, uniform and also pay the fees," I add.
There is a twinkle in Jagdish's eyes. Perhaps he is seeing a way to reach his dreams.
He looks at his grandmother and smiles. Hope shines in their eyes.
At present, more than 90% of the enrolled SC and ST students of classes 9 and 10 have applied for the scholarship for the academic year 2015-2016.
In the year 2014-2015, about 4.30 lakhs students from across Odisha registered under the scheme --which was about 5.6% higher than in 2013.
This centrally sponsored cash transfer scheme is being implemented in Odisha by the SC & ST Development Department. The Department for International Development (DFID), UK, is providing technical and financial assistance for the implementation of the scheme in the state, under the aegis of the Odisha Girls Incentive Programme (OGIP). DFID support, through the Technical Assistance (TA) agency, IPE Global Ltd., an international development consulting group, has led to the development of a robust system to deliver scholarships directly to the bank account of the beneficiaries in the state. This has helped in effective targeting, elimination of leakages, lowering of transaction costs, regularity of payment, as well as, financial inclusion. DFID support is for the initial three years (2013-2016). Thereafter the state government will manage the implementation through its own resources.