(The heart-warming story of an innovative educational effort worth lending a helping hand
--Tushar Bhatt reportrs from Bhekhadia tribal village in Gujarat
It perhaps is the irony of our modern development,not only in the developing countries,but even in the developed countries throughout the length and breadth of the world,some remote pockets of human settlement remain deprived of the rudimentary fruits of growth. The instruments of normall adequate for most regions are not enogh to break the stranglehold of backwardness.
There is no exception, and despite million claims of vibrancy,Gujarat too, now turning 50 years of its separate, is not free from this syndrome. Remote areas in the State continue to lag behind,so far on the hazy horizon that they are hardly noticed from the dizzying heights of Gandhinagar. They lack in every aspect of infrastrcture—literacy,health care,power,water or road,name any catalytist of growth,it is not there in the remote regions. Their feeble voice becomes so weak that the ruling deities of democracy in the State Capital,so busy loudly congratulating itself on its own vibrancy, cannot catch it.
It is a stark reality that even Gujarat has large pockets of penury.There are smal settlements,largish villages and bigger remote areas of which the babudom guiding political noves does not know of. This is not a new phenomenon.It has been known since the days of the British Raj that large mountainous tracts of land on the banks of the Narmada still lived in another time,ages away from rest of Gujarat.One of the numerous names of the Narmada is Rewa and the British called it Rewa banks and set up a Rewa Banks Agency.
It is not just ironical; it tantamounts to the down right arrogance to put off consideration of seemingly impossible looking situation on the back burner for the future generations to handle. In the process,the plight of the hapless population in these areas worsen at will.They are the children of lesser development Gods.
It still registers as a shock and surprise to outsiders when they learn that as many as as 45 lakh acres of land will get irrigation from the Narmada.The people of the far-flung Kutch too will have some drinking water supply.All this beckons for what the rulers euphemistically hail as Swarmin Gujarat. But the neglected children of Rewa Kantha will remain deprived of all education.
IT IS TRAGIC,BUT TRUE.
Included among these areas of darkness are two tribal talukas, Naswadi and Kwant in otherwise industry hub,Vadodara district. It is tokenism,but the government itself had certified Kwant as thee most backward area economically and the media reported the taluka had been named an adopted area for development.But,tokenism still dominate in practice. A survey was made to size up educational facilities . A scheme launched in the wake of the survey by the Government of India had provision for model schools for far-off places. Of six approved schools,three each were allotted to the two talukas, Naswadi and Kwant.Those in Kwant area were at Mogra,Chaparia and Redi Vasan.Some schools were formally inaugrated even.
But, soon,inexplicably the shifting of the six schools in 2 talukas was announced. The two taluka panchayat’s elected representative
, political and social workers and others,forgetting their internal differences and joined hands to fight out the proposal for shifting.They went up to the triabl welfare minister to lodge a protest. But the complaint fell on deaf ears.The tribal belt lost the six schools to Naswasi and Kwant townships and their number came down to two schools from the earlier six.
In short, the hapless villages were back to s quare one,having been generously sanctioned the schools which then were taken back to the taula town.Urban children benefited at the cost of village children.Bureaucratic pen has always been mightier than political will.
Against the backdrop of all this, Shramik Vikas Sansthan, a non-government organisation,run under the leadership of Octogenerian social worker,Mr.Sanat Mehta, a fomer MP and a fomer finance minister in Gujarat, set up a centre in the remote Bhekhadia village in Kwant taluka,came into being some seven years ago in an endeavour to bridge the gap between remote areas and educational facilities.The cente,named after Late Mrs Thavliben Rathwa, a tribal worker,was locally spearheaded by a tribal leader, Ratan Bhagat.A living accommodation to house 40 village children was opened and the children were enrolled in the Bhekhadia primary school run by the State Government.The Rathwa Samaj,the tribals’agrred to foot the schooling and boarding and lodging expenses of the hostelites.The Samaj banked on support by member individuals.
The idea caught on like a wild fire among the tribals and more and more guardians were eager to leave their children at the hostel.Indu, a tribal young woman, accepted to be their guardian God mother.However, the temporary arrangement fell short of requirements,especially school rooms. Mr Mehta’s organisation offered to bear the cost of two additional school roomswere the Rathwa Samaj ready to pick up food bill for a hundred pupils.
Around this time, manging director of the Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilisers Co(GNFC),Mrs Sudha Achaliya, a senior IAS officer in the State,came to Bhekhadia.She got interested in this micro-experiment. Not only was a top official a mother’s tender heart throbbed in her. She offered that if the Shramik Vikas Sansthan shelled out 25 per cent cost for building two halls accommodating a hundred resiential pupils, the GNFC would provide the remainder. On June 13,2008, the foundation for the halls was laid.The construction was supervised by a young tribal worker, Mr Madhu Rathwa.On completion, the halls were inaugurated on February 10,2010, by the chairperson of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Ms Kumudben Joshi.
One hall with 50 girls and the other with as many boys were opened,but soon the accommodation ran short.The number of admission seekers touched 150.Said Mr Sanat Mehta:” It was difficult to say No because in a radius of as many as 45 km there were no other schools.Of these 25 students each had come from only two villages on the Narmada banks,Harkhod and Kuda,some 36 km away.From Sanoli,45 km away,six pupils had come.
Currently, 153 students live in the hostels- 46 girls and 107 boys.Mr.Mehta said the Rathwa clan organisation collected grains as donation to provide food.More pupils wish to come,but we just can accommodate them. It is a regret that nags me at the age of 86, as only a few other things in life did.” His clear voice became heavy with sorrow.
He continued,outlining the dimensions of the problem:” We admit children from four talukas.As many as 82 came from Kwant taluka’s 24 villages.There are 62 coming from villages in Naswadi taluka. Mostly, Rathwa tribal clan donated foodgrains,although there are children from among Bhil, Dungari Bhil and Nayak clans. Nearly 100 children were in 5th,6th , 7th and 8th standards.
Parents of most children are compelled by poverty and joblessness locally to go to distant places in search of manual work. Their low wages and perpetual need for extra income result in heavy drop-outs of children without completing primary education. Their option is not to set foot in a school and go with the parents wherever they go.
Of the 43 villages in the area,only five km away from a school; the rest are between 15 and 43 km away.
All these logistics mean that two more rooms are need to take the number of hostelites from 150 to 200. The programme does not get any subsidy or even loan from either the Gujarat or the Union Governments.
In a sense, tribals themselves bear the economic burden of the project. Some well-to-do tribals give personal money,others get donations. As he said this the sorrow in his voice lifted and Mr Sanat Mehta’s face acquired a glow of pride.
He said: “ Imagine in the far-flung,remote povery-ridden tribal villages , most government schemes had failed despite spending lot of money and deplying government machinery. In such a milliue , this effort at self-reliance by tribals themselved had borne fruits. As many as 150 tribal children will lead a better life.”
In an open letter to the citizens,Mr Sanat Mehta declared: “ All my life, I have never sought anything.But, I feel honoured to put out my hand to seek your mite. I am seeking just Rs.10 lakhs from all of you. Please give whatever you can,so that at least 200 souls can enlighten their being,so that they may have a better chance in tomorrow’s world. I ask you NOT to send more than Rs.10,000 per donor so that others too can join us in this noble endeavour. I have no doubt you all will respond. At 86 years of my life already covered I know I do not have time or energy. Before it is sunset for me,I wish to see a smile on happiness on the most deprived face of our tomorrow.”
Education is not the sole programme at Bhekhadia.Tribal women here sale masalas worth Rs.20,000 per month.Another 100 women work on eight-spindke ambar charkha perfected at Udyog Bharati in Gondal,earning more than those who workon a government scheme for 100 days a year guarantees.Tribal young men are undergoing diamond-polishing.
The Bhekhadia project has been named Aaj ,an abbreviationof Adivasi Jan Utthan Samaj. Aaj is a significant name. It serves notice on all of us that tribal youth is no longer ready to wait indefinitely for the civil society and its government to act.Whatever is needed should be doe AAJ (Today), now.The tribals pack their masalas as Aaj masala and are prearing to launch a soap, Aaj sabun.