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Keeping Nobody’s School Open

Keeping Nobody’s School Open

Where electricity, road, and water are scarce, a semi-literate shepherd runs a night school. NEHA DIXIT reports
THIRTY KILOMETRES from Ajmer, Hardi — like so many other villages — stands deprived of the standard indices of development:
bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, road, water). There is no Primary Health Centre (PHC) for 12 km. Half of the 50 families who live here, all Kharol (shepherds) by caste, are below the poverty line (with an annual income of less than Rs 10,000). Despite this drought of resources, the villagers keep alive a night school. There are 30 students, of whom 18 are girls. There is no chalk, no blackboards, no notebooks or pencils. The teacher, Prabhu Lal — the most literate person in the village who studied till Class IV — explains: “Since there is no electricity and the number of lanterns available is dismal, most of the learning is done orally.”The villagers set up the Hardi Night School six years ago, with the help of the NGO Social Work and Environment for Rural Advancement (SWERA). SWERA, in turn, was supported by the Indian Literacy Project (ILP), an NRI-driven US-based non-profit organization that seeks to improve literacy in India.

Kanharam Kharol, a Hardi resident, says, “Since we are illiterate, even bank officials are rude to us and won’t explain the basic loan procedure. We want our children to learn at least how to do basic calculations and read what they are made to sign.”

However, the remoteness of the village and lack of resources discouraged volunteers to take up the task of educating Hardi. Hence, SWERA officials and the villagers unanimously handed Prabhu Lal the task of spreading the little literacy he could.

Says BL Vaishnev, secretary, SWERA, “We could not disappoint people who desperately wanted to learn. Even if Prabhu Lal is not qualified, he teaches the basics he knows. Children can read and write at least if not anything else.” Since then, during the day, both the teacher and the students take out their cattle for grazing or work in the mine and return in the evening for three hours of lessons.

There is indeed a government day school functioning under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in Hardi. But the wards refuse to send their children here. According to the sarpanch, Bhagwan Swaroop Maheshwari, “There are two major reasons. Firstly, the government school hardly functions. More importantly, since the water in the village has a high fluoride content and is unfit for both farming and cattle, most families have started working in the nearby quartz and feldspar mine where they can earn up to Rs 60 per day. With big families to support even one square meal becomes difficult sometimes.” There is no option or the children but to work during the day in order to survive; hence the night school option seems better.

DESPITE THE trying circumstances, the students solve arithmetic problems orally, in seconds. Asked how do the children learn to write, Prabhu Lal asks a girl to write her name. She picks up a stick lying next to her, and uses the ground to show her amateur but legible handwriting.

To demonstrate the awareness of his students, Lal eagerly sprang some “non-syllabus” questions: “Who is the President of India?” The reply — “Pratibha Patil” — came quickly from a group of women. Sayeri, a woman in her 40s, says: “Since married women are not allowed to go and sit in the class due to the prevalent patriarchal customs, we finish our household chores early and sit close by. We thus learn things we could have never learnt otherwise.”

Shockingly, the school was shut down in May last year. Vaishnev says, “ILP, which supported the night school, withdrew funds when they completed the bridge education project that aimed to help everyone pass Class 5 in just one year.” SWERA has since been attempting to get the Hardi Night School enrolled under SSA. For now, the children continue to gather every evening to learn their lessons from Prabhu Lal outside the school building.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 3, Dated Jan 26, 2008
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