For his science project two years ago, Ankur Majumdar used his father’s smartphone to search for photographs of trains. “My project was on treating human waste in trains, but I had never seen a train before,” said the 16-year-old student from Odisha’s Nabarangpur district.
On Sunday morning, Ankur flew to Japan with 29 other students on a youth exchange programme organised by the Japan Science and Technology Agency in association with the Centre’s Department of Science and Technology (DST).
According to officials, that’s a first for Nabarangpur. The district in southern Odisha is arguably India’s poorest and the focus of a year-long assignment, titled District Zero, by The Indian Express. It has some of the most dismal indicators for education, with 57.35 per cent of the population having never attended school.
But as Ankur’s story shows, that could be slowly changing.
Ankur’s project, ‘Utilisation of Human Excrement and Environment Safety in the Railways’, took him to first position at the district and state levels in INSPIRE, a DST competition to attract the best of science talent among students. He eventually stood second from Odisha at the national-level competition held in Delhi last October.
Under INSPIRE, two students are selected from each middle and high school in the country and each gets Rs 5,000 to prepare a science model, after which they compete at the district, state and national levels. Students for the exchange programme are selected from among the INSPIRE toppers.
This year, 248 children in Nabarangpur have qualified for the science project. When Ankur won the award last year, he was a Class X student of the Government High School in Murtuma, a village in Umerkote block. Now, he is a first-year student of the Gurukrupa Junior College in Umerkote.
For his project, Ankur made a “demo model” of a train. “It was the clerk in our school who gave me this idea. He had just come back from a train journey and was talking about how disgusted he was with all that human waste on the tracks. When I told him I had been chosen for the INSPIRE awards, he said I should think of a solution to this problem. I discussed the idea with my science teacher and we came up with our model,” said Ankur.
And they got working right away. While Ankur’s father Deepak Majumdar, a truck driver and a small-time farmer, helped him with the cardboard model — complete with wagons and a red engine — it was his science teacher Shivram Panigrahi who sat with him for long hours as they discussed the project.
”We discussed in school, after school hours, at sir’s home… We finally came up with the concept of train toilets fitted with tanks underneath where human waste would get collected instead of falling on the tracks. At every station, a giant vacuum pump would transfer the waste to an open field nearby where alternate layers of waste would be topped with soil. The anaerobic bacteria in the soil would then decompose the waste. The Railways already has bio-toilets developed by DRDO but these are expensive and my teacher says IIT-Kanpur has said they are not good enough,” said Ankur.
“My Murtuma school was a rural facility with no good library or other resource material, but we have a few teachers like Panigrahi sir who was with me through this project. He looked up the Internet and came up with numbers and data with which I impressed the judges at the competition,” said Ankur.
There was more he had to do to “impress the judges”. “It was all well until the district and state level competitions. When I was selected for the competition in Delhi, they told me I would have to speak Hindi for the judges to understand what I was saying. So I worked on my Hindi. TV really helped,” said Ankur, who says he is now hooked to ‘Taarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashmah’ on SAB TV and Man vs Wild on Discovery Channel.
Ankur has an elder sister, who is in the second year of plus-2 in junior college, and a younger brother who is studying in Class 7 at the same Murtuma school. His father says he prefers his son to do all the talking, adding that Ankur was the one who “studies the most” among his three children.
Ankur, meanwhile, says his aim is to study “pure science” and that he hopes to do research, “not in Odisha, somewhere outside”.
When contacted, District Collector Rashmita Panda said, “Ankur has made Nabarangur proud and will inspire many others in the district. He has shown that despite studying in a government school with limited means, it is possible to do well.”
Incidentally, the Odisha government and Ministry of Railways agreed last November to jointly develop at least six-seven rail projects in the state, including a 40-km track connecting the Nabarangpur district headquarters to its nearest rail link in Koraput’s Jeypore.
“My first train journey was when I had to travel to Bhubaneswar for the state-level competition,” said Ankur.
“Now my parents are worried about my first flight. Except for a cousin who works in the ITBP, no one in my family has ever been on a plane. I asked him and he said it’s the take-off and landing that’s scary, everything else is fine. But my mother doesn’t understand. She cried a bit when I was leaving then and said, ‘we are letting you go only because yeh tumhare career ka sawaal hain’ (this is a question of your career),” he said.