A bridge, they hear, is coming. Meanwhile school is down a concrete road, through the Hiran river and finally, a 5-km walk through cotton fields and slush. Kumar Anand takes this trek with 13-year-old Dharmishtha Baria. (Photographs: Bhupendra Rana)
Dharmishtha Baria looks up at the overcast sky. Will it rain? The last few days have gone without rains and she has been lucky — the dirt track she takes to school has dried up and the water level in the Hiran river has gone down.
Thirteen-year-old Dharmishtha, “Dharmi” at home, and her sister Mamata live in Sajanpura village in east Gujarat’s Chhota Udepur district at their maternal uncle Kalpesh Baria’s home. Dharmishtha has been here since she was two. Her parents are farm labourers and live in Angari village, 2 kilometres away. Two months ago, Dharmishtha’s uncle got her enrolled at Sri Mastram Vinay Vidya Mandir, a school across the Hiran river with classes from IX to XII. Until her Class VIII, she had gone to a government school in Vasan village. But now, she has to walk down to the Hiran river, wade across it and walk another 5 km to get to school.
The Sunday Express had reported how about 125 children from 16 tribal villages — Sajanpura, Chamarwada and Vasan, among others — of Sankheda taluka in Chhota Udepur district cross the raging Hiran every day to get to school in Utavadi village in Narmada district. Some of them carry a gohri, a 20-litre brass pot that they hold onto to stay afloat as they cross the 600-metre river. Dharmishtha is yet to get used to the ritual of holding the gohri to cross the river when the water level rises.
The Hiran, a sub-tributary of the Narmada river, is shallow for most part of the year but swells during the monsoons. Villagers, however, say the water is never deep enough for boats and so, children like Dharmishtha brace for a difficult trek to school.
Dharmishtha wakes up at 6 am and has three hours before she begins the journey. But there is no time to laze around: she has to finish her social studies homework, sweep the mudfloor of the house, do the dishes and make breakfast for herself and the other children at home — her sister Mamata and her two cousins. Mamata goes to a primary school in Vasan, a kilometre away, on this side of the river.
Sitting in the verandah of the mud-plastered porch of her house, with the neighbour’s buffalo and its calf mooing nearby, she sits down with her books and opens her textbook to the chapter on world history. She has to write the answer to the question: “Audyogik krantiye vishwama keva parivartano avya? (How did the Industrial Revolution change the world?)” She writes down the answer in her notebook, in neat points: “Industrial Revolution led to mass production of materials and helped bridge the distance between people and places with the use of telephone, radio, television, road and motor vehicles.”
Thirty minutes later, she is done with her homework. “I can never do my homework at night. I am too tired to do anything else after walking back home from school,” she says, packing her books. She also carries a notebook of her “best friend” Tinkle “because Tinkle doesn’t carry a bag”. Two of Tinkle’s books are with a friend who lives near the school and she will collect them on her way there. Tinkle lives next door and is one class senior to her. They go to school together, part of a group of about 20 from the village.
In the next half an hour, Dharmishtha goes about her work busily — mopping the floor and scrubbing utensils in the backyard. As her grandmother kneads flour for breakfast, Dharmishtha gets ready for school. Thursdays are special days and Dharmishtha is free to wear her best clothes, not the regular white-and-blue uniform. She turns up in a purple kurti and black salwar and a matching dupatta and sits down to help her grandmother make paranthas. Her breakfast of two paranthas and mango pickle should see her through the entire day, apart from the snacks she eats during school recess. “I do not carry tiffin but sometimes we eat snacks that I buy from a shop outside school,” she says.
Outside, the street leading to the river is buzzing with activity. People gather around a man who has come with a bagful of colourful floaters, a necessity in these parts during the monsoons when village roads get covered in slush.
From Sajanpura, there are two routes to cross the river. Villagers can either walk down the concrete road, reach the river bank and wade across the waist-deep water. The alternative, and shorter, route to the river is down a slippery slope and then to the river where the water level is shallower. Villagers usually take the longer route — the concrete road that leads from the house of former sarpanch Naginbhai Baria.
“Everyday, over 100 children from this side of the river have to walk to school, crossing the river that swells during the monsoons. We only have a primary school in our village and the nearest secondary and senior secondary school is across the river. For years, we have been petitioning government officials and even ministers for a bridge over the river, but nobody has ever listened to us. In 2011, we even appealed to Anandiben Patel (then road & building minister) but nothing happened,” says Baria as a group of students walks past his house on their way to school.
After the Express report, the District Development Officer of Chhota Udepur, accompanied by a local mamlatdar and the deputy engineer of the district’s Roads and Buildings department, met the panchayat of five villages to assure them that the bridge was on its way.
It’s 9 am, time to leave. She calls out to Tinkle, who comes over wearing a crimson kurti and apple-green salwar.
As Dharmishtha and Tinkle start off their trek, others, including Hiral, Geeta, Aruna and Varsha, join them. Together, they walk down the muddy track to the river bank, their flip-flops spraying their salwars with mud. They pause briefly to take off the flip-flops and roll up the salwars and then, step into the water. With every step, they hold up their school bags a few inches higher till they hold it above their heads by the time they get to the middle of the river. Their steps are slow and measured as they cut through the current. Dharmishtha is among the shortest in the group and the water reaches her waist in quick time. After about 30 minutes, the girls reach the other side of the river, their clothes dripping wet. They wring their kurtas and flap them, all the while chatting among themselves.
The river forms the border between two districts — Udepur where they set off from and Narmada, where they now stand. “This is Sewada village,” says Dharmishtha. She now has to walk 5 km through an almost non-existent road to get to their school in Utavadi village. Some of the students have their bicycles parked in Sewada and they clamber onto them, leaving Dharmishtha, Tinkle and some others behind.
The girls walk in groups, trailing a few boys from their school. Dharmishtha and her friends crack jokes, giggle and play antakshari on the way. They will have to walk for at least an hour before they reach school. The walk isn’t too bad today. With no rain in the last two days, the slush on the road has dried up. A few motorcycles and tractors pass them by, but there are no buses on this route.
The children walk on, through mud paths and vast expanse of cotton fields. After having covered around 2 km, they stop to drink water from a pot kept by the road. “They call this place Kareliwala kaka nu khetar and we drink water from the pot every day on our way to school and back. This is meant for passersby and farm labourers,” says Dharmishtha.
It’s 11 am and the children are at the school gates, their clothes almost dry. As on most other days, they have missed the assembly gathering for the day, but teachers go easy on children who come from the other side of the river. “There are 61 students from at least nine villages who take the river route everyday to come to our school. A few days ago, following the media coverage, district and taluka-level officers had asked for a list of these children. In fact, we had recently written to the authorities for a bridge across the river so that the children don’t have to struggle to get to school,” says Kantibhai Baria, who is officiating as the principal.
As many as 795 children from over 40 villages come here to study. Dharmishtha has to squat on the floor of the classroom along with at least four other students. “Since I joined the school only on June 9 this year, I have been sitting on the floor. The benches have all been taken,” she says.
Her classroom is crammed with students, with the school authorities accommodating 118 students of Class IX in two classrooms. “We have to put them all in two classes because we don’t have enough teachers. The government has not sanctioned new teachers despite our repeated demands to fill up six vacant posts. We have 363 girls studying here, but not a single woman teacher. The last woman teacher left the school two years ago,” says Kantibhai.
A period goes by but no teacher turns up. In the second period, class teacher Rajendra Purohit walks in with a bundle of books that have to be distributed to the students. The supplementary books on maps, essays, science and technology and Hindi, along with notebooks, cost Rs 150, but the school offers them to students at a discounted price of Rs 130. The teacher calls out the names of students who have deposited the money. Dharmishtha does not figure on the list. “I will hopefully get the books soon, when my uncle gives me money,” she says, as she steps out during recess and buys three packets of chips that she will share with Tinkle.
Teachers remain elusive for most part of the day. Dharmishtha mostly studies on her own, sitting cross-legged and hunched over her books. She struggles to make sense of the Gujarati words in the play Jivram Bhatt Jamwa Baitha, written by Gujarati author Dalpatram. Her friend Maya shares her notes. Most of Dharmishtha’s classmates play around and chat in the classroom, others walk in and out.
As the final bell goes off at 5 pm, Dharmishtha, Tinkle and their friends who have to cross the river, collect their bags and rush to the gate. They have no time to waste. For the next one hour, it’s a familiar trek — down the mud path, past the cotton fields, down to the river bank, splashing through the water and finally, home and not-so-dry at 6 pm.
“Till the time Dharmishtha had not joined school, she’d help with household chores, but now that she has to travel a long distance from school, we ask her to rest,” says her uncle Kalpesh. But not before Dharmishtha has had the bowl of hot rice and daal that her grandmother has made for her.