For five years Geeta Baria started her commute to school with a hushed prayer: “God, save me from drowning today.” And after reaching school, there would be another prayer to coax her school uniform into drying fast.
On September 15, she had a new beginning to her school day. Weeks after The Sunday Express reported on how 125 students from 16 villages in Sankheda taluka of Gujarat’s Chhota Udepur district swam across the Hiran river to reach their school in Utavadi village, two non-resident Indians from the US brought an inflatable boat for the children. In the absence of a bridge, the children had to swim across the river, holding on to a brass pot as a floatation aid.
Last Monday, 17-year-old Geeta fastened a bright orange life-jacket over a fluorescent yellow raincoat and stepped into the rubber motor boat to cross the Hiran with other children. They will trek five kilometres on the other side to their school and arrive an hour earlier and dry.
“I don’t know whether others would understand this great feeling of sitting in dry clothes in the classroom,” said Geeta. “We swam across every school day for the past few years but we dreaded the river.”
The change has come about after an Indian-American couple read the The Sunday Express report on August 3 and decided to donate the boat and help the villagers to “pursue larger goals in life”. New York based Varinder Bhalla and his wife Ratna, who run a Delhi-based charity named AWB Foodbank, then contacted people in village Sajanpura to work out a solution.
“I was deeply moved by the Express report. Since my wife and I have a food charity, we thought of extending the work to the education needs of these children, Bhalla said. “I wanted to meet these children, who are determined to seek education facing such odds. No one should have to do this everyday.”
The Bhallas who have lived in the US for over four decades say a visit to the village has helped them reconnect with their country of birth. Ratna, who works in social housing, said, “We hope that until the time the government builds the bridge, this boat will ensure that the children do not swim to school again.”
Schoolgirl, Dharmishta Baria, 13 said the gesture of the Bhallas has inspired her. “The journey across the river that took us about half an hour, now takes just minutes. They have also gifted us raincoats,” she said. “In the time I now save, I intend to study some more.”
To ensure that the villagers are able to properly run the motor boat, the Bhallas spent a week in the village and commissioned a retired rescue operations personnel from Vadodara to train the elders for a month. Bhailal Baria of Sajanpura, who is training to run the boat, says, “We had never imagined crossing the river could be so easy. On previous instances when we tried to ply a boat, the rocky riverbed made it impossible.”
Bhailal, along with a team of villagers, has volunteered to divide the daily task of taking children across, in batches of eight per trip, all in ne hour.
For other villagers too, the boat has become a source convenience. On Monday, as the children took their first ever boat ride across the river, a group of elderly women from the village took a ride to the other side.
The couple has also donated five bicycles to ease their trek through slush to school from the Sewada bank where they land after the boat ride. The boat, they say, will help the students till the government builds the bridge, promised on August 14 after a notice from the National Human Rights.