As she holds the chalk to the slate and scribbles letters of the English alphabet,ten-year-old Renuka seems to symbolise the change that has crept into Katkari Vasti in Khed gram panchayat,Satara district,about 110 km from Pune.
Just four years ago,Renuka,like any other child in the village of 300 members,would spend the whole day near the ponds helping the elders with fishing. Evenings were spent at the fish market with her mother,selling the days catch. Nobody ever mentioned school toher. Watching parents while away time gambling or in drunken brawls meant the children drifted as swiftly towards those vices.
Now,Renuka attends evening school for two hours. She recites poems,loves drawing and even narrates stories to other children in the village. She is among 20 other children in the community who have been introduced to the written word and are being groomed to face a world away from their own.
The change started when Sandhya Chowgule,an activist who teaches at the DP Bhosale College at Koregoan taluka in Satara city,paid a field visit to the village in 2003. She saw thirsty children drinking water from the gutter as the village had just one water connection. The gram panchayat school in the village had been taken over by gamblers. Malnutrition,early exposure to alcohol and a life of theft was common. There were hardly any roads in the village,only 40 per cent had power connections. Daily earnings were around Rs 15-45 for each family. No surprise,then,that education was on the bottom of their priority list.
But Chowgule was determined to make a difference. It started with basic hygiene for the children. Step two was revamping the gram panchayat school, she says. The beginning was rough with drunk men picking up fights with Chowgule. It took two years for her to get the gamblers out of school. It was tough to drive the parents out of the school but slowly and steadily,we got there. We bathed the kids,gave them clothes to wear. It was like getting them back to civilisation, she says. Gradually,the children warmed to teachers and volunteers who told them stories and even played with them.
This was the first such initiative taken up in Satara district. They got the school painted and found corporates who were ready to sponsor the childrens uniforms and slates. Chowgule even got children above 15 years to join the evening school. The project gained momentum with children of nearby villages also trooping in. This school saw nearly 150 students come in for the evening class.
The teachers for the school are from the Yashwantrao Chavan Institute of Science in Satara who stay at the womens working hostel,one km away from Vasti. Twenty-five girls spend 2-3 hours in the evening with the children,without expecting any remuneration. Initially it was difficult to get the childrens attention. But we started playing with them. We gave them some biscuits,milk. We told them stories. And now they are happy to have us around, 19-year-old Poonam said.
Simultaneously,Chowgule also encouraged the women to start saving. Women went from door to door,collecting money from each home,which was be kept in Chowgules safe-keeping. In some ways,they had their own bank. Today,two groups of 15 women each have nearly Rs 28,000 as their savings.
As our communication with the women in the community increased,they trusted us more and were more eager to send their children to the classes, said Chowgule.
Cleanliness was encouraged through various drives which saw teachers and social workers clean up public toilets and roads. Unhygienic conditions were leading to many ailmentsmalaria,jaundice,skin diseases,malnutritionand with the help of anganwadi workers they were taught the importance of living in good conditions.
Despite the change,the village panchayat members remain indifferent to the initiatives. The village still doesnt have a government school. A gram panchayat member said,All this has been done through a foundation and so the village panchayat need not interfere, he said.
However,the women were more than supportive. Savita,40,a fisherwoman who had came to drop her child to the school,said she was glad her child would be literate unlike her. I have to fight daily with my husband to get her here,but I will continue doing it, she says.
A community mired in superstitions and alcoholism may not be receptive to change,but a beginning has been made. We have a long way to go, Chowgule says.