HOW many schools in India would inspire children below 10 years of age to walk merrily for as many as five km through the thick forests to reach them, learn their lessons and walk back as happily in the afternoon? Located in one of the most embattled Naxal-affected terrains, Sadhana Vidyalaya, in Maharashtra’s Nelgunda, may, perhaps, be the only one of its kind. Run by Maharogi Sewa Samiti, a humanitarian organisation set up by the late Baba Amte, the school not only shows how learning can be fun but also lays down a template for how running a school can be such a huge success, despite all odds, in areas affected by insurgencies.
Set up on May 5, 2015, in the memory of Amte’s life partner, Sadhnatai Amte, Sadhana Vidyalaya was actually the result of a persistent demand from many villages in the deep interiors of Bhamragarh that have no roads or electricity. “The villagers had been demanding a school for some time. We already have one school, up to standard XII, at our Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP, another Sewa Samiti-run social initiative) at Hemalkasa — about 4 km from Bhamragad, with close to 650 students from adjoining villages. But some parents, who couldn’t send their children to Hemalkasa, were requesting us to start another school, for regions further inside. We first requested the government to let us run the virtually-defunct Zilla Parishad school at Nelgunda, about 27 km from our Hemalkasa setup. The government didn’t accept the proposal. So we started our own school,” says Aniket Amte, grandson of Baba Amte, and son of Prakash Amte.
But, establishing a school here, perilously close to Abujhmad, the so-called Naxal headquarters, wasn’t easy. Just finding the right kind of teachers who would choose to stay there was the biggest challenge. But Prakash and his wife Manda had never felt the dearth of supportive fellow activists ever since they made Hemalkasa their home in the early seventies to start a hospital for the Madia-Gond tribals. “Two young men from Satara, in their early 20s, Sanket Joshi and Praful Gundecha, came forward to teach. After doing some excellent ground work for over a year, they left, but the void was duly filled by another dedicated young lady, Vaibhavi Pokale, who has since been steering the work there,” says Aniket.
A villager, Malu Warse, lent his two-acre barren land for a rent of Rs 2,000 per month. The school started in a small shed with 52 children enrolled to study in balwadi (kindergarten), the first and second standards. The third standard was added in 2016 and a fourth is due to be added in the next academic session. Today, the school has a strength of 72 students — 34 of them girls, drawn from eight surrounding villages. “The increasing numbers show how popular it has become among locals. It’s a sharp contrast to the worrisome student dropout rate in many government schools,” says Aniket’s wife Samiksha, who devotes a lot of attention to the school along with Vaibhavi.
The school starts at 9 am and finishes at 2 pm, with children being provided refreshments, lunch, uniforms, books, stationery and, of course, education, all for free. Apart from Vaibhavi there are three local tribal youths — Shilpa Vachami, Malu Madavi and Sunita Pungati as teachers.
Learning is geared to be fun and participatory. “We need to understand their likes, dislikes and orientations to be able to make them learn in an effective manner. Initially, when we asked them questions, they would not answer unless they were very sure about being correct. Better to not exhibit ‘ignorance’ is what they felt. So, one of the dictums we follow is chukte kai batlayo (‘No issues if you go wrong’ in the Madia-Gond dialect),” says 29-year-old-Vaibhavi, whose stint with the school is part of the Anantya Jamir Fellowship offered to her by the Pune-based Aakansha Foundation. For Vaibhavi, a Management Studies graduate, it has been an experience in “serving the community as well as reflecting on one’s understanding of them”. She learnt how to ride a bike after she came to Hemalkasa in 2016 and has been biking her way along the tricky undulating muddy road to Nelgunda twice every week, all alone. Her decision has been a brave one, since Nelgunda sees its fair share of violence, caught as it is in the crossfire between the Naxalites and the police. For instance, on her regular biking route — just before Nelgunda — falls the nullah near which Malu Kopa Bogami, Bhamragad Congress president, was killed. It is now known as the Bogami nullah.
When she first arrived in the village, Vaibhavi decided to learn the local dialect so that she could mingle freely with the children. “That makes them feel friendlier. The other medium of instruction is English. Surprisingly, they pick up English very well and quickly. Clearly, all they need is the right kind of ambience,” she says.
The happy atmosphere is something the children love so much that they hardly skip classes. “Daisango sada kagayala (come, let’s go to school)”, one of the slogans written on the school’s wall, aptly describes the children’s feelings. No wonder then, that Sanjana, Roshni and Arti reach the school daily, on foot from Paraynar, 5 km away. But unlike regular schools, the Nelgunda school remains shut from July 1 onwards till September 15 as rains make the entire area inaccessible.
“To lessen their hardship, we provided them bicycles in January,” says Aniket.
Indeed, on January 28, 27 bicycles were distributed to the students. Some of them were donated by people from Pune; and others were bought by LBP. Apart from lessons in regular subjects as per the state education board curriculum, the students learn environment protection by going on a jillipeka (pick up the plastic) campaign in the adjoining villages during the weekly market. As the day’s learning ends, the students are allowed to voice their complaints and grievances against each other and are educated to resolve them amicably.
As Vaibhavi issues instructions and asks questions in English, punctuating them liberally with Madia dialect, the roar of the answers from the students, rends the air. For long, the area has heard the sound of gunfire. The children, like those in the Hemalkasa school, might just, however, be insulated from all the violence and walk their own path to freedom finally.