Devarapalli Prakash Rao, who runs a small tea stall in Buxi Bazar area of Cuttack, shot to national fame over the weekend of May 26-27. Invited by the Prime Minister’s Office, he met Narendra Modi on the backstage minutes before the Prime Minister’s rally at Cuttack’s Kila Padia (Fort Grounds) on the first day.
“The Prime Minister mentioned me during his Mann Ki Baat programme the following day,” a beaming Rao told The Sunday Express. Modi also tweeted about Rao, who has been running a school for slum children since 2000, using half of the roughly Rs 700 he makes each day selling tea.
The tweet, with a picture of Rao and “some of the students whose life he is transforming”, attracted nearly 8,000 likes and over 1,700 retweets. While Rao, 60, is not exactly new to fame, having won multiple awards at the state level — Human Rights Award (2016) and Annie Besant Award (2015), among others — this certainly made many people outside of Buxi Bazar in Cuttack aware of his work.
But over the years, recognition, he said, has done little to solve problems with which he wrestles every day.
Rao’s ‘Asha O Aswasana School is right behind his dilapidated two-room house, which previously served as the school, near Buxi Bazar. “This area is largely populated by Telugu-speaking immigrant settlers, and some Muslim and Christian families,” Rao said.
The main classroom is about 150 square feet, with a tiny ‘office’ on one side and a ‘pre-nursery’ room on the other. It has 74 students and six women teachers — or “guru maas”, as they are called. Almost all the students come from nearby slums.
“The (school) land belongs to the Dharakote royal family from Ganjam district,” Rao said. “The landowners have not yet bothered me about the land, but the prospect of eviction haunts me.”
He came close to it in 2013, when a man came to the school and claimed that he had bought the land and wanted to raze the school and the slums. Timely intervention by the Cuttack district administration saved Rao’s labour of love — it was found out that the man had fake land documents.
Rao and his guru maas also recall the 17 “carefree” months from March 2013, when they used to receive books and free meals for the children after the school was recognised under the Labour Ministry’s National Child Labour Project (NCLP). The school was eligible because parents of most students are trolley rickshaw drivers, drain cleaners, and daily labourers.
In 2014, the Centre issued a notification to states to close NCLP schools from September 30 and reallocate the students to nearby government schools to reduce government expenditure. “That was a disaster,” said Gitarani Panda, a teacher. “The children in our school, who come from nearby slums, refused to attend the closest government school. They were used to the flexible teaching regime of three hours in our school.”
Rao’s school runs six days a week from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm. The curriculum follows the prescribed norms of Odisha’s state education board, but the timetable is flexible. “Sometimes we just sing and dance after an hour of math. The school always tries to keep these kids interested,” said Namita Ghosh, another teacher.
After NCLP’s closure of schools, Rao continued to run his school without government aid. He said that the financial toll is hard and the occasional help from philanthropists, in cash and kind, is not enough. The humble meal of dalmaa-bhata (lentils and rice) for the students, Rs 1,200 salary per teacher, and the cost of utilities is a crushing burden for him. “I am thankful that my wife, a staff nurse at a government medical college, bore all expenses of our two daughters,” he said.
The school has students from pre-nursery to Class III. Rao then personally helps the students find places in Class IV in Cuttack’s government schools. “The quality of education at our school is recognised by the government schools, which is why they take in our students. But our guru maas sometimes struggle to teach English correctly,” he said.