Forced into menial jobs during lockdown, these students now teach one another

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In May 2020, team Prayas began knocking on doors in houses in Bigha, asking the parents to send their children for lessons at a common field…reports S Sharma.

Nishu Verma (10) was sent to work at a brick kiln by her family when her school shut during the Covid-19-induced lockdown last year. “There was a shortage of money and food at home,” she said. Khusbu, a Class 6 student, had been helping her father on the field because she had no school. Her father returned home from Surat after losing his job.

Nishu and Khusbu are typical of the Other Backward Class community-dominated Bigha village in Jharkhand’s Giridih district, where most of the children from the 50-60 households have had no access to schools during the lockdowns. Even before Covid-19 brought their education to a halt, the children had to travel 20 km to reach a high school. Bigha has a population of around 1,500 people.

Safeena Husain, founder and executive director, Educate Girls, pointed out, “For many children from migrant and poor families, Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenges to get an education, leaving children further exposed to child labour, exploitation and domestic abuse.”

“Girls were most affected when the schools closed. Some were immediately steered towards household chores and the fields. In Bigha, around 95 per cent of the locals engage in agriculture. They struggled to gather enough food during the pandemic,” said Subodh Kushwaha, a youngster from the village.

Kushwaha is among the five people who started Prayas in Bigha last year, a teaching chain where senior students educate the juniors for free.

An automobile engineer who had worked in Jamshedpur for six years, Kushwaha has come home to his village to prepare for competitive exams. Other founders of Prayas are also professionals, like Vikash Krishn Mandal who is also an engineer and Tejlal Verma, a private teacher.

In May 2020, team Prayas began knocking on doors in houses in Bigha, asking the parents to send their children for lessons at a common field. About 20 students turned up. They were given books and masks. A year later, Prayas has 100 volunteers who either teach or fund or support the initiative in different ways, and the number of students stands at 300, 45 per cent of whom are girls.

Given this opportunity, Kushbu, Nishu and dozens like them have renounced their menial jobs and have made good progress through Prayas. “I can now add and subtract numbers and introduce myself in English. Earlier, I could not even write my name,” Nishu said. “I feel like studying here. I can now speak in front of an audience — something I was hesitant about before. I also teach two juniors and I love it,” Khusbu said.

A thirst for learning

The students gather at Shivaji Maidan in the village for their lessons. Nestled amid bountiful trees, there is enough shade for classes and just the right amount of sunlight filters through the green cover. Students sit six feet apart in adherence to Covid protocols. Anyone who arrives without a mask is sent back. Those studying between Classes 1 and 5 are taught from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., and the rest between 9 a.m. and noon.

Apart from the regular classes, one can also spot children performing yoga or playing various sports. “These activities were necessary to create an ambience of school,” said Vikas Krishan Mandal, one of the founding members of Prayas.

“The girls are more active and intelligent,” Kushwaha quipped. They were ecstatic when Kushwaha opened a library in his house. It has 500 books apart from magazines and newspapers. Looking at their will to participate, he handed over the library’s administration to the girls. “They are responsible, so they were given the charge. They issue books and look at the overall operations,” he said.

The road towards the resumption of education has been long for these girls. It involved coaxing the parents on multiple occasions. Computers turned out to be a veritable tool of persuasion in Bigha, where “families cannot even think of mobile and Internet considering they are starving for food,” according to Kushwaha.

Manisha Verma, a Class 8 student who is taking lessons through Prayas, said she had no access to technology, and the school where she was enrolled did not conduct online classes in the lockdown.

“Team Prayas came in with computers. I was inclined towards learning them, so I decided to go here,” she said, adding, “The education here made me confident. I can speak my mind today. Had Prayas not intervened on time, I would have been stuck with household chores.”

Manisha’s father, Ramesh Verma, brimmed with pride as he looked at his daughter confidently teaching the younger children. “Her reading aptitude was average before. Today, she scores well on her tests — she can recite the mathematical tables till 20 and speaks English. I will work hard and earn money so that my daughter can continue her education,” he said.

Soaring ambitions

The efforts by Prayas have received praise from the villagers, who help out with the tasks sometimes. Kshatrapati Mandal, a member of Manikabad gram panchayat from ward no. 9, said, “Prayas has changed the atmosphere of the village. These youngsters, who have been teaching since 2020, have imbued hope for children who missed their classes, especially the girls.”

The encouragement has boosted their ambition. The founding members of Prayas, including Aditya Kumar Verma, Devnandan Verma, and Tejlal Verma, want this to be more than just about education — they want every child to be responsible towards society, and help those weaker than them. “Prayas team is thus creating an army which will not only educate the children but also teach them to fight for the right to education,” Kushwaha said.

Husain added, “Community-based learning has been acting as a bridge between children from ultra-poor families and education during Covid-19. With literacy and numeracy affected due to learning losses for over a year, innovative initiatives like Prayas, where the community is taking the lead in education, have been a silver lining for those without access to the Internet and smart mobiles. For many poor children, this is the first time they are getting access to education as it is now available in their localities.”

Some of the funders are keen to get a few of the more talented students admitted to private schools. The team is now planning to expand the concept to nearby villages like Manikbad, Chikandri and Kodambri, and have been reaching out to children and parents, and also some schools and teachers, whom they are tying up with to make the programme stronger.

(The author is a Patna-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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