It’s a dry land, as befits any part of Rajasthan, but Alwar district’s rural blocks are also poor and backward, especially in education. The demographic profile is almost uniformly scheduled tribe (Meena) or scheduled caste (Chamar, Jatav, Balai, Regar, Nut). Development in any form presents a challenge but education gets the lowest priority even among the parents who feel it is a distraction from the more important task of helping out with the daily chores.

Failure is the usual report in such a scenario but the experience of a partnership known as Shikshak Pehal Project (SPP) provides a remarkable exception. An initiative that started with five schools and 135 students in 2001 now spans 32 Samudhayik Bodhshalas (democratic community schools) until class 8 for 5,500 children in the Umrein and Thanagazi blocks of the district. Things could be changing now. 

The terrain is rough and undulating, dry hill tracts of the southern Aravalis around the Sariska Tiger Reserve of recent notoriety and zero tigers. Dwarf acacia, dhak and neem are the dominant species. Most of them brown as the summer comes on, fading into the hills and turn a life-giving green once the (sparse) monsoon sets in. There are animals in the protected zone, some say 16 tigers (the census put it at 14), deer and antelope, hare and more. But the terrain is inhospitable. Nothing is in abundance. 

The two partners had their own motives. Bodh discovered from its Jaipur experience that the problems of working in urban slums were keeping it from realising its full potential. It wanted to extend its work to the rural areas, so the opportunity Goodearth offered was timely.

As one tours the area, it becomes apparent that outside sustenance is required for all and, additionally, knowledge for man. SPP has done its part in providing for the educational and nutritive needs of the latter. This is especially intriguing as the style of the partners could not be more different. SPP is not a collaboration between a state school system and a private one but between a non-governmental organisation and a private trust. The nature of this partnership is as intriguing as the results. 

The story starts with a meeting some 20 years ago between the Goodearth Educational Foundation and Bodh Shiksha Samiti (Bodh) to begin a programme for rural education in Alwar district. Goodearth is an arm of the Eicher group and had set up schools for the education of workers’ children at the recently built tractor plant in the district. Its scope widened in a short time to include schooling local children as well. That was when it felt the need to reach out to Bodh which was involved in running schools in Jaipur’s slums. It also advised the state government on improvements to public education systems. The result of this meeting was SPP, an experiment that has enriched both pupils and teachers.

The two partners had their own vision and motives. Bodh discovered from its Jaipur experience that the problems of working in urban slums were keeping it from realising its full potential. It wanted to extend its work to the rural areas, so the opportunity Goodearth offered was timely. The foundation, for its part, had a tightly focused target, employee benefit as part of its corporate social responsibility activities. But the company’s founder members wanted to do more for education which they saw as key to progress and social change in India.

To this end they crafted a new mission statement, “to educate India’s children with special emphasis on the girl child, starting with primary education in the rural areas”. This was closer to Bodh’s own resolve “to contribute to the creation of an egalitarian, progressive society through the development of an equitable and just system of education”, though this one has social and political objectives that seem to have their roots in the “Fraternity, Egalite and Liberty” of the French Revolution of 1789. Its effects were subversive to the old regimes and continue to resonate in democracies even today.

 We look at education as an essentially social enterprise which has both potentials, either to reproduce the existing social hierarchies and reinforce inequity or challenge the inequity and specifically function as a crucial element in social change.

In an ideologically driven social order statements exalting the regime are essential. The advent of social media has opened the way to new forms of regimentation and brainwashing has been refined to a point where it is both subtle and ubiquitous. If all else fails, force is always available to coerce dissenters. Democracies with a Bill of Rights do not overtly have that option. But they have developed other subtle techniques to bring up the young in accordance with their needs.

The entrenching of capitalism took patience and skill. Later when sections of society proved recalcitrant, forces like McCarthyism took over and justified punishment as an instrument of state policy to deal with communists.  Opponents of “freedom” based on capitalism paid a heavy price, as had the opponents of “freedom” based on Marxist dogma. In India that stage may never come as other forces, for one, the freedom to vote in a multi-party state, are at work.

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he Bodh concept is laid out in the vision statement, The Community Bodhshalas. “We look at education as an essentially social enterprise which has both potentials, either to reproduce the existing social hierarchies and reinforce inequity or challenge the inequity and specifically function as a crucial element in social change which moves towards greater equity and liberty. Certainly these ideas have their origins in the great democratic revolutions and historically these revolutions have established that universalisation of equitable quality education is foundational [sic] in nature when it comes to [the] democratisation of society and in that manner it defines the real purpose of education.

“It must be said at the outset that public and market-based models have not answered these questions or have rather multiplied the hierarchies where now we have educational institutions which can be equated with the class of the family of the child. Therefore, [the] aspiration [for] institutions which work for equality has to be based on equity in terms of quality as well, and this requires real attempts at the ground level for realising the possibilities.’

Who is to exercise ownership over assets is an issue on which society has spent much thought and blood. Whether it is the king and his barons or the capitalist and his agents, the point whether this form of society is more equitable, or one in which the means of productions are in the hands of the state, is moot. Both have used teaching to fashion an education that delivers young men and women who meet the requirement of the regime.

The sage Manu, for example, decreed that shudras be kept illiterate so that they could attend to the subaltern needs of the higher castes. In all cases, children were or were not educated to meet the need of their creed. Josef Stalin’s son, for example, when asked what kind of girl he’d like to marry said: “One whose industrial production is good.”

In India the plight of the poor is not slavery but the caste system in the rural areas and lack of education in the urban. In her column for the Sunday Indian Express (March 31, 2019) Tavleen Singh writes, “In India poverty is caused by complex factors. In rural India the main cause is caste. For those who do not believe this, may I recommend a book called Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki. The writer has explained in heart-breaking detail his struggle to escape the degradation of the Dalit fate by trying to get an education. But in the village school upper caste teachers try to keep him from learning to read and write by forcing him to sweep the school yard daily. Dalit children face this awful reality every time they try like Omprakash did…”

  In the village of Indok Radi the community hewed the stone, levelled the site and today there is an eight-room school complete with computer and music room. The gleaming floors indicate that they are regularly swept and mopped—by the children and staff.

This experience is no different from what Sujatha Gidla went through in schools in Andhra Pradesh to begin with, and institutions of higher learning thereafter. 

Bodh has a three-point formula to help the underprivileged by seeking to:

Evolve institutions with greater ownership and participation of the communities.

The nature of education in terms of materials, teacher-child relationship and teaching-learning methods should be based on democratic and scientific outlook

Schools as institutions can initiate critical engagement with the community and gradually move communities to [sic] broadening of understanding.

Let us first take a look at schools built and nurtured by communities as distinct from government or privately owned. We went to a meeting at Mundawara Bodhshala in Ambedkar Nagar block. It is a functional two-storey structure with 180 children and some former women alumni (of whom more later) whose education was cut short mostly because they got married (de rigueur) at 14—as was the custom in the near past. Their children were also in the same school.

When Bodh approached the village for land to start a school they were initially met with scepticism and condescension. Eventually, the headman pointed to a tree near which the villagers threw their garbage as a space they could use. Much to their surprise Bodh accepted, cleared the rubbish and started a school. After two years, when villagers saw the tenacity of SPP they offered land at the site of the present building. They also decided to pool their resources and build two rooms. Today it is a full-fledged primary school with all the equipment required for quality education.

In the village of Indok Radi that lies on an undulation of the bare mountainside, a rise above the dirt road with dhak (Flame of the Forest) some trees were spared for the Bodhshala. The village community hewed the stone, levelled the site and today there is an eight-room school complete with computer and music room. The gleaming floors of the corridors and classrooms indicate that they are regularly swept and mopped—by the children and staff of the school.  

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ow that the construction phase is almost over, communities are required to participate in some daily tasks. The most important is the supervision and distribution of the midday meal. While the dal, vegetable and fruit come from a central kitchen in Thana Ghazipur, children are required to bring their own rotis. A team of village women have to take turns serving the food and supervising the younger children to maintain hygiene by washing their hands with germicidal soap before and after a meal. Thus the community’s participation carries on. It is in this way that the fixed assets of the BS’s have been created. The villagers are the proud owners not only of the edifice but of the daily welfare of their children.

Omprakash Valmiki and Sujatha Gidla both noted the hostility of teachers towards them and other scheduled castes. While these are personal accounts, the teacher-student relationship is well documented in umpteen reports. The situation is changing but slowly. Bodh decided to tackle the problem head on by recruiting academic and other staff that aspired to accelerate a change in the social equation. Bodh’s children are, as noted earlier, from the lower castes.

Teachers are/were recruited though the normal procedure of advertisements in the press. Applications are carefully vetted. Those employed were at one stage given three months training. But such is the pressure to fill vacancies that this period was reduced to two months and now to one month. Staff turnover is high, the average stay being just over two years. The reason is not far to seek: salaries and, owing to the good grades of leavers, demand for Bodh-trained teachers.

The entrance to the Government School at Mundawara is shaded by an arbour of pipal and other deeply leaved trees. Its walls are set on a noticeable rise, stating it is a building of importance. We are conducted to the office of the principal at the head of a large courtyard around which the class rooms are placed. Principals from other schools are present as well. After the introductions, tea cooked black and bitter in milk and water and then heavily sugared to sweeten it is served with sugared biscuits.

A very vocal head of a school acquaints us with the “problems” of public education: postings and transfers. Either to prevent an inconvenient one or to get orders rescinded if issued.

“What about the devastating assessment of Pratham,” I asked.

“Some children do not attend school regularly. The girls have house work, some boys take their animals out to graze.”

“But Bodh children come from the same background.”

“No, Bodh parents have understood that family duties must be re-distributed so that they [children] may devote themselves to study,” I am told.

The point is duly noted.

We go to a classroom. It is neat. Boys sit on one side of the room, girls on the other. The physical training instructor is taking an English class as the teacher is on leave. He has an obsequious colonial-style leave application written neatly on the board:

Dear Sir,

I beg to inform you that …. I beg you to give me three days leave after taking the above mentioned reason into your kind consideration.

Yours obediently,

***

Agroup of women sitting on their haunches, with ghungats drawn over their faces, are introduced as a mixed group of alumni and some who have returned to complete an education cut mid-stream for various reasons. One of them is on the verge of completing her B Ed.

I asked whether she went to college in purdah. She promptly pulled back her veil. Others did the same. Having benefited from her stint in the community school system, she said she would come back to teach in it.

“What about the salary,” I asked. Government scales were now ₹25,000 for a trainee and ₹ ₹40,000 for a confirmed teacher. Would they not be tempted to go for higher wages?

There was laughter. “Bodh should increase salaries from the present ₹10-12,000 to …” after some hesitation one said “twenty thousand”. The bidding went on... “ ₹25,000” was the next one. Finally, when someone suggested “thirty thousand”, the bids stopped.

“I wouldn’t move from Bodh to a government school if it were that much.” That met with approval. Clearly Bodh was being sent a message. It faced a choice between stability and turnover.

Seeing teachers sit on the floor with children at the mid-day meal and also when they are working in class with five-year-olds, witnessing the confidence with which children speak to and learn from them is an advertisement for equality. As a result the taboos and customs of a hierarchical society are being overcome. For example, music and singing are considered particularly low occupations among the castes of Alwar. Music is one of the most popular classes in Bodh. Local instruments, including the dholak, are popular.

To recapture Bodh’s aspirations let us recount what it has to say about its goals: “Certainly these ideas (of equality) have their roots in the great democratic revolutions and these revolutions have established that universalisation of equitable quality education is foundational [in nature]  when it comes to democratisation of society and in that manner it defines the real purpose of education.”

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he main theme so far in the narrative had been ownership. While that may be fundamental, as he who pays the piper calls the tune, the refrain must shift to democracy and equality. Some examples of what has been achieved in this regard are eye-opening. Take meals. One of the canons of the caste system is that higher castes must not be served food by lower castes. As egalité is as foreign to our caste-ridden rural society as is, say, a penguin to a polar bear, confrontation was inevitable.

It came about in Khairatiki Dhani Bodhshala where Gujjar parents objected to their children being served by Balai mothers. The management did not relent but stopped all mid-day meals till the issue was resolved. This took a year. Service resumed after the Gujjar parents gave up. Children now not only study and play together but are fed by women of any caste. (Ironically, Gujjars in Rajasthan are agitating, often violently, to be downgraded to Special Backward Class status in order to qualify for reservations.)

The removal of caste divisions has been accompanied by improvement in the status of girls. Most telling is the case of Deepa Rajput. Moving from Class 8 in a Bodhsala to Class 9 in a government school she was reprimanded for her free ways, for not behaving as a girl should in dealing with boys.

“Forget caste,” she told us, “I didn’t even know the difference between a boy and a girl while I was in a Bodhsala.” Krishna is an example of a balai girl now emancipated. As a pre-school teacher she should have passed on her confidence to the pupils. She is vocal on all rural matters, convinced that she can go further and teach in high school and beyond. One of her brothers is a government school teacher and another is a lecturer. 

Ten years ago she would have been dressed in tatters, sitting in a corner by herself if she had come to such a gathering, if she had presumed to come at all. She would certainly not have been permitted to speak.

Puran Gujjar, another alumnus, had his arm around the shoulders of a companion next to him and said “In five years you’ll see that castes have vanished. Whenever I am in the company of this man,” who happened to be scheduled caste, “I say that he is my brother.”

***

The language of technology is mathematics and physics, the student’s mother tongue plus English as the link language of science. It is doubtful if rural India has understood the import of this transition. At a meeting with alumni ranging in age from, say, 16-24, almost all, even those who had gone on to college in Alwar or Jaipur,  were hoping to get a government job. Any kind of government job, though they know the public sector cannot offer universal employment with security, non-accountability—and a pension.

The only surefire alternative they saw was MGNREGA: unskilled manual labour at minimum wages. What about a shot at science?  No one even seemed to have heard about ISRO or the Atomic Energy Commission or Artificial Intelligence (AI) although they did know about satellites being launched. Too far from reality? What about something in between? Were they aware of AI? All of them were served by it on their smart phones.

AI was already a part of the workforce in advanced countries and in India. Highly automated machines were in use in India’s agriculture and in the next few years they would be the competitors for rural jobs. All this was far removed from the vision of the alumni and Bodh as well.

Perhaps Bodhshala alumni look back and say of their teachers that, “We face the world fearlessly because our teachers were intrepid.” So the pioneers must have been.

The paucity of general knowledge was not limited to the manner and matter of livelihoods. Asked about the genetic code and gene edited animals, there was wonderment that the characteristics of the goats, for example, that some of their age may still be taking for grazing, could be modified to make them immune to common diseases. Classrooms in Bodh schools had pin boards with cuttings and other material with all sorts of themes, but scientific content was not readily noticeable.

I did not venture to ask about politics or other current affairs but the general atmosphere suggested that there was no world beyond the immediate environment. Clearly the materials required for learning need something more. It is not good enough for Bodh to say it is only responsible for its children till Class VIII. The fact is that the age is “foundational”.

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n Irish brother taught me Latin when I was eight. If there was an error in the conjugation his contribution was a stinging cut with the leather strap he carried. I complained bitterly to my mother who went to the principal and asked if a Punjabi child could be taught the language by force of corporal punishment. I never learnt one verb of the classical language of Europe. In a democratic and humanitarian set up like Bodhshala, one may recall what Carl Jung had to say: “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers but gratitude to those who touched on human feelings.”

Perhaps Bodhshala alumni look back and say of their teachers that, “We face the world fearlessly because our teachers were intrepid.” So the pioneers must have been. Recruited by advertisement, they were sent on a mission to establish schools in remote villages to which no roads led and where there was no shelter available, no hearth to cook, and no company to share their problems or loneliness with. They were asked to go and establish a school and get it running before coming back to town for comfort or company. The communities they served gave them sustenance and shelter, looking after them to the best of their ability till they got the show running. The outcome is apparent 18 years later in the Class 8 examinations for 2018.

The results show that in Hindi 83 per cent of the BS children got a B or better. The comparative figure for all Alwar schools was 66 per cent. For English it was 83 and 67; for maths 57 and 39; for science 85 and 62; for social science 70 and   56; for Sanskrit 92 and 71.

In its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 (released in 2018) Pratham, perhaps India’s a leading NGO in school education, says “Nearly one- fourth of India’s youngsters age 14-18 cannot read their own language fluently, while 36 per cent do not know the name of the country’s capital … 57 per cent of the children assessed struggled to solve a simple sum of division… when shown  a map of India , 14 per cent of the children couldn’t identify it, 21 per cent couldn’t answer the state they lived in and 46 per cent could not identify the  map of their states…

A former sarpanch, Rohitashoji, said “There are no schools in India to compare with our bodhshalas. Here we now need more amenities. Our school should have a playing field. …”

“The survey was divided into parts like reading and comprehension, common calculations, daily tasks, map and general knowledge and financial calculations… In terms of daily tasks, some simple activities were picked up …such as counting money, knowing weights and reading time on a watch. When asked to count money about a fourth … couldn’t do so. Also, about 44 per cent couldn’t add weights correctly in kilograms… over 40 per cent couldn’t tell the hour and minutes. ‘

The Bodhshala children are surely head and shoulders above this. 

In addition to marks the community has other reasons to respect Bodh teachers. The Irish brother I mentioned almost shattered my confidence. Even a single cut from a strap is hideous punishment. Such an attitude would not only be considered foreign to Bodh’s way of thinking but unacceptable. Take, for example, a child who comes in dirty clothes or with a running nose. Far from being shamed, his presence is not considered offensive. The teacher knows there would be extenuating circumstances. It is a part of the teacher’s job to visit the families of their students to discuss their progress with parents. It also gives them knowledge of the circumstances of children in their homes.

Let those who helped build the Bodhdhaslas speak for them. A former sarpanch, Rohitashoji, said “There are no schools in India to compare with our bodhshalas. Here we now need more amenities. Our school should have a playing field. …”

Before he could finish another villager, Prajapat Kumar, an SC, got up to say the time had come to take the  schools to class 10. When reminded that this would require money and more land, he asked “After all, where did the money and resources for this school come from?”

The patwari was even more insistent. “Our children have benefited greatly from their education in the bodhshalas. But it has not gone far enough. We need class 10 and the community will provide the support Bodh requires.” He walked with me to the car to impress the urgency of the situation.

Two meetings followed. Though they assembled together, the first to speak was the group of women that had given up study at the class five level. Now in their twenties and more, each had a fascinating reason for the return to the classroom. The most interesting case was of Neelam Rega: “After marriage,” she said, “I gave up study and in addition to looking after home, hearth and children got employment as a carpet weaver. That allowed me to support my husband’s education till he qualified as LLB. He now practices at the Thana Ghazi sessions courts. He is paying for my education…. Both our children are now at this school, we study together.”

“How do you manage so much? Do your children help you?”

‘Only to the extent necessary. We have redistributed our work load so that they may study.’

She confirmed what the government school teacher had said.

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ll this leads to an interesting question. Having done well in school, how will its alumni act when the reins of society pass into their hands? What kind of social order will they establish? What does quality mean in terms of education? High marks by cramming or the ability to appreciate the meaning and method of learning at school and using this to the common benefit.           

The Bodh experiment shows that though it is hard to change mature men of set habits, it is possible. Especially as they see the lives of their children change from their own if they can overcome the hurdles of an illiterate upbringing bound to caste, creed and superstition and enter a world in which the dignity of an egalitarian social order and the world of reason play a key role.

This child is, almost literally, the father of the man. Wordsworth would be delighted. Be that as it may, the fact is that some of the elders are also on a new learning curve. And some mothers are in school with their own children so they can not only be on the same page but also appreciative of the added value—and earning—that education offers. Two generations are being brought into literacy simultaneously. But it is obvious that the children end up knowledgeable while the elders will learn to do the sums—though not all.          

Both democratic and totalitarian societies see universal high school education as a necessity. The former shifted the burden of running schools to the state. Private schools have existed for centuries, many of them forerunners of public schools. In Britain, “public schools” are private schools, some for the children of extremely privileged segments of society. The most famous of them, Eton College, was founded by King Henry VI  (in 1440), as a charity school for free education to 70 poor boys who would go on to King’s College, Cambridge, founded by him in 1441. It became synonymous with wealth and privilege, being for a long period the domain of the landed aristocracy. As industrial wealth took over, its student composition changed accordingly.

Totalitarian regimes saw schools as tools for the furtherance of their ideology. Elders of today will recall images of Chinese children waving Mao Zedong’ s Little Red Book or young Teutons Hilter’s  Mein Kampf, or more recently, polyglot jihadists the Quran as laid down by the Taliban or the Islamic State. 

In this sense, India is unique as it gained nationhood not as the preserve of democracy and human rights, beholden neither to royalty nor ideology. If there is an equivalent it is the Constitution but we do not see schoolchildren waving it as the book on which their lives will be based. The light that the Shikshak Pehal Project shines on rights for the young has been harmonious and non-violent and the fact that it is guiding its wards along this path is awe-inspiring.

Asked whether they felt the government could provide jobs for all, the answer was negative. Not one, however, suggested that by casting away the false prestige attached to government jobs, they would see a vast field of opportunity open before them.

It is one thing to write out these goals on paper but quite another to create the cradles of education in which children, largely from a background in which shiksha was not a part of the culture, are brought to value these ideals.

Bodh notes that “We look at education as an essentially social enterprise which has both potentials: either to reproduce the existing social hierarchies and reinforce inequity or it can challenge the inequity and specifically function as a crucial element of social change which moves towards greater equity and liberty. How to realise these ideals keeping the larger purpose in mind is the challenge.”

Having met a group of Bodh alumni, I also sat with a group that had passed out from government schools in the spacious yard of Dheevaron Ki Dhani Bodhshala. Except for one young man who had qualified as a veterinarian and was earning ₹30,000 a month, mostly from tending flocks  of goats, and had applied for a government job as well, only one other said he would like to be self-employed. The others were all waiting for government jobs.

An elderly woman illustrated the hopelessness of that by informing those gathered that one of her extended family’s young men had returned to his Nut troupe after doing his M.A. He could not find public sector employment. Street entertainment was an opening available to him even in his childhood. So what had he gained? Whatever the reality ahead, not one of the young men said he would like to be a skilled worker, a carpenter, a master mason or an electrician. Their disposition was much the same as that of their Bodh counterparts.

Asked whether they felt the government could provide jobs for all, the answer was negative. Not one, however, suggested that by casting away the false prestige attached to government jobs, they would see a vast field of opportunity open before them—some of them could even gain wealth through entrepreneurship and become members of the Dalit Chamber of Commerce.

In the face of unemployment or lack of the kind of jobs that would be considered satisfactory, SPP might see the workforce emerging from its carefully crafted schools not as harbingers of liberalism but as feedstock for populism. Warm hearted and caring SPP may be, but when its alumni say they have no skill on which they can build a future, it should give food for thought. Or should we let middle-aged Shanti Devi have the last word? Various initiatives of the last five years were being discussed. Many met with the approval of the women. SPP was acclaimed by all. If not employment what next?

“What about safai?” I asked. “As we came into the village, I saw paper, ice cream cups and other rubbish on the first plot at the entrance. Is ko kaun saaf kareyga?”

A broad smile shone on her face. She looked me straight in the eye, looked around for approval and said; “Is ko Modi hi saaf karega.” She sauntered off, obviously pleased with herself.

From the attitude of their alumni community schools seem to inculcate the right feelings of pride and progress. They provide the frame of mind required for a people who have known and overthrown an oppression that has been their lot not for centuries but for aeons. To the question, “After studies what?” it may be expected that their formative years in Bodhshalas have given them the resolve to forge an equitable way ahead for all.  Revolutions, after all, are what their teaching is based on.

As adults they may reflect that the simultaneous transformation in the lives of two generations—their own and that of their parents—enjoins them to stiffen their resolve to continue the transformation. A sure sign will be to take on cleanliness as a community function and pre-empt Modi by having him turn back, broomstick in hand, when he comes to clean the yard.

Will SPP be watching?