Tirvanja is a village in the midst of vast open-cast coal mines in the Bhadravati taluka of Chandrapur district. It has a well-maintained school building, with greenery all around. The walls of the building are covered with lively drawings and writings about the environment. Children play in the grounds in front of the school. In a corner of this playground, the students have created a large 3-D model of their village that shows the important roads, the school building, the Gram Panchayat office, farms, temples, and other landmarks. The model reflects the students’ understanding of space and directions; on it, even the youngest students are able to show the way to their own homes.
It is difficult to believe that five years ago, this beautiful school building and its green premises did not exist. At the time, the classes from the 1st to 7th std classes sat in dingy, suffocating sheds, while students in the 8th std onwards sat in the kitchen shed of the local temple. How did the transformation happen?
The main protagonist of this story is Alka Thakre, who paved the way to change. Arriving in Tirvanja on her appointment as the Principal of the school on 1st March, 2012, she was appalled to see the conditions in which the students were forced to study. It became clear to her that the lack of an appropriate schooling space was preventing teachers and students from realising their potential. Firm in her belief that education was the right of every child, she wished to do something to ensure that the children of Tirvanja had a suitable educational environment.
Alka Thakre’s investigations revealed that although funding worth eleven lakhs of rupees had been assigned to build the school under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (the government’s Education for All initiative) it had not been utilised. Tirvanja village is adjacent to an enormous coal mine owned by Western Coalfields Limited (WCL). The company owns various stretches of land in the village, and all around.
One such tract of land, marked for vehicle parking in WCL plans, had been lying vacant and unused. Villagers had decided to build the school here. One of the teachers had taken the initiative to start the process of building; a foundation had been laid and classrooms were being constructed when differences between factions of the village stirred up trouble. The outcome was that WCL filed a complaint with the police, asking that the construction be stopped. The teacher was given a strong warning, threatened with the loss of his job, and an atmosphere of fear was created among the school’s teachers.
Alka Thakre decided that the prevailing situation was not acceptable, and she started to work to change it. It was clear to her that education was the only way to ensure a future for the children of the village. Mining had resulted in major changes in the topology of the land, which meant that farming might not remain an option in the long run. She decided to complete the construction of the school building, after gathering the support of the villagers. If they accepted the importance of education, she hoped that they would be willing to come together to deal with this challenging situation.
On 8 March, International Women’s Day, the school arranged a programme for all the women in the village. This was an excuse to bring them together and take forward the discussion about building a school. Every mother agreed that their children needed to study. If the village didn’t have a school, how would the children build the foundations for their future? The village needed a real school; the existing arrangement, using borrowed spaces, was not good enough. They learned that the funds were still available, but unless they did something about the local situation, the school would never be built. In effect, they had to be prepared to oppose the WCL and, by extension, the government, and had to organise themselves. Once Alka Thakre convinced the village women, they went back home and initiated a dialogue in their families about the importance of education.
This sparked off a conversation among the villagers regarding the building of a dedicated school building. During the school summer vacations, a woman member of the Gram Panchayat went with a group of parents from the village to meet the guardian minister for Chandrapur district. Acknowledging the seriousness of the situation, he alerted the Collector, who tried to get in touch with the WCL to rectify the issue – but received no response.
Frustrated, the villagers called for a strike. They argued that though the company’s trucks constantly passed through the village and most of the villagers worked for the company, yet WCL was blocking an unused piece of land from being used for a school for the village children. They blocked the road, and refused passage through the village to all officials, including those from the revenue department. The movement gained momentum and WCL began to find it difficult to function. Finally, the company gave in, and sent their regional head to negotiate with the villagers.
Terms were discussed, and it was agreed that the school building would be built on the same ground where some construction had already been started. The village representatives insisted that an agreement confirming these terms be signed at the company’s head office, to forestall any disputes later. The WCL representatives asked for a period of three months to get the documents in order, and requested the villagers to halt construction till everything was in place. The villagers asserted that if they did not get a response from WCL within the deadline, they would resume building. All terms were discussed in the presence of village and WCL representatives, the District Collector, and the police.
After waiting for three months the Collector informed the Block Development Officer that since WCL had not met the deadline, either with permission or otherwise, the school construction could proceed. It turned out that the company was not in a position to take any legal action on this matter.
The villagers, along with the school Principal, had won the battle against the company, but that was not the end of the story. The remaining funds were just about enough to complete the construction of four classrooms. Alka Thakre tried to get additional funds from the government, but did not succeed. Unwilling to give up at this point, she donated ten thousand rupees for the construction from her personal savings. Inspired by her generosity, another teacher donated five thousand. Gradually, the women from the village started donating small amounts every month. Eventually, they collected enough funds to complete the construction.
However, another problem arose. Due to the dispute over the land, no accredited builders would agree to take up the construction work. One of them agreed to do the construction for ten lakhs of rupees, but claimed he had been advised to secure the entire amount in advance. At the time, Alka Thakre was ill with malaria and coping with the grief of her father suddenly passing away. In the midst of her trauma, the builder visited her house and demanded his money. Distressed by his behaviour, and exhausted as she was, she went to the bank, withdrew the money and handed it over to the builder.
The dream school was finally completed in 2014. The students were really excited to go to their new school. The collective struggles of the teachers and the villagers had come to fruition. Alka Thakre encouraged the students to plant a beautiful garden in the grounds. The school was inaugurated by the first student who took admission in the school. It was the beginning of a path to innovations all around.
Even today, Alka Thakre speaks about the period of struggle with passion. Tears come to her eyes as she narrates the story. “I could not sleep for two years.All I could see was the school building. How can a village function without meeting the basic right of education that every child is entitled to? How can they not see how important this is? It was the women who understood the importance of education. The men in the village tried to stop me, some even arranged for my transfer to another village, but it was the women who stood by me. It is because of them the village now has a beautiful school building and a good school.”
Today, a visitor to the school sees clean and spacious premises, brightly painted, with illustrations bringing out the importance of environmental conservation. Around the building are various gardens, of medicinal plants, vegetables, fruits and flowers, as each class tends its own garden plot with plants of their choice. The daily mid-day meal is supplemented with vegetables grown by the students. The school produces its own rich compost through vermiculture. There is an airy reading pavilion in a shelter made of bamboo canes grown in the garden, where children come to read in their free time.
The students participate keenly in inter-school competitions and have bagged prizes in various events such as Navratna Spardha and others held at the district level. The ZP School Tirvanja has been awarded the title of Model School for Bhadravati taluka and has also been ranked first for its efforts towards quality education in a rural area. Alka Thakre recently returned from Japan, where she was invited to represent India in an international Scout and Guide conference. She also represented India at a programme to remember the victims of the Hiroshima nuclear attack, held during the conference.
Such is the inspiring story of the Alka Thakre, the teachers and the residents of Tirvanja, and their fight for an educational environment where quality can thrive and every child can rise to her or his potential.
Blog: Snehal Bansode-Sheludkar & Tejasvi Momaya
Photos: Tejasvi Momaya, Snehal Bansode-Sheludkar & Giri Ratan Singh
Translation and editing: samata.shiksha team