India, in the early decades of the 21st century, is dreaming big as it announces a ‘Digital India’. The dream is already coming true for some. The time of 2G is long past, and 4G has become common. It is an age of e-mail, WhatsApp, Facebook, online shopping, the internet.
Some of our Indian students go abroad for higher studies or work than before.
However, this is true only for some. Many pockets in India are still plagued by poverty and illiteracy. The coming “dawn” mentioned in an oft-quoted poem by Marathi poet Kusumagraj seems to have passed them by completely. Such marginalized people dwell not just in remote areas or forests, but also in the slums of our metros – for instance, the Potraj community.
A woman who is known as “Kadaklakshmi” (a stern or strong version of the goddess Lakshmi) comes to our door sometimes, asking for alms. The “Bhagat” (priest) of Kadaklakshmi is called “Potraj”. To the sound of “halgi” drums, the men – embodying “Potraj ” – lash their bodies with whips while begging for alms. They are usually to be seen on Tuesdays and Fridays. For a paltry Rs 5 or 10, these poor folks roam the streets with their families, under the blazing sun.
Most are illiterate, and hence jobless. In the absence of other sources of income, they beg. Dr. Dharmaraj Sathe – the first ever person from the community to become a doctor – believed that education was the only way out of this Catch-22 situation.
Although Dr. Sathe’s father had also worked as a Potraj, he had used his art to spread awareness about family planning, among other things, and to eradicate superstition. Dr. Sathe was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps, and work for the community.
When, in 2012, Dr. Sathe visited the Potraj settlement in Pune to find out how many of their children went to school, he discovered that not one child did. Dismayed, he contacted Dr. Abhijit Vaidya, then a Trustee of the Rashtra Seva Dal, Pune, and Advocate Sampat Kamble, a member of the Shikshan Prashasak Mandal ( a teacher training body). Dr. Sathe emphasised to them that the Potraj children must be enrolled in school and that it must be the kind of school where they would feel comfortable, and loved.
The answer was our school – Sane Guruji Primary School.
Rashtra Seva Dal, which nurtures values such as sensitivity and humanity, ran the Sane Guruji Primary School. We decided to enroll 12 students from the Potraj community. This was an opportunity to give something back to society, which neither Headmistress Mangala Kamble nor the rest of the teaching staff wanted to miss. We welcomed the children with open arms.
In the years since, more than 80 students hailing from the Potraj community have passed out from our school – becoming the first generation from the community to acquire a formal education. The school management decided not just to teach them for free, given their poverty-stricken background, but also to provide them with textbooks and school uniforms.
Dr. Vinod Shah’s Jana Seva Foundation donated a large sum of money towards this venture. The cost of school bags, uniforms, textbooks, and notebooks was covered by them, and by the Sahyadri Medical and Education Foundation.
The first batch of Potraj children came to school dressed in rags, barefoot, their hair all dishevelled, their faces often sunburnt. They had runny noses, and some suffered from scabies or other skin diseases. They were completely at a loss in their new environment and were stared at by the other students.
Our Headmistress Mrs. Kamble had understood that for these newcomers to feel at home in the school, they would need to feel accepted by the other students. On the very first day, she had gathered the 12 new students up on the dais during assembly prayers and introduced them to the others. ‘ Meet your new friends,’ she said. ‘Your parents are educated, but these children are the first ones from their families ever to step inside a school. They are very poor. There is no one in their homes to teach them about health and hygiene. Let’s together help them learn good habits. They may not be good at studies yet, but they are very good at sports, and at telling stories and singing songs. We can learn from each other. Will you be friends with them?’ The students all cheered and agreed.
The task of formally enrolling the children in school posed some immediate problems. There were no ration cards, birth certificates, or other identity documents. Their names were also unfamiliar to the authorities concerned: Kalkat, Doya, Bua. After repeated visits to Sassoon General Hospital, we managed to have birth certificates made for them, and finally, they were all admitted in the age-appropriate grades.
‘We realised that the first step had to be to teach them about personal hygiene,’ says Jyoti Bhilare, a teacher from the school. ‘Although the other students did agree to be friends with these children, they refused to go near them because of the stink. There were no permanent bathrooms or toilets in their settlement. The children would just jump into the canal and wash themselves. We, teachers, collected money and bought soap, oil, and sachets of shampoo, which we distributed among them, explaining how to use these. We took those with skin diseases to the doctor and had them treated. Every day, we would warm water, add potassium, and get the children to dip their hands in the liquid, to get rid of scabies. We also explained the importance of hygiene to their guardians.’
‘From this first batch of students, all boys, we learned that there were many other children in the settlement who were still out of school. Not a single girl from the settlement was in school. When we asked around, we discovered how, in the community, girls were still being married off at the age of nine or ten. This was a serious matter, and we took it to the founder of the school, Vimlatai Garud. She advised us to go to the settlement and speak to the elders about both, the importance of education, and the perils of child marriage.’
‘Their temporary abodes lay along the canal that runs between the PL Deshpande Garden near the Parvati Water Treatment Plant and the Janata Vasahat area. When we arrived there, the children yelled in excitement, “Teacher has come! Teacher has come!”
We sat in one of the huts and talked to the community elders. “Every child has a right to education, and this is the only way to progress. At the tender age of nine and ten, girls are not prepared either physically or emotionally for marriage,” we said.
The elders seemed very positive. After this meeting, they began to trust us. Jankabai was the first of their girls to attend school. She was soon followed by many others.’
One of the major issues we faced in the education of the Potraj children was language. The language spoken by the community, which comprised people who were originally from Karnataka, was a mixture of Vadar and Kannada. When the Potraj children spoke with each other, the other children would stare at them, uncomprehending. We felt that if we expected them to learn Marathi, we needed to make an effort to understand their language as well. Some of our teachers, Kate bai, Bhilare bai, Gowalkar bai and Pitla bai, had learned some words from their language and started using them while teaching. For example, when teachers used phrases like “ay bida!” for “hey, you!” and “nu gappan kusun!” which means “be quiet!” the Potdar children would be thrilled. In this way, a bond was gradually forged between students and teachers.
Many teachers from the school have experiences to share.
Minakshi Kate says, ‘I taught them words and numbers. All they wanted was affection. A student named Kamal Nimbalkar made up a story and narrated it to the class.’
Sase ‘Sir’ says, ‘I had seven children from the settlement in class. One of them, Suresh Pawar, was a very keen student. He was the first to learn to read with the correct pronunciation. He would look after the other Potraj students and also help them solve their difficulties. In fact, we named him “Master”.’
I had nine students from the Potraj community in my class. It was quite a challenge to teach them the letters of the alphabet. I made cards with pictures and words for them, which made it easier for them to learn and pronounce the letters properly. Surprisingly, although they found it more difficult to read, they picked up writing quite easily – and their handwriting was usually quite good.
Vitthal Shevte ‘Sir’ says, ‘Even though these children were not very good at studies, they were excellent in sports. They were way ahead of the other students in gymnastics, running, and so on. I am hoping that one day one of them will earn the Arjuna Award. Our students take part in various inter-state competitions.’
Tejaswini Fulpagar ‘Ma’am’ says, ‘Initially, these children looked quite bewildered. They craved for love and attention. They were so innocent! I used to hold them close and talk to them, enquire about their families. They used to paint very well, too.’
Headmistress Mangala Kamble says, ‘There was no food cooked in these children’s homes, as the families lived on alms. So they would bring upama-sheera from some restaurant to school, instead of roti-sabji. Soon, the rest of the children made friends with them, and they started sharing each other’s food. Whenever anyone distributed sweets in school, it was heart-wrenching to see the Potraj children beg for the food – that was what they knew.
I told the teachers to feed these children before the others. They had to be made to understand that eating a nutritious meal was their right. They didn’t have to beg for it. Just as we take special care of an ill person in the family, we looked after these children. At times, we took extra classes to make sure they didn’t fall behind in their studies.’
The students from Potraj community later went on to Std 5 in Rao Saheb Patwardhan School, run by the same institution.
The school had managed to have electricity poles installed in their settlement so that the children could study at home, but the community was recently moved. The students now go to a school in Hadapsar.
Some, like Suresh Pawar, still come to meet us when they miss their first school.
We take satisfaction in the fact that we were able to bring 80 Potraj children into school. Many of them now enjoy going to school and want to study further. Most of them are studying in Late Narmadabai Kisan Kamble Muncipal corporation school number 21 in Hadapsar. They have our combined best wishes.
Writer: Sopan Bandavne, Teacher, Sane Guruji Primary School, Sinhgad Road, Parvati Payatha, Pune
Contact – 9881107003
Cooperation: Mangala Kamble, Headmistress, Sane Guruji Primary School, Sinhgad Road, Parvati Payatha, Pune
Translation & editing: samata.shiksha team