Sugarcane workers and migratory labourers may be seen throughout the Western Maharashtra belt of sugar factories. Our Solapur district is no exception to this. In the Barshi area, we have five or six factories – including the Indreshwar factory, the Shri Vitthal Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, and, in Madha taluka, the Baban Dada Shinde Sakhar Karkhana.
When the season begins, after Diwali, the sugarcane workers start building their temporary shelters. In 2017, too, a big gang of such workers arrived in the Kasarwadi area of Barshi.
The new arrivals and their families all hailed from the Hingoli, Yavatmal, and Wardha districts of the Vidarbha region. With their families came the children. We Balrakshaks were concerned about the long-term impact of the migration on the children’s education. We carried out a survey of the out-of-school children, and identified 24 in the age group of 6 to 14 who had attended school in the past but had now stopped, because of the migration.
We sat in a tent among these children and offered them some sweets, and chatted about school. When asked if they would like to start going to school again, they happily agreed.
It was equally important to talk to their parents and guardians. We met many families, and pointed out how, because they kept moving from place to place, their children suffered. They missed out on school. We spoke to them about education being the means to improve their lives, and appealed to them to send their children to school. The factory foreman and officers also supported us in persuading the adults.
Some guardians were persuaded, but not all. We proposed that the children be sent to the nearby Kasarwadi district school, but this was not readily accepted. Their settlement lay along the Barshi-Kasarwadi route, and the school was about four km away. The adults were concerned about the children’s safety, and also about the commute.
The only option was to have the school inside the settlement itself. We decided to start a school under a mango tree right opposite the tents. In keeping with the saying, ‘The sooner, the better’, we decided to begin immediately. First, we swept the area clean, and in less than two hours, it was time for school, nestled in the lap of nature.
The children and their guardians helped with the setting up with great enthusiasm. The first day was spent just singing songs and playing games. We agreed to meet again at 7AM the next day. We arrived at 6.45 AM the next morning, full of enthusiasm and anticipation, only to discover that only three of the 24 children were present. The rest were busy helping their families with daily household chores such as fetching water and cooking, or assisting with the sugarcane cutting. We realised with a sinking feeling that the task ahead was not going to be easy. Taking the three children along, we went back, we took along the three students and went to each family and explained again about the importance and necessity of education.
Finally, after much persuasion, the guardians all agreed, and our school started in earnest. The second day began with bathing the children, who were unwashed, with filthy clothes, long dirty nails, and unkempt hair. While chatting with them about hygiene, we cut their nails with a nail clipper, bathed them with soap and water, combed and oiled their hair and had them wear clean clothes. The children were experiencing these things for the first time. They were happy and excited, and we had won the confidence of their guardians.
That day, instead of getting straight into studies, we asked our new students to perform in front of the class. Some sang songs, others danced, and some told stories. Slowly, we moved towards our main objective – basic reading, writing and math skills. We used the principles of constructivism to gauge how familiar those who had attended school before were with words and numbers.
We introduced the students to words through writing with a stick in the sand. To start with, we had them write their names. Stones, sticks, flowers, leaves, bits of sugarcane, chapatis were used to teach addition, subtraction and basic Math The children clearly found this approach interesting and entertaining.
Then we used mobile apps to introduce them to different subjects. This was something new for them, and they thoroughly enjoyed watching the videos. Under the auspices of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Block Education Officer Vishnu Kamble soon provided the school with slates, pencils, pens, notebooks, textbooks, blackboards and chalk, as well as a uniform for every child. The joy on the children’s faces when they saw all these materials can hardly be expressed in words. We also began providing them with giving nutritious food and fruit in the lunch break.
The children slowly settled down in the school. They would be waiting for us to arrive, neatly dressed in their uniforms. They grew so attached to me that once, when I was away in Solapur for a meeting, they got teacher Laxmi Torad to make a video call to me, and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t come to school, neither will we!’ I was deeply touched. Only after I promised them that I would be there the next day did they agree to stay back in school that day.
The training we received at the Balrakshak workshop, organised by the Samata Department of the Maharashtra Academic Authority, helped us a great deal. We learnt how to win over both the children and their guardians, how to empathise with the students, and get them involved in studies and school. We ran this school for 40 days. During this time, the students picked up basic reading, writing and math skills. They learned to make up and write short sentences, sing songs with accompanying expressions, and some good habits to do with cleanliness and hygiene. Most importantly, we succeeded in making their guardians understand the importance of education.
The families were happy to see the difference in their children. Instead of working in the fields, now their children wore uniforms, bathed regularly, and eagerly went to school. We are proud to say that although the school closed down after the harvest season ended and people went back to their villages, the guardians all made sure that their children kept going to school.
We are in constant touch with these students and their parents and guardians. The families have given us their word that they will not bring the children along when they return to Solapur for the next harvest season. We feel happy that we were able to contribute in our own small way towards the continuing education of these children.
Writers: Avinash More and Laxmi Torad, subject experts, Panchayat Samiti, Barshi taluka, Solapur district
Laxmi Torad: Mob. 9975741466, Avinash More: Mob. 9423081067
Editing & translation: samata.shiksha team