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A school in Gujarat seeks to fight caste, plastics

Navsarjan School
By Rajiv Shah
A decade-long experiment, taking shape 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad, halfway to Rajkot, the business hub of Saurashtra region of Gujarat, appears have largely gone unnoticed. Just next to the National Highway 8A, not very far from the sleepy Katariya village, the premier Dalit rights NGO of Gujarat, Navsarjan Trust, is running a higher primary school, for classes 5 to 8, seeking to turn it into a “model” for other schools to follow. It is one of the three schools run by Navsarjan — the other two being near the Rayka village in Ahmedabad district and Sami village in Patan district.
As we entered the campus the other day, nobody seemed to be around. An eerie quiet prevailed, as if. Suddenly, a child spotted us, and declared “Martinbhai!” And, all of a sudden, a horde of children began peeping through a window, and many of them came out, welcoming us, smiling, eager to shake hands with their Martinbhai — and me. What a striking contrast it was from other primary schools, I thought.
Though from Dalit and other backward castes, children here seemed happy, were smiling and excited, were eager to know what was in store for them. Welcoming Martinbhai, someone even wondered whether he would stay back that night, narrate stories, if possible. It was a boarding school. Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan Trust, is the brain behind all the Navsarjan schools. “Next week”, was the reply. One of the children eagerly queried: “Sure? You will stay? We must have bonfire at night!”
I didn’t understand why they didn’t call Macwan “sahib” or “Sir”, the word generally used to address teachers or principals in rural and urban schools in Gujarat. After all, he was the main “trustee”. They must fear him, if at all. Finding that I was a little amused, Macwan explained, “Here, teachers are addressed by their first name. Nobody is a sahib or a subordinate. Students and teachers live, work and learn together.”
The informal atmosphere was indeed all pervading: As we entered one of the half-a-dozen single-storey buildings on the sprawling campus, we saw six children rolling out chapattis for lunch, passing them on to the maid, who was baking several chapattis together on a huge black pan. Macwan added, “Here, children learn everything. They cook, they clean up the campus, they tidy up the toilets, and they do it all with teachers.”
“To be treated as equals, working and studying together, without discrimination, is the motto of Navsarjan schools”, Macwan says, even as we sit on the floor for lunch, not very far from the children, who sat in a queue, under the shadow of trees behind one of the school buildings. In a group of four, children would go with their plates to take food. But nobody began eating till the last child placed his chapattis, sabzi and daal on the plate and settled down. The lunch ended, and each of us – children, teachers, Macwan, and I — washed the plates ourselves.
I wondered whether I could talk to teachers and children, and I was promptly taken to the science lab, which had a collection of several equipments useful for upper primary children – a microscope, a model spaceship, a replica of human body, a solar cooker, indeed, nearly 100 items, the types ordinary schools wouldn’t care to display. We sat for an interaction with teachers, who explained the type of children admitted to the school. “Our first priority is to admit those who are the weakest. Not without reason, many of the children, who are admitted into class seven, cannot write a single word, nor can they read a sentence”, says Jitendrabhai.
Majority of the children at the boarding school are Dalits, followed by Bharwads, a cow breeding community. “Originally, we were an all-Dalit school. But slowly, others got attracted to the school. The Bharwads would migrate out of the village in search of fodder for cattle. Children too would follow suit. Often they would put their bag in the village school, and go after cattle”, says Rajeshbhai, adding, “This is the reason why some Bharwads decided to put the children in our boarding school. Majority of them are from the rural areas of talukas like Sanand, Dhrangadhra, Patdi,Chotila, Sayla, and Limbdi.”
Chandrikaben says, “As the purpose of the school is to admit children who dropped out after completing their lower primary, it is a fun teaching them. We use illustrations to teach them their very first lessons.” Adds Nareshbhai, “It takes them three to six months to cope up, shed their hesitation. We encourage them to ask questions, which is rarely allowed in rural schools. They find it amusing, and majority of them are quite forthcoming. Many voluntarily participate in elocution contests, often we have to tell them to sit down.”
Finally came the time for interaction with the children – both boys and girls. About 60 of them had gathered in a hall, eagerly waiting to interact with “Martinbhai and his friend. Before turning up in the hall, I visited the computer room, where nearly 20 children were busy learning a computer lesson. Lessons included Excel, Word, Photoshop. My first question was, whether they had computers in the rural schools where they previously studied. While all of them said their village schools had computers, they added, these wouldn’t be allowed to be used by children. Gunvant said, “The new computers would be put in lock and key, we dared not touch them. The old ones were there, but mostly out of order.”
When asked about what they had learned in their previous rural schools, Khushbu replied, “Virtually nothing. Sahib (i.e. the teacher in rural school) would put down on blackboard whatever we were to be taught. He would tell us to copy it down, and vanish. There was no teaching, as we know it here.” Added Mayur, “With the teacher out of the school, the monitor would take control of the class…”
When asked about the compulsory midday meal in rural schools, Vijay said, “There would be insects… I wouldn’t take meal in the school. I would prefer to go home instead.” When asked how many of them wouldn’t eat midday meal in school, majority of them raised their hand, and nearly all of them said the meal was of such “poor quality” that if they ate they were sure to go sick.
Asked whether they would play games in rural schools, the general reply was “not beyond gilli danda”, in complete contrast to the Navsarjan school, where children participate in different types of sports activities like long jump and high jump, soccer throw, all types of races, and so on. They played, almost daily, volleyball, football, cricket. I wondered if they knew about the ongoing cricket World Cup, and everyone shouted in unison they had watched the last match live on the school TV, with each of them eager to give minutest of details on who scored how much, sounding optimistic about India. “As part of our daily routine, we read aloud newspaper headlines, and sports events obviously figure prominently”, one of them said, dropping names of the vernacular dailies they read.
Then I asked them if they were beaten up in the previous rural schools. Half of them said corporeal punishment was common. One of the girls quietly stood up and said how a male teacher would “pinch” her – something she never liked. A dozen-odd children out of 60 said they were made to work for their teachers, and if they didn’t punishment followed. “Our work ranged from picking up dirt and disposing it off, to bringing gutkha from the local paan shop”, said one of the boys.
Of the 40-odd Dalit children present, half of them complained, they had faced some type of caste discrimination in the rural school – they couldn’t sit with other dominant caste children during midday meal, for instance, or even drink water from the same tap. Asked about cultural programmes, and the children replied, in the rural schools, they sang only patriotic songs, while now, in Navsarjan schools, they would also play comedy skits, and even take part in inter-school competitions.
This is the school which is now preparing for a major function on April 12 – and the slogan is “NO CASTE, NO PLASTICS”. Macwan explains, “Public schools in Ahmedabad have given the NO PLASTICS slogan as part of their campaign to keep environment clean. We know it from experience that Dalit children – and often teachers – are discriminated against in these schools. We have decided to add “NO CASTE” to the slogan, and want public schools to follow up. We want to demonstrate our school to the concerned citizens of Ahmedabad to see for themselves and interact with children, and if they like it, they must help us in every possible way to make the school a better place to study. We need help, including funds, for the school to become better place for children.”

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