Brightening the lives of tribals

The learning centre is for the people and by the people

Brightening the lives of tribals
No effort is made in the school to impose other language

In late 1980s when most college students were chalking out plans for their future, two youngsters from different backgrounds were planning something unique to improve the lives of others and make their existence more meaningful.

For several months Amit and Jayashree, lived in villages among the adivasis as activists of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Alirajpur and Jhabua districts and fought against injustice and oppression and explored the needs of tribals. But the two did not know each other.

While Amit, after studying in Modern School, Barakhamba Road, in Delhi, went on do his architecture at the School of Planning & Architecture, Jayashree had a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Fergusson College in Pune. The two became friends and went on to marry in 1989. The two decided to make the brown landscape of the Vindhyas as their permanent home.

Next eight years, they travelled, organised protests and tried to help adivasis. As they were working for adivasis, they discussed and deliberated over several months before deciding that changes were needed in the education system. In 1997, after the birth of Revali and Sarang, they moved to Sendhwa in Badwani district and set up the Adharshila Learning Centre with the support of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, a people’s rights organisation. The learning centre was for the people and by the people.   They were certain that they would not impose education as is being imparted in most of the places.
The results started coming out at a painfully slow pace. As it gained momentum, it turned into a phenomenon. 

Situated on a hill-top, surrounded by open field in village Sakad, Adharshila is an alternative and independent school for children.

In the school, located on a six-acre land, tribal children sit in the shade of the trees and taste the vegetables or pulses they have grown locally in their meals. The children first learn to read and write in their mother tongue, Bareli, instead of familiarising with a new language, grammar. 

When the school was set up, it was a barren and rocky land hardly any crop could grow. Now, it has transformed and people are growing grains and fresh vegetables. Their children also studied in the same school, which is affiliated to the state board.

“We simply  didn’t want to disconnect them from their language, lifestyle and culture. School or a learning centre should focus on ensuring health, productivity and joy. And these determine a community's future. The Bhil/ Bhillalas (tribal) children come from a community culture that has deep roots and has many things to tell the world about themselves. They are the real sons of the soil and their traditional knowledge on weather, soil, trees, herbs and skills of their community helps us to know more  about our natural heritage. We simply did not want to disconnect their expression by intervening with a new language, grammar or sentence structure. We tell them to read and write in their mother tongue, Bareli, till they do not show interest in taking up another language,” says Jayashree.

Confidence grows

In a sense, children are convinced that their teachers are interested in their life and experiences. Their confidence grows and they equally communicate in their language and get over the perceived impression that their lifestyle and culture were inferior and are responsible for their poor quality of life, she says.

“We tell Bhil/ Bhilalla pupil that their culture and history have unique identity. We believe in creating an idyllic, small-scale educational environment for our pupils here,” she adds.

At Adharshila, teaching methodology is somewhat different. Here, senior students regularly teach juniors, and, in the process, discover that their own concepts have become clearer. Moreover, one could sense the absence of teachers' movements to take classes as the fields, vegetable patches and trees on the campus are natural classrooms. The couple still remember the thrill of the lights going down and knowing that only stars were there to watch.

Kamal Dudwe, an alumnus, who is from the first batch of students of Adharshila, has completed his master’s in economics from Banaras Hindu University and is preparing for his Public Service Commission entrance examination while completing his PhD from Allahabad University.

Majali Janu, another student from the first batch, is a dedicated teacher at Adharshila and now also a trainer of new teachers.

The students learn farming and tending the animals, about soil and seeds, and how a barren piece of land could produce enough grain and pulses if drip irrigation is properly applied and soil has been effectively nurtured with organic manure from dung.

The founders of the learning centre said that the funds for the learning centre and piece of land came from Adivasi Mukti Sanghatan. However, the construction of building and rooms was done by the villagers. Adharshila is unique and different from alternative school as it protects social and emotional health of children.

Sidharth Jain, resource person, Azim Premji Foundation, Bhopal, who has visited the centre many times and has spent months at Adharshila, says: “Amit and Jayashree are making good the opportunities they have had to become the coolest people by giving students many homes in their learning centre and not serving them classrooms in a strange land”.

The Centre has a theatre group called Naatak India Company. On occasions, they travel and perform many original plays and are regularly invited to tribal rights sammelans (meetings) and education seminars. One of their most popular play is a 90-minute performance titled Bhanai, in which the students demonstrate the nexus between corrupt political parties, religious organisations and the market.

The students of Adharshila bring out their own newspaper, conduct surveys and review meetings and upload their podcasts on SoundCloud. They have the confidence to ask questions and the rigour to look for answers.

The founders of Adharshila believe that about 50 per cent of the school’s financial needs should be met through fees and the remaining part through an informal network of friends, individual donors and community support. The centre welcomes volunteer teachers and artists from India and abroad to stay on campus and teach for months on end.

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