Feature story

Big dreams are made of these

Children, adolescents and women in three of Uttar Pradesh’s most backward districts are discovering the joys of learning thanks to an inclusive education initiative

Bahraich, Shravasti and Balrampur are three districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) that share their borders with Nepal. But floodwaters from the ferocious Ghaghara — the largest tributary of the Ganga by volume, and also its second longest — which originates near lake Mansarovar in Tibet and roars down for more than a thousand kilometres before merging with the main river in Bihar, has for centuries devastated life in these areas. The perennial flooding by this river has impacted life in the three districts, destroying villages and causing widespread damage. The result: they are among the most backward districts in India.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the ‘transformation of aspirational districts’ programme, covering 117 districts — and representing about 15% of the country’s population — that have lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of socio-economic conditions, health and nutrition, education and basic infrastructure. Bahraich, Shravasti and Balrampur are among five such districts identified in UP.

Amrita Patwardhan, head, education and sports at the Tata Trusts, points out that low human development indices in places like Bahraich had led the Trusts to launch initiatives in eastern UP to improve the lives of 50,000 children, adolescents and women by creating a learning environment. This would be through measures such as providing quality education, life-skills training and continuing support to the existing education network.

About two-and-a-half years ago, the Trusts took up work to improve education outcomes in five districts of the state (besides the three, Varanasi and Pratapgarh are the other districts).“Our effort in these backward districts is to work on multiple components so that there is a much deeper impact,” says Ms Patwardhan. That means working with government schools and anganwadis (child-care centres).

The Trusts’ education intervention in eastern UP is based upon the life-cycle approach, where the educational needs of those in the 3-to-45 age group are addressed through multiple components: early child education, school learning and improvement programme, adolescent education, integrated approach to technology in education and women literacy programme.

Coming together

On September 29, 2018, the Trusts, in collaboration with the state’s Department of Basic and Secondary Education and its Social Welfare Department, and the corporate social responsibility arm of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, organised an event at the government residential school for girls in Risia of Bahraich to demonstrate the existing work of the Trusts and to discuss the challenges around education and how to tackle them.

Securing the future through education

“A significant part of this event is to see children from one of the most remote parts of the country — and a region that has been labelled as the one of the most backward — being exposed to the latest in technology,” says Nayantara Sabavala, director of programme design at the Tata Trusts. “We see technology not as an end in itself but as an enabler for learning. It connects these schoolgirls to 21st-century skills, helping them use it in their everyday lives.”

Ms Sabavala notes that when she first came to the school about a year back, the girls rushed into the classrooms, which had personal computers on display, after dumping their footwear in an unwieldy heap outside. “This time I notice that they have lined up their footwear very neatly outside and are doing things in an orderly fashion.”

According to Ms Sabavala, the students at Bahraich are using technology to not just deepen their knowledge, but also to connect it with their daily lives. “Some people assumed that because the students were not exposed to technology before this, there would be some resistance. But I don’t see any time lag in their absorption of new technology; they are comfortable adapting to it.”

The Trusts have adopted a two-pronged strategy for implementation. First, through partner organisations and, second, directly deputing a team on the ground. The Trusts have a direct implementation team of 120 members working in eastern UP. Its school learning improvement programme provides a learning experience in mathematics, environmental studies and language to school-going children from standard I to standard V. It also aims to improve teacher-student participation, community-school participation and the overall academic environment of the schools. Other focus areas include setting up libraries in the schools, promoting sports activity, creating a print-rich environment and providing the necessary resources to teachers to adopt child-centric pedagogy.

Change is in the air

At Bahraich, for instance, the parents of Chandni, a five-year-old girl, were reluctant to send her to the anganwadi. But their visit to the centre changed their perspective and the girl is now enrolled there. Also at Bahraich, 58-year-old Rajkumari was ridiculed by both men and women for attending a women’s learning centre set up by the Trusts. Now an active participant at the centre, she has become smarter and more confident.

Fuel for hope and ambition

Sakina has a major grievance. When people in her village suffer from ailments, there are not many doctors around to treat them.“When I grow up, I want to be a doctor,” says the standard VIII student at the girls’ residential school in Bahraich. Sakina’s home is about 20km away from the residential school and she goes there once a month. She admits that her parents want her to pursue her education. And they want her to take up a medical course.

Reeti Kumari, another student at the school, says she wants to become a district magistrate. Both girls are articulate and confidently discuss their career plans. “We have now learnt how to use computers and constantly access sites like YouTube,” says Reeti.

At their residential school they also play badminton and kabbadi. Like Sakina and Reeti, many other talented girls at the school are now aspiring to go to college, to study further to realise their dreams.

“We are also encouraging the setting up of libraries in schools and ensuring that the children have access to books besides their regular syllabus,” explains Ms Patwardhan. “And we are working with nonprofit partners in ensuring that these children have access to libraries.”

Educational institutions in the backward regions of eastern UP have been a major challenge for the Tata Trusts team and volunteers. Many of the schools have a solitary teacher and basic requirements like blackboard, floor, boundary wall, toilet and drinking water facilities are in bad shape. “Even the floors in the classrooms are cracked,” points out Ms Patwardhan.

“Infrastructure is the biggest problem,” adds Amita Jain, the Lucknow-based regional manager of the Trusts. “In primary schools, just 10-15% of students attend classes. Many children come only for the midday meals that are served.”

In the past, the Trusts used to work in the region through partners; this is the first time it has taken up this project on a ‘direct implementation’ basis in the eastern part of the state. Says Ms Jain: “We work with a lot of partners, including the state education department and the government schools. We now cover 180 government schools in eastern Uttar Pradesh.”

Persistence pays off

The persistent efforts of the Trusts and its partners have begun to show a positive impact. The Bahraich girls’ residential school, where the event was held, shows a remarkable transformation. The girls have been sprucing up the sprawling compound and have also painted the walls of the school in recent weeks. The classrooms have improved significantly and there are boards that the teachers can actually use.

The Bahraich girls school has been given ‘smart’ status. Laptops and printers are increasingly being seen in many of the classrooms. The Tata Trusts field team members are armed with tablets, smartphones and cameras. Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation has provided support for more than 80 laptops and 80 tablets for the eastern UP initiative. “Our aim is to make the children self-confident and improve their thought processes and communications skills,” says Ms Jain.

With things changing for the better, there is a growing demand from the state administration, the local community and the school management for more such interventions, notes Ms Patwardhan.

Kids crowd in front of a laptop at a madrassa

Breaking the shackles

For 22 years, Sakhir Ali has been in the teaching profession and is today the headmaster of a government school in the remote town of Bahraich. He is proficient in multiple languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and English.

The school is now part of the ‘madrassa improvement programme’ of the Tata Trusts, which sees active participation by children, teachers and other staff members across 50 madrassas in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The programme implements child-centric education and a modern curriculum through community participation, madrassa management and teacher ownership. The efforts are bolstering overall learning outcomes.

“Students today are very ambitious, with many from our school wanting to become scientists,” says Mr Ali. “And ever since the Trusts have been associated with this project, their interest in computer studies has gone up remarkably.”