One of the classrooms at the revamped zilla parishad school in Pokhari village in Maharashtra. (Photo: Amit Chakravarty)
A two-acre plot dotted with pomegranate trees in the village of Pokhari, 50 km from Aurangabad in Maharashtra, will soon be the site of a unique community initiative. Villagers have pooled resources, including money received as drought relief, to buy the land to upgrade their sole zilla parishad school to the level of “international schools”.
The school is currently till Class 8, and students in higher classes must walk an hour to Garaj, the nearest town, causing many to drop out. Those seeking any professional course have to go further, to Aurangabad district headquarters.
In September last year, villagers took up this issue with the education officer of the Aurangabad zilla parishad, Surajprasad Jaiswal, who had come on a personal visit. They also urged him to get vacant teachers’ posts filled at the school, that barely sustained itself on an yearly grant of Rs 15,000.
Says Jaiswal, “I told them the state would help, but if they wanted a better future for their children, they needed to be more proactive. I told them about Bable Wadi in Pune, where villagers had started own school.” The Pune school has emerged as a role model for alternative education using innovative teaching methods.
In the first week of October, even as the state elections were approaching, the NCP’s taluka head, Balsaheb Bhosle, and local Shiv Sena leader Babasaheb Thube put politics aside to jointly lead a visit of villagers and leaders to Bable Wadi.
Pokhari sarpanch Dilip Jadhav says they were astounded by what they saw at the Bable Wadi school. “Students there were studying robotics and electric cars. Those in Class 6 were learning foundation courses for engineering entrance. For those interested in languages, there were modules to teach at least five foreign languages. They also prepared students for competitive exams,” he says.
Soon after their return, the villagers formed a WhatsApp group, ‘Aamche Swapnachi Shala (School of our Dreams)’, where videos were shared of Bable Wadi students experimenting with technology and speaking fluently in other languages.
On October 21, soon after voting for the state polls had ended, the village held a meeting. “Every farmer had received a minimum of Rs 8,000 in drought relief... At least Rs 5,000 was contributed towards the school,” says the NCP’s Bhosle, one of the main forces behind the initiative.
Residents who are in government service gave between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh, while others “as much as they could”. Saheb Rao Malavde, 35, contributed Rs 8,000, the equivalent of what he earns in a month as a driver. “I have two daughters. My family did not buy new clothes last Diwali and cut down on expenses to manage,” he says. Alaka Bai gave Rs 5,000, her year’s savings from grazing cattle for others.
As the first step, urgent repairs were carried out at the school, including a fresh coat of paint, new sliding windows and a computer lab. With Jaiswal keeping his promise, three new teachers were appointed, for computers and English. The villagers pay their salary, working out to Rs 35,000 a month.
One of the English teachers is attached to the new ‘digital anganwadi’. Says Pokhari zilla parishad head Ambadas Sukhdeo Kale, “The existing anganwadi was nothing more than a creche where children ate midday meals but did not learn anything. The new anganwadi will ensure they have a strong base before entering primary classes.”
The teachers use tools like handmade puzzles to help children learning mixing and matching words, poems to convey numbers, and interactions with experts such as a guide over a video call for a lesson on forts. A large India map was etched on the school ground where students could, say, jump from Jammu to Kerala, to teach about states. The school now teaches Sanskrit as a fourth language.
Villagers have begun cutting down on budget for religious functions to save money for the school’s expansion. For example, they now get own food during weeklong kirtans at the three local temples, where meals are served twice a day. With the Rs 12 lakh saved through such measures, apart from the Rs 44 lakh coming from drought relief contributions, villagers purchased the two-acre plot this January for the school.
Owner Nyaneshwar Devidas Thube, 31, a former student of the school, told The Sunday Express, “The market price is around Rs 80 lakh but I accepted what they gave.”
The villagers are not done. They plan to meet political leaders next for funds to construct a new building, sports facilities, a “world-class library” and an air-conditioned study room. “We want our school to be just like those big schools in big cities,” says Bhosle.