amalpur Village, Lalitpur District, Uttar Pradesh: Seven year old Kamlesh wears a permanent smile today. But this was not the case last year when, subjected to repeated humiliation and teasing at the hands of their upper-caste classmates, he and fourteen other children were forced to drop out of their primary school. Today Kamlesh and all his friends are back at the school, and whats more – Kamlesh has topped the class.
What started as a nightmare for these children unfolds like a fairy tale today. These children succeeded through sheer hard work and perseverance believing that in order to cope with adversities one has to be the best. Ever since Kamlesh topped the third standard he is looked up to by his classmates. He is the blue-eyed boy of the teachers; his classmates vie with each other to be his friend. “They all take turns to sit next to me,” says Kamlesh, basking in his new found popularity.
Kamlesh has turned into a hero overnight at the Jamalpur hamlet where Kamlesh’s family lives along with 33 other families hailing from the socially excluded Sahariya tribe. Eldest of the four children born to a stone crusher, Kamlesh was among the fourteen children who stopped going to the primary school last year because of the harassment faced from the children of the so-called higher castes.
“I hated it all. These kids would waylay us and snatch our bags, tear our books and run off with our slates. They frightened us and one day I decided just not to go to school any more,” says Kamlesh recalling his trauma.
This “dropping off” triggered a wave of concern among the village elders. The menfolk among the tribe generally break stones for a living while the women collect and sell wood or gather medicinal herbs. Most of them have never seen the inside of a school, but for their children they had big dreams. So with the help of a local NGO supported by UNICEF, the villagers set up a makeshift evening school.
Here volunteer teenage teachers like Sonia and Sewakumari helped the students not just with studies but in developing a positive mindset. “We told them to be strong and fight out this battle themselves. We empowered them with knowledge and strengthened their will before readmitting them into the same school. Initially older boys would take turns to escort the children to and from school. Once inside the school, the fact that they knew more then their classmates built up their reputation,” Sonia explains.
The children continue to attend the evening school. “This helps them keep ahead of their class. Like Kamlesh, I am sure next year all others will turn toppers,” exclaims Sewakumari. “The kids are in the mainstream and there is no stopping them now. They have learnt to stand on their own with confidence; they will need no crutches in life,” Amit Bajpai of the local NGO, Sarathi, describes the change in the lives of these children.
This evening school run by the Sahariya people has become a role model for others. It has inspired three more such schools at Nathikheda, Pura Birdha and Rajawan in the nearby Sahariya hamlets.