A Hundred Lamps, Thousand Hopes
There were nearly 250 children ranging from toddlers to Class X students preparing for their Matriculation exams. They sat in small clusters, each a little distance away from the other, segregated by their ages
The last ferry to Satapada had crossed over to the other side. We were late by half an hour. The boatmen would have to lash together three boats to take our Innova across. The ebb tide from the sea had set in, the crossing would be risky. We changed our mind and decided to take the circuitous route through the Palur junction to reach Bhubaneswar. Resigned to a long drive back, I left the ghat, the lights on the other side of the lake were twinkling in the late evening haze.
On the way back, darkness had already set in. A small twist in the road brought us right across a Multipurpose Cyclone Shelter, which loomed large in the headlights. Structures like these can be seen all along the coastal villages of Odisha. These multifunctional buildings serve as safe houses during cyclones. Raised on high stilts, they have halls on the top which can accommodate five hundred people. Each cyclone shelter has 32 types of sophisticated equipment necessary for disaster management which include a power saw, siren, kitchen utensils, flexi water tank, solar light, stretcher, life jackets, generator, etc. The stilts below offer a lot of covered space for cattle. Most of these shelters also function as schools. These shelters have been a boon during the recent cyclones.
What drew my attention was the flickering of hundred of lamps on the raised platform of the shelter. On a closer look I saw children stooped over their books with small LED lamps lighting up their faces and books. It was sight which made me stop. I walked the fifty metres to the shelter; my approach did not go unnoticed. There was a flutter amongst the children and two of their teachers came forth to enquire. I told them that I just could not resist dropping in, they understood.
There were nearly 250 children ranging from toddlers to Class X students preparing for their Matriculation exams. They sat in small clusters, each a little distance away from the other, segregated by their ages. Each had brought along with his satchel, a rechargeable Chinese LED lantern. They were all sitting cross legged on the floor, bent over their books and slates, their teachers keeping a tight vigil. Some of the little kids shared a lantern among themselves. One small group had only one lantern and they had all made a small circle around it. The atmosphere was surreal, the little kids encircled in the small glows, encircled by the pitch dark night. The children were all from the nearby villages in a radius of 5 kilometres, walking all the way for the two extra hours of tuition which would help them scrape through their exams. Some of the older ones stayed back after school, and went back only after these extra lessons.
I felt guilty for the intrusion, as my presence disturbed both the students and the teachers. A lot of them even did not look up, they were too shy. They slapped their legs and swished their hands at the omnipresent mosquitoes. One small Class 2 child came up to enquire whether I was a minister. The place could have done with electricity and a few lamps; it would have meant so much. One little boy was scribbling away at the slate, something which I had not seen in ages.
I spent half an hour with the children. I do not know why, but it was a very heartwarming yet moving experience. The teachers told me the problems that were faced by the students. The results of the school were fairly good, but the students wanted much more. The parents could not afford the guide books or tuitions. They all came from agrarian backgrounds; their parents either worked on small landholdings or were fisher folk who depended on the Chilka Lake. The teachers were volunteers, one of them was a lawyer in the tehsil court, and the other worked in the primary health centre. They had both studied in this same school. They spent two hours each evening teaching the children.
I spoke to the students of the senior classes. They were initially shy, but when the ice melted they spoke of the hopes and aspirations. The children all had a burning and insatiable desire for knowledge. They told me their ambitions of being doctors, engineers, collectors, police officers. I was very pleased as a sizeable number told me that they aspired to be teachers. One girl even told me that she had seen me on a TV talk show on Chilika. I was surprised as this had been a good six months earlier. As a resource person for India Post, I often go to schools to hold workshops on Philately. The postal authorities use my expertise as a philatelist to promote the good hobby among school children. The schools I visit are mostly the upper end ones, the so called posh schools. I always make it a point to ask the students their ambitions, and hear all sorts of hopes ranging from doctors, pilots, cricketers, movie stars, stuntmen, dancers, chefs etc. but hardly ever I found a child who wanted to be a teacher. In one group of 500 students in a premier school at Bhubaneswar, not one single student replied that he wanted to be a teacher. In this small school in rural Odisha, cut off from the mainland by the Chilka Lake, functioning in a cyclone shelter with no electricity, there were many students who told me that they wanted to be teachers. I do could not understand why, but it warmed the cockles of my heart to hear the children speak out with dead earnestness about the hopes and aspirations.
The international schools in Bhubaneswar have exchange programmes with other schools in the country and abroad, this, to broaden the horizons of their students and expose them to the world. I wish that these schools would send their students to such places, where children even carry their lamps to school. The students will learn the hard lessons of life and maybe shed some of their attitudes they carry. I was reminded of the old adage “Kamyab hone ke liye nahi, kabil hone ke liye padho”.
In Odisha, 10,000 of the 58,000 schools do not have proper school buildings. Toilets, electricity, playgrounds and boundary walls are a rarity in government-run schools in rural areas, 35% of classrooms do not even have blackboards. Four thousand four hundred schools are single-room schools with just one teacher, if he falls ill or takes a casual leave, the school remains closed. Around 18,000 (10%) of the total 1.79 lakh teachers are untrained. Nearly 30% of schools do not have drinking water facilities and 35% do not have toilets for girls. While 44,076 have no electricity, 2,346 have no provisions for drinking water. And to top it all, over 350 schools have no building at all. These are figures from a report “Status of Elementary and Secondary Education in Odisha-2012”, prepared a couple of years ago by the Odisha Primary Education Programme Authority (OPEPA).
I am not naming the school and the teachers, they told me not to do so. But when I came away, I took away a lot from the little school and maybe left a little of myself behind. I do not know what my fleeting visit must have meant to the children, some of them will be expecting that they will get electricity soon. Someday I will go back and spend one full day with the children.
My presence had been disturbing. It was time to leave. A few of them waved me goodbye. While driving through the roads of the Chilka area, one often encounters foxes, hyenas, fishing cats etc. The area, being a wetland, abounds in snakes. Recently a pack of wild elephants which had strayed into the area had been mowed down by a train, killing five of them. I wondered if the children had any fear of these when they walked back home. I will never forget their glowing faces when they looked up at me.
I know that the all the children with their lamps learnt their lessons at the night school each day. That evening, I too came back with some inexplicable learning. I felt wiser without knowing why.
By Anil Dhir from Chilka Lake
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