Ladli, a Class 5 student of Ambedkarnagar's Jan Shikshan Kendra (JSK), is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up. But the 10-year-old is very emphatic about what she doesn't want to be.
JSK caters to children of farm labourers, brick kiln workers and small farmers. HT/Sachidanand Shukla
"I don't want to be a politician."
Ladli's schoolmates - Rita (Class 1), Manisha (Class 2), Sangam (Class 5) and Jyoti (Class 5) - all agree. These students of Kutiyawa village are all keen to be teachers, advocates, engineers and even social workers, but not politicians.
The reaction of the children is ironic, given that JSK founder and mentor Ram Badan Pal envisaged a school that would encode and promote democratic practices.
Each year in August, students of the primary school cast their votes to elect the bal panchayat, complete with a bal pradhan and a deputy bal pradhan.
"Every Saturday the bal panchayat manages the administration of the school. It organises the general body meeting to discuss future plans and social service schemes," says the current bal pradhan Shivam, a student of Class 2.
Pal belongs to a Dalit - Gaderiya community - family, from the socially and economically backward area of Ambedkarnagar.
After completing his LLB from Allahabad University in 1987, he started looking for a government job, but family problems coupled with the backwardness of the area came in the way.
"My father got seriously ill, and there were virtually no health services in the area, everyone around was illiterate and, poverty and lack of awareness abounded."
All this motivated Pal to think, and do, something for Kutiyawa village under Bewana police station, about 20km from the district headquarters.
In 1988, the ambitious young man joined an NGO working in the field of social health welfare and education. In about five years, Pal had learned the tricks of the trade. He had worked in the brick kilns of Ambedkar-nagar, educating children and adults.
Armed with the rich experience, he submitted a report to CRY (Child Relief and You), which granted him a fellowship of Rs. 4,000 per month. This amount served as the seed capital for Pal's own initiative - a centre of non-formal education - Jan Shikshan Kendra.
Way back in 1994 the centre operated out of Pal's house. Under the Kendra umbrella, Pal soon started a primary school, teaching children from below the poverty line families for free.
Beginning with 13 girl students, the school struggled for three years. In 1997, it shifted to a piece of land donated by a fellow villager. The state government recognition came nearly a decade later.
The school now boasts of 289 students and five teachers.
Principal Jokhu Ram Pal says, "The focus of the JSK is to lay a strong and effective foundation for social change."
Pal's initiative has ensured that the 1,000-people village is a 100% literate setup.
JSK alumni and Pal's daughters, Pushpa (currently doing her MA) and Sushma (a Class 10 student), are following in the footprints of their father and are actively involved in JSK work.