Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination: Sitapur, UP
Dhirendra Pratap Singh took a gap year in college. The decision did not go down well with his parents, followed shortly by ominous warnings from peers about the repercussions on his career.
“Now, it’s been more than forty months since I decided to start the school, even now people think that I’m eventually going to give up, get in line for a corporate job and focus on a real career rather than wasting time with some idealistic plan.”
After a two month stint with the India Fellowship Program, living in rural Utrakhand, Dhirendra says he was looking at India with new eyes. He decided to do something for the children in Sitapur, his ancestral home in Uttar Pradesh. Conducting his own research, he discovered that there was no senior secondary school in a seven kilometre radius and most children, especially girls, dropped out after the eighth standard.
“When I spoke to the villagers and the Panchayat heads, I realised that they all wanted their kids to get a decent education, but the reality of rural India where children are assigned daily chores, assist in the seasonal planting and harvesting of crops, and more importantly the paltry income of each family meant that unless the school was easily accessible and cheap- they wouldn’t’t be able to attend.”
So Dhirendra decided to bring the school to their doorstep. He started out with ten children, one teacher and a tent donated by his fathers regiment.
It had begun.
In a span of two months, He raised more than two lakh by getting peers, family and anyone willing to listen- to buy bricks at ten rupees each for the construction of the school.
“I was a teenager then“, says the now twenty two year old. “I didn’t’t know anything about building a school!” His father, a zealous army man, took leave for a month to help build his son’s dream. The community participated by donating an acre of land for the school, free labour for the construction and most importantly, by ensuring that their children turned up for school everyday.
Today the Swarachna Learning and Resource Centre has a proper if humble building, seven full time teachers and 183 students from all the neighbouring villages. Dhirendra continues to dream for the kids. He wants more children to enrol- especially in the Swabhiman program- which assists dropt-outs to resume their education, expand the building, introduce more sports and hobby classes, provide two sets of uniforms to each student and restart the mid day meal.
“I usually take my own Tiffin when I visit the school, on one day when I was’nt carrying it, I joked that I’d be eating out of all the students’ lunch boxes. It shattered me to witness that most were carrying only stale Rotis from the previous night (as the traditional choolah is only lit once a day in the evening) with a small piece of jaggery or pickle.”
Dhirendra had to discontinue the mid day meal, for lack of funds. He masks his guilt poorly, “how is a kid supposed to focus or excel in class on an empty stomach?”
Even today. meeting monthly expenses is a constant struggle. He rues the reluctance, of prosperous city folks, to part with money. Using the recent recession as an excuse, “though that doesn’t keep them from the weekend pub crawls or designer sales“.
I found Dhirendra eager to talk about future plans and new ideas, intuitively aware that- but for the lessons learnt, reminiscing about milestones passed is time wasted. His perspective- on the challenges of working in rural India and the right to education for the invisible millions, belies his young age.
After four hours of talking. our exit cue came via a group of eight young men- inadvertently staging an urban alpha-male struggle. Thinly disguised antagonism; caustic sentences punctuated with curses to indicate magnitude, shallow conversation oscillating from the women in their lives to the latest drunken shenanigans- burst our utopian bubble.
We shrugged, walked out and went our separate ways to build another classroom and find another hero.