All the 1,000-odd villagers in Kutiyawa are literate and aware of their rights. This was not always the case in this economically backward village of gaderiyas (shepherds) and lohars (blacksmiths) in eastern Uttar Pradesh's Ambedkar Nagar district.
Ram Badan Pal, a Dalit, has devoted the last 18 years of his life to scripting the change in his village. Children are the 48-year-old Pal's agents of change, and education his weapon.
Pal empowered himself with education in the face of great odds before choosing to give back to his village.
Born in a poor gaderiya family, Pal grew up facing social inequities of the time. He used to walk barefoot to a government junior high school in Bewana 5 km from his village. In the afternoon, he would help his father in the fields and herd cattle.
"The fees were nominal and I was a bright student. In the Class 8 board examinations, I got distinction in all five subjects. I bagged a state government scholarship," said Pal.
He moved to Ramdev Singh Inter College at Kamtaganj in Class 9. A river on the way posed another challenge. "Most days, I could not pay the boatman and had to swim across. I used to carry a spare set of clothes," he said.
In the Class 10 board examination, Pal secured the highest marks in the district. After a similar stellar showing in Class 12, Pal moved to college in Allahabad. He earned his LLB degree from Allahabad University in 1987. Career beckoned, but so did his village.
"My parents were unwell and I struggled a lot for their treatment. The lack of health services in our village, coupled with illiteracy and poverty, appalled me," said Pal.
He joined an NGO in 1988. By 1993, he had made a name educating children and adults working in the district's brick kiln industry.
Child Rights and You (CRY) acknowledged his work and granted him a fellowship of R4,000 per month. With this financial support, Pal began a school — a non-formal education centre he named Jan Shikshan Kendra — in 1994 at his home to give free education to children from below poverty line families.
The school, which began with 13 girl students, took a more formal shape after moving to a donated piece of land in the village in 1997. In 2006, Pal's school got state government recognition. Today, Jan Shikshan Kendra Primary School (up to Class 5) has 289 students. Pal also ensures that adults are educated.
His daughters, Pushpa and Shushama, did their primary schooling from Jan Shikshan Kendra. Today, Pushpa is an MA student and Shushama is in Class 10.
Jan Shikshan Kendra too has spread its wings and now has projects for establishment of child rights in 55 villages of Ambedkar Nagar district.