A month ago, Shivdas Watti was afraid to think beyond Chandrapur, the big town 200 km from his village and 877 km north-east of Mumbai.
He knew there was a big world out there, he says, but he felt his place was in his family’s one-acre field.
Now, the 22-year-old Gond tribal is dreaming of travelling to the US to work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“It’s just a dream,” he smiles. But it’s a much bigger dream than Chandrapur.
And the change is courtesy a new engineering college that has come up on the border with Gadchiroli, a tribal area where even secondary schools are a rarity. As classes at the Namdeorao Poreddywar College of Engineering and Technology began, the dreams followed.
Shivdas, now doing a degree in electronic engineering, is the first member of his 3,000-strong clan to go to a professional college.
“As you can see, this is not a money-making venture for us,” says Arvind Poreddywar, founder of the college. “Rather, it is the realisation of the dreams of my late father, who dedicated his life to the empowerment of tribals.”
Poreddywar’s late father Namdeorao was a philanthropist and former Member of Parliament from Chandrapur.
In keeping with his life’s work in the region, the fees at the college are minimal — Rs 5,000 per year and an additional Rs 2,000 deposit that is refunded at the end of the course.
On offer are degrees in civil, electrical, computer and electronic engineering, and telecommunication.
“Seventy per cent of our students are tribals,” says Poreddywar. “We would like that to be 100 per cent.”
“This is a classic example of a private effort doing in a neglected region what the government should have done decades ago,” says Faheem Khan, district bureau chief of Hindi daily Lokmat.
Rather unexpectedly, the college is tapping into hidden aspirations.
“I wanted to get a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering,” says Watti. “But there was no professional college in the district and I couldn’t afford the one beyond. I had resigned myself to being a peasant,”
The college authorities haven’t just lowered the fees and picked an area in need. They’re also going door to door, rounding up youngsters eligible for their courses.
“They [college authorities] came to my house and took me back to the college to sign up,” says Shivdas, who scored 63 per cent in his Class 12 exam.
Shivdas still works in the fields for a few hours a day.
“I love farming. After all, we are farmers,” he says. “But the money raised by selling rice and vegetables will help me finish my studies and find a good job.”