Sunday, December 23, 2012

Of James Princep and Ashoka

Princep's Ghat, Kolkata
Overshadowed by the Vidyasagar Sethu, often referred to as "the second Howrah Bridge", stands a curious Palladian-style structure made up of a number of classical columns supporting a flat roof. During my visit to Kolkata in October, I'd spent many days travelling to and fro from Behala to Ballygunge. Every time I would go past this structure, now known as the Princep's Ghat, I would wonder who James Princep was. I never looked him up on Google and had quite forgotten about him till I ended up with Charles Allen's book, Ashoka. Through this book I learnt that Princep was the Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and was one of the key people responsible for unearthing and documenting India's ancient Buddhist past. He was also the man who deciphered the Brahmi script in which was written the Magadhan Prakrit, which was the lingua franca of Ashoka's kingdom, Magadha, 2000 years ago. Though largely academic, Allen's book throws light on how archaeological findings across a large area (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan and Afghanistan) are pieced together to form histories of man and mankind. Once the jigsaws are in place, the puzzle seems like a narrative. Celebrating the works of orientalists such as Brian Hodgson, James Princep and Alexander Cunningham among others, Ashoka is a book for those who relish India's antiquity.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Getting into the Christmas mood!

I love Christmas! Having studied in a Protestant Christian school in Pune for eight years and a Jesuit college in Mumbai for another three, Christmas has been a major part of my life. And it's not just about Santa. I miss the carol-singing and baking contests people had in school and college. I miss the sweetmeats and delicacies, the talk of mistletoe and vine. Vadodara does not celebrate Christmas much. There are few churches and their congregations are sparse. So, to humour myself, I browsed through Youtube for some videos of Carols. And this one is my favourite.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

10 documents I created, edited and designed for UNICEF Gujarat now in print!

My six-month stint as Documentation Consultant with a development consulting agency gave me the opportunity to work closely with UNICEF and the Government of Gujarat's Directorate of Primary Education. For them, I wrote, edited and designed these 10 documents: Success Stories in Education Gujarat 2012, Success Stories in Early Childhood Education Gujarat 2012, Gunotsav Gujarat Initiative, Pragna Activity Based Learning brochure and report, ADEPTS aka Advancement of Educational Performance through Teacher Support's brochure and report, School Enrollment Drive Gujarat 2012, Head Teachers' Recruitment Gujarat 2012 and Integrated Remedial Teaching. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Yi's Anganwadi visit

CII's youth wing, Yi Vadodara organised a visit to the anganwadis at Akota and Tandalja to distribute bananas and juice tertapaks among the children. Akota's is the smallest anganwadi I've seen. 35 children were crammed into a single approx 9ft x 9ft room. The kids hardly had place to move their limbs, let alone play with toys. Tandalja's was a happier place, where the kids were busy colouring in UNICEF-sponsored books. The anganwadi walls are papered with posters, activity charts and pictures and decorations hang from the celing. I love what Tahiraben, the anganwadi worker (pink saree) has done to the place.

Kids crowd the doorway of the Akota anganwadi

A banana a day...

Yi members distributing tetrapaks of juice

Striking a pose!

The approach road to the Akota anganwadi

A little girl scowls at us at Tandalja anganwadi

Tahiraben, the anganwadi worker in the pink saree, helps the children  with their colouring activities

The walls have been papered with posters and decorations hang from the ceiling

A neighbour helps out with the children

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making a difference

In spite of the many challenges they face, a KGBV in the remote Bordha village in Vadodara district has helped many tribal girls by giving them access to education

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan

The drone of 25-odd girls reciting Math multiplication tables rises above the smoke from a kitchen woodfire that fills a classroom in the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) near Bordha village (82.7 km from Vadodara city). They stop their lessons to welcome the visitors.

Cooking makai rotlas (flatbread made of corn) on woodfires in the KGBV's kitchen

At this remote residential school for tribal girls in Pavi Jetpur taluka visitors are few. “During the monsoon, the roads turn into streams. Few people can make it this far,” says Sonalben Savlaben Damo as she enters the tiny ‘office’ which has a table, a few chairs, a cupboard full of books and charts and walls which are adorned with the students’ art and craft works. Damo, who is a native of neighboring Dahod district, has been heading the team of seven teachers here since 2009. The KGBV at Bordha was opened in December 2008 by Mahila Samakhya, a welfare organization for girls’ education.

The KGBV scheme

The KGBV is so remote, it takes 3.5 hours from Vadodara city to get there

Launched in July 2004 by the Government of India, KGBV is a scheme for setting up residential schools at the upper primary level for girls belonging predominantly to the Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBC) and minority communities. The scheme is being implemented in educationally backward blocks of the country where the female rural literacy is below the national average (65.46 per cent as per Census 2011) and the gender gap in literacy is above the national average (16.68 percentage points as per Census 2011). The scheme provides for a minimum reservation of 75 per cent of the seats for girls belonging to SC, ST, SEBC or minority communities and priority for the remaining 25 per cent, is given to girls from families below poverty line.

Bringing out-of-school girls into schooling

Nearly all the girls belong to the orthodox Rathwa community

“In 2009, there were 66 girls from this area who were studying at this KGBV. Now, we have 116, of which 115 belong to the conservative Rathwa tribe. Just the fact that there is a KGBV here has given many out-of-school children the opportunity to go to school,” says Damo, holds a Bachelor’s degree in Home Science from Vallabh Vidyanagar. The girls study in Standards V to VIII and are between 10-14 years of age. Before the KGBV was set up, many of them had been forced to work as migrant laborers in farms to supplement their families’ incomes. “My parents work in farms. Whenever they would find some work, they would make me leave school and take me along to labor too. Then, when this KGBV opened, they decided to put me here so that I could continue my education while they would work in Kutch,” says 14-year-old Kajal Rathwa who studies in Standard VII. 

Blending activity with learning

With the help of teaching learning materials, the seven balmitra (including one who is physically disabled) conduct four classes in the three classrooms and the small hallway. Each class has about 25 students. They teach the girls Mathematics, Gujarati, English, Hindi, Science, Social Sciences and vocational crafts such as bead-work. The children find Mathematics particularly difficult. “To help them understand the subject, we teach them addition and subtraction with the help of stones and matchsticks,” notes Dharmishtha Rathwa, a 21-year-old balmitra. The children also perform action songs and dramas during special days and festivals. 
The teachers, most of them in their 20s, attend refresher training programs organized by the Mahila Samakhya every month. They keep the children’s portfolios and show them to the parents during the monthly parent meetings, which, encouragingly, nearly 50 per cent of the students’ parents attend. 

Monitoring the girls’ health

The children learn Math, Gujarati, English, Hindi, Science and Social Sciences

The Mahila Samakhya arranges for health camps for the girls every three months. Their weights, heights and nutrition are monitored. Girls are also screened for sickle cell anemia, which is prevalent among these tribal populations. The KGBV also stocks medicines and first-aid tools. Healthcare facilities are few though. For medical emergencies, the staff have to go to the hospital at Kalarani, a few kilometers away. Damo says  that they rely a lot on the state’s 108 ambulance service in this remote area. 

Cramped for space?

The teachers, like the students, stay in the classrooms — their things distributed among the trunks which line the wall under the bunk beds. Additional rooms are needed, says Damo. “The new building has been under construction for two years now and is not going to be finished anytime soon,” she complains. Whenever it will be completed, the KGBV will have two more classrooms and two more rooms they can use for living in. Right now, the 120-odd people residing there have to divide their time and water use efficiently when they use the four toilets. 

Logistical issues

Water too is scarce in the tribal clusters of Pavi Jetpur. “The borewell is not clean. We have an immersible motor in the other well. But we get water only we have electricity,” says Damo adding that they are forced to shell out Rs 300 for each tanker almost every other day. 

The smoke emanates from a woodfire, as a couple of women bake huge makai (corn) rotlas (flatbread) in the enclosed kitchen-cum-storage space adjacent to a classroom. The shelves are lined with grain and pulses, which come every fortnight. The gas cylinders however remain unused. “Having never cooked on gas before, we fear that they may leak or explode,” says Damo sheepishly.

Even with a broken compound wall and not-so-friendly interiors, the KGBV beckons the girls towards a brighter future, especially those who have not previously had access to education. Instead of marrying off their pre-teen girls or forcing them to become laborers, more tribals are now getting them admitted in this residential school. The change is small but significant. 

There are four KGBVs in Vadodara district — at Mogra village in Kawant, Panchamba village in Naswadi, Bordha in Pavi Jetpur and Jojh in Chhota Udepur. The creation of more such institutions, while keeping in mind the logistical disadvantages such schools are faced with and tackling those issues head-on, may help change the mindset and attitudes of girls who would otherwise be pushed into child labor or married off early.

Monday, December 3, 2012

When the class becomes a stage

Actor Swaroop Sampat Rawal conducted a workshop on Life Skills for KGBV students and teachers in Vadodara

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan

A group of 30 adolescent girls stand in the formation of a circle in the middle of a large conference hall at the Lords Inn Revival Hotel in Vadodara. In the centre a few girls pose as statues - a dog, a bent old woman, a truck and a salesman. There's a clap and they all change their postures. "Good!" All heads in the circle turn to the tall figure of Swaroop Sampat Rawal, the 53-year-old film and theatre actor who walks to towards the still figures.

It's a six-day Life Skills' Workshop and Rawal, who holds a PhD in Education, is teaching the children from the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) from all over Gujarat and the eight teachers who have accompanied them, the importance of enacting plays in the classroom. "It will help you memorize a story and enhance your creativity and imagination," she tells them. The children agree and jump with excitement, when Rawal announces that they will play the "wink-and-you-die" detective game, Killer, next. 

"We never thought we could do so much with a simple story - make statues, create masks or even draw out the whole story," says Bhavisha Govindbhai Makhansha, a 22-year-old teacher from Arambha KGBV in Dwarka Taluka in Jamnagar district. Before she had come here, Makhansha's idea of a training program was taking down copious notes on KGBV rules, making charts and creating/answering questionnaires. "This is the first time I've attended a workshop where I have explored my creativity and imagination through actvities. I do want to come back for another one," she pleads. 

Sonal Masribhai Mariya, a 14-year-old, who studies in Standard VIII at Bhatia KGBV, Kalyanpur, Jamnagar, echoes her teacher's sentiments. "I did not even know what emotions (bhavana) or communication (pratyay) were before I had come here. This workshop has introduced to me such concepts which will help me lead a better life. What I liked the most about this is that I have now got into a habit of writing a diary. I never knew I could record and reflect my thoughts in this way."   

Nita Galchand, who studies in Standard VII at the Jhalela KGBV in Ahmedabad, has developed the confidence to even face the camera when a TV crew drops in to cover the workshop. Nita, who earlier labored in the farms with her parents, joined the KGBV a year ago. "I have never been to a city before. I love it here - the training, the hotel and all the people I get to meet. I now want to learn English, the way city people speak it," she declares.  

For 25-year-old Krupa Dasratbhai Patel, a teacher at a KGBV in Dahod, this workshop with students has been a better learning experience than the one she participated in with other teachers the week before. "Though many of the activities which Rawal conducted were the same with both the groups, I could open up much more this time because I knew I would not be judged by the others. I also learnt a lot about how children react to each other and us in different situations. I want to go back to my KGBV and share all the games and activities I learnt here with the other teachers. Then, we can introduce the activities to the 102 students. I am sure the children will open up much more if we introduce statues and games," she notes. This training has also helped the teachers come together to share their views on KGBVs' activities and rules. "We lead a difficult life. It's a 24-hour job - taking care of the girls and looking after the KGBV itself. Most teachers are in their 20s. I think we need at least one middle-aged teacher who could be a mother-figure to the girls," she suggests, when asked what would help to improve the conditions of a KGBV.

During the six-day workshop, which has been hosted by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and funded and facilitated by UNICEF, the group will learn about:
  • Understanding emotions
  • Understanding self
  • Effective communication
  • Empathy
  • Decision-making

Aarti Prajapati, the Officer-in-Charge for Gender at SSA in Vadodara says the aim of this workshop is to give these girls an exposure to this kind of training. "Most of these girls were out of school children who now live in these residential schools, the KGBVs. Many of them come from poor financial backgrounds and have had little or no exposure to the outside world. Some were even forced to work as child laborers before they joined the KGBVs." The workshop, she says will enable them to learn more about the outside world. "Nearly 70 per cent of them have never been to a city before so we had to actually tell them a little about how they should behave in a city like this and in a hotel of this size," she adds. "The girls are getting on well," adds Dhruti Mankodi, District Education and Early Childhood Education (ECE) Consultant. "They've become more confident and are willing to share their thoughts and ideas with each other and even their teachers." 

While the children enjoy participating in the activities, a couple of teachers however feel as if they've been left out. "I liked it only about 75 per cent because the activities and games were mainly focused on the children," says Neelam Sosa, the 23-year-old principal of Veraval's KGBV in Junagadh district. "However, I did learn that though what we have been doing at our KGBVs was not wrong, we could do things more differently to make the atmosphere better for learning," she adds. 

"While the focus is mainly children, the teachers are expected to participate in all the activities during this workshop so that they can understand the importance of communication in the classroom," says Rawal. "You cannot teach Child Rights through a lecture. Through drama in a classroom, you can learn about even complex subjects such as democracy and citizenship. We have to change the quality of education," she says. Workshops such as this one will help change the way teachers and students think of it, for sure.    

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Getting parents to be creative

Drawing, dancing and demonstration of the ECE kit were part of the celebrations of the Global Action Week for Education 2012 in Mankodi village in Kawant

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Early Childhood Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF, Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and GCERT

A group of children scramble on the floor of the anganwadi at Mankodi village for a new set of crayons. A boy picks up a red crayon and on a piece of chart paper, draws a boat with a flag, one that he must not have seen in this interior, underdeveloped region of Kawant in Vadodara district. It’s a busy day at the anganwadi. But in spite of the din around, he doesn’t look up till he has finished drawing. The other children around him lack that concentration. They keep looking out for their parents who have assembled to participate in the celebrations for the Global Action Week for Education 2012. This year's theme is Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) and the slogan is, “Rights from the start: Early Childhood Care and Education Now!”

While the anganwadi’s helper Ramilaben Rathwa tries hard to maintain decorum inside the center, Kapilaben Rathwa, the anganwadi worker, joins the 300-odd villagers who have gathered there to welcome the State ECCE Consultant, Dr Jigisha Shastri and the District Education and ECCE Consultant Dhruti Mankodi. The mood is that of a wedding's. Young girls perform Timli, the folk-dance of the Rathwa community. Kapilaben sings for the villagers and men sway to the beat of traditional drums. The music gradually fades away. Jayantibhai Vankar, Block and Cluster Coordinator of Baroda Citizens Council (BCC) (which is UNICEF's partner NGO in the area), tells the villagers about ECE and why pre-primary education is necessary. "If your children go to the anganwadi before they go to a primary school, they will be able to grow and develop better," he tells them.

Parents turn puppeteers

The villagers look on curiously as Dhruti Mankodi opens the UNICEF-sponsored ECE kit. She picks thepuppet of a parrot,gloves it and shows them how it can be used to narrate stories. Then she asks them to do the same. Since the villagers have never seen a hand puppet before, they shy away. Finally, one man takes the bait. He gloves it much to the amusement of his fellow audience members. Encouraged by the consultants and BCC members, he manipulates the puppet. Now, the rest of the men want puppets too."Look, if you have so much fun with them, imagine how much more fun it would be for your children. You must send your children to the anganwadi so that they can play with the puppets," Mankodi tells the villagers. They all nod in response.

Artistic delight

It’s time for the parents to dosome drawing as well. Boxes of crayons and sheets of chart paper are passed around. “How many of you have ever done any kind of drawing?”Devdoot Rajguru, a sculptor from Bhavnagar and a Fine Arts’ alumnus from M S University of Vadodara, asks the villagers. They shake their heads. "Here's your chance to do something that you don't do everyday. Draw, color, paint – do whatever you want," he urges them. The men start off gingerly while the women stare in silence. A man picks a blue crayon and starts drawing a parrot. Another dips his index finger into a vessel containing geru (red clay) and draws the picture of a bird. The women take the cue. One of them writes the name of the village in Gujarati with geru. The younger ones draw flowers with crayons. A group of teenage boys jointly create a scenery — hills, trees and jeeps.

Good community participation

“The villagers take great pride in participating in this parent meeting,” says the village’s sarpanch Ashokbhai Rathwa. “It’s different now. Parents come for meetings regularly,” says Kapilaben, who not-so-long ago had to persuade parents to send their children to the sarpanch’s house so that she could teach them something. Her 25 years as an anganwadi worker have been full of challenges. Yet, she has soldiered on. “It’s for the betterment of our children,” she says, adding that now at least 33 children come to the anganwadi regularly.

Steps towards a brighter future

The idea of getting the parents to do some activities as part of the celebrations is to sensitize them towards ECE in particular and education in general. Kawant is one of the most impoverished regions in the state. Repeated efforts by NGOs in the field of education have often been thwarted off by the strict orthodoxy of the Rathwa community that is native to this region. Since there are missionaries in the area, the members of the community have,for years, shunned education fearing religious conversion.

Over the past three years, members and volunteers of BCC from the block have slowly and consistently tried to persuade villagers to send their children to schools and 241 anganwadis there. And in April 2012, out of the 742 out-of-school children (children who have either never been enrolled into school or have dropped out of school), 120 were enrolled into some of the 218 primary schools in the block, notes Vankar. Getting members of the community to participate in the process of dissemination of education has meant that the girls also now have a chance to learn and grow. In Mankodi village itself, two teenaged girls have already started teaching six others who have never been schooled before. These small efforts will go a long way in developing the communities and the region.