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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A school camp that’s home

Banaskantha’s first rural residential school camp is changing the lives of children of migrant salt pan workers

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

The salt pans, about 8 km from Boru
At the tiny village of Boru in Vav block of Banaskantha, about 25 km from the Indo-Pak border, a small residential camp for 25 children of migrant salt workers in a primary school has not only  prevented them from giving up on education altogether but is also bringing about subtle changes in the social fabric of the village.

Not worth its salt

For many years, the children, mainly from the Bakshi Panch communities, have had to leave school in the middle of the term in November to accompany their parents to the salt pans that are spread over 20 square-kilometers of the Rann (the salt marsh on the fringes of the Gulf of Kutch) 8 km away. The saline groundwater is pumped out from a depth of 50 feet and collected into huge troughs. The water is left to evaporate for a period of six months, during which it needs to be continuously mixed and ‘combed’ for the salt to crystallize. It is this process that requires intense labor. The larger the size of the crystals, the better the salt tastes. At the end of six months, the huge agglomerates of salt are hand-picked by workers into steel trays and then loaded into trucks which take them for further processing to the factories in Ahmedabad. 

That's the only shelter in the 10 sq km stretch

The 2000-odd workers from 10 neighboring villages work from dawn till dusk. The salt seeps into their bodies, causing them skin, kidney and respiratory diseases. Left with little choice or entertainment, the children of these workers were also enrolled into this activity for a paltry sum of Rs 20 a day. Their parents earn about Rs 100 a day, much more than what their water-scarce farms yield. 

Salts seeps into the bodies of the workers causing them skin, kidney and respiratory diseases

Setting up the residential camp

It was Satish Desai, the pro-active headmaster of Boru Prathmik Shala, who came up with the idea of setting up a nivasi (residential) camp for such children, who tend to be very irregular at school and may, at a later stage, even drop out of school. With the help of District Education and Early Childhood Education (ECE) Consultant, Hetal K Patel, Desai approached members of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission (SSAM). The provisions of the Right to Education Act 2010 reach out to each and every child to bring him/her into education’s fold. This formed the basis for setting up the residential camp.

Then there was the issue of getting villagers to send their children to the camp. “The main problem here is that there never has been any inclination of parents towards education,” says Desai, adding, “The caste system is very rigid. Parents did not want to send their children to a school where they would stay with children from other castes. I had to meet them many times and then slowly managed to convince them to send their children here.”

Satish Desai (left), the headmaster of the Boru Prathmik Shala speaks to the salt pan workers

The camp was finally set up on the premises of Boru Prathmik Shala in January 1, 2012. It enrolls children in classes from I to VII. Gangaram Jhakesara, the balmitra (teacher), has been appointed by the School Management Committee (SMC). Jhakesara, 22, is among the very few people in the village who has studied till Standard XII and is armed with a Primary Teacher Certificate.  He stays at the camp with all the 19 boys out of the 25 children who come here to study. The six girls spend most of their daylight hours here and then retire to their homes once their parents come back from the salt works at sundown.

“Feels better than home”

The children start their day at 6 am. They get up, brush their teeth, bathe and then dig into some breakfast that could be mamra (puffed rice), papadi (flatbread) or shakarpada (a kind of a sweetmeat). Then they begin their lessons for their respective classes in Arithmetic, Gujarati, Hindi and a little bit of English.  Urmila Solanki, who teaches Hindi at Boru Prathmik Shala says that it is important for the children to learn Hindi and English so that they can interact with people from outside the village, should they ever have to go out for their studies. The balmitra also teaches the children how to paint, work with clay, make models out of cardboard and study maps. The children break for their midday meals of rotlas (flatbreads made of bajra) and vegetables cooked over firewood in the neat kitchen. Post-lunch, they spend their time playing with bats and balls that they have neatly packed into their trunks, reading storybooks, singing bal geet (children’s songs) or garba (much to the delight of the girls), or simply chatting. It’s time to get back to the studies in the evening before they once again break for dinner and finally retire to bed at 10 pm. 

Children at the residential camp in the Prathmik Shala

“I like staying here because I have so many friends,” says 12-year-old Mukesh Parmar, who does not want to go back to his parents house. Mukesh’s father, Amrabhai Parmar, who works at the salt pans, says, “I am happy my son is studying in the sixth standard. He now has a safe place for play and tuition while I work through these months.” 

When Right to Education Consultant, Dr Ankita Sharma, asked the children about the qualities they liked in their best friends here, many said that they liked the fact that they did not use swear words and were great company. When she asked the children about what they did not like about the camp, most of them said that they could think of nothing. One boy, however, noted that he could live without the lice he had contracted from his fellow students!

The balmitra dutifully maintains a timetable for the classes and a register of the students’ works and activities. Teaching has been a fulfilling experience for him. Having studied at the Boru Prathmik Shala, Jhakesara points out that he is the only one from his batch of 40 students, who is still pursuing his studies. “All I want to do is to give these children a chance to study and become better people. Already, they have become more cultured. They say ‘Jai Mata Di’ or ‘Namaskar’ whenever they meet anyone.” 

“We need a lady teacher”

The social codes of the orthodox Rabari and Thakore communities do not encourage any kind of mingling between the genders in public spaces. The girls at the camp sit separately from the boys and do not play or even talk to them. They say one of the things the camp lacks is a lady helper or balmitra. Since most able-bodied married women either accompany their husbands to the salt pans or work in the fields nearby, the SMC still has not managed to find one to look after the girls. Also, according to the SSAM’s rules, the balmitra should be literate. However, Desai says that they haven’t found any literate women in the village. Therefore, though many of the girls want to stay at the camp at night they cannot because there is no lady balmitra.

The need for a female balmitra grows stronger as more and more parents want to enroll their children into the camp. It also spells the need for a separate space for the girls who want to stay here. Right now, the camp has room for only 25-odd children. The boys’ trunks line the shelves of two of the walls of the room. “I now have 50-odd children wanting to come here but we just don’t have the place to accommodate them all,” says Desai.

Changing social attitudes

The residential camp has changed the people’s attitudes towards education not just in this village but in Jhaloya 10 km away. Dhuriben Rabari, who works on the salt pans, says, “We are illiterate women and hence we cannot find any other job. We work from dawn to dusk, even on Sundays and public holidays to make whatever little money we can make. Had we studied, we would have looked for other, more comfortable jobs.” She goes on to request the District Education and ECE Consultant to open another camp like Boru’s in her village so that she does not have to keep worrying about what her children are doing 
while she is working.

Education has helped boost the children's confidence levels

Boru’s School Management Committee member, Shundabhai Thakore, strongly believes that the residential camp is the best thing that has happened to the village in recent times. “The children of our village have become more confident and are able to express themselves freely because of the education they have got. I am illiterate and I have had to stay in this village all my life. I  really wish that our future generations get a chance to study and go out of this village for good jobs,” he says. 

The enthusiasm of the students to learn, especially those of the girls, has rubbed off on balmitra Jhakesara, who married recently. The 22-year-old now wants his wife, who has studied till Standard VIII, to finish high school. “She can then become a lady balmitra,” he suggests. 

Bringing education to children

The success of the residential camp is an example of how hard work and dedication can help bring down the number of children who have dropped out of school or have never been enrolled into one, especially in Banaskantha, which has 5923 out-of-school children as per the SSAM report on Alternative and Innovative Education 2011-12. Vav shows much progress in this regard, Block Resource Coordinator, Hansmukh Trivedi notes, adding that many of the out-of-school children in the block have been enrolled into 10- to 20-month special training programs. These small steps will help them integrate into mainstream schools and give them the opportunity to look forward to a brighter future.  

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