Fighting poverty by taking the reigns on development

I left home after my Sunday afternoon cup of tea and headed to Mumbai’s CST station, to catch yet another train. This time to Nanded – a city located in eastern Maharashtra. When you get off the train the next day at 5am, no matter how groggy you are, you realise what this place is famous for. From the number of Sikh families around and the Gurudwara-style architecture of the station, it’s easy to tell that Nanded holds great historical significance for the Sikhs.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth spiritual leader of the Sikhs, had come to Nanded in 1708. It is here that he proclaimed himself the last living Guru and established the Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of Sikhism, elevating the reverence of the text to that of a living leader. Around 1835, MaharajaRanjit Singh’s oversaw the construction of a gurudwara at Nanded. Located at the site of Guru Gobind Singh’s cremation, the gurudwara is part of the Hazur Sahib.

But it wasn’t the Gurudwara that had brought me to Nanded. I was on a trip to visit the nonprofit organisation Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal. Based close to the Andhra Pradesh-Maharashtra border, in the district of Sagroli, a two hour drive from Nanded station, Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal is the district’s largest nonprofit. The drive from the station to Sagroli gives you a good taste of rural India. Driving past soybean, maize and rice fields was really a Monday morning spent like no other!

After a quick freshening up and breakfast at the NGO’s guesthouse, I was ready to explore their massive campus. Interestingly, when Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal was set up in 1959, it comprised of a single, small school. Today, its activities are offered on a 200 acre development hub! Further, the focus of its activities has always been on deprived rural communities, especially women and girls.

Our first stop was to their Anand Balgram or Children’s Village. This comprises of 12 homes, each of which houses 8-10 orphaned children and a lady, who takes care of them, thus becoming their house “mother”. Interestingly, the housemother we met had lost her husband. So finding a family through Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal had given her grounding too. Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal facilitates education from the pre-school to the pre-university level on their campus for 4,000 students. They even provide hostel facilities to half of these kids, making theirs one of the largest rural residential schools in the country.

I was happy to see that the library was well-stocked and that science was taught through practicals in laboratories too. In fact, there’s even a unit, which was set up way back in 1983, that educates physically challenged students, especially the deaf and mute. When I saw these facilities, it was hard to believe that I was in a “rural” school – and I was glad for that. Because if you think about it, in a rural setup, the role of “practical science”, for example, is enhanced – as childrens’ reading skills are quite poor and so they are unable to learn just by reading.

But when I spoke to the headmaster of the middle school, I realized that Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal faces the regular challenges of a rural school. He said, “Most parents don’t understand the value of education. All they want is that their children get good jobs once they complete studying. But that doesn’t happen for every child; which gets them disheartened. The real purpose of education is to inculcate values, give children a childhood, help them mature into contributing members of society etc. Inculcating the real value of education, thus motivating them to send their kids to school is a real challenge.”

Our visit schedule seemed to trace a student’s life at Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal. As after the different schools, we stopped by at the Utkarsh Vocational Training Center. A follow-up survey conducted by Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal on the occasion of its golden jubilee in 2009, revealed that, hardly 10-15% of their students opt for higher education. The remaining 85-90% discontinue their education due to various reasons like their poor economic condition or a lack of motivation and proper guidance. The survey also revealed that since this young force have no life skills, they spend the prime of their life doing odd jobs. Many of them eventually end up as farm labourers. With an objective to change the grave situation and to compliment formal education with need based technical and vocational courses, Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal initiated this vocational training centre.

Currently, five short term vocational courses – Assistant Nursing, Tailoring, Police and Defence pre-selection Training, Wireman and Motor Rewinding and plumbing facilitate training for about 250 youth every year. Besides imparting training in technical skills, the centre also provides basic computer education, English communication skills, values education, exposure visits, visits of experts for special guidance and linkages with industries for placement. The future plan is to initiate a few more need based courses so as to equip 600 youth with technical/vocational skills. The proposed courses include beautician, food processing, masonry and agriculture stream.

But it was seeing the ‘Sagroli Sunrise’ team in action, ironically at sunset, that was truly the highlight of the day. Started in 2004, Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal identifies 50 young high-potential athletes from Sagroli and other villages in the area, and gives them rigorous training. From a special trainer to a special diet and food supplements, these youths are given intensive training, to help them qualify for the National games. The eventual aim is for them to qualify for the Asian/Olympic Games. As I learnt, these children, who are between 10-20 years old, have already participated and done well in a bunch of national and international marathons.

Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal’s vision is to have an educated, cultured, vigilant and prosperous rural community. Which is why their work extends way beyond the classroom. From women empowerment, to watershed development, to afforestation activities, to housing and community health and sanitation, Sanskruti Samwardhan Mandal’s activities cover a whole host of developmental gaps.

I came away thinking that Nanded needs to be put on the map for another reason – for how the people of one of its districts (i.e. Sagroli) are fighting poverty on their own by taking the reigns on development!

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