This is a school where panthers visit…occasionally

It was a burning hot October morning, when I decided to visit Seva Mandir’s education-related projects. After driving over an hour out of the main city of Udaipur, we trekked up (and down) the hills till we reached one of their pre-school centers. “You see this stream here? When the rains are heavy, it overflows. Those days, we are not able to visit the center,” said Atul from their team.

It was for this same reason that the center that we visited was located on the inner side of the bridge. The outer side already had a Government aanganwadi. This ensured that children on either side could attend school no matter how heavily it rained. In fact, all of Seva Mandir’s pre-school centres have been setup in areas where government aanganwadis are far off (at least 1.5 to 2 kilometers away).

As I entered the balwadi (which is run out of a villager’s house, for convenience and lack of any other option), I got the same reaction I usually get from toddlers in rural setups – tears; at seeing a stranger like me. Given the distances Seva Mandir’s schools are located at, it’s obviously not common to have someone like me, in volunteering or any other capacity, visit. Run from 9am-4pm, I learnt that this balwadi had been set up after parents in the area requested for the same. Most parents, being daily wage earners, wanted the balwadi so that they could go to work without worry. This made me wonder about the process followed when setting up their centers – were all centers a direct result of peoples’ request?

Our discussion made me realise that Seva Mandir’s approach is extremely participatory in nature. In fact, that’s the model that the founder had envisioned when he set up Seva Mandir back in the 1930s.

It all starts at the Gram Vikas Committee (GVC), which is a group in which every citizen of the village is a member. GVCs have been set up in every village Seva Mandir works in. They meet regularly to discuss problems facing them, find possible solutions and undertake these solutions themselves or through external institutions. By giving the communities the opportunity to work collectively and democratically, the program and the process engender positive forces of cooperation, transparency, fairness, justice and responsible autonomy. 700 villages are covered under Seva Mandir’s projects.

So, at a GVC meeting, when the request for the balwadi came in, the community approached Seva Mandir. In accordance with their participatory model, Seva Mandir, thereafter, conducted a community meeting, wherein, they held a detailed discussion on how a pre-school centre functions, what the roles and responsibilities of the community would be etc. As the community was cooperative, Seva Mandir went ahead with the opening of a pre-school centre in the area.

Seva Mandir’s expertise is used in setting up the schedule to be followed at the balwadi too; as well as its supervision going forward. So, the activities timetable comprises of those that will help in cognitive development of the children and give them a good foundation for school, going forward. Meals are given three times a day (dry snack in the morning and the evening, wet meal at lunchtime) and changes made in the diet if results of the growth monitoring exercise (done every six months along with de-worming ) is poor.

I appreciated that Seva Mandir’s balwadis take on an overall development role. Parents are counselled on feeding their children correctly; for example, adding extra oil to the food or giving the children a teaspoon of iron syrup after dinner. The balwadi teacher is also in charge of educating parents about vaccinations their children should take. During my visit, they also showed me a small, medical box that’s kept at each of their balwadis – it consists of iron tonic, tonic for fever/coughs/colds, vitamin A capsules, eye drops and other basic first aid components).

I also appreciated the fact that a token fee of Rs.150 for the year is taken from parents. While this only partially helps meet costs of running the balwadi, the purpose is for parents to value the service being rendered by Seva Mandir (in running the balwadi). Once in three months, through a parent-teacher meeting, they are apprised of their child’s growth/development.

But what impressed me the most is the camera monitoring system that Seva Mandir has put in place here. Even if distances to the school weren’t so large, it’s not practical to have someone check on the teachers everyday. So using the camera provided by Seva Mandir, teachers need to take a photo, of the balwadi in progress, three times a day. The camera’s software automatically transfers the photograph back to the Seva Mandir team -the photo has to be sent; further, fudging the date in the software is not easy – so something the teachers will just not manage to do. Even if a teacher forgets to take a photo thrice a day, she is penalised monetarily for that day of work.

As we left (to children who happily waved us goodbye), I couldn’t help but wonder about what it would take for a knowledge exchange to happen between successful organisations like Seva Mandir and the government. But I left those thoughts for another day as we began our journey to their non-formal education center. It was noon by now and the sun was much harsher, which made the otherwise 10 minute walk from the car to the school, seem like a never-ending trek. As we made our way to the back of a class in progress, Atul whispered to me, “We brought you to this school because it’s the safest. The other schools are further out and sometimes panthers have ventured into those buildings.” “Well, thank you for that,” I thought as my eyes nearly popped out at the thought of a panther lurking around!

Seva Mandir’s non-formal education centers serve children in the age group of 6-14 years. Given the location, I wasn’t surprised to learn that most belong to tribal/adivasi families. They live in a radius of 3.5 kms around the school, and given the hilly terrain, walk to school and back. Yes, that is quite a distance but the Seva Mandir center is by far the most conveniently located. The next best alternative is a Government school, which is over 5 kms away.

Sitting at the back of the classroom, I noticed that some children were much taller than the others. Atul then told me that children are grouped as per aptitude (not age) to form classes. Groups A,B and C are then regrouped at the end of the year, when aptitude is judged, through exams/tests. An interesting exercise, to identify the letters ‘M’ and ‘N’ in words – was going on when I entered. The teacher kept writing words on the board and children were being called up to identify those letters in the words, if present. Like this, all learning that happens is activity-based.

Pleased to see children in such distance places getting access to a education, that too one of respectable standards, I decided to wrap up for the day. On the way back, we stopped at the Mohan Sinha Mehta Rural Training Center in Kaya village, 30 kms from Udaipur, to eat the packed lunch that we had carried for the journey.

The next day, as I briefed their CEO, Priyanka Singh, of the visit the day before, she said, “Oh, you went to the Kaya and Gareta center, that’s just a hop, skip and jump away.” And in response to my comment about the heat, all she had to say was, “It is lucky that you visited us now and not in May.” The distances, terrain and weather make Seva Mandir’s work quite challenging and I was really pleased to see the organisation carry it off with such grit and determination.

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