It is a rather unusual chain of events that have brought me, a Bengali from Jharkhand who had so far been working in branches of the State Bank of India in various parts of Karnataka, to Gram Vikas High School in Kankia, a small village in Ganjam district, Odisha. It all started with my fascination for the Youth for India Fellowship, an initiative which was started around the same time that I joined State Bank of India as a probationary officer.
Youth for India Fellowship is a 13-month programme sponsored by the State Bank of India to provide an opportunity to young and educated Indians to work with rural communities. It is a unique programme; applications are welcome from both within and outside the bank, and criteria for selection are uniformly applied to all. While a maximum of 100 fellows can be selected per year, no more than 10% can be serving officers of the bank. Upon selection, officers are considered to be on deputation for the period of the Fellowship, and during this period they are treated at par with other fellows who were not part of State Bank of India, to begin with.
Over the course of 13 months, fellows are initially exposed to the activities and areas of focus of the partner NGO they are attached to, and then they are expected to identify and fill a gap which suits their skills and area of interest. Tangible deliverables must be identified and progress monitored. The Fellowship is not considered complete unless, at the end of 13 months, the NGO certifies that the project has been completed as per plan.
After missing the deadline to apply an inexplicable number of times, I managed to do it right this year and was fortunate enough to get selected for the Fellowship. I was chosen for the NGO Gram Vikas in Odisha, which was recently ranked 23rd among the Top 500 NGOs across the world by NGO Advisor, a Geneva-based independent media organisation.
Gram Vikas is founded on the idea of human dignity. With this simple, powerful and deeply emotional idea, it works in six major areas – water and sanitation, education, renewable energy, social housing, livelihood and community health . As Joe Madiath, who came to Odisha as a volunteer in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone in the early 1970s and founded the organization in 1979, said to us during our orientation with the NGO, Gram Vikas is all about breaking out of the trap of thinking that poor people deserve poor solutions, and providing long-term, sustainable solutions and means of improvement of lives. The first and non-negotiable precondition of any intervention of Gram Vikas in a village, therefore, is 100% inclusion of all households of that village, irrespective of caste, religion, status or any other divisive factor. In the thousands of villages that Gram Vikas is working, every single person in the village is involved in the work.
It was almost inevitable that I would choose Gram Vikas High School, Kankia, as my project location. My area of interest lies is in working with senior classes, particularly in terms of helping them get ready for the world outside school. Our current system of school education, unfortunately, continues to place emphasis on the kind of education that has little practical value outside the school examination system. This is why the system continues to produce educated and unemployed (and at times, unemployable) youth in such large numbers. It is my firm belief that we need to equip our youth with skills essential for success beyond school. This also happens to be an area of focus for Gram Vikas. Mr Vinit Kumar, Quality Controller of Education and Life, Gram Vikas Residential Schools, calls this ‘functional literacy’.
Of the four schools being currently run by Gram Vikas, the one at Kankia is the only one which is a high school. Students from other Gram Vikas schools – Mahendra Tanaya Ashram School in Koinpur, Gram Vikas Vidya Vihar in Rudhapadar and Gram Vikas Shikshya Niketan in Thuamul Rampur – finish middle school and come here.
As Miss Gitanjali Prusty, Headmistress of Gram Vikas High School, shared with us, priority in admission is given to first-generation learners, tribal students, girl students and students from villages where Gram Vikas is involved in the implementation of various projects. Close to 30% of students are first-generation school goers. Interestingly, teachers of the school go on enrolment drives to neighbouring villages every summer vacation, and the whole Gram Vikas organisational machinery is involved in getting more and more children into school.
Established in 1982 and converted to a high school in 1997, Gram Vikas High School has, at present, 510 students on its roll – 308 boys and 202 girls. Most of the students belong to Scheduled Tribes and come from poor families. The concentration of students is heavier in the senior classes; with classes IX and X having nearly a hundred students each. For the past few years, the school has had a 100% pass record in secondary examination.
The school is fully residential, with separate hostels for boys and girls. Students are encouraged to stay on campus even if they come from nearby villages so that they can get benefits from the facilities and the curriculum being followed at school. The school has the usual amenities – sports grounds, a library, a mess, a computer lab, kitchen gardens and so on. It also has a wonderful space called Kalpanadham (literally, abode of imagination), where all kinds of arts and crafts are encouraged.
The entire staff of the school consists of 19 teachers. Of course, there are three cooks, spearheaded by the head cook Shri Devraj, affectionately known as Nona (grandfather) to students and teachers alike. There is no administrative staff or any other staff for that matter. Whatever is done and needs to be done at this school, be it cleaning the campus, cutting of vegetables, bringing food and other essential items from the market, financial work, washing dishes, taking care of electricity and water supply, even minor repairs – it is done by the teachers and students themselves. This is what makes the school unique; it is setting an example which many others may find very difficult to follow.
Students at the school are not merely the object of attention; rather, they are active stakeholders and responsible members of the school community. To facilitate and sustain this kind of involvement of the students, the school has a robust, democratically elected set-up. It is the cabinet.
Every year, at the beginning of the academic session, voting takes place for the post of Chief Minister, who is usually a student of Class X. Elections are fair and impartial, and so far there have been no cases of uncontested election. The current Chief Minister is a young gentleman by the name of Raju Sabar. When not hard at work for his upcoming board exams, Raju can be found quietly working behind the scenes in various capacities, guiding his cabinet and other students diligently to ensure smooth functioning. Other than the Chief Minister, all other ministers generally volunteer for the job, which has no perks and massive responsibilities.
Ministries are related to the work required in the school – Water Ministry, Solar Ministry, Food Ministry, News Ministry, Sports Ministry, Cultural Ministry, Hostel Ministry, Cleanliness Ministry, Health Ministry, and of course, the absolute must of all schools, the Bell Ministry. Water ministers take care of the water supply to various parts of the campus. Solar Ministry is in charge of the 25 solar lamps on campus, and also of maintaining the solar energy system as the back-up for electricity. Food Ministry ensures that all children have their meals properly – this includes ensuring that children are seated and serving food when necessary. One has to see ministers Manoj Bishoyi and Gaurahari Sabar in action to believe how smoothly mealtimes go.
News Ministry does not merely read news in the assembly; ministers, led by the ever-smiling Mithunu Gouda, are aware of exactly what is going on in the school and will not hesitate to inform the Principal should any teachers be found to be avoiding class. Sports Ministry has the job of ensuring that all students get sufficient equipment to play at allotted times. Esliel Naik, Sports Minister, is also the Deputy Chief Minister and effectively the spokesman for the cabinet. Cultural Ministry is in charge of organising cultural programmes every Saturday evening, and also a movie screening every Sunday.
Together, Cleanliness Ministry and Hostel Ministry get the entire school campus, including the hostels, cleaned every single day and ensure availability of basic facilities on campus. Health Ministers regularly check the children for diseases and injuries, and work with the school nurse to keep all students healthy and free from common diseases like malaria and scabies, which are quite prevalent in Odisha. Bell Ministers, as the name would suggest, ring the bell at appropriate times and keep the school clock ticking.
Ministers very often share responsibilities and take on the load of other ministerial work whenever the occasion calls for it. Each ministry is counselled by a teacher, under whose guidance ministers discharge their duties. Recently, a monthly public meeting of the Cabinet has been proposed, in which each ministry will report its achievements and issues to the school citizenry at large. Accountability is most important, much as it is elsewhere in Gram Vikas.
For someone experiencing this sort of a system for the first time, as I have over the last few weeks, it is nothing less than a revelation. Normally, in residential schools, one finds problems related to lack of discipline and unfair distribution of resources. However, here at Gram Vikas High School, I am convinced that the Cabinet would run the school quite efficiently and smoothly even if no teacher was present for a day. They might just cancel homework, that’s all.
At present, the school has extended hostel facilities to some youngsters who have finished school and want to continue pursuing sports. Necessary infrastructure and proper diet are being provided by the school to enable these young sportsmen and women to pursue their dreams.
Volleyball is a big hit among the students and there are fiercely competitive matches every evening. Occasionally, matches between teachers and students are organised, which end up being rather one-sided, and in which students regularly thrash the teachers soundly.
Kalpanadham is a very special, wonderful initiative started by Ms Shalini Krishnan, a former SBI Youth for India Fellow during her Fellowship. It is a separate space, brightly coloured, and painted by the children themselves, located a little away from the hustle and bustle of the main school where imagination is let free. A creativity studio, if you will, for visual arts like painting and drawing; performing arts like theatre, singing and dancing and handicrafts. Everything has a space in Kalpanadham. Workshops are conducted by well-known artists every now and then to bring more out-of-the-box ideas to children.
There is much more that can be said about the school and it will still be enough only to encompass a fraction of the sense of wonder I feel. It is such a privilege to be here, and when I think of the school, the following words of Lao Tzu, which form an integral part of the philosophical bedrock of Gram Vikas, have never seemed truer: “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves’.”