By Shriram Padmanabhan:
I began working with Shram Sarathi in 2015, while on the India Fellow program. Time flew by and after the completion of my fellowship year, I continue to be here. Recently, I remembered one of my early field encounters and wish to share it. Anecdotes and insights like these continue to motivate me to do what I do today.
After collecting arrears all morning, the financial services provider and I took a break near Gogunda lake at 3 pm. The sun was blazing in all its glory, yet we didn’t feel the heat. Gogunda is a mighty hill station and also part of the tribal belt that is one of the most backward in south Rajasthan. It is beautiful. There are no established statistics but based on my daily interactions, I would be willing to bet an arm that school drop-out rates in the areas are higher than the national estimated average of 40% across India.
So how did this guy, the financial services provider, buck the trend? He was pursuing his bachelor’s in arts and simultaneously working for Shram Sarathi, a well-known NGO that deals with micro-finance for migrant workers. Given that, out of 80 students in his class in the 6th standard, only 20 passed and proceeded to the next class. This was an achievement. A year later, he and seven of his of his closest friends passed class 7 as well. One would imagine they would have studied further, but out of his entire group, everyone, except him, migrated to Gujarat to work in odd jobs and earn a living. I have often heard the phrase here, “Pass huey toh zindabad! Fail huey toh Ahmedabad!” (Long live those who pass! If you fail, Ahmedabad!). This was shocking! These guys actually passed, so why Ahmedabad?
He explained that there was no parental pressure on his friends to quit school, but every time they saw someone return from Gujarat, they saw people wearing fancy clothes and flashy shoes, bringing tales of travel. That was the pull. Also, the thought of going to college and seeing other students in bright clothes and dreading the embarrassment of wearing frayed apparel was overwhelming. He felt an NGO that provides decent clothes, shoes and bags, would have a definite impact on reducing the drop-out rates.
At this point, a number of things flashed through my mind: Basharat Peer’s “Curfewed Night” where teenagers in Kashmir are dazzled by the green uniform and Kamachi shoes (Russian sports shoes made fashionable by militants in Kashmir) worn my militants and by their svelte Kalashnikovs strung over their shoulders. This ‘cool’ image acts as a major pull towards the other side.
The reality of migrants in Gujarat is far from rosy. His friends who joined as helpers in a hotel were up by 5 am and asleep at midnight, cramped in a room and working in extreme heat. They worked (and continue to work) in deplorable conditions. He says there are two kinds of grief that a parent goes through – the first, where the parent can see his children suffering, the second, when a parent knows his children are in misery but they are far away, unknown and unseen. It is the second kind of grief that absolutely crushes an individual.
How did he keep his parents happy and resist Gujarat’s pull? The encouragement of his teacher, his friends and family kept him going. The day when his friends were discussing dropping out of school, he considered joining them. But his entire support system came to his rescue and encouraged him to stay. There are few things in life as difficult as resisting peer pressure, especially the kind that promises freedom from teenage embarrassments. He made it through and this is just the beginning.
About the author – Shriram Padmanabhan is a 2015 cohort India Fellow who works with Rajasthan Shram Sarathi Association, a section 8A company, working towards providing better financial services to migrants and their families in south Rajasthan.