There’s no good without a bout of bitterness. Ask Mr. S Nagaraj, a Gram Panchayat member who has spent the last year fighting battles to rebuild the only government school in his village.
The 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution provides for the Gram Panchayat to take an active part in ensuring the quality of education across India. In the Sompura village, about 20 kilometers from Bangalore City, one man is representing all that’s good about this constitutional provision.
Mr. S Nagaraj is a member of the Yamare Gram Panchayat, serving his second term. In a village populated with the wealthy and the prosperous, his aim is to help strengthen the only government school, where just a handful of locals send their children.
Sompura has a little over 1000 residents, mostly landlords; every household here has a help. Social status governs everyday activities; Whether a child from this village goes to a government school or a private school defines the family’s background.
Sompura falls under the Dommasandra Cluster which comprises 14 government higher and lower primary schools. Of these is the Government Lower Primary School (GLPS), Sompura – the only public school in the village. With a strength of just 47 students and 2 teachers, a majority of the children here belong to migrant communities of laborers from Nepal, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, and Telangana. About 15-20 students here belong to local families who work as house helps in the affluent homes belonging to landlords in the village.
Mr. Nagaraj, an alumnus of the school, took up a herculean task last year – to rebuild a dilapidated GLPS Sompura. His involvement in the process and his strength in facing a hostile community (who were trying to grab the school’s land at first go) speak volumes about the challenges in such a venture.
The challenges here were aplenty! Water leakages and infestations plagued the school’s infrastructure. Children were often bitten by Kill Hairy Caterpillars (Kambli Hula in Kannada). The school was in a state of disrepair.
One of the teachers, Mrs. Uma Jogad, posted at the school 4 years ago, recalled, “Rebuilding a school from scratch is an arduous process. Several visits to officials went in vain as most thought that the structure was in good shape. We ultimately had to turn to the Gram Panchayath for help.”
Land grab – facing a hostile community
Mr. Nagaraj by then had gained the trust and confidence of several educational stakeholders for his willingness to help. “He visited the school and saw its condition first hand. It may have affected him personally,” Ms. Jogad says.
After two months of multiple visits and arguments at the engineer’s office, Mr. Nagaraj finally returned with the permission to demolish the existing structure and rebuild it from scratch.
However, a huge detail about the school had gone unnoticed for many years. While it was registered as a Government School in Sompura, there were no documents highlighting specifications of the school’s property. In no time, the landlords of the village got wind of this fact, and thus began a bitter war for land. The 10 Guntas of the GLPS was at stake and up for grabs.
A man with a plan
While the Gram Panchayat was liable to fund a part of the school’s reconstruction, Mr. Nagaraj, as a call-for-action, sprung up and paid the first Rs 75,000 to build a compound wall for the school (mandated under the RTE act for every government school) on an urgent basis.
After this, he had to move the Panchayat for a resolution to officiate the school as GLPS, Sompura. “There was just no time! People had started marking their territories on the school land. Glass bottles were being thrown here, children who didn’t belong to the school were using it unscrupulously for their outdoor games,” Ms. Jogad added.
As a solution to this, Mr. Nagaraj proposed that a patch of greenery would help in keeping people away. “When they saw we were growing plants here, they were furious. But by now, the school was officially on paper and they couldn’t do anything but comply and respect this as an educational space,” he said.
To rebuild the school, Mr. Nagaraj contributed a sum of Rs. 1.75 lakh – of the total Rs 3 lakh budget. His efforts have paid off. Today, the school provides one of the best learning environments among all schools in the Dommasandra cluster. Anthill Creations set up a unique playground here as well. Bright colours, greenery, a kitchen garden, and a fulfilled space – the Sompura School finally got its much-needed facelift!
His Vision: A Model School
“I studied in the same school till class 4. At that time, I remember bringing a slate instead of books and chalks instead of pencils. Today, our children don’t have to struggle to receive education as we once did. Yet, there are so many of them who aren’t in school.” – Mr. Nagaraj
His vision is to build the Sompura School as a model for others in the locality and beyond. It’s achievable, he believes. “The school is inclusive. It caters to children from various cultural backgrounds and not just locals. Teachers are competent and the environment around is conducive to learning,” he says.
Moving forward, Mr. Nagaraj plans to address the issue of students’ strength and create rooms for Lower and Upper Kindergarten. He believes these additions will help create a well-rounded school.
The Private-Public divide
One of the major challenges, according to Mr. Nagaraj, is that locals in the village refuse to send their children to the government school. To maintain a high social status, many families send their children to private schools where they ultimately can’t afford to pay the huge fees. The added mandate that their children must know English pushes parents further away from even considering a government school for their child.
“Times are changing. Our teachers are competent in various languages. There are children from many government schools who speak and read well in English. I only pray that the low-income community in Sompura stops burdening itself by paying fees they can’t even afford. This must be advertised in such a way that parents understand the concept with an open mind,” Mr. Nagaraj said.
The need for collaboration
To improve the education system, collaboration is a huge must. “When the enrolment drive in Dommasandra cluster took place, we all came together to work for its success. If it wasn’t for coordination on every level, our schools wouldn’t have seen a major increase in their student strength,” Mr. Nagaraj added. Read the story of Enrolment drive in Dommasandra cluster here.
The hunger to create meaningful change and to focus on the betterment of education pushed Mr. Nagaraj to the social justice front. Backed by an equally motivated School Development and Monitoring Committee, a driven Cluster Resource Person, various educational coordinators, teachers, and school leaders, he believes that change is only a matter of will.
“There will always be people who create hurdles when someone wants to do good. That doesn’t mean that the act of doing something good must stop. Our existence is pointless if we don’t serve a cause,” he said.
By Cluster Transformation Team, Mantra4Change