Rani, 20, a Class 12 student, aspires to be a high school teacher when she grows up. Her father, a resident of Sahpur village, Sonepat district, Haryana, is a poor laborer and wanted to marry her off rather than invest in her education.
But Rani was firm. Rebelling against orthodox village mores, she left home in April 2005 and started living at a jeevanshala (school for life education) in Haryana's Panipat district. (Jeevanshalas encourages children to live together and share.)
The Jeevanshala Project is a novel programme run in Hatwara, Rakshera and Samalkha villages of Haryana by a group of dedicated Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti (HGVS) volunteers. "This is an experimental programme geared to make education available to the children of economically and socially poor sections of society," says HGVS President Rajpal Dehiya. HGVS is a branch of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), an NGO working on non-formal education in several states.
Currently, 175 children (up to 13 years of age) are studying in the three HGVS jeevanshalas. After graduating from Class 5, they join the residential jeevanshala in Samalkha, meant for high school students.
In 1997, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) approached BGVS to conduct a survey to assess the enrolment and dropout rate (for children from 6-14 years) in Samalkha block (an administrative unit in a district). BGVS approached HGVS, which conducted the survey in 36 villages. It found that out of 1,808 children in the block, 1,080 had never been to school! The rest (728) had dropped out within a few months of being enrolled.
Dehiya says more than parental disinterest, it was the "rude behavior of the high caste teachers towards the poor students (mostly dalits and Muslims) that was responsible for the low enrolment and high drop out rate".
Post-survey, the HRD ministry stepped in to provide financial support to HGVS to start informal schools in the block. HGVS started the jeevanshalas in 1997. Around 1,400 children - mostly dalits, Muslims and those belonging to the lower economic group - were enrolled from 25 villages. In some villages, beggars also sent their children to school.
"It was a challenge for us. A section of powerful, rich people was against this initiative. They wanted to maintain their hegemony over such people and could not tolerate to see them empowered. In the beginning, no one gave us land to start a jeevanshala, so we started a school in the dalit chaupal (a place for dalits to gather socially)," informs Dehiya.
Although after four years, in 2001, HRD stopped the funding, the jeevanshalas continue to function. "It's because the community for which we are working has recognized our efforts," says Rajinder Choker, Secretary of HGVS.
In fact, since 2004, jeevanshala teachers have not been paid regular salaries. HGVS collects some funds during the annual sports festival. During the harvest season, teachers and students approach villagers with an appeal for wheat and rice. The collected grain is used in the residential jeevanshala (in Samalkha) and any surplus is sold in the market to procure other essential items. In 2001, a school from Uttar Pradesh donated Rs 30,000 (1US=Rs 44). The Mahavir Club, Panipat district, donates Rs 5,000 annually and a doctor from Hissar donates Rs 700 every month.
Jeevanshalas provide free education, food and lodging to the children. Students don't have to wear a uniform. About 35 per cent of the students are girls. Around as many as 75 per cent students move on to regular schools after a few years.
Boys and girls can be spotted playing cricket and other games together in the jeevanshalas. Messages of women's rights and gender equality - `Women have a right to express themselves in family matters; they can participate in debates and plays in public' - are woven into the curricula.
Unlike most of their village counterparts, girls here do not cover their heads with a dupatta (scarf) and often shake hands with boys when they greet them. This is a welcome change in the feudal society of Haryana. Parents, too, are not disturbed by such changes: they trust the teachers, who are chosen from the local village.
"We don't tell them to cram. Our teaching method is different from other schools. In the classroom, we all sit on the floor in a circle. Students feel more close to the teacher this way. Until Class 4, our students read the books prepared by NGOs who are working in the field of education. Children find these books closer to their practical life. In the higher classes, they read books approved by the Haryana educational board," says Bhim Singh, a teacher in Samalkha jeevanshala.
In the school, the atmosphere is one of mutual trust and co-operation between teachers and students. The spirit of competition, which usually generates jealousy and feelings of inadequacy among children, is absent here. "The air of freedom and equality enables the children to face the challenges of education with a new confidence," adds Ram Nivas, a teacher at the Rakshera jeevanshala.
In the Samalkha jeevanshala, children can study up to Class 8, after which they join a government school while continuing to stay in the jeevanshala. This alternative mode of education develops a sense of self-sufficiency and self-discipline among students. Teachers and students collectively perform chores such as cooking, cleaning etc.
This is one place where boys are not shy of acquiring culinary skills and take pride in performing household chores. "My son, Mohammed Ali, has been transformed. Whenever he comes home, he washes his clothes and cooks for me. He also told me that I should not accept low wages from my landlord. Now it is not so easy to cheat me," says Wahadhin, the proud mother of this Class 12 student.
Students are in a place where they are treated with dignity and they acquire confidence to achieve something good in life. The education they get here makes them sensitive to the challenges faced by present-day society. Children take active part in staging plays that are based on social issues like dowry system and female feticide.
Babali, a Class 10 student, says, "Our vision is totally changed now. We react very sharply whenever we see injustice in society, whether it relates to women or dalits. We want some positive change for them in the society."
Local community support is this program's lifeline. "We are planning to give vocational training to our students and working out how they can get admission in the Industrial Training Institute (ITI)," says Choker.