Jamir Sardar is a meritorious student, an avid dancer and a good painter. His teachers are fond of him and acknowledge his talent. The sixteen-year-old had performed dance shows along with his friends in Denmark last year under a cultural exchange programme. Despite his skills in dancing, he wants to become a painter.
But it is the background of Jamir that makes his achievement really sweet. The Class 9 student lives in the Sundarbans in West Bengal, one of the toughest accessible places in the State. His father died of cancer when Jamir was just in Class 2. His mother did odd jobs to raise her four children.
She could not earn enough to give proper education for them. Jamir was fortunate. A good Samaritan brought him to Vivekananda Shiksha Niketan, a school run by a non-profit at Joygopalpur village in the South 24 Parganas. The school offers concession for students from economically-weak background. Jamir’s talent was spotted by a couple from Denmark who were funding the education of children in the school. They decided to fund his education too.
Jamir says he couldn’t have dreamt of coming so far had it not been for the support provided by the school authorities and his teachers. “This school brought a radical change in my life. I can now think big and believe in achieving my dreams,” he says, showing one of his paintings.
He is not alone. The school has waived off or reduced the fees for 20 per cent of its 500 students, to encourage them continue their education. “We charge very nominal fees — a maximum of ₹250 is charged from students. We also offer free hostel facilities for those who cannot afford to pay. The aim is to minimise dropouts,” said Madhusudan Mandal, rector of the school.
Among the students are children of widows whose husbands were killed by tigers when they had gone to the forest to catch fish or collect firewood. Over 3,000 ‘tiger widows’ live in the Sundarbans. Tigers and crocodiles are a regular threat to several villages living close to the forest.
Babita and Latika Mandal, two sisters who live in Jharkhali in the Sundarbans have cleared their Class 10 exams this year. Two of their uncles were killed by a crocodile and the grandfather was killed by a tiger. In this scenario, their father, who also ventures into the forest to collect crabs, stopped their education as he could not afford the fees. The school authorities stepped in and admitted the children in Class 6 in the school. “We could have never thought of getting education had the school teachers and non-profit didn’t help us. The teachers stood by us and provided extra classes before the exams. We want to earn a decent livelihood so that our father does not have to risk his life venturing into the forest,” said Babita Mandal. The sisters are getting trained in tailoring in the school to help them stand on their feet and earn alternative livelihood.
The education system is different in the school. At a time when too much stress is given on improving academic performances, the school trains students in fishing, farming and other activities, “It is not correct to put too much burden on the students which often forces them to take extreme steps. We encourage them to learn fishing, farming or dancing so that they might excel in the respective fields. The students are trained based on their interest in a particular discipline, said Madhusudhan Mandal.
The school authorities follow the principles of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindra Nath Tagore while imparting education and traditional Indian dress — saffron kurta and white pyjama — is the uniform for the students. Around 17 members of the school including students and other staff visited Denmark last year for fifteen days under the cultural exchange programme. They mesmerised the audiences there with their dancing skills.
“The Sundarban area witnesses a lot of dropouts especially after the students complete their secondary level making themselves a burden for the society. We have adopted a special kind of insurance programme for students who passed the secondary level. The students start saving their money and after a certain time, they get it back along with 50 per cent contribution from the school. It also ensures protection of the environment through various programmes and activities by involving students in the programme,” pointed out Biswajit Mahakur, Secretary of Gopalpur Gram Vikas Kendra, the non-profit running the school.