Purulia: A Journey to the Center of Nothingness
Purulia is one of those districts of West Bengal, India, where the sheer scale of under-development, beyond certain administrative/political sub-regions, is sufficient incentive for the average curious mind to attempt exploring and comprehending. The journey from State College to Kolkata, then by train to the main town of Purulia, and finally by a Marshall SUV through barely constructed roads to remote villages in Hura was, let us say, interesting. Sliding down from the peak of a Gaussian density curve depicting economic development - that is exactly how it felt. Needless to say, this is the `what’ part, which is probably well known. It’s the `why’s and `how’s which are probably worth travelling so many miles for. Thankfully, this feeling was very short-lived, and we were soon engaged in a more profound expedition into the core of problems and their solutions, and some soul-searching to go with it.
Let’s get down to some background. The purpose of the visit was to assess the progress made in Asha, the AID-funded project administered by an NGO called NDS (Nutanhat Development Society) for running primary schools (class 4 and below) in 10 remote, highly impoverished tribal villages in the Hura Block of Purulia district. The literacy levels of the people in these villages are in the neighborhood of zero. It is therefore not enough to build teaching infrastructure and recruit teachers. A greater challenge is to get the parents of potential school children to understand the value of education, in fact to make them realize that education may perhaps be the only weapon in the arsenal for their children to go beyond their scant existence. Natural as this conclusion may seem to us, we imagined that for these adivasi villagers fighting daily for survival, any path to success via education would seem too arduous and strained to dream about. After all, it would make more economic sense to have their children start work in the fields, adding helping hands to their struggle. We were wrong. Well, at least partly. For a majority of the village trips, we were pleasantly surprised to see the excitement in the children. But then you may ask, “What do you know, a group of young children when put together always produce the fizz of a freshly opened can of Coke, isn’t it?” To which our reaction would be “Well, then how do you explain the quiet crowd of visibly proud parents lining up behind us as we interacted with their children?” Very frankly, the parents whose children were actually present in the classes we surveyed seemed starry-eyed about their children. Something must have worked for them. Perhaps an inner voice, some straight talking from the NDS folks, word-of-mouth publicity, the excitement in their children, a promise of free lunch (this is currently not being administered due to logistics issues), a hope for change, a shiny new blackboard and posters, or any convex combination of these.
We may never know, but it is not that important. What made the trip worthwhile was to witness 25-50 odd kids of villages lacking basic resources like electricity stand up with gusto, answer basic math questions from addition all the way to HCF/LCM (in some cases), read/write out sentences in Bengali (not their mother-tongue) and English, and finish it off with a fun group poem/song or two. Now make no mistake, if you made the trip to these villages with us, you would realize how big a deal this is. A fairly decent four-wheeled drive vehicle took more than half an hour to reach the villages from the nearest township. It is hard to imagine even one such trip during the monsoons. Even these trips are a luxury – they were arranged for the comfort of an overseas sponsorship team visit. The common mode of transport is a bicycle, so do the math yourself. The sheer inaccessibility of these villages made this trip a very humbling experience. A glossy chart of the English alphabet will probably make tens of trips from College Street, Kolkata, and take a few days before falling into the hands of the teachers. These teachers, by the way are local recruits, which was encouraging to see but perhaps the only way out given the accessibility issue.
The NDS team deserves credit for making this possible; for discovering the problem, for proposing a solution, and carrying through with a promise. It is difficult to judge if AID has got its money’s worth, but as the saying goes, something is better than utter abyss. If the goal was to make a positive difference to the lives of people literally cut off from the world we live in, we/they would have definitely succeeded, no more and no less. The challenges these people face are immense, and education is only one of many important factors that will affect their future. For example, modern medicine, which means trained doctors willing to make the trip to these villages, is literally out of reach for these people. This is certainly a more basic problem, but a much harder one to solve through remote administration. If only the government … well let’s not go there.
If we had to pick one winner in this trip, it would be the subsequent resolution of some relatively resourceful youth to re-embark on a discovery of India.
To know more about AID, the funding agency behind the scenes, please read more here.