Narmada Jeevan Shalas Bring Hope for Children Affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project

Across banks of Narmada, Adivasi children can now count on Jeevan Shalas for a better future despite the government’s failure to provide them with education.

Imagine going to school one day and finding that the school building is going to be fully submerged by water released from a dam. This has been the reality in the lives of tribal children in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh for decades, since the inception of the Sardar Sarovar Project which led to the construction of one of the world’s largest dams on the river Narmada. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) which developed as a response to the project, has been fighting for the people affected by the project, including the over one million displaced, mostly indigenous population.

“We discovered that there were schools on paper but not a single functional school existed on ground,” says Medha Patkar.

One of the most prominent activists of the movement and recipient of numerous international awards is environmentalist Medha Patkar. In her interview with Pawan Solanki, a Video Volunteers Community Correspondent from Madhya Pradesh, Patkar reveals that the movement began after an extensive survey beginning in the early 80s throughout the region. “We discovered that there were schools on paper but not a single functional school existed on ground,” she says. This is despite the Right to Education Act (2006) which guarantees free schooling devoid of discrimination. However, the reality is that children from Scheduled Tribes have a dropout rate of 58% across the country. This is higher than that of other marginalised communities including the Dalits. To ensure that the children of Narmada have a fighting chance, the movement workers and villagers came together and decided they will start their own schools. Thus, the Narmada Jeevan Shala — literally ‘School of Life’ was born.

There are over ten Jeevanshalas across tribal hamlets in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh today. These Jeevanshalas are funded completely through voluntary donations, mostly from the stakeholders, the affected and displaced populations, themselves. Pawan Solanki, himself a former student of Jeevanshala recalls that the school was paid by yearly donation of few kilos of grains and pulses. And this is not the only way Jeevanshalas are different from government schools.

Jeevanshalas are envisioned as spaces to support holistic learning for first generation learners from tribal communities. A lot of emphasis is placed on preserving cultural identity –  teaching in the mother tongue of the children and inculcating in them a sense of their history and culture. The curriculum is not limited to book based learning–extracurriculars play a strong role. “Children are taught vocational skills such as farming, sculpting archery, basket weaving. Our texts draws upon indigenous mythologies and stories as well as the people’s struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada,” explains Pawan. 

While the NBA could not stop the construction of the dam, the struggle ensured one of the best relief and rehabilitation package offered to developmentally displaced people anywhere in India. That is, only on paper. The government promised better roads, potable water, schools and even playgrounds as part of rehabilitation package. But this is a far cry from the reality in the Adivasi hamlets across the states affected by the damming of the Narmada River. Jeevanshalas are an example of the grit of these people who saw their lives disappear under water but refused to give up.

“Here we are taught about our traditional way of life, the environment, the history of this movement. The curriculum is designed to fit the children,” says Pawan Solanki.

These schools are not meant as a replacement for standard curricula in government schools but as complimentary life lessons. Most children go on to complete their high school from government institutions later on. Former students like Pawan and Dayal Solanki come back to teach the children despite meagre financial compensation. “Jeevanshalas teach us a way of life. The education is very different from the traditional education in government schools. Here we are taught about our traditional way of life, the environment, the history of this movement. The curriculum depends on what the children need to know and is not the same uniform book for every child,” says Pawan.

Every year all the Jeevanshalas come together for their annual celebration, the Bal Mela, a children’s fair. More than 800 tribal students participate to showcase their skills in athletics, practical crafts and art and culture. “When our students join high schools elsewhere, people love them!” says a beaming Patkar. “Adivasi children are very good at athletics and one of our students has won 17 gold medals in various competitions,” she adds. In spite of the fact that these children have been marginalised economically and socially for at least four decades, Jeevan Shalas have extraordinary success stories waiting to be discovered.

“Help these first generation learners from areas affected by the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam to get an education, thereby securing the future of their communities,” appeals Patkar. 

Medha Patkar appeals to concerned citizens to support the parents, teachers and villagers in sustaining Jeevanshalas: “Help these first generation learners from areas affected by the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam to get an education, thereby securing the future of their communities,” Medha Patkar appeals to everyone. We can only join in that call and hope many more generations of young leaders continue to emerge from these schools.

The video is produced by Video Volunteers with the support of Vikalp Sangam | Article by Madhura Chakraborty
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