In a remote corner of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, the Imlee Mahua School is bringing alternative education to those who need the most
Pareshwar studies in the second grade. He travels three kilometres, sometimes on his own, through deciduous forests to reach his school. Such is his dedication that he doesn’t miss schools even during the heavy monsoon rains. Little Pareshwar is one of sixty students at Imlee Mahuaa School. The school set in the remote Bastar region of Chhatisgarh where 70% of the population are indigenous people. Founded in 2007, the school was set up to cater to the needs of especially students from Adivasi (indigenous), Dalit and marginalised groups. But this is not the only thing that is unique about it. Prayag Joshi, the founder of the school says, “Today every student has the freedom to decide what she studies in the school, how long she wants to stay and when she wants to come.” Imlee Mahua has truly revolutionised education and access to it, in this remote part of India.
“Today every student has the freedom to decide what she studies in the school, how long she wants to stay and when she wants to come.”
According to a Human Rights Watch report, Dalit and Adivasi children have much higher rates of dropping out of schools (51% and 58% respectively) than those belonging to general category (37%). This is due to the persistent discrimination they face within schools: from untouchability to being made to do menial jobs. Added to this remains the fact the rural areas, particularly those where marginalised communities live are much more likely to have a poor educational infrastructure, lack of assigned teachers and other forms of structural discrimination. This fact determined the location of Imlee Mahua: Joshi says “We chose Baligapara because we wanted a location which was farthest from roads and where the demand for schools, therefore, would be the highest.”
When the school started, Joshi reminisces, “The teachers were in charge of everything from the syllabus to the school hours.” The founding principles of the school in the initial days came from M.K Gandhi’s nai taleem (new training) pedagogical method. Gandhi was of the opinion that a truly complete education did not separate between learning from books and work and emphasised learning traditional handicrafts. While this was a departure from standard curriculum, the changes in making the students the real agents of learning has really made a difference.
Tomandas is a teenager who had studied in a government school before coming to Imlee Mahua. But his preference is clear: “We have freedom to learn and freedom to play here.” The children learn on their own, from books and other resources, asking for help from each other. Very few ask for specific classes with a teacher. Joshi is very proud of his students. “Taking decisions for themselves teaches them responsibility. These kids are fully independent. There is a sense of joy in their learning.”
“We do not believe in learning with any specific goal in mind. Imlee Mahua will remain as long as there is the need for it, it will always remain a place for kids to play and laugh in.”
Research, particularly with children from marginalised backgrounds, have shown self-learning creates a marked improvement in learning outcomes. The main challenge is not the kids as Joshi testifies, but the expectation of parents. He says “We do not believe in learning with any specific goal in mind. Imlee Mahua will remain as long as there is the need for it, it will always remain a place for kids to play and laugh in.” We can only hope that this model of alternate education is embraced by more and more educationalists and learning truly becomes a joyous process for everyone.