“I was nine when the Naxalites killed my father. I love libraries. I want to be a doctor.” These were three hard facts of her life that 15-year-old Sumanwati declared in an excited rush of words when we spoke to her. Piecing Sumanwati’s confused sentences together builds up a narrative that reflects the lives of almost all students in Education City at Jawanga, Chattisgarh.
Sumanwati was nine when she lost her father and was enrolled into Aastha Vidya Mandir, a school for children who have lost either or both parents to Naxalite attacks. Over the years, she picked herself up, immersed herself in her studies and dared to let her dreams soar, as did many others in the school.
Aastha Vidya Mandir is a residential school located in Education City, named after the creator of Chhattisgarh State, ex-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. It is a sprawling campus housing 18 institutions in 170 acres. It was started in 2011, in line with the ‘Pade Dantewada-Likhe Dantewada’ scheme. The authorities tried to combat the Naxal menace by educating children in the region, many of whom had been orphaned in Naxal violence. Hence, they seeded the dream, wooed children and began to school children in Hindi and Mathematics through simple technology and dedicated teachers. Amazingly, they managed to bring down the dropout rate from 50 per cent to 13 per cent by 2013.
The success of the school is evident in simple declarations, such as by Sumanwati, who says, “I love this school more than my earlier one.” She was transferred along with her brother from local schools to Aastha, as her mother had been unable to single-handedly support her and her three brothers after she lost her father to Naxal attacks. Sumanwati is now preparing for her 10th Boards.
What about her friends? “Rita Tallam lost both parents,” says Sumanwati, stoically. It was painful indeed, but not harrowing for her to recount incidents from the past. Hearteningly, the success of the school seems to be indicated also by the practical acceptance of circumstances by the children and their steps to move forward.
Worryingly, Naxal attack is still a looming threat in the state. During the November elections on the 11th, Dantewada hit the headlines yet again due to an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that was detonated by the Naxalites, who had called for a boycott of the polls. Thankfully, however, the scourge of Naxalite violence has spared the City of Education till now.
History of Education City
In 2011, Naxals blew up 86 educational institutions in the state, in order to prevent the security personnel from taking shelter in these schools during shootouts. Continual violence hit the children of the district that already had the lowest literacy rate of 42 per cent. The state-sponsored Salwa Judum was a failure and was eventually banned by the court to de-escalate violence.
There was only one way to turn the state around and that was education. The dream was thus given shape in 2011 by Raipur District collector, 29-year-old Om Prakash Chaudhary, who belonged to an agrarian family from Raigarh’s Bayang village. Eager to build some skills training, he started the City of Education built over 170 acres at a budget of Rs 100 crore.
Today, Education City houses 18 institutions, enrolling 5,500 students. These include a CBSE English-medium school, an ashram that is run by the tribal department, a residential school for 500 boys and girls, a girls’ hostel and school, institutions offering coaching for engineering and medicine, a gurukul, industrial training institute, polytechnic, a 1,000-seat auditorium and indoor and outdoor sports stadia. Right from U. K.G. classes to and degree colleges with modern facilities – you will find all educational facilities here.
For example, ‘Saksham’ institute is a haven for children with visual, speech and hearing impairments. Activities such as ‘Children Talent Festival’ and summer camps regularly see the participation of students who were initially reluctant to get back to school. Project Tamanna enabled a science museum, district library, and a state-of-the-art audio-visual theatre to broaden the students’ perspectives and exposure, apart from conducting film festivals for more than 30,000 students from remote villages.
To improve science education, O P Chaudhary handpicked good teachers and renovated all facilities to increase awareness and prepare students for professional courses. So far, 19 students from here have been admitted to the National Institutes of Technology (N.I.T.), while 155 students have enrolled in various engineering colleges and three in medical colleges.
Aastha Vidya Mandir
Perhaps the most famous of the institutions here is Aastha Vidya Mandir, a gurukul-type residential school in Jawang, Dantewada with 1,000 students, nearly one-third of whom have been affected. About 216 were displaced from their villages due to insurgents’ threats. About 20 children were orphaned by Naxal attacks in the past three years and 175 students lost one parent, according to the Headmaster of Aastha, Santhosh Pradhan.
“Aastha Vidya Mandir is free of cost,” said Santhosh Pradhan, who has been headmaster in the CBSE English-medium school since 2013. The school provides the tuition fees, clothes and food. The funds are provided by the state and CSR activities of the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC). While there are a limited number of seats, it is in high demand among a number of students from everywhere. “Our school is a model for people who come from all over the state,” said the headmaster.
Pradhan explained that the main challenge before him was the education of children who have been orphaned. But the experiment was a success story. While earlier, the school enrolled students only up to the fifth standard, it has now been extended up to the 10th and will expand to the 12th in two years. The teachers are able to work better with orphaned students in primary classes, but it is a challenge to handle students who are older and come to the school with the scars of Naxal violence. They need special attention and teachers who can talk to them and help them to move on in life.
Anamika Ekka, a counsellor, however seemed surprised when asked whether there were any “special problems” among the students here. According to her, the “problems” here are the same as in all schools: pressure to study, excel and aim high. “The pressure starts at an early age. They all want to be doctors, engineers and teachers,” she said. “We just talk to them continuously and encourage them to share everything. We struggle to help them to try their utmost and achieve all their aspirations,” she added, proudly.
Challenges for the school city
Today, Education City is counted among the top 100 projects of the world by the global audit body, KPMG. It fetched Chaudhary the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration in 2011-12.
Needless to say, there are challenges. What are biggest problems today? Saurabh Kumar, the current District Collector since 2016 said that all parents want the best for their children, but it is impossible to give all children admission to the school. Schools should be improved across the district, he said.
“I cannot repair all the roads, it is difficult to improve all infrastructure and there are 923 schools in our state. Every village might have one ‘smart school’ but all the schools cannot be scaled up immediately,” he said. It is important to expand the education policy and improve the quality of teaching everywhere, even beyond Education City. However, it is difficult to do that immediately, he explained.
Security is another factor that is important. His administration has set up some networks in the state, but 15 per cent of his area is still beyond his governance. “It is impossible to bring about change overnight, isn’t it?” he asked. Nevertheless, the City of Education in Dantewada is a strong and vibrant symbol of change that has happened speedily. The excitement latent here is palpable and infectious too.