In Chattisgarh’s Tribal Villages, Kids Affected By Naxal Violence Now Strive To Be Doctors & Teachers

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Four years ago, 53 children in the Naxal-affected district of Sukma, Chhattisgarh were handed over blank papers and asked to draw anything that comes to their mind. The children, all around 9 or 10 years of age, poured their heart out with pencils and crayons. The volunteer teachers, most of whom hailed from urban parts of India, expected to see the quintessential villages, rivers, hills, birds and trees coming alive on the sheets. Little did they know that they were in for a shock. Seven of the 53 students depicted scenes from their village fairs and folk festivals. And all of the remaining 47 students had painted scenes of violence, dead bodies, explosions, combat and what not.

For decades, Sukma has been notorious for heavy Naxalite infestation. In 2012, nearly 40,000 kids were out of school, spending a childhood filled with fear of violence, chaos and poverty.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

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Fast forward today, nearly 25,000 of them are receiving a regular and proper education, all credits to a young engineer who quit his corporate job to be beside these helpless children, in one of the most inaccessible and underdeveloped parts of the country.

Forsaking the comfort of a cushy job

Shiksharth, an NGO working with thousands of conflict-affected children in the remotest districts Sukma and Bijapur in Chattisgarh, was founded by Ashish Shrivastava around four years ago.

Ashish, who hails from a predominantly urban background, decided to leave his cushy job in Delhi about a decade ago. “I always wanted to teach young kids. Besides, the Delhi lifestyle was not appealing to me. So, I quit my job and started travelling across the remotest districts of India,” shares Ashish, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.

It was Ashish’s visit to Dantewada, one of the most infamous Naxal-affected zones, that shook him to the core. The tribal population in these forested hinterlands were in a way completely isolated from modern facets of the society.

The poverty & lawlessness turned kids to violence

Nestled in the lap of nature, their shabby huts and cold hearths spoke of abject poverty. They lived their days in terror, anticipating violent attacks or combat between the extremists and military forces.

Amidst all this turmoil, the education of the kids suffered drastically. Schools were closed down. The ones which were still active had very few teachers. Most children would grow up illiterate and they were easily contrived into militancy, taking up guns and bombs at an age when they should have been holding pens and textbooks.

“I felt a dire need for an intervention. Something, however little it might be, that can change the future scenario,” recalls Ashish now.

It wasn’t a warm welcome from the tribal community

He was well aware that the local community was quite averse to outsiders. Still, overcoming his fear and hesitation, Ashish embarked on a door-to-door mission in Sukma, to find out the actual situation.

“I saw orphaned children whose parents were victims of Naxalite violence. Parents were sending their five or six-year-olds to shelter homes to protect them. The kids had little idea of how beautiful childhood can be,” reveals Ashish.

“I had endless roadblocks to convince myself to go back to the usual life and leave these children the way they are. The villagers were quite reluctant to interact with city folks like me. In addition, the language barrier made communication almost impossible. Still, I persisted. I desperately wanted to save those kids from drowning into an abyss of uncertainty. I wanted to educate and mentor them into ideal future citizens. So, I stayed back,” he narrates.

Starting Shiksharth & changing lives

Armed with the motto to provide a service with solution, Ashish started Shiksharth – an academic foundation which intervenes in the existing government schools in the area to restructure their curriculums as well as improve the pedagogy.

Presently, Shiksharth is directly involved with over 3000 children and indirectly, with assistance from regional bureaucrats, they have reached out to around 25,000 more children all over Sukma and Bijapur. In these past three years, the organisation has helped reopen 85 primary schools in the area and are hoping to take the number to 100 by the end of 2019.

The unique pedagogy at Shiksharth

In a place where internet is a luxury, Ashish had to resort to old school methods to spread the word about his initiative. The children became their ambassadors with uninitiated families, unwilling to send their kids to school out of fear.

The way Shiksharth functions is indeed interesting as their focus lies on making any subject or topic contextually relevant. Ashish explains, “In our childhood, we learnt A for Aeroplane, B for Ball etc. Kids here have not even seen a highway in their life, let alone an aeroplane. So, if their textbooks teach A for Aeroplane, how will they relate? We have changed that to A for Arrow, a common equipment in their community.”

Shiksharth has introduced numerous contextual alterations which now kindle the kids’ interest in education. They are asked to pen essays on the local festivals and natural wonders, rather than an abrupt essay on, perhaps, the Qutb Minar. In Maths, we teach them basic addition and subtraction with local Mahua fruits. For senior students, the sales profits of the same fruit are used to teach arithmetic. Science for them means conducting physics and chemistry experiments with local resources or observing the plants and animals around them.

Shiksharth Fellowship

The Shiksharth fellowship invites young changemakers from all over India to devote a year to teach the kids in Sukma and Bijapur. Right now, 15 dedicated volunteers are involved in the 2019 fellowship programme.

For Ashish, it has been no cakewalk to work in these core conflict zones. In fact, he himself had seen quite a few dangerous encounters from close quarters. Initially, as an outsider, his identity was recorded and his activities were monitored by the Naxalites.

Roadblocks and achievements

He admits to have received gracious support from senior government officials, however, funding still continues to be his main struggle. Unlike other NGOs operational in villages, unfortunately, most CSRs are unwilling to involve themselves with these conflict-affected communities.

Ashish Shrivastava’s work is little known, but his tireless and fearless endeavours should indeed be lauded far and wide. For him, development is not concrete roads or skyscrapers, but food, medicine and education – the basic tenets of survival with dignity. And he has sacrificed his privileges to achieve the same. Efforts For Good wishes Ashish continue to inspire and transform more lives.

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- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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