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

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

‘Bihar Suno Nahi, Dekho’: Two Women On A Journey To Change The Racist Stereotype Of Bihar

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“When you google Rajasthan, gorgeous pictures of castles or desert sunsets flood your screen. Links from travel websites pop up, most of which successfully mesmerise you with stories about ancient kings and lost kingdoms, sumptuous Thaalis and genial people. But, if you google Bihar, articles will pop up with headlines blaring ‘crime’, ‘scam’, ‘corruption’, ‘unsafe’ etc. Disturbing pictures and equally unsettling news rule the charts. As true-blue Biharis, we were shocked to the core when we came across an article on an international travel site, referring to Bihar as a ‘chaotic place, very unsafe for women and children’. Our hearts wanted to tell the world how flawed that notion was and how amazing Bihar actually is,” shares Yashi Malviya, one of the co-founders of Bihar Bytes – the first tourism start-up in the grossly misconstrued Indian state.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Yashi Malviya and her friend Sukriti Roy Yadav, two young journalists started Bihar Bytes in 2018 to take the unknown, the unseen and the unheard of Bihar to the world and dispel the stigma and racism around the quaint eastern state and her people. They are forerunners among women entrepreneurs in Bihar and they wish more youngsters to join their cause.

The misconception about Bihar

In a culturally diverse land like India, stereotypes about provinces and communities do exist. However, the stereotypes about Bihar is more negative than positive. “People in other states will interact with me with due respect and treat me normally. But, the moment they get to know I am from Bihar, they subtly start judging. They consider Bihar as a corrupt state, with peaking crime rates and lawlessness. It really pains us,” Yashi shares.

“Nobody would ever consider visiting Bihar on a trip, except for religious devotees who throng to Varanasi or Gaya,” she reveals the reality.

 

Travelling through 32 districts of Bihar

The state, unfortunately, fares quite low on the parameters of education, employment or industries – poverty being a primary reason. The youngsters either opt for government jobs or move out to build their career elsewhere. Entrepreneurship, for most, is still a far-fetched dream.

Yashi and Sukriti were almost on the verge of moving out of their home state in pursuit of better career prospects. But, their one Google search took their lives on an entirely different trajectory. “More than starting an offbeat travel website, we wanted to portray a different face of Bihar to the outsiders. With this in mind, we travelled through 32 districts of Bihar. Little did we know that a whole new world would open before us,” Yashi expresses.

The undiscovered destinations not on Google Maps

The duo visited off the grid places and unearthed heritage sites and panoramic locations which nobody was aware of. Many of these places did not exist on Google Maps until Yashi and Sukriti uploaded photos from there and marked it on the map. “Hardly anybody ever knew about the beautiful Kashish Waterfall in the Kaimur Hills of Bihar. Hidden from the maps, the place has a mysterious aura of its own. We have done an amazing drone shoot of the entire region and explorers from all over the world are pouring in their inquiries ever since,” she narrates. She adds that there are as many as fifty such waterfalls in the state which people are unaware of.

The two co-founders photographed and documented every little detail of their entire journey through unexplored fortresses, deserted townships, mythological locations and aboriginal settlements.

 

An ‘abandoned’ fort as magnificent Chittorgarh

“You know, there is the Rohtasgarh fort near the Son River valley, which we found to be as beautiful as the famous Chittorgarh fort of Rajasthan. Local folklore says that the Rohtasgarh fort was built by Rohitāśva, son of the legendary king Harishchandra. For the past few decades, rumours of the fort being inhabited by Naxalites has made it completely inaccessible to tourists and even local residents. Moreover, a popular media house did a blunder by randomly portraying the fort as ‘haunted’ – just to gain TRP. So, nobody ever comes here now,” Yashi informs.

When Yashi and Sukriti reached the fort after a tiring 4-km trek, they were graciously welcomed by a group of elated locals who were relaxing there. Though unmaintained, the two of them were left spellbound by the sheer magnificence of the fort. They had a similar experience at Raj Darbhanga palace as well.

“The ruins of Madhubani’s Rajnagar Palace resemble that of the Greek city Athens. There is an ancient temple in Dumraon Tehsil near Buxar, which was built identical to Greek Parthenon. Almost nobody knows about the Valmikinagar Tiger Reserve near Nepal border or about Sitamari, the mythical birthplace of Sita,” Yashi enlists a few of the many wonders of Bihar they discovered.

#BiharSunnoNahiDekho

At present, Bihar Bytes work as a travel blog which uses social media to invite travellers from across the globe. The response has been overwhelming till date, as the founders assert. They coined the hashtag #BiharSunnoNahiDekho which has gone viral. “Once a lady strongly expressed her disappointment about Bihar after knowing where we are from. When we asked her to tell us the reason, she said that she had just heard it. That’s when we decided to bust the myths through this hashtag,” explains Yashi.

When they streamed a Facebook Live video from Rohtasgarh Fort, within an hour the number of viewers crossed 55,000. Bihar Bytes has not had to look back ever since. Aside from individual tourists, many private enterprises are taking interest to come, explore and popularise Bihar. Non-residential Biharis are showering praises on Bihar Bytes. However, the founders admit that limited assistance from the government has not been of much help.

Their journey, especially as two women entrepreneurs or women solo travellers, has not been bereft of roadblocks. Being women, they also faced a lot of undue questions. But, Yashi and Sukriti strongly believe that Bihar has a lot of untapped tourism potential. It will open a huge opportunity for employment for the rural population. Bihar Bytes is striving towards achieving this.

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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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