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.
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.