The Digantar schools offer an education in life to children who are unprivileged in every sense
Jasleen Kaur | October 6, 2010
When a doctoral student in mathematics and his would-be wife, a post-graduate in sociology, joined Digantar, which means a change in direction, they were sure they wanted to be part of this experiment in alternative schooling. Thirty-two years on, having opened four such schools providing free education to some 650 students a year, Rohit and Reena Dhankar are by no means the only ones who can look back with satisfaction at their chosen path in life.
Rohit and Reena Dhankar gave up their lives in Jaipur to teach in a village
With 380 girls and 269 boys enrolled in their two senior secondary schools in Bandhyali village and a primary school each in Ritwali and Kho villages, the couple have earned lasting gratitude of the people in this economically and socially backward region near Jaipur where parents, mainly muslims and the rest dalit hindus, seldom sent their daughters to school. Nothing illustrates the success of this couple’s missionary zeal better than the fact that girls actually outnumber the boys in their schools.
But this transformation has neither been easy nor inevitable. It all began when Jaipur-based Jitender Pal Singh, a Doon School alumnus and his British wife Faith Hardy, the duo that had launched the handloom apparel brand Anokhi, found out that there was no school which could provide a real world education to their three children. Public schools, such as the one Singh had attended, were out, they had decided. Digantar was thus born, with Rohit Dhankar and Reena Das as the only two teachers who taught the three children and a few others who joined later. The school was patterned after the alternative schooling model pioneered by the British educationist David Horsburgh, who had been running a few centres under his Neel Bagh Trust and who offered to train the teachers at Digantar. Dhankar trained under Horsburgh near Bangalore, but comprising as he did 50 percent of the teaching force he had to wrap up his two-year training within nine months.
“Children back home had no school to attend, so I had to return mid-way through my training,” he recalls.
“I was quite dissatisfied with the primary education in our country,” says Dhankar, “But I did not have an idea as to what the ingredients of a good school should be.” His training under the master educationist filled in these vital gaps and proved to be quite an eye-opener. “From cleaning the classroom to interacting with children, everything was part of the training programme. Teachers were encouraged to participate in the co-curricular activities and were trained to provide a conducive environment to children to boost their holistic growth,” he says.
When Singh’s children finished their schooling and moved to England for further studies, the school that had been created especially for them also eventually shut down. But the two teachers were by now wedded to the idea of alternative schooling forever. So, in 1986, Rohit and Reena Dhankar packed up their lives in Jaipur and moved to Bandhyali, a village on the city’s fringes where they opened the first rural Digantar school, Bandhyalishala.
Today, girls outnumber boys at the school
For the villagers, it represented the antithesis of what they had heard about schools and schooling. It was based on the alternative education programme which functions on ungraded classroom teaching. The students sit in a classroom but are not graded. There is a curriculum, but it is not divided in a syllabus. The idea behind the school, Dhankar says, was to give freedom to children to learn the way they chose to. The goal was to make the children self-motivated and independent learners, so the accent was on teaching them to think critically.
While the Singh family had funded the project for eight years since 1978, Horsburgh too pitched in by providing funds for the next two years. But once the Dhankars moved out of Jaipur, it was time to look for money elsewhere. “We understood that for sustainability, dependence on one family was not a good idea,” says Dhankar. So, in 1987, the couple formed the non-profit society, Digantar Shiksha Evam Khelkud Samiti, and approached the ministry of human resource development to get funds under the Financial Assistance to Innovative and Experimental Projects scheme. Initially, the ministry gave an annual sum of Rs 1.92 lakh, but over time the funding increased to Rs 18 lakh per annum, thanks to which the number of schools went up to four and classes were added up to eighth standard.
“It was a new concept and people were sceptical whether it will work or not. Initially we managed to admit only 50 children,” says Dhankar. Reena remembers how the girls would stay at home while boys made their way to school. “Families here would hold on to regressive beliefs. No one wanted to send their daughters to school. Then we saw a solution in sending our own daughter there. We adjusted the school timings so that the girls could come,” she says.
Funds from the government were both a relief and a headache, says Dhankar. “It’s not easy to take money from the government. Many a time funds were delayed.” But the project pulled on government assistance till 2002 when the funding was abruptly scrapped. That was a difficult time, the couple recalls, but it did not last long as within four months ‘Asha for Education’, a group of Indians in the US came forward to fund the project for a year. Since then, the project has been receiving funds from the ICICI Bank’s Centre for Elementary Education (ICEE).
A cap on funds and parents’ unwillingness to send adolescent wards forced the school to have classes only up to the eighth grade. For further studies, boys went to neighbouring towns but the girls did not have any choice. It was in 2006, when a group of 20 girls approached the Dhankars and requested them that the schools added classes beyond the eighth standard.
Nineteen-year-old Khateeja Sheikh was among those 20 girls. Along with her friends, she went door to door to convince the families to continue to send their daughters to school. “Sometimes we told them that the other families are ready, so you also send your daughter,” she says. And later, when everyone agreed, Digantar was extended till senior secondary.
The teachers include even former students such as Aamna, who passed out senior secondary in 2000 and was immediately married. “My parents were very supportive and allowed me to study but my husband was initially against it,” she says. But when she met Reena again in 2006, she got inspiration to study further. She completed her BA in 2008, after which she started teaching at Bandhyalishala. “I earn Rs 8,000 while my husband gets only Rs 5,000,” says Aamna, who is managing her teaching job alongside caring for her three children. What’s more, the first girl in her village to have studied till graduation, she is now pursuing her MA as well. “I want to continue teaching. I feel happy working here,” she smiles.
Aamna came back to teach at the ame school she had studied at
Dhankar says it is a myth created by the government that parents do not want to send their children to school. “We never held that true. We found that they do want to send their children to school, provided the school is good enough, especially for girls, because these villages are very traditional.”
Over time, along with the four schools, Digantar also came to develop curriculum material and run workshops for education workers, besides conducting education research and running projects including Shiksha Samarthan in Jaipur and Sandarbh Shala Project in Chittorgarh, among others.
As each batch beyond the tenth standard continues to include many girls who are the first members of their families to reach this level, the Dhankars know they must carry on with their mission.
Education comes first
Asifa wants to become a social worker when she grows up, betraying a maturity well beyond her age. But then, this 17-year-old twelfth grader has been through a lot more than the usual teenager.
A year and a half ago, her parents got her married -- along with a sister and an aunt to save costs, since her father, the sole earner, could not afford separate weddings. Asifa appreciated her father’s predicament, but she rebelled, not just against the illegal marriage but also against her impending withdrawal from the local school, Bandhyalishala. Even before the marriage, her in-laws had expressed their “wish” that her education be discontinued – something to which her parents readily acquiesced.
She eventually did have to get married but wrested two years to finish school. Her eagerness to study was rare – her will to fight for it was rarer still. So impressed were her teachers by her resolve that they joined her battle and hours of pitching, pleading and negotiating later, her parents reluctantly gave their consent to her finishing school.
Asifa, and her mother Muftida are a happy lot - at least for the time being
“I am illiterate, but I am proud that all my daughters go to school,” says Muftida, her mother, “People in our village are quick to talk. Can you imagine sending your girl to school in such a place? But with Digantar, it is different. It is safe.
Muftida’s only fear is that she may not be able to convince her daughter’s in-laws to allow her to study further when she goes to stay with her husband.
“I asked ammi to request them to allow me to study. They refused. But I’ll study from home,” says the teenager married to a primary-school dropout.
At 17, such guts need guidance and Asifa found it at Bandhyalishala. Just as many others have done before her since the school was set up.
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