Against all odds, the young and determined Varun Sharma has taken up the responsibility to bring electricity, education and empowerment to a remote tribal village in Odisha, says Manu A B.
‘Aagyan aapono kaali aasibey?’(Will you come tomorrow?)
Banita and Dineshbar anxiously ask Varun Sharma as he leaves the silent Suaba village tucked away in the rocky eastern ghats. Literally cut off from development, these kids have never seen a lighted house in their village, a proper school or any basic facility that children of their age elsewhere take for granted, and rightly deserve.
A post-graduate student from the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, Varun is to set to light up their lives.
For the Langia-Saura tribals of the village, so far untouched by any development programme of the government, electricity through solar panels is set to change their lives forever.
Varun has taken a break from his post graduate course for a year to be part of the SBI Youth for India fellowship programme. SBI Youth for India is a 13-month programme that gives a good opportunity to youngsters to work on rural development projects.
As part of the fellowship, he opted to work among the poor tribals in Suaba village in the Gajapati district of Odisha.
Once there, he joined hands with the community to initiate the re-opening of the school, bringing electricity and getting funds sanctioned for a motorable road.
Suaba is one of 8,749 villages in Odisha, where people don’t have access to electricity. The village does not have a fully-functional school, a hospital or even a road connecting the nearest town.
After sunset, everyone in the village is huddled inside their small thatched huts, children go to sleep early and nothing much can be done till the next day. There have been many instances of death from snake bites.
Old people have died as they cannot be taken to the nearest hospital which is 55 kilometres away, in Rayagada.
The nearest public health centre is eight kilometres away but it remains open only for a few hours in the morning.
Since then, Varun has been working tirelessly with the NGO Gram Vikas and community leaders for the last six months to make Suaba a better place to live in.
“The first day I walked up the steep rocky path to reach the dusty and impoverished village on top of the mountain, I could not believe my eyes. We keep hearing about the bad state of education, roads and creaky infrastructure in villages but to actually see the sad plight of people was heart-breaking. We all love to preach but never like to do anything substantial so I decided to make a difference,” says Varun.
To reach the village, one has to climb up the steep eight-kilometre rocky stretch from the nearest village, Koinpur, which is at the foothill.
After decades of negligence, the tribal hamlet with 230 members including 45 children, finally has a ray of hope as Varun Sharma’s efforts are bearing fruit.
“The solar project to bring electricity to all the households will cost Rs 500,000. We have managed to raise Rs 80,000 through crowd funding. An agency has agreed to fund half the cost, that is Rs 250,000. We are looking forward to garnering more funds to make this project a reality. SBI’s CSR initiative may also contribute towards this good cause. But we require good financial support to get the school running as well,” says Varun, who is optimistic of the project’s success.
Schneider Electric has agreed to arrange the solar panels and materials to set up the electrification, while Gram Vikas will take care of the implementation and maintenance aspects.
“Our idea is to provide three lights to each house in the village. This will help women work in the kitchen and children can study at night as well,” says Varun.
Passionate about languages, the first step for Varun was to master the language -- Odiya. Once the community realised that Varun was their saviour, each kid took on the responsibility of teaching him Odiya. Even while talking they corrected him while he made any mistake. Now he has even managed to learn words in ‘Saura’, the local language.
Once he learnt the language, Varun started teaching the children. “Like any other children, they too are fast learners and keen to learn. We have to implement a multilingual language framework in such villages so that the children start learning in their mother tongue. It’s easier for children to learn fast if the medium of instruction is their mother tongue. There is no script for the Saura language but to make the children understand the teacher needs to be fluent in both Saura and Odiya languages. It is important to contextualise the curriculum to imbibe the inherent culture,” Varun elaborates.
The villagers had been struggling in vain for the last four years to get the school running. After a district education officer ordered that locals cannot be appointed as teachers in their own village, the school stopped functioning. It is not practical for an outsider to come to the village walking 8 kilometres everyday.
“In the whole village, there are only a very few who can read or write. Some youngsters who have migrated to nearby towns to work as security guards don’t even know simple addition. They can be easily exploited by the people who employ them,” says Varun.
After several rounds of meetings at the village community level, Varun took on the initiative of meeting the district collector as well. It took months of persuasion even at the village level to convince people, including the lady sarpanch, to stand together and work for the community’s benefit.
“We selected four women and two men from the village to present the case in front of the collector and other senior government officials. We took four days to prepare them for the big day. They presented the facts and state of affairs so well that the collector immediately said they will take action and passed guidelines to the district education officer for restarting the school,” Varun said.
Though no action was taken to renovate the school, a teacher was appointed so students are back in school. The school is supposed to take students from grades one to seven.
The dilapidated school building is a haunting memory for Varun, who is striving hard to get the funds allocated to renovate it as well.
The families who depend on agriculture and hunting have a meagre income of around just Rs 1000-1500 per month.
For the last six months, Suaba has become Varun’s second home. Initially, he found the trek to the village arduous and tiring but seeing the response of students whom he taught the basics of language and maths, he was overwhelmed.
“Every morning a group of students used to wait for me at a certain point on the mountain. Their faces would light up seeing me and would accompany me to the village. Every evening, they would come till that point to say goodbye,” recalls Varun fondly.
During a meeting one evening, a villager asked him to sing a song.
“I started singing and each one of them joined in. Usually they sleep by 9 pm. But that day we went to sleep only at 2 am. Despite such a harsh life, it’s so motivating to see how happy they are. The next day I woke up hearing their laughter,” Varun says.
Opposition from parents was a small hurdle he had to face. Like others, his parents too were sceptical about his working in a village.
“My parents like many of us have a misconception that NGOs don’t work well. But it’s not true. There are many people who are working hard in these remote villages. Gram Vikas is doing a good job as well,” Varun points out.
Emphasising the need to have great mental strength, Varun says one has to forget about financial security to be successful in rural development. "All of us can and must contribute towards such social initiatives, even if it's a small gesture, as it can make a big difference for the less privileged. If you keep worrying about buying a house or a car or keep thinking about a stable income, you can only live like any other human beings who love to preach about doing good and end up doing nothing. I don’t even know if I will be able to buy a cycle but these things don’t matter to me as long as I can bring even a small change in the lives of poor people,” he explains.
Ask about family life and he laughs, "Marriage depends on how understanding your partner will be and how willing both partners will be able to adjust and live with a low income, maybe she will earn more than me. It depends."
After he completes his Masters, Varun has plans to improve the living conditions of tribal communities, make education easily accessible and make them self-reliant in building stronger, vibrant and resourceful communities.
If you wish to join the movement to bring about a change in rural India, you can send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs, courtesy: Varun Sharma