'I want to make the government realise that they are not empowering Dalits by giving them free goats or hens; what they need is good education.'
Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com reports on an unusual educational project in a Kerala village.
A socially committed Indian has created a model in a Dalit colony in Palakkad to help students study, a model worth replicating all over the country.
The man behind the initiative is Sajith Kumar CD, an engineer currently working in Oman.
In the mid-1990s, when Sajith was a student at the NSS Engineering College in Palakkad, he visited a Dalit colony to attend a wedding.
This visit was a turning point in his life.
"This Dalit colony in Kongappadam village was just one kilometre away from our college, but to my shock, I came to know that only one student from the colony had gone to college after Independence, which I felt was a shame!" he recalls.
"Imagine just one college student! Only 4, 5 students from the colony had passed the 10th standard. Not even one person from the colony had the qualification to be even a helper in the anganwadi," Sajith adds.
"They were so isolated, as if they were not part of the rest of society."
When he visited his college a dozen odd years later for an alumni meet, he realised that while the rest of the country and even Kongappadam village had moved ahead, the Dalit colony had remained stagnant.
Nothing appeared to have changed in their lives; the students still dropped out of school, parents still worked as coolies and the children joined them after they discontinued their studies.
Kerala is said to be the most literate state where almost all students get primary education, but Sajith discovered that the situation in the Dalit colony in Kongappadam was not an isolated case.
The condition of the more than 25,000 Dalit colonies all across Kerala was the same.
Dalit lives had not changed much in 70 years while the rest of Kerala marches ahead at a brisk pace.
The Congress and Left parties have ruled Kerala all these decades, Sajith wondered, why are these Dalits still marginalised?
Why have their needs been ignored?
Why have their lives not changed at all?
Why do their children drop out of school?
"These Dalits have no idea about what is happening in the world outside," says Sajith. "They live in a cocoon. It is not their fault that they are not part of society; the rest of society is responsible for their sad plight."
That was why he decided to find a solution to the problem, a way to socialise the Dalits and make them part of society.
The best possible way, he felt, was to empower Dalit students, helping them get an elementary education.
"Socialising happens only when they go out for higher education. When they do not even have elementary education, how do you expect them to go for higher education and socialise?" he asks.
"My intention was to create a model that I could present before the government and tell them (ministers and bureaucrats) that if given proper guidance, these students would succeed and perform as well as any other student."
"I wanted to make the government realise that they are not empowering Dalits by giving them free goats or hens; what they need is good education. For the government, giving something free is an easy way out. They are not ready to try any innovative methods."
In 2013, Sajith decided to start a free tuition centre for Classes 8, 9 and 10 in science, maths and English. He named the project Ente Kongappadam (My Kongappadam).
He sought the help of Professor Suresh, his professor at the engineering college where he had studied, and the professor in turn selected good, socially conscious, students from the college to take classes.
Sajith also met Srividya, the only graduate student from the Dalit colony. Srividya was ready to join the project as a teacher.
He then sought the local anganwadi's permission to locate the classes inside its premises in the morning and in the evening.
Sajith Kumar, who was working in Qatar at that time, paid the teachers a token salary every month and spent an average of Rs 8,500 for this.
But it was not easy to make the Dalit parents send their children to the tuition centre.
There was both hostility and suspicion in the minds of the parents and the rest of the colony.
They wondered why a man from Kozhikode wanted to start a free tuition centre for Dalit students in Palakkad.
They suspected his intentions and some even spread rumours that the tuition centre would be used for anti-social activities.
Sajith was not discouraged and ignored the nasty rumours.
Seventeen students joined the first batch at Ente Kongappadam. Five of them were Class 10 students. As Sajith had expected, all the five passed Class 10 standard with good grades. The results were encouraging for Sajith, the teachers and also the students.
<p"It was all due to the sincere efforts of the teachers that we could achieve such good results. Till then, nobody was there to take care of the studies of these children; neither the parents nor the school teachers," he says.
"We wanted the students to be at the centre in the morning and evening and study with the help of the teachers as the atmosphere at home is generally not conducive to study. You can call it community learning. I was not doing any charity; I was only exposing them to a culture of education."
He then installed a television set and established Internet connectivity at the centre so that the students were exposed to what was happening around the world.
In five years, 38 students from the colony have passed Class 10. Some of them are now in college; others are doing diplomas in engineering.
Sajith's ultimate goal is to see at least one Dalit student from the colony join an engineering college.
Unfortunately, local party politics and rumour-mongers saw to it that the anganwadi was shut down. For want of a location to conduct classes, the tuition centre stopped functioning this year.
Sajith present the Ente Kongappadam model at the Loka Kerala Sabha two-day conference of non-resident Malayalees organised by the Kerala government in January. Many MLAs hailed his work -- and two MLAs wanted him to implement the project in their wards.
"I urged the state government to stop giving free goats and hens to Dalit families. I said the government should provide them with opportunities to study," Sajith says.
"These students are denied good education from quality teacher, and lag behind because nobody is paying any personal attention to their needs."
"Education is the best gift the political system can give these youngsters."
"If we can successfully create a model for a small group with our limited resources," he points out, "the government can do it even more forcefully and effectively with greater results."