Friday, June 3, 2011

[ZESTCaste] School dignifies the children of squalor in Patna, eastern India

The Irish Times - Friday, June 3, 2011
School dignifies the children of squalor in Patna, eastern India

POVERTY IN INDIA: The tireless efforts of one man have brought hope to
some Musahar untouchables, writes RAHUL BEDI

A SLIVER of hope has emerged recently for India's "untouchable"
Musahar rat-eating community in eastern Bihar state in the form of a
modest residential school that offers their severely deprived youth
not only free and competent education but, more importantly,
long-denied self-esteem.

In two identical buildings in Bihar's capital Patna, the five-year-old
Shoshit Samadan Kendra or School for the Welfare of the Exploited
provides some 200 young Musahar boys from squalid ghettoes with board
and lodging, uniforms, toiletries, books and even access to computers
at no charge.

"I was destined to raise pigs and live a life of wretchedness and
exploitation. But that destiny changed miraculously four years ago
after joining which for me has opened up a dream world of
possibilities," said 14-year-old Pappu Kumar last week. Dressed in his
crisp, white cotton uniform and knee-length stockings, he was barely
distinguishable from students of the nearby exclusive St Xavier's, the
city's oldest, Jesuit-run school.

The academically brilliant Kumar now looks forward to the
unimaginable: competing alongside Bihar's higher castes to join one of
the handful of Indian Institutes of Technology, the world-class
campuses whose alumni manage global firms.

"[We] aim to bring about a palpable revolution in the Musahar
community which has lived in subhuman conditions for centuries," said
the school's founder JK Sinha. He retired in 2005 as one of India's
top intelligence officers and returned home to found the Shoshit Seva
Sangh or Organisation for the Welfare of the Exploited that runs the

Pooling his savings with contributions from family and friends, Sinha
established Shoshit Samadan Kendra to uplift through education the
socially shunned Musahar community who ate infrequently and were
exploited as bonded labourers by upper-caste landlords and mahajans

Today, as in centuries past, the "untouchable" Musahar population of
four or five million is confined to foul-smelling ghettoes called
Mushairies or Musahar Tolis on the outskirts of many Bihar villages
without basic rights or privileges.

Being untouchables, they are considered outcasts and outside
Hinduism's rigid caste system – an ancient hereditary class order that
divides society into four categories. They are associated with
cleaning human waste, scavenging for animals and, at best, raising
pigs in soiled environments.

At the top of India's caste system are the Brahmins; at the bottom the
manual labourer Sudras; in between are the Kshatriyas or warriors and
the Vaishyas or traders below them. These antiquated gradations are
strictly enforced in Bihar, India's poorest and most regressive

The high-caste Sinha, however, believes it is not enough to give
Musahar children education: they must be empowered to become a
catalyst for change within their depressed community.

According to official figures, almost all Musahars are landless
labourers and barely 3 per cent of them are literate. Social activists
in Patna estimate that, under prevailing conditions, it would take the
Musahars a mind-boggling 4,419 years to achieve complete literacy.

Decades of deprivation, apartheid and usurious money lenders has
driven many Musahars to crime. A large number of their desperate youth
have joined the proliferating Maoist movement, active across large
parts of Bihar, to secure economic and social justice for the state's
poor and dispossessed through its "people's war".

The sheer hopelessness of the Musahar community was, in small
measures, revealed over four years ago through The Irish Times .
Following a report on its foreign pages, the newspaper paid off
45-year-old Jawahar Manjhi's debt of Rs 5,000 (€77) – he had laboured
to repay this for 27 years. Manjhi's initial loan in 1980 of 40kg of
rice for a family wedding from a money-lender in Paliganj 60km from
Patna turned him, like thousands of fellow Musahars, into a bonded
labourer on his patrons' rice fields.

At the time of securing the loan, it was agreed that for each day of
work on the money-lender's farm Manjhi would be paying back the
equivalent of 1kg of rice from the 40kg he had borrowed, making a
total workload of under six weeks.

But, Manjhi ended up borrowing additional rice to feed himself and his
family and, even after 27 years, being illiterate and disadvantaged
had no idea how much of his debt remained outstanding.

He continued toiling daily in inhuman conditions and searing hot
temperatures. Occasional inquiries regarding his balance resulted
either in severe beatings or starvation – or at times both.

Eventually, in 2006, he was told that a Rs 5,000 payment would
liberate him from his bond. However, this sum remained far beyond his
reach until The Irish Times paid his debt. Bihar's exploitative
money-lenders are unusually usurious, levying crippling monthly
interest rates of 10-20 per cent or 120-240 per cent per year,
rendering debtors wholly incapable of repaying their principal sum.

This, in turn, forces them, much like Manjhi, into a lifetime of
inhuman bondage. Women too are exploited, many of them sexually, and
low-caste children, mostly Musahars, become adults in servitude.

"Musahar children know only poverty and an aimless future which, in
some small way, we aim to mitigate through the school," elaborated
Sinha, who said the initial response to his proposal for a school for
them was sceptical.

The Musahars were unconvinced that this suave former police officer –
who had lived a highly glamourous life in foreign capitals as a spy –
could offer them an alternative to the ramshackle, state-run rural
schools they knew with no teachers or textbooks and where their
persecution as "untouchables" persisted.

But within two years, their attitude changed. In 2010, some 750
Musahar children appeared for the entrance examination for 50
placements in the school.

The medium of instruction is English, the language of social mobility
and guaranteed esteem in India.

The teacher/student ratio of 1:17 is significantly better than most
leading private schools and the instructors are conscientious and well

"By ensuring the quality of education we can change, in time, the
profile of poverty in the state," Sinha said.

"I was living in filth in a mud hut with no clothes, food or dignity,"
said 11-year-old Pankaj Kumar Manjhi who previously lived on Patna's
outskirts with his widowed mother. She earned Rs 25 (40 cent) a day –
but only during the crop sowing and harvesting season lasting barely
six to eight months each year.

For the remaining period, mother and son scoured Patna's mountainous
rubbish heaps for sustenance.

"All that is behind me now," said the seventh-class student who
aspires to become an engineer, a far cry from the city's garbage dumps
and inhuman environment. "I am somebody now and will become more
important," he added confidently.

Sinha, meanwhile, who rents the school's premises and plans to
increase to 55 his annual intake of students, is determined to soon
build his own school. Land has been acquired but construction funds
are needed.

He recently launched a campaign to raise Rs 55 million (€850,000) from
local and overseas corporate groups and non-governmental
organisations. He is optimistic of achieving his goal.

"It's a meagre sum to give an entire people dignity and to trigger a
cataclysmic change amongst Musahars," he declared.

"We owe it to them."

Series concluded


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