Article by S. Giridhar first published at: http://www.firstpost.com/india/scraped-knees-and-spirited-minds-how-an-uttarakhand-girls-school-defied-odds-to-become-kabaddi-champion-4212803.html
The Azim Premji Foundation has been working to contribute to improving quality of government schools through its field institutes across a number of districts in six states. The author visited nine schools in the Ganga Valley blocks of Uttarkashi district between 21 and 24 August and ten schools in Yamuna Valley between 11 and 15 September.
Our visit to schools in the Yamuna valley in Uttarkashi district in the Garhwal Himalayas coincided with the annual sports festival organized by the education department. While this meant that we had to adjust our school visits to accommodate the sports schedule, it also provided us the opportunity to understand the context of sports in government schools in these areas, with vignettes that were poignant, uplifting and occasionally brilliant.
Among the many schools we visited, only two had a decent playground. While keeping this fact in mind, one must remember that in hilly areas, it is difficult to create a playground. In Uttarkashi, given its granite-rock formation, even the small school courtyard is rough and uneven. The terrain is such that it is a challenge to play ball games since the ball rolls rapidly down the steep slopes. And so, most schools largely focus on kho-kho and kabaddi.
With this brief preamble, let me narrate the story of Girls Upper Primary School in Damta village, which is a short but steep climb off the road. We went there because this school has been doing remarkably well in kabaddi; champions at block and district level and going right up to the state championship. We learnt a lot more than just the reasons for their excellence in kabaddi. For, what we saw and heard provided us a precious appreciation of how a good school can be a life-changing experience for girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There are 105 girls enrolled in Damta Kanya Upper Primary and of these 64 are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, while 38 belong to the OBC category. It is fascinating to learn from Durgesh Nandini, the head teacher of the school, how these girls happen to study at Damta: “There are 17 villages around Damta and these villages send their boys to study in the private schools at Damta. The boys have to take up rooms in Damta and so the parents send their sisters to cook and look after them. These are the girls who join Damta Girls School. For my co-teachers and me, our mission is to make school a life changing experience for these girls.”
One cannot miss the mission statement prominently displayed on Damta’s notice board. It says ‘all round development through a balance of scholastics, sports, arts and culture.’ It is a recently-established school—as recent as 2011—and Durgesh has been there from the beginning as the head teacher. It may sound clichéd, but life for Durgesh revolves around the lives of the girls who study in her school. She is in her mid-forties and joined the education department twenty years ago after her M.Sc. and B.Ed. She is not a native of the hills but is from the plains, near Lucknow. For years, she has seethed at the patriarchal attitude of society towards girls and their education, but she is also a person with a positive frame of mind who channels her anger and energy constructively energy into making Kanya Upper Primary a special place. It is, in her words, a life with a fresh new mission and purpose.
Supported superbly by her two colleagues, Durgesh is trying to ensure an appropriate balance between academic and other activities that will develop all-round capabilities in her students. Talking to the articulate and confident 12 to 14-year-old girls at Damta Kanya School, it is obvious that Durgesh is translating her vision into reality through action. Her attempt is for the students to develop self-confidence, poise and the ability to face and solve the problems that they come across in their life. Each of the 105 girls receives personal attention and this translates into extra hours every evening after the close of school, for Durgesh and her colleagues, as they help the children. Language learning is given expression through encouragement for original compositions and poetry writing, while the use of maps in the social science classrooms is in a manner one will not see often in schools.
Even as the teachers are paying attention to academics, they are also pulling together various initiatives to enable the girls to express themselves in sports, literature and the fine arts. “Mind and body’ is an expression that Durgesh is fond of using frequently. When she came to know of a good trainer for judo and karate, she persuaded him to come and teach this sport to her students. And then she focused on developing a team for kabaddi. Contributing money from their pockets, Durgesh and her colleagues have purchased lezim sets, dumb-bells and judo-dresses. In fact Durgesh and her colleagues end up contributing on an average around Rs. 1500 every month for various things ranging from teaching learning material to personal needs of the students. She believes that every child has a talent and therefore cultural activities go hand in hand with judo, karate and kabaddi. If one visits Damta on a Saturday, one will realize that it is a ‘no studies day’ and is exclusively for games, music, art and theatre.
It is rare that the person who prepares and serves the mid-day meal in government schools is aware of the school and its activities. At Damta, the ‘bhojan-mata’ – the lady who prepares and serves the mid-day meal – is an integral member of Durgesh’s team and this will be obvious to anyone who chats with her as she explains the vision of the school and its activities.
Since the girls at Kanya Upper Primary are at a pre-adolescent/ adolescent stage, Durgesh encourages them to ask questions about anything that they are curious or concerned about. Durgesh says they ask her questions that they would hesitate to ask their mothers. Leadership among students has evolved organically, says Durgesh. A student with an interest in health and medicine, takes responsibility to maintain the health register, while the girls who are outstanding at kabaddi coach the school team.
Damta School’s kabaddi team has gone up through Cluster, Block and District to win awards at the state level. Its students have represented Uttarakhand in national tournaments. When we called out students who have represented block, district or state, more than a dozen girls stepped out. These champions play and practice on a school courtyard that is so uneven that odd granite rocks jut out. We asked, ‘how many of you have scraped knees?’ and with a laugh, all hands went up. As we leave, Durgesh tells us, ‘The posting to Kanya Junior School is a god-given gift’.