They have no electricity but they have enthusiasm. They have no lunch during the seven hours that they are there but they have a thirst for knowledge. Thirty kilometers from Patna, the capital of the State of Bihar, a three-kilometre dirt track leads to Anugraha Narain Sarvodaya High School in the middle of paddy fields. A wide-angled view reveals little else in the surroundings. A few bicycles are indicators that there is activity inside the building.
The school has been there for over 50 years and it is now being proposed as a “model school” for Bihar with increased funding allocation from the Government of Bihar. There are nine teachers but only two functional classrooms, so seven teachers sit around while two take classes. The Principal, Binita Richards, is one of the 170 Teacher Educators under the Bihar Language Initiative for Secondary Schools (BLISS), being run by the British Council in partnership with DFID and the Government of Bihar. She is keen to practice what she has learnt. She travels sixty kilometres every day to do that, ahead of time as the school bell rings, a ready reference point for the 500 students who clutch on to the little that they have in terms of access to education.
“Out of 300 students who take the school leaving exam every year, almost 50% succeed,” she says wiping her forehead with one hand and fanning herself with a palm leaf fan with the other. “Our alumni consist of doctors, engineers and bankers and that’s because they have a tremendous desire to learn”. The two classrooms are full. Crowded benches, frayed tables. The girls and boys are poring over their books undistracted by our presence in the corridor.
Binita enters a classroom and begins an activity-based lesson. There is no space for group work, so she opts for pair work instead. There’s a buzz and she gets a quick response whenever she asks a question. She moves around the class and supports a pair that looks a bit lost. The sound of a Kohler portable generator next to the classroom drowns her voice so she has to double her effort to be heard.
The generator supports the computer room, the only place that has electricity, and internet connectivity, in the premises. There are a dozen computer terminals and a brand new plasma screen. Bijayendra Kumar Dubey, the computer teacher, has a Masters Degree in Computers Applications from the Indira Gandhi National Open University. He teaches them how to write emails, do spreadsheets and prepare documents. The students have two computer classes per week and they adapt to it like duck to water.
“All high schools students are given Rs 2500 by the Government to buy a bicycle”, says Binita. “Some of them were enrolling in two schools to get two bicycles but the new rule is that you have to have 75% attendance in a school to get one,” she adds. Priya Kumari, a student of class nine, still doesn’t have a bicycle as the required attendance is still a few months away, so she walks ten kilometres through the paddy fields, where her father tills the land, to attend class. Her six siblings go to primary school and she’s hopeful of making it to college. My colleague hands her a tablet pre-loaded with British Council English lessons. Her classmates crowd around and it takes them only a few minutes to figure out how to use it.
“What if all them had a tablet?” my colleague thinks aloud. What if…? We leave with that vision of India in our minds, battered by heat and dust but inspired by those young people who believe that their only hope in life is through education.