For Swapnil Tembe, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer serving as the sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Dadenggre civil subdivision, in the remote West Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, education has always been a priority. It began with a stint at the Central Secretariat, where he was attached to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).
SDO Tembe was a beneficiary of a system instituted by the Government of India in 2015, whereby officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) would serve on deputation with the Central Secretariat. They would work under the designation of assistant secretary for a three-month assignment as part of their rigorous training regime.
IAS officers were previously only permitted to go on a deputation once assigned to the Central Secretariat after nine years of service in their home cadre.
However, policymakers noted that the experience of central functions was severely lacking among these deputations, resulting in this change in their (IAS officers) training system.
For the 2015-batch IAS officer, a purposeful stint with the MHRD was a “great learning experience” where fellow officers closely deliberated on the nuances of education policy. He understood first-hand the role that governments can play on the ground in facilitating improvements.
Speaking to The Better India, SDO Tembe says, “When I joined as the SDO (Civil) Dadenggre, the first thing I wanted to see were the government schools. Every morning we would start early before office hours to inspect a few schools.”
To put it mildly, the first impressions weren’t great. Schools were in a dilapidated state, particularly those government-run lower primary (LP) units.
“A typical LP school here would have 2-3 rooms at most, 2-3 teachers and around 30-40 children. Given the lack of space and teachers, students of all classes are packed into a single room. The ambience is non-existent, and the aesthetics are a foreign phenomenon. However, the formality of education crawls forward—the word ‘forward’ really being debatable here,” he says.
SDO Tembe emphasises that although this is the status of most government-run schools in rural and remote areas, the problem is particularly worse in the hilly terrains of the Northeast, where the population is scattered even across a single village.
“The reasons are simple to understand. Most students are first generation learners, and their parents never went to school. Thus, there is no strong demand for quality education. The places are still very rural and remote with connectivity and access to electricity major concerns,” he says.
What are the solutions?
Well, for starters the West Garo Hills District administration under Deputy Commissioner Ram Singh, had already begun conceptualising a campaign called Project STAR (School Transformation by Augmenting Resources) to address improvements in school infrastructure, among other things.
As the name suggests, this project envisions a convergence platform whereby the administration and local populace pool their resources to improve existing strands of the education vertical.
A perennial concern, particularly in the education sector across remote districts in the Northeast, is the shortage in financial resources. The burden on the public exchequer is high.
“One of the objectives under Project STAR is to improve the infrastructure of government schools. Apart from dovetailing several other schemes to achieve this objective, we thought of acquiring resources through crowdfunding and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. We also engaged several officers from different departments to undertake counselling sessions in schools. This they did on a voluntary basis. Thus, Project STAR has several dimensions like counselling, infrastructure improvement, teacher training, etc.,” says SDO Tembe.
Running with the spirit of Project STAR, Tembe decided to show the way forward by adopting the Songadingre Lower Primary School in Dadenggre sub-division.
The school has about 30 students, 2 teachers and just 2 classrooms as of now.
“The Songadingre Anganwadi building was also next to it, and it has around 20 children coming regularly. So, we thought why not renovate this as well. Their buildings were very old and in a shattered state. The furniture was also not also in a good shape. I thought by adopting this school and making this into a model school; others would be motivated to do the same. My motivation came from our Honorable CM Shri Conrad Sangma, who donated a month’s salary to renovate a school in Nongstoin,” he adds.
Besides donating two months of his salary amounting to Rs 1.5 lakh, this IAS officer conducted a crowdfunding campaign on Milaap, where his administration collected a little over Rs 2 lakh. He shared the campaign on his Facebook timeline and requested friends and followers to donate and share this initiative. Donations have come from across the country and even abroad. In just ten days, the crowdfunding campaign achieved its stated goal.
What were the objectives of collecting these funds?
“The objectives were to renovate and repair the buildings, beautify them, put up murals on education to motivate children to come every day and enjoy their education emphasise that good infrastructure is a must in educational institutions and motivate other citizens to play their part. #AdoptASchool is one component of Project STAR which we wanted to highlight with this initiative,” says SDO Tembe.
Thus far, the administration has revamped and renovated two buildings. “The floor was broken so we re-did the floor. We also repaired the roof which used to leak in the rainy season. We changed the broken doors and windows, and also changed the benches. We painted the walls and beautified them with murals. The same was done for the Anganwadi room as well,” the IAS officer adds.
This time, the administration has sought to renovate the existing structure. In the next phase of this #AdoptASchool initiative, they are working on constructing additional classrooms. Another way of addressing the infrastructure problem is to rationalise the number of schools and their location.
“A few small schools with minimal enrolment that are located next to each other can be combined, and resources can be pooled to make a model school. Rajasthan has done this in a wonderful manner, and we can replicate their model with a few changes,” adds SDO Tembe.
Having said that, the impact of donating his own salary and the crowd-funding campaign has been instant. It’s similar to the work he did with another Anganwadi that the local administration had renovated earlier. You can read our story about how the administration achieved this goal here.
“The children want to come every day. They have smiles on their faces when they think of their school, and the teachers are motivated now to teach in nice rooms with good infrastructure. This has had a definitive impact on the decreasing absenteeism and the dropout rate. Several local people have also contributed to the campaign in whatever quantum they could. They are thrilled with the result and have now resolved to maintain these assets well,” says SDO Tembe.
Even the Meghalaya government has taken note of his initiative. Earlier this week, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, expressed his gratitude on social media.
Congratulations Swapnil Tembe for taking the initiative to serve the people of #GaroHills and #Dadenggre by taking the campaign forward to better educational infrastructure in #Meghalaya. https://t.co/GSyVLvkvw9
— Conrad Sangma (@SangmaConrad) December 20, 2018
What’s the way forward?
Speaking to another official working with the West Garo Hills district administration, the objective here is to cover as many schools as they can under the aegis of Project STAR. “The administration is looking to extract more resources through the CSR route. We have already received funds from the Powergrid Corporation of India for starting a public library in Dadenggre. We are looking for additional CSR opportunities to renovate schools also which should materialise in 2019,” he says.
Those of you reading this article on a smartphone are well aware that only a handful of us have had the good fortune of accessing a decent education. In the remote villages of West Garo Hills district, the number of government schools that desperately require some significant form of intervention is overwhelmingly large. A change would require help from all directions.
“We must all chip in. I request all readers to #AdoptASchool anywhere near them, and transform the future of its students,” says SDO Tembe.
This Christmas, these kids received a renovated school as their present. You can play your part too.
If you want to do your part, you can reach out to the West Garo Hills District administration on their Facebook page here. You could also personally contact SDO Swapnil Tembe, IAS, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (8527345879).
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)