The children of Depalli, a village in Telangana’s Mahbubnagar district, can’t wait for Saturday to arrive. Because come weekend, it’s time for school. Wondering how school on holidays could possibly excite anyone? This is no ordinary school, but special classes where learning is combined with sports and fun activities.
Depalli’s farming community is discovering new means of learning thanks to Kisaan Sevaks Foundation (KSF), a Hyderabad-based initiative for rural communities.
KSF is the brainchild of a group of chartered accountants. Ashwini Lavanya, Shweta Sharma, Joyson Gunturi, Ayush Sharma and Phani Kiran and others met each other as chartered accounting students and found a common ground in their desire for making a social impact.
Around the same time, they got in touch with Satya Raghu, one of their CA faculties who had collaborated with Ayush to start Cosmos Green, a rural enterprise working with farmers on production and marketing at Depalli.
Ashwini says, “We met in November 2014 for brainstorming. We realised that simply increasing the income of farmers was not enough. They also needed development in areas of education and healthcare to make a real difference in their lives. We concluded that one of the biggest roadblocks rural India faced was poor education and lack of general awareness among farmers.”
Depalli village, located 80 km from Hyderabad, became a site for the Kisaan Sevaks to launch their pilot project.
In early 2015, KSF started a Sunday farm school in the village for farmers and their children. The first classes commenced with only a handful of students and five volunteers who would arrive from Hyderabad to teach the students every week.
“Everyone was initially a little apprehensive. The villagers didn’t know why we were there or understand why there were Sunday classes,” says Ashwini. “First the farmers came and they brought children their along and our numbers grew.”
Today, the number of volunteers has gone up to 100 and Sunday classes are packed with students aged between 3 and 73.
Registered formally in August 2015, KSF has also expanded its activities in the village to include scholarships and supplementary education.
Shweta, who has taken up working full-time for KSF since a year now, highlights their key projects. “Project Udaan is a mentoring programme for the village’s bright children and we have managed to get five of these kids admitted to English medium schools. We also have an evening school that offers supplementary tuition classes for the kids in the local government school”
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Education is one of KSF’s key concerns, and rightly so. Depalli may be only a few hours’ drive from Hyderabad, but lags in development by years. The team remembers how the local school only had one teacher for all the classes and local tutors were resistant to the supplementary classes offered by the sevaks.
In order to facilitate better education, the KSF team uses activity-based lessons and a personal approach to the students. Ashwini recalls, “The kids were initially confused, and we got candy and tiny gifts to get their attention. We were also worried that they might eventually drop out. But two months later, they began to arrive for the classes before us.”
The personal interaction and nature of classes have also helped in other ways. “We were able to identify and help kids with learning problems and disabilities,” Ashwini and Shweta say. “Malnutrition is a major concern—Shambhavi, one of our students, was so severely affected that it led to very low IQ. We are now seeking medical help and nutrition for her and funding it ourselves.”
The team also conducts special sessions to encourage awareness among farmers on news and current affairs. They are also introduced to technological aids — e-commerce sites, social media etc — which the team believes can help curb the exploitation that uneducated farmers are often subject to.
As the project in Depalli grows, the Kisaan Sevaks are planning to expand their activities to two more villages this year.
KSF’s initiatives have also created new teachers in the village. While the 20 KSF volunteers take turns to lead the weekend classes, the evening tuitions are led by four girls in the village. The dropout rate among girls is high in the village, especially after school. The teaching classes offer a means for young educated girls to earn a living and carve their own path to empowerment.
Shweta says, “Breaking the initial resistance and acceptance for anything new among farmers was very challenging. Since the farmers and their children came out of their shell and started enjoying the process of learning and using in their day-to-day lives, it has been an overwhelming experience. The farmers now treat the volunteer teachers just like family and the volunteers enjoy the invaluable love and affection from the children and farmers.”
The Kisaan Sevaks are currently leading a crowdfunding campaign to stabilize their projects in Depalli and to expand to other villages. They hope that with more resources, they can provide facilities for higher education, improve teaching standards and infrastructure and control dropouts. Shweta also mentions plans to launch pilot vocational courses in terracotta jewellery and saree making.
Shweta says, “We want to create model schools at the village level for children and empower farmers who dropped out of school through open schooling.” The ambitious plans certainly have their challenges, but the Kisaan Sevaks are ready to take the gauntlet.