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Tribal farmer offers lessons in literacy

Feb 01, 2010

To ensure that every child in the hinterlands of a western Indian district and the surrounding areas get an education, an illiterate tribal farmer stretched his meagre resources, providing free food and shelter, so that villagers would send their children to schools.

Pisayta,Vadodara District: Nobody taught Vechan Bhil to read or write. But he doesn’t want the next generation of tribals living in Pisayta village and the surrounding areas in Naswadi taluka of Vadodara district to follow in his footsteps.

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The 38-year-old farmer’s dream is to make them all literate. And he is doing all he can to fulfill his dream, even stretching his meagre resources to provide free food and shelter to the children so that they have one more reason to go to school.

There is only one primary school in Pisayta, which caters to children of 25 surrounding villages. The distance makes it difficult for tribals living in the interior villagers to send their children to school every day.

Five years back, Vechan came up with the solution. He offered to share his modest two-room house with the children, throwing in free food and tuitions for good measure.

At present, 55 children share the house with Vechan and his wife. They get at least basic education till Class 5, after which they have to go to Naswadi, about 30 kilometres away, where the nearest secondary school is located. In the last few years, about 70 children have benefitted from Vechan’s generosity. His own two sons study in a distant high school.

“There are three teachers in the primary school. Sometimes they come, but more often they don’t,” says Vechan. So he gets a graduate from a nearby village to come and tutor the children.

“He helps the children with their day’s lessons and their homework for free. After the school ends at 5 pm, all my children study from 7 pm to 9 pm. My children can read and write much better that the other students, say the teachers,” he says with evident pride.

Explaining what led to his dream, Vechan says, “I had never gone to a school, and rarely went outside Naswadi.

Once when I was going to the city in a bus, I paid Rs 10 for a Rs 8 ticket. I asked the conductor to pay me back the change, and he did. Seeing this, other tribals in the bus also demanded their balance. It was then that I realised that if you want to change things in life, you have to raise your voice. And to do that better, you need to learn things.”

But it was not easy. “It was very difficult to convince the parents. Villagers needed to go to Saurashtra for manual work, but how could they trust me, a complete stranger, to take care of their children here,” recalls Vechan. He went door-to-door, right to the farthest village, trying to convince the villagers on the need to educate their children. “I gradually convinced some, and others followed,” he says. Now, his house straddling a hillock is well-known to all.

And although the children may not demand much, it is not easy to feed so many of them with his tiny farm being the only source of income. But the villagers pitch in whenever they can, bringing foodgrain, cereals or a little money so that the children get two square meals.

“The land here is dry and the yield depends on the rains. Sometimes it gets difficult to manage. The tribal parents bring a little maize. I ask the farmers to give us some of the produce from their fields,” says Vechan. He adds that nothing will stop him from ensuring that every tribal child in the area gets an education, no matter what it costs him.

“There should be more hostels for primary students in every village so that parents who go to other places to earn a living can leave their children. We also need better and more dedicated teachers,” he says.

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