Updated: Jul 25
The well-trodden muddy trails extending miles, connecting clusters of small villages, separated by fields and forest covers in the vast majority of Northern Odisha are a testament to a lifestyle unknown to most of us. Perhaps even left alone by the state gadget for their complexities and the amount of work needed. Deogarh, literally translating to "the abode of Gods", is a hilly district of abundant natural beauty and treacherous terrains. It is one of the least populated districts mostly untouched by urban developments. At least, so it was until the construction of the National Highway 6 more recently. Our narrative today is about Tainsar, a small village in the Deogarh district, spanning 2.46 square kilometers spread across this road, with a population of 917*.
The people here are mostly small farmers and forest dwellers. It is also a Gram-panchayat** and has a primary, an upper primary and a privately aided higher secondary school.
By May 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had claimed millions of lives. As the Government grappled to get a grip on the situation, the uncertainties of the ever-changing regulations and shutdown of transport links disrupted life. The agriculture and tourism industry that fed most homes in these parts were the hardest hit, taking with them the average daily wager's income. That covers over 75% of the Deogarh population. How would a forest dweller who took care of his family by selling leaf plates sustain when his livelihood disappears?
As the offices and schools closed, the village was deprived of the most basic Government aid. The schools were not just a place of learning for the children, they also provided the essential midday meal***. It was the only stomachful, if not the only meal, of the day for many of them. In the face of survival, the year-long learning gap for children was a foregone conclusion that didn't make it to anyone's priority list. Around this time Ek-Asha Trust was looking in the region to replicate its thinking class models from its Bhubaneswar runs. Bijay was introduced to Ek-Asha as a well educated, industrious young man from Tainsar. His persistence to bring the benefits of Ek-Asha's learning initiative to the local children was the beginning of "the Deogarh chapter" of the Trust.
Ek-Asha's Thinking classes are loosely based on Socrates' inquiry-based learning approach to encourage critical thinking. Our target was the standard 6 and 7 children, ranging between 10 to 12 years of age. Our mentors deemed that a younger age group was inappropriate for online learning since they needed a more hands-on support system to navigate the primary learning curve. Our approach has always been smaller class strengths to support the comprehensive development of every child. There was also the question of the quality of internet connectivity. Sometimes we had to walk for a few kilometers to get a signal with some networks. Taking into account all the anticipations surrounding the drawbacks, evolved the need for a conductor to cover the gaps should any day some of the facilitating factors like the electricity, the internet or the online mentors fail us. Bijay identified our local volunteer Preeti Nanda Behera, for the job.
Then, we needed a laptop that worked for more than a few days but didn't quite have the cash to splurge on such an expensive piece of equipment. After a lot of asking around, one was donated to us. We also had to find suitable mentors to volunteer for online learning. One of the advantages of Online classes was we were not confined to a geographical region when looking for mentors. We still had to match their free time to our class timings. We found some in the USA and Canada. Our classes were taking place at 7:00 am IST; for our overseas volunteers it was after dinner hours and they kindly agreed to sacrifice a part of it to coach the children.
Preeti: conducting an offline session for the first batch of eight students.
With their hearts bigger than their house, Preeti's family welcomed our first batch of 8 students into their home. Thus, making the most of our scant resources, amidst the pandemic mayhem, on the 8th of June, 2021, we started our OTC (Online Thinking Class) at Tainsar, Deogarh.
First batch OTC at Preeti's house
Soon, more parents flooded in with requests for classes for their children. We were finally on the same page as the villagers". Approval of the beneficiary, which sometimes takes years to secure, was not just a hope anymore. Everything was coming together. Or, so we thought.
With the growing demand for our classes, we launched our second batch on the 28th of July 2021 with 11 more students. This was within a month of starting our first OTC. In Preeti's tiny house there wasn't enough room to accommodate all of our students at one time. So, she had to have an evening class in addition to the morning one for the second set of children. Having an hour-long class in a small single room accommodation housing two generations was already a big ask. We were now having two. Something had to give.
Casteism is one of the big social evils of Indian society. We hope to eradicate it one day in the future. While it's less obvious in the cities and in some educated households, it's still lurking beneath the surface. There is always someone in the family who still buys into it, no matter what level of education they have had. It becomes more obvious when people have to share confined spaces. In Rural India it's hard to miss. As it happens, there was some objection to inviting children of all castes, without discretion, in Preeti's family too. With the villagers' enthusiasm on a high and discontinuity of the classes a looming threat, it was time for us to turn a page.
The Tainsar Village community centre
We had to quickly scout for a new location for our OTCs. There was one very obvious contender. A partially constructed building, perhaps having run out of motivation more than funds, which was to be a community centre in the Tainsar village. It needed us as much as we needed it. There were switches but no electricity, an entrance but no doors or windows. This would have to do. Bijay sprang into action bringing the parents on board. After several rounds of discussion and much convincing, we finally had the use of the place. An electrical connection was arranged from the elderly granny' whose house backed onto the community centre. We give back by paying her part of the bill along with ours. We were all set with a new home for our OTCs.
Children transporting the learning resources to and from Preeti's house
Since there are no doors or windows to lock away our teaching resources, they continue to be stowed at Preeti's house. The children collect the resources every day and walk two hundred meters from there to the OTC site, and then carry it back at the end of the lesson, come rain or sunshine.
Preeti: conducting an offline session in the new OTC centre.
There are many stumbling blocks. Location, electricity supply, internet connectivity, and laptops may have looked like the obvious ones, but they are just the tip of the iceberg, hiding a mountain of misgivings underneath. We are still finding our way through them. With every step forward, we grow in confidence, and the mountain doesn't look as formidable.
* As per village records. In the last population census of India in 2011 Tainsar population was 822.
NOTE: Our Tainsar journey will continue on the 6th of July. Watch out for our next post on the Vedic Maths workshop on the 21st of June.
Writers: Shivani Mishra and Bagmita Tripathy
Volunteers with Ek-Asha Trust