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Poverty and Education

The Samanwaya Ashram

Dwarko Sundrani

One morning in September 1968 I went to village Bharatpur, 6 km east of Bodh Gaya, to bring a Musahar child to our school. Bharatpur had been established by us on a plot of 100 ha of land on the other side of the river Niranjana. The land had been donated by the Bodh Gaya Math. The villagers suggested Dharmanath, an eight-year-old boy, for schooling in the Samanwaya Ashram. I was returning with Dharmanath, an orphan from the poorest of the poor Musahar community, with an Englishman, Alan Lether. The Niranjana, which had witnessed the historic moment of Siddhartha’s becoming Buddha, was witnessing yet another event. We were crossing the river and when we were in midstream, about fifteen persons armed with sticks (lathis) and led by a landlord, Bhawan Singh, came to beat us because we were taking Dharmanath for schooling.

Dharmanath had committed the sin of being born a Musahar and the landlord had paid Rs. 6 to perform the last rites of his mother. Dharmanath could not pay back that money and thereby became a bonded labourer for life. Bhawan Singh hurled abuses and wanted to beat me because if Dharmanath began studying he would lose a labourer. My whole philosophy of non-violence and peace was at stake. I gave many arguments against the system of slavery and labour but the more I argued, the more angry Bhawan Singh and his goons became. Mr Lether had taken a photograph when they wanted to beat me and had run away with his camera lest it should be snatched from him. Some of the men feared grave consequences because of the evidence of beating taken by camera. The landlord and his men went back. Dharmanath was so frightened that he ran for his life. I returned to the Ashram, without Dharmanath and with a heavy heart.

Our Ashram had been inaugurated on 18 April 1954 by Shri Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India, in the presence of distinguished persons like Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Kripalani, Professor S. Radhakrishnan, Shri Gulzarilal Nanda and others. The Ashram was founded under the loving care and guidance of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, with Shri Kaka Kalelkar as the first president and myself as the managing trustee. It was established to bring about social change and awareness in Bodh Gaya, one of the most backward regions of our country, mostly inhabited by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Poverty and deprivation are the destiny of the people of this region.

One day we were passing through village Kadal under Barachatti block with a Frenchman driving our jeep. All of a sudden a Musahar woman in a tattered cloth which could hardly cover the private parts of her body dashed over to our jeep and started narrating her harrowing story. She stated that she had not eaten anything for six days. Her husband had died of snake-bite six months back. She had three daughters and it was becoming very hard to feed them, what to talk of education. I gave her Rs. 5 and enquired how long she would feed herself and her three daughters with the money. She said that it would be sufficient for five days. I was so overpowered by Lord Buddha’s compassion that I decided to start a school exclusively for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe boys and girls. I begged the woman to give one of her daughters for making my experiment with poverty and education, to which she readily agreed. The daughter was named Sita and thus Samanwaya Vidyapith was established on 15 June 1968. We decided to make a new experiment with the Gandhian concept of education. We called upon the Mahant of Khajwati for a donation of land for this educational experiment. He readily agreed and donated 31 acres at Bagha near Barachatti block, 35 km south-east of Bodh Gaya.

One fine morning when I saw Dharmanath entering our Vidyapith, I could not believe my eyes. He was a changed boy. In the past three months he had undergone a great metamorphosis. I asked him whether the landlord would again start beating me when he discovered that he had come for schooling. His answer was so blunt that I could not believe it. He said that if the landlord ever tried to snatch him from me, he and his goons would be murdered by Naxalites. Only then did I know that Dharmanath had been sent by left extremists who had established a firm hold over his village.

Poverty breeds violence and hatred. Education breeds goodwill, peace and harmony. Without proper education and social awareness the establishment of an egalitarian society is a distant dream. Bodh Gaya presents a paradox — ignorance in the land of Enlightenment. In spite of the fact that government had declared education compulsory and free forty-five years back, not even 2 per cent of Musahar boys attend school even today. The percentage of Musahar girls going to school would not be even 0.01. The government’s declaration of education for all up to ad 2000 is nothing but a mockery of education and democracy.

Musahars are the most backward community among scheduled castes and Bhoktas are the most neglected scheduled tribe in Bihar. Musahars are landless and born bonded labourers. They have been exploited for such a long time that they consider starvation and deprivation as their only destiny. In fact they are living in sub-human conditions.

The culture of poverty which they breathe has left deep scars on their personality and behaviour. They show no initiative in any work. They are totally submissive and agree to any suggestion given by any authority without applying any reason of their own. To think of values, social, moral or spiritual, for them would be unrealistic. Musahar society suffers from deep inertia and depression. The population of Musahars is 30 million in Bihar. The Bhoktas are fewer, with 100,000 people. They live in the forest by hunting and eat fruits, roots and leaves because they do not have food even 48 years after Independence.

The Samanwaya Ashram started work to uplift these communities in 1954. The land given by the gift-movement (bhoodan) was distributed among them. 5,000 acres of land were distributed amongst 3,000 families in this area and 13 new villages were established. The Samanwaya Ashram worked very hard to develop these villages, but due to the poverty and ignorance of these communities, progress was not encouraging. So in 1963 I went to make an experiment in one village, Manfar, among these two communities in education and development. I collected 29 young boys, who were herding goats and pigs, for education. These boys used to come to me after dinner in the night and study for one hour. After prayers they used to go to sleep, and early the next morning after prayers they would study for one hour and then go home to work. This experiment ran for one year but I was not satisfied. The children were studying for two hours a day but this did not bring durable change in their attitudes. I came to the conclusion that if we want to bring about real uplift, we need residential schools.

I approached the Bihar State Government to establish a residential school in Manfar village. Government approved and started the school in 1964, but there were bureaucratic problems. After I brought these to the notice of higher authorities, the government took the decision to appoint me the secretary of this school, whereas in the whole of Bihar there were government officers as secretaries. Unfortunately I could not succeed in running this experiment, so I resigned.

During the Bihar famine of 1967-68 the Samanwaya Ashram did relief work in the area. I came in close contact with the weakest sections of society, especially Musahars and Bhoktas. Although these people were starving, they would not work. Ignorance and illiteracy were the main causes of this inertia. I found that the greatest sufferers were young children, so I decided to work for the education of these neglected children in a residential school.

Education has been of great concern for every President and Prime Minister of India. Recently the government published a document called Challenges of Education in which it has been accepted that the present system has proved to be a great failure. In spite of many commissions, nothing substantial has been done. I feel that it would not serve any purpose by condemning the system. It is necessary to find the solution, so I started to search for an alternative educational system. The Samanwaya Vidyapith is the result of my experiment with poverty and education.

In 1971 Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, the great leader, visited the Samanwaya Vidyapith and remarked,

Samanwaya Vidyapith is a dream come true. Dreams hardly ever come true, but it is the genius of one man and his capacity for experimentation and his innovation and his undiminishing ability to learn from other experiences that have combined to create this splendid institution — that man is Dwarko Sundrani.

It is said that nations are not built by parliaments or assemblies. Nations are built in family and in school. As Lenin also said, "If I know the songs on the lips of your children, I can tell you the future of your nation". People’s education and child education are interdependent and they must work simultaneously. I am in search of education of life, education for life and education through life. An education can be summarised in three words: yoga, udyoga and sahayoga: total development of life, i.e., physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual; correlation of education and manual work leading to self-reliance in the basic necessities of life; and harmonious living with nature and society. The aim of education is not solely to induce literacy and numeracy. This is only a medium. The aim of education is to develop the whole personality of the child.

The personality of the child is developed in the family and in the school, hence it is essential to develop the family too. People’s education and children’s education must go hand-in-hand, so education must be correlated with development work. Our first Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, had said, "A poor country like India needs a school which would be a centre of development also". The Samanwaya Ashram has taken the children of Musahar and Bhokta families for this new experiment in poverty and education. The families are helped in the villages through development work and the children are educated in the Samanwaya Vidyapith. After education the children are established on the land that is given to their families.

In India there is little education in the rural areas, as these have suffered neglect for centuries. If the village child is educated, he tries to find a job outside the rural areas and is uprooted from the family and the village: there is a brain drain from rural to urban areas. But India is a country where 80 per cent of the people live in villages. How can these people get jobs in the urban areas? Education should help them to stay in the villages.

The Samanwaya Vidyapith is correlating education with agriculture, dairy farming and mechanics. In mechanics, diesel engine repairs, electrical motor winding and jeep-driving and such other training is imparted. The masonry needed for low-cost housing is also taught. The education is also combined with singing, dancing, painting, puppet shows and prayer, etc.

Generally the purpose of going to the school is to get a diploma and eventually a degree and a job. In the Samanwaya Vidyapith no certificate is offered. There is no government grant, no government certificate, no government books, no government examinations. The ability to earn and learn is developed. There are about 100 boys and girls in this experiment. The age is from 5 onwards, and the Vidyapith takes the responsibility after education to marry these children and settle them in the villages. After this had run for 20 years the Director of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (Non-formal Education) in Delhi came to see the experiment. He was very impressed and pressed me to work with the government. As I do not have good experience of government working I did not agree, but after pressure from him I agreed to do extensive work in villages.

The Samanwaya Vidyapith is laboratory work and village education is extension work. There are 86 villages where 150 centres are being run. There are 4,577 pupils getting education. In seven villages every child is taken in the school. In these villages education is also correlated to village problems. Due to deficiency of vitamins in the food there is night blindness in these villages, so we give each child ten green vegetable seeds and three papaya trees to grow. The villagers are also selling vegetables and fruits and earning money. Cholera is endemic in this area, so the children and the teachers go and disinfect the drinking water. They make compost manure from the waste in the villages. Lessons in language, arithmetic and science are based on growing vegetables and fruits, making compost, and health matters. The government is giving Rs. 800,000 per year for this project and these centres produce Rs. 700,000 from vegetables, fruits and manure. We are proud to express that we receive full cooperation from government agencies in this work. It has made good progress in the integration of religious sentiments. Seven Muslim teachers are teaching the Ramayana to Muslim girls on their own initiative, and the Hindu teachers have started teaching the Holy Koran to Hindu children. This area is one infested by terrorists. Our educational system has had a good influence on the youth in the area, with the result that 25 young terrorists have been converted and have joined the programme.

When I am asked about the results and achievements of this experiment, I reply that this experiment did not start from zero. This experiment was started from minus 40 and has not reached zero yet. So one cannot see the results, but if one knows the background from which these children have come, one can anticipate the likely outcome. There cannot be reports of such experiments; one can only experience them. There is definitely a change in the attitude of the pupils when they go home. We have prepared teaching material suited to the home environment of the children. We have also prepared training materials for the teachers.

As regards the financial aspects of this experiment, we are glad to say that we have never asked for any financial help from any individual or agency, and for 100 resident children and 4,577 day scholars, we have never felt any financial difficulty. Money is coming and the work is going on smoothly. There are 100 sponsors from different parts of the world. Each sponsor sends US $10 per month per child. And we also produce food, etc. on our farm.

People ask about the problems that this experiment has faced. It has been a long journey of 25 years. We have faced many problems but they did not hurt us or dishearten us. There are no monetary problems, no administrative problems. There is only one main problem in this experiment. There is a dearth of good, efficient and committed teachers. Such teachers are not available.

Finally, the name of the institution is Samanwaya Vidyapith. ‘Samanwaya’ means harmony. The objective of this institution is to bring harmony. At present we are passing through a period of transition which is unprecedented in the annals of human history. Man is in the crucible. He is facing a curse, a threat to his very existence on the one hand, and the blessing of an opportunity for a rebirth on the other. Harmony is the solution. There is necessity to give education in harmony. Harmony can be established only through mutual understanding. Mutual understanding can be created through service to one other. The Samanwaya Vidyapith is working on these lines. The poor children are being educated without any caste, colour, creed or religious considerations. They work together, they serve together, they live together. The haves are sharing with the have-nots. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Parsis are involved in this experiment. Hundreds of families from different corners of the world are coming to the Vidyapith and extending cooperation. This is the faith of serving and helping one another, which will harmonise our existence. This was the dream of one-world and one humanity of Gandhiji. The Samanwaya Vidyapith stands for the education of the masses and not of the classes. It is through education that we can establish a classless and casteless society, which is the need of the hour. So long as there exists a Dharmanath or a Sita, any talk of new education, socialism, democracy and egalitarian society are hollow slogans to befool the Indian masses. The situation is explosive. Any further neglect of such children will destroy our social fabric and engulf us in chaos, disintegration and decadence.


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