Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
Alumni of Calcutta University — Nilotpal Barman (25), Raju Das (25), and Mira Barman (23) — are co-founders of Ananda Niketan Pathshala (ANP, estb.2020), a free-of-charge learning centre-cum-primary school for children from predominantly Muslim and tribal households of Shitaliya village (pop.20,000) sited deep in the Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangroves delta. ANP’s six teachers offer supplementary learning to 55 children enrolled in the local government primary school.
Newspeg. In May, ANP celebrated its first anniversary. However, celebrations were muted as cyclone Yaas which hit the Sunderbans on May 23 inflicted large-scale damage. Since June, the Shitaliya-born trio who graduated from Calcutta U last year, together with ANP students are engaged in cleaning up their village, and mobilising resources for building a school library.
History. Of the 102 islands in the Sunderbans, only 58 are inhabited with the region’s 5.1 million residents living below the poverty line of whom a mere 10-15 percent are literate. Moreover, their life is under constant threat from tidal floods, coastal cyclones and other natural disasters.
“When all schools countrywide were ordered to shut down in March 2020 following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the little learning that children received in the village’s government school was discontinued, and most of them joined the informal labour force. This total collapse of education in our native village deeply affected us, and we registered ANP with the objective of ensuring learning continuity, nutritional and socio-emotional support for its children,” says Nilotpal Barman, an Islamic history and culture and education postgrad of Calcutta University.
According to the trio, ANP’s supplementary curriculum has been specially designed to encourage creativity, critical thinking and life skills development and features a mix of academics, poetry, theatre, sports, art and crafts, conservation of the region’s rich biodiversity and cultural heritage. More important perhaps is that the 55 children are provided a nutritious breakfast and lunch every day. The expenditure of Rs.4 lakh incurred over the past year has been crowd-funded through social media posts and contributions from friends and well-wishers.
Direct talk. “Most children even in classes IV-V of the village government school cannot write English alphabets or numbers. Neither can they read or write Bengali. Severely under-staffed government schools across the state fail to engage and retain children. Therefore, ANP’s objective is to provide supplementary learning support to enable children to bridge learning deficits. Moreover, we want to ensure that our support will continue in the post-pandemic period. We hope to develop a sccessful community-run supplementary school model,” says Raju Das, also an Islamic history and culture postgrad of Calcutta University.
Future plans. With ANP receiving enthusiastic support from the village community especially children, the trio is accelerating its programme to build a library and also construct a hostel. “Some of our students go without food for days and are at high risk of dropping out. To address this, we plan to build a hostel asap which will house, clothe and feed the most vulnerable children. This has been incorporated into our community development plan. The hostel will also enable us to enroll underprivileged children from neighbouring villages,” says Nilotpal, who plans to work full-time with ANP in the post-pandemic era.
Wind in your sails!