On a quest to meet with a KGP bandi from the ‘60s, we cycle along on the dusty track that had always seemed to disappear into the jungle beyond the Rural Development Centre. Within minutes, however, we find ourselves at the gates of a large campus, with a smattering of small buildings on one side, a serene two storied building on the other, and large groups of children playing chaotic football and cricket right in front of us.
Piqued, we explore what turns out to be a neat and seemingly disciplined boarding school for the children of poor residents of nearby villages. The school is in session even at 6 PM, with students completing their assignments under the watchful eyes of their teachers. One of the more experienced, Mrs. Mandira Bagchi, leads us into the library. Sparkling clean and with meticulously arranged books on the shelves, the library is but only one of the school’s features she passionately talks about as she gives us a brief tour. We smile at the students of Class 2, greeting them in broken Bengali and taking a photograph, before moving on to meet the alumni who started it all.
Mr. Pradeep Kumar Dwivedi, Patel Hall alumnus of the batch of 1965 and one of the co-founders of the organization, runs the place with his wife Hansa, who joined the Institute as an Electrical Engineering fresher in 1962. He graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering (Power) and worked at a number of reputed Indian institutions, before settling down in Canada with his wife. Why did they give up their comfortable lives back there? Mrs. Hansa replies, ‘While we were living the financially secure life in the ‘developed’ West, craved by many of our batchmates, we realized that it was rife with personal dissatisfaction and social instability. We also began to feel an increasing desire to give back to the country and the system that had given us so much.’
The seeds of this noble venture were sown when Prof. K. L. Chopra, our former Director, reputed as a man of decisive action, met the founders at a Pan-IIT meet in Canada. In 1993, a 6 acre patch of land within the institute was leased to them free of cost. Education was not the first choice of objective for the founders, who initially tried to impart vocational training to the hitherto unemployed womenfolk and the youth of the nearby villages. However, irregularity and indiscipline emerged as crippling problems, and the programme was discontinued. Mr. Dwivedi says, “The VP and other students helped us conduct a survey of the nearby villages and found that even in the shadow of one of the great educational Institutions of the country, impoverished communities had illiteracy rates as high as 94%.” Determined to tackle this problem, they instituted a Day School, starting with modest infrastructure and very little help.
Poverty was rampant, and education for their children was not on top of the list of priorities for the villagers. “The children didn’t have clean water to drink, let alone to wash themselves. When the kids first came, they were covered from head to toe in scabies. I was so distressed that I personally applied ointment to their bodies, and had their clothes boiled clean.” All the good work would, however, be undone when the kids returned daily to the squalor and strife of their homes. “Even before we had finished treating the children, they would go back to their homes and get scabies all over again. Many were not cared for at their homes, and it was this realization that made us take the decision to provide accommodation for our students as well.”
In addition to the conversion to a boarding school, they also mandated a nominal fee for each student. Though the fee (Rs. 180/month as of today) hardly covers any of the expenses the school incurs, it ensures regularity by providing an incentive against dropping out. Also, with rising awareness, the school has been getting far more applications than it can accept. A merit-based selection procedure, designed to test basic intelligence, was instituted to ease the process. It’s a far from ideal arrangement for Mrs. Hansa, however, whose eyes well up as she recounts numerous cases where guardians pleaded for hours on end for their kids to be accepted, but to no avail. While financial exceptions can be made in special cases, there is no way for the school to burden itself more than its maximum capacity, which stands at roughly 30 students per batch.
The institution runs almost wholly on charity, and the couple tell us they have been successful in securing a steady stream of revenue, making the Centre self-sustained. Mrs. Hansa is full of praise for her benefactors. She speaks highly of the Institute’s initiative and generous gift of land. The major donors are illustrious KGP alumni, including Gold Medalists Mr. Lalit Behl and Mr. Arjun Malhotra. The aim, they say, is to provide children with an education that will enable them to “live their lives with dignity and integrity”. As such, the school places a high premium on discipline, with each day beginning at 5:30 AM, and constituting extra-curricular activities along with a comprehensive learning regimen, backed by supervised homework sessions. There are no jobs that are considered menial, and the Centre’s cleanliness is a result of each and every resident’s conscience.
Night has fully set in now, and the time for us to depart has come. Parting thoughts: “We as a nation need to at least be able to provide all our citizens with adequate food and water. That is what we are striving toward, in our own way and to the best of our ability.”
Disha Seema Centre Facts
Since – 1993
Website – www.jdtdisha.org
Academic Features -
No. of students ~ 250
Monthly Fee – Started from Rs. 20, now Rs. 180.
Academic strata – KG to Class 8.
Capacity per class ~ 30
Medium of Education – Bengali
Daily supervised learning – hands-on homework
Extra-Academic Features –