VM Manohar Prasad, a retired IAS officer, was held captive along with six other officials, in the Gurtedu region of East Godavari in 1987. Almost three decades later, Prasad is still intrinsically connected with the people of the region but for a very different reason.
The man today has made a revolutionary effort in providing education to the children in the tribal hamlets of East Godavari and has helped in setting up 54 pre-primary schools, finding great allies in the mothers of the children in the process.
âI didnât set up any school, I just responded to the mothers who said their children had to be educated,â Manohar says modestly, adding, âAll the 54 schools are a result of the efforts of the mothers, women who wanted their children to do something big in life.â
Not drop-outs, but driven-outs
It was in 2006 that Manohar took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) and became a regular visitor at the Marlawai village, a small tribal pocket in Adilabad district, along with his wife Ramadevi.
âWe had a long association with the village, both officially and unofficially. And one thing I was sure of was that despite the anganwadis operating in the hamlets, education was a far cry for the villagers. There was no concept of a pre-primary school under the aegis of the government. It is now that the government has made pre-primary schools mandatory in every village but a decade ago, anganwadis were the convenient substitutes for pre-primary classes,â Manohar says.
The children in the villages were not drop-outs but were âdriven-outsâ, Manohar says. âThe teachers in the schools used to be barely intermediate pass and the children had to go through the same monotonous routines in school. A third grader could barely count numbers, and the mothers found the whole education business a futile exercise,â Manohar explains.
However, the couple soon found great strength among the women in the village who wanted their children to be educated, but at the same time found it more profitable that their children lend a hand in their farms.
Manohar recalls a particular instance where the women brought their children along with them to one of the meetings, youngsters who were mostly fourth or fifth class dropouts. One of them asked her son to write his name in Telugu on mud and Manohar says the boy soon started weeping.
âCan they write their names? No. Can they count numbers in order? No. So why should we send them to schools?â the women asked and I could only blankly stare at them,â Manohar adds.
The retired officer, along with the women, soon devised a plan to set up community-governed schools where the women were the authority and the children were no longer reluctant to go to schools.
âWe collaborated with the Mahila Mandal Samakhya, a women self-help group in the village, on whom lay the burden of identifying children between the ages of 3-5 and finding a suitable teacher for the school. We insisted that the teacher be from their own community and preferably be a woman,â Manohar says.
Meanwhile, the couple started learning the whole dynamics of primary education and began re-visiting their good old days of being students.
âWe sat in classes at Rishi valley and Vidyaranya schools for 12 weeks, observing the psychology of students and understanding what engaged them the most. The major task at hand was to contextualise the subjects for the children in the villages, making them suitable to the environment where the students lived. Though the schools began in 2006, it took us three years to put together a proper curriculum. Meanwhile, we also started providing training to the teachers through a 16-week foundation course,â Manohar explains.
And this is how the first of the âMava nate, mava shaleâ (Our village, our school) concept started in 2006 in Adilabad.
24 schools in nine years
The schools were run with no permanent roofs above their heads. If one day the classes were taken under the tree, the next day a kind villager would open the doors of his /her home to the children.
âThere were empty cowsheds, community halls, in many places the women persuaded the anganwadi workers to allow the classes in their premises. We didnât spend a single pie in building any structure. We spent our resources in helping the children bond with the teachers, bringing the women and ideas together and making them realise how crucial their role was in running the schools,â Manohar adds.
Interestingly, the teachers in most villages werenât paid in cash, but in soya bean and cotton.
âThere was never much liquidity in the hands of the villagers. They spent all even before they earned it. Soya bean was one of the popular crops in many Telangana villages post 1990s. The crops were grown by the villagers themselves which they paid in kind to the teachers,â Manohar says.
Soon, the schools caught the attention of SERP (Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty), a government funded institution, which helped the women in the Adilabad villages to cross-pollinate their ideas. Till 2015, with the help of SERP, 24 schools were set up across the state, all run by the women of their respective villages.
Moving to East Godavari
âBut our association with SERP cost us dearly. Within a year of Telangana formation, SERP had a difference of opinion with the newly-formed government because of which all funding to our schools (in Adilabad) was stopped. We managed to run the schools for three more months but soon we ran out of money and today 24 schools, where over 16,000 students studied, are all closed,â Manohar says.
However, paucity of funds couldnât dampen Manoharâs spirit. He decided to move to East Godavari, and helped set up 54 schools there, the first one being in the Gurtedu region, where he was once held captive by Naxals.
âToday, with the help of donors from across the country, we are able to run the schools, most of them located in and around East Godavari. We are also able to pay the teachers their salaries in cash. Here the schools are known as âMa Ooru, Ma Badiâ (My Village, My School)â, Manohar says.
Manohar and Ramadevi are now aiming at building a residential primary school complex where the students from nearby schools can avail education, as an alternative to government schools.
âItâs exasperating to see the children from the village-run pre-primary schools fall into the mainstream government schools, where there is no basic foundation to provide education. We sometimes feel that our efforts are going futile once the students step out of the pre-primary centres. An eighth class student in many of the government schools cannot read a Telugu newspaper properly. S/he is being shamed, made a victim for no fault of theirs,â Manohar says, adding, âWe are now planning to build a small residential primary school with the help of our donors and the mothers, where even children from nearby villages can study, without having to compromise on the sub-standard education provided in the government schools.â