Within the interiors of Telangana’s Mulugu forest, around 40 tribal children between 7 to 8 years found a reason to smile and keep occupied every day for the last week. The small hamlet, called Neelam Thogu, saw the opening of its first ever primary school, Bheem Children Happiness Centre.
Behind the initiative is 25-year-old Esram Santhosh Swaero, a Cyber Law student at Osmania University, along with his friends Veerelli Sheshinder Reddy and Gunmantha Rao.
In the hamlet, which took its name from the rivulet passing nearby and falls within the Bayyakkapet panchayat, 34 Guttikoya tribal families reside, making up the population of around 150.
When the lockdown commenced, Santhosh travelled to his native village of Narlapur of Tadwai in Mulugu district. The restrictions of the lockdown had a severe impact on tribal communities, and Santhosh and a few other friends assisted by distributing rations and relief materials in their areas. That’s when Santhosh witnessed the vulnerability of Adivasi children that date back generations.
Speaking to TNM, he said, "During the relief activity, I saw underweight kids playing there. They are suffering from malnutrition. They have no access to even basic education. I thought that we could address the issue. It took one month or so to set up a makeshift hut school."
It’s not easy for travellers to get to Neelam Thogu, but Santhosh travelled 16 kilometres — 10 km by bike and another six kilometres trekking through the forested areas and passing two rivulets.
"For a month, my friends and I visited them for once a week. We interacted and played with them. We asked the elders to allow us to start a school. They gave us a space and unused hut, for running our school."
Guttikoyas are among the vulnerable tribes that live along the Chattisgarh border in the undivided Khammam district. Over the past two decades, social and political upheavals have led to forced migrations.
Though there are other primary schools nearby in Bayyakkaplli, families are reluctant to send their children to school there. Santhosh, along with Veerelli and Gunmantha, who are teachers, received permission from Forest Officials to set up the school. Typically, the entry into the forest interiors is restricted, given the presence of wildlife.
According to Santhosh, Bheem Happiness Center is seeing almost 100% attendance. "Even before we arrive, all these children come to school and wait for us. We usually open at 7 am and close at 4 pm. We start and end with games."
Bheem Happiness Centre is also planning to give prizes to its students every 15 days based on their happiness record. This looks at their activity levels, as well as regularity to school and self-cleanliness.
The school teaches English, Telugu, alphabets and Mathematics in a fun method, encouraging children to showcase their knowledge in their native language and through singing. It also has a local volunteer who has completed studies till Class 10. He is also being encouraged to pursue higher education.
With the help of a few good Samaritans, the Bheem Happiness Center also provided certain items for the students, such as soap, oil and stationary as well as clothing.
Santhosh is hopeful that the school will be the beginning of a new change for the Guttikoya children. “For now, we are able to provide some stationery and play material, besides one egg to each student every day. We want to create a permanent center for learning."
Bheem Happiness Center’s new routine may disturbed due to heavy rain. Santhosh and his team are looking to construct a proper building so that the initiative will continue long term. “We started it with just Rs 2,000. We are looking for helping hands who want to join us to make this grow.. We are sure that this will help the children."
(To support the school’s cause, send donations to Google Pay and Phone Pay 9492920530 or Santhosh Esram, ACC. 263410100056167, IFSC ANDB0002634, Andhra Bank, Mulugu.)