Life-affirming lessons

Bhavya Dore | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 13, 2017
Young crop: Children belonging to farmer families study at the Dr Hedgewar Public School, Aurangabad. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Young crop: Children belonging to farmer families study at the Dr Hedgewar Public School, Aurangabad. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Shamsunder Kanke: Founder and principal of the school. Photo: Bhavya Dore

Shamsunder Kanke: Founder and principal of the school. Photo: Bhavya Dore

An Aurangabad school offers free education to the children of farmers who committed suicide in Maharashtra’s drought-hit regions

In 2014, drought struck for the second time in three years in Jalna district, in the rain-poor Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Kishor Madge’s mother received a letter that year. It was from a gentleman in Aurangabad and he urged her to do one thing: send her child to his school, Dr Hedgewar Public School.

In 2015, Kishor arrived in Aurangabad to enrol at the small residential school on the dusty fringes of the city.

His father had committed suicide in 2007 — the year that saw 4,238 farmers take their own lives in Maharashtra — but the boy had been too young to understand any of it.

Now in Std X, the 16-year-old, who has briefly stepped out of class with fellow student Ganesh Sarkate for a chat on the first floor of the school, says, “I’m interested in farming, but it’s no longer viable.”

He hopes to become a doctor. “I want to help the poor,” he says.

As many as 300 students at the school — more than half its strength of 550 — come from agricultural families where the father has committed suicide sometime during the past decade.

In 2014, according to government statistics, Maharashtra saw 2,568 farmer suicides — the highest among all states. Successive drought years in Marathwada and Vidarbha, the interior regions of the State, have been at the heart of this crisis. The hidden victims are the widows and the children left behind.

“People help [the distressed] families in the initial months, but what’s the long-term solution?” asks Shamsunder Kanke, founder and principal of Dr Hedgewar Public School. “The children’s education suffers. Don’t they deserve the same standard of living as others?” With annual incomes averaging ₹25,000-30,000 for such families, education sometimes becomes a luxury.

A farmer’s son himself, Kanke knows this only too well. He struggled to complete his schooling, initially dropping out after Std VII and later financing his education by working alongside. Vexed by the hardships faced by poor farming families, in 2004 he set up a school for farmers’ children and other poor students using his own funds.

All too familiar with the region’s amplifying agrarian distress over the years, in 2012 he began to focus his efforts on the children of the growing number of farmers who took their own lives. He felt that a social problem of this magnitude could be tackled only through a sustained effort, and so he began sending letters to the affected families, urging them to educate their children for free at his school. In 2014, 210 children enrolled. “It is not just for the government to do something,” he says. “We are all part of society. We can all help.”

At the three-storey building occupying a one-hectare plot owned by Kanke, sounds of muffled giggles, shouts and clanging doors emanate from the different classrooms. As we head downstairs to Kanke’s office, two small children race up to him, and Kanke picks them up playfully.

The top floor of the building has dormitories for the children; the three-tiered bunk beds are littered with clothes. The children spend the better part of the year in school. “I really enjoy being here,” says Sanjeevani Gadhe, a Std VIII student from Beed, “I enjoy learning.” The 14-year-old hopes to become an IPS officer. She lost her father when she was just six. “I didn’t understand much then,” she says.

Standing beside her is Geetanjali Kale, who lost her father last year. “Both are very smart,” says Kanke, as they smile in the background. The school is state board-affiliated and Marathi medium, although science and maths are taught in English in a pattern that is popularly referred to as “semi-English”.

The school depends entirely on donations for its needs — from food and stationery supplies to teachers’ salaries and books — though since November the funds have fallen 90 per cent due to demonetisation. Moreover, good rains this year gave the impression that the usually drought-hit Marathwada had turned rain-rich, making the agrarian crisis seem less urgent. “But that doesn’t mean things improved overnight,” says Kanke.

On the ground floor, next to the dining hall where students will gather to eat after classes break for lunch, a group of women seated on the floor are cleaning coriander. Among them is Kavita Raut, whose husband committed suicide last year, when the stress of a mounting debt finally broke him. Her two children are enrolled at the school and she helps with various chores around the place. Kanke has helped widows like her, too, offering them a place to live in and a livelihood.

The annual earning of ₹20,000 from a one-acre plot proved too little for Raut’s family, and after paying off her husband’s debt from the government’s compensation award, she decided to move to the school.

“I did the right thing coming here,” she says. “Sending my children to study is the only way forward.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

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Published on January 13, 2017
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