Rasheeda Bhagat

Building trust in the North-East States

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on January 21, 2019 Published on January 21, 2019

Building futures The Singngat school

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In a strife-torn region, a trust is building schools in remote tribal areas of the North-East and helping dreams come true

In the midst of students organisations protesting against the Citizen Amendment Bill, I visited Imphal and some villages in Churachandpur district to take a look at the battle that poor tribals wage for basic education for their children.

With me was a Bengaluru-based realtor D Ravishankar, who has been helping build schools in the North-East through Sunbird Trust, an NGO set up by retired Colonel Christopher Rego, that is deeply engaged with educating tribal children in remote North-East areas.

An Army veteran of 35 years’ service, in 2003 Rego sought a posting in the insurgency-ridden North East, where feelings of disenchantment, anger and resentment reigned as he was interested in nature, wildlife, and photography. First posted to the Assam Rifles in Meghalaya and then Mizoram, he quickly started engaging with the locals to find out the reasons for their distrust and suspicion of the Indian Army.

One major reason for discontent was that the Army barely celebrated Christmas, an important festival for the locals. Col Rego got some Bengali artisans with experience in making idols for Durga pooja to make life size statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and recreated the Nativity scene at a bazaar in the Mizo capital Aizawl. “The local police had a tough time controlling the crowds of people who lined up for pictures.” With this gesture many hearts were won.

Sponsoring education

Col Rego began sponsoring local children’s education with his savings and money from friends and family. He invested his “compensation” of ₹10,000 for moving to Mizoram to send a local boy to an American University, “with the condition the money be returned when he starts earning.”

The next year, the boy’s father turned up at his doorstep in Bengaluru with a pumpkin, bananas and the money with the request to help another boy to go to the US. “That boy got a job in the US in 8 months and returned the money. And we thought why are we saving our money in banks when we can change lives? Our siblings, friends joined and the numbers grew.”

I visited a brand new school built by Ravishankar and Col Rego in Singngat village in Churachandpur. As 90 per cent of Manipur is a hilly region and has small villages with just 40 or 60 huts, it’s not possible to set up schools in every village. So a central village has a school and children trek down the hills, sometimes for 90 minutes each way, braving streams, leeches, slush and to reach a school. “One such school where the road had been washed away had to be shifted elsewhere and the village chief of Singngat offered free land and Ravishankar gave funds to build it,” says Col Rego.

Self-help kids

To understand why a central hostel is necessary, Col Rego relates the heartrending story of ‘self-help kids’… and the extent to which tribals go to in remote villages go to get their children the most basic education. “They can’t afford a hostel; school fees is paid only partly and often through firewood or rice. If you become strict, the child is out of the school and in some cycle repair shop the next day.”

So children, mostly two siblings, are put up in huts near the school, and are given a corner, often outside the hut, for a rent, again paid through foodgrains. Parents leave a sackful of rice, the kids – barely 6 or 7 – collect firewood, dig out some roots, or buy a potato or catch a fish from the stream, and cook their own meals and then attend school.

In 2013 Col Rego was approached by Ijeirong village, located in a thick forest area, to build a hostel for kids, and was given free land. The villagers donated wood, children dug up stones from farms across the region, a kind Brigadier donated some painted tin sheets lying unused in the camp, the Army helped in transport and through presentations across the country, Col Rego put up a beautiful hostel.

But then what was meant for 45 children, quickly swelled to 100 and then 150 children. “On one bed given to a child, a sibling will suddenly appear and when you talk about dignity, space, privacy for the child, the parent says we have only one blanket at home, and the two need to share it!”

“We have established Sunbird which has no religious or any other agenda, and in a highly insurgency-ridden area, where there is resentment and lack of trust. When a Sharma from Mumbai or Khanna from Delhi sponsors their children’s education through schools, hostels, computers, etc, the locals feel the rest of the country cares about their children,” says Col Rego.

For the local Army units, it’s a win-win too. At the Singngat school function, Commanding officer of the Sikh Regiment, Col Mukul Verma, and his wife Shipra, join the festivities; his unit men serve hot samosas and tea, and both join the delicious lunch prepared in a local hut. Of course a jeep filled with securitymen, guns et al, is there, but unobtrusive.

Clearly such initiatives build trust and promote peace in a conflict zone.

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Published on January 21, 2019
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