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Abeja Dispatch

"Ladenge, Jitenge, Sikhenge, Badenge!": We Will Fight, We Will Win, We Will Learn, We Will Grow!
May 17, 2000

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The gurujis, or teachers, pose outside the huts of the jeevanshala.
We're now on the campus of a private boarding school. Depending on your criteria, this could be considered one of the finest in the entire state of Maharashtra, India. Children come from 20 different villages, up to four hours away, to study here. Their education includes math, science, history, Hindi, medicinal plants, Maharashti (the state language), and non-violent civil disobedience. The teachers, or gurujis, have only officially completed their education through the tenth grade, but they've learned a lot more in life than many people I know.

This school is called a jeevanshala or a "school of life," and it is one of the first schools that the people of the Adivasi villages here in the Narmada River Valley have ever had. The buildings are thatched huts made from local tree trunks, twigs, and leaves. People from all over the area pitched in to build the huts. It took less than a week to build the entire campus where 120 students, from the 1st to the 5th grade, live and study.

Meet 18-year old Doorsing Bulyadaya, one of the first graduates of Nimghavan's jeevanshala, which was formed back in 1991. Doorsing is from Domkhedi, the next village over where I spent the night. I sat up late, under the stars talking with Doorsing and two of the jeevanshala teachers, Giridhar Guruji and Vasanth Guruji, about the school.

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Doorsing (in the green t-shirt) sits with other graduates of the jeevanshala, all home from school for the summer.
"Before, we never had schools," they explained to me through an interpreter, "There was a teacher taking a salary from the state, but we never saw him! Still, the government gives 6000 rupees (Indian currency) per month to teachers staying in a nearby town, who don't do anything! We are struggling to get that salary for ourselves."

Because these villages have been slated for submersion by the Sardar Sarovar Dam for almost 50 years, the government has not bothered to build any infrastructure in the area. There are no roads, no schools, no water pipes or electricity, and no public health clinics. It wasn't until the Adivasi villages started to band together in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the Save the Narmada Coalition), that they began to organize as a larger community. Although they first united in order to resist losing what they already have, they quickly took it one step further, and began to create a better future for themselves and their children.

Today, there are nine jeevanshalas in the Narmada River Valley. They are in three different states (it's a big river!), and they are all in Adivasi villages affected by the dam project. The teachers are all from the villages themselves. Food comes as donations from the villages whose children study at the schools.

"The meals are very basic with usually just rice or wheat and liquid dhal (lentil soup) twice a day, with an occasional papaya slice or vegetable. This is very similar to what children eat in their own houses, and there is no pretense of being able to provide more than that."

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Keshave Sirra Vasave, the head of Nimghavan village, twists a rope of natural fibers while he talks with me.
The villagers are proud to tell me that they are totally self-sufficient. They do not accept funds or teachers from outside the villages.

"We do everything on our own two feet." Keshav Sirra Vasave, the kabari, or village head of Nimghavan, told me. "There are no international NGO's here. The Indian government goes to America and begs, but we do everything ourselves."

When Doorsing graduated from the jeevanshala, the government of the state of Maharashtra would not allow him and his fellow graduates to take the exams necessary to continue on with their studies. They refused to recognize the jeevanshalas, and told them that they had to be registered with the official government schools. But then, when they checked, they found that there weren't any records from the official government schools! Think about it, that was several years ago, but the teachers who do nothing are still getting paid by the government. The levels of blatant corruption I've seen in India amaze me!

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The school of life has a steep learning curve: young men risk their lives in the monsoon <i>satyagrahas</i>. Photo by Deepa and Harekrishna
Doorsing now goes to school in the nearby town of Dhulia, and is in the eighth grade. To you, it may seem like a failure for an 18-year old to only be in the eighth grade, but for Doorsing, that is quite an achievement. Most people in his village are still illiterate and have never attended school at all. And just because he is only at an eighth grade level in the academic world, doesn't limit his knowledge in other areas.

For one thing, Doorsing is the medicine man of his village. He knows how to harvest and prepare natural medicines from local plants and animals. Also, Doorsing has been very active in the movement to keep the dam from being built. In the satyagrahas (protests) of 1993 and 1995, he was arrested for refusing to leave his home. He was taken to jail and beaten for his non-violent protests. Not exactly the life of a typical eighth grader, is it?

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Doorsing's village is mostly illiterate-but he wants to change that!
But then again, the jeevanshalas are not typical schools. Often, the classes have moved to sit-in sites and demonstrations, and have lent a hand in various ways to the struggle of the underprivileged.

Because there is no electricity, students often study after dark by repeating things out loud, they'll go over their math tables or repeat a story orally.

I asked Doorsing what he plans to do when he finishes school, and he told me, "My goal is to work with the people. People here can't read and write. I'm interested, and now I want to teach."


disobedience - refusal to obey governmental demands, usually through non-violent actions
Adivasi - tribal people who have inhabited India since pre-historic times.
submersion - covered or overflowed with water
NGO's - stands for "Nongovernmental Organization", a term used to describe private aid organizations

After telling me all about their school and their struggles, the gurujis asked me if there are any struggles in America. They seemed surprised when I told them that there are. I told them about the Navajo Indians of Big Mountain, fighting to keep their land from Peabody Coal Company. They immediately related it to their own struggle, as indigenous tribes struggling for their rights to their land. I told them about Judi Bari, and how people still struggle for justice in her name, so many years after her death. The gurujis talked excitedly among themselves. Judi's style was very much like Medha Petkar's, she was a very effective and tireless non-violent organizer, her heart always with the people. They could also relate to the corruption and police indifference.

I told them about Julia Butterfly and the struggle to save Headwater's Forest. They told me about their beautiful ancient teak forests that the government has "saved" from being submerged, by cutting them down.

What happened next brought tears to my eyes. The teachers kept talking among themselves in their own language, but I kept hearing the names "Judi Bari," and "Julia Butterfly." They were repeating the story to each other, and committing it to memory.

"When school starts again," they told me, "we will teach our students about these things."


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Jasmine - The Ruins of Vijayanagar: A Sacred and Grand Legacy
Abeja - Gandhi's Satyagraha, the Insistence on Truth

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