32-year-old Dev Kumar Verma was born to a paan shop owner and coal laborer in the village of Katras in the Dhanbad district of Jharkhand (then undivided Bihar). Growing up, he saw his village which was full of either small-time shop owners or coal laborers grappling with alcohol addiction. Education was not a priority, neither on the minds of the laborers nor their growing children. But Dev and his family decided to turn the tide. Years later, he became a role model for his villagers. Apart from completing his Masters from the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, he even earned an MDP from the premier Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, studied LLB and received an annual package of Rs 15 lakh/per annum with Maharatna Company, Coal India Ltd. At the peak of his career, it would have been easy for Dev to settle into a posh metro city and live a comfortable life. Secure the future with his wife, Dr. Priyanka, an IIT alumnus and professor at a government college. But he decided to tread the road less taken. He begins, “Where I grew up, education wasn’t given much importance, still isn’t. More than 33% of the population in Jharkhand is illiterate. The area around my district has a population of 60 lakhs, where more than a lakh are children. There are only four schools that impart quality education there. Most of these kids, coming from underprivileged backgrounds either attend government schools or don’t pursue an education at all. And I wanted to change that.”
Dev, who transferred to Jharkhand after four years of working in Kolkata, reveals how the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 were the turning point of his life. He was appointed as the district election in-charge at the time. To train personnel, he traveled to government schools which served as centers during the polls and stumbled upon poorly written leave applications by students. And while it was reassuring, he did not see any changes happening on the ground for the next four months. Dev and Priyanka are parents to two daughters, one five years old, and the other two months old. Their inherent concern for children’s education inspired them to take matters into their hands. They transformed their ancestral home into a free tuition facility for kids in their village. While it started off with only five students, the number gradually began to rise.“When the number of enrollments increased to 100 kids, we decided to register the school, and that’s how ‘Pathshala’ came about, where we educate kids from the coal belts of Jharkhand up till class five in English-medium, free of cost. We began with seven kids and three teachers; today, we have over 500 kids in three branches with 15 staff members and non-teaching staff as well,” he beams.
While some students would turn up for the first two days, they would go missing on the third because they would have been asked to help their parents earn daily wages. So Dev and Priyanka visited them in their homes, enquired about the kid’s absenteeism and persuaded the parents to send their kids back to school.“I would tell them about my childhood and success story that reinstated their faith. If a boy from their village could become a government officer, then their children could turn their lives around too. It inspired them to let their kids give education a chance,” he adds. The challenges though weren’t just outside the school, but even within the classroom. Many of the students were receiving brand new stationery, uniforms, shoes, school bags, for the first time. There would often be instances where they would turn to petty theft. But they couldn’t be blamed, given their financial instability, Dev felt. He explains, “That is how the concept of Honesty Shop or Imaandari ki Dukaan came about. We identified a room where we stored everything that we were giving the students free, like school uniforms, shoes, stationery, etc. in a cupboard. We would ask them to drop nominal charges into a box if they had to avail of these things. So, if a book costs us Rs 40 at the time of purchase, we would tell them to drop Rs 5 for it.”
He continues, “While it was difficult for the children to understand that everything had its price and nothing would always be free, we found a change in the behavior when they started appreciating and understanding the value of these facilities. The cases of thefts went down drastically. The concept was lauded by the Chief Minister of Jharkhand and Education Secretary Anil Swarup. Many schools adopted it after that.”Today, each of the three schools is equipped with projectors, laptops, biometric attendance, aqua guards, separate toilets for boys and girls, playgrounds, etc. The initiative was supported by Dev’s family since its beginning, and in recent years, his friends too came forward to support the school with donations ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 10,000.“But the results of our efforts are showing. Today, several of them speak in English, attend and win awards in cultural events, crafts, elocution, extempore, and debates. More than anything, the joy on the faces of their parents when they see their children progress, moves us,” he adds. When I ask him about his vision, he says, “Just like Anand Kumar’s Super 30, we are now preparing students for Super 50. We want them to secure admission to the Sainik School and other similar educational institutions which will provide them with free quality education and help brighten their future. We want to expand Pathshala in the coming years to help more students study in the upper classes. My ultimate aim is to have a junior college (10+2) where these kids can get a free education and attain good jobs to secure their future,” he signs off.
(Text source: The Better India)
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