Report on distribution of first lot of textbooks at Bijoynagar Adarsha Vidyamandir on 29 June, 2009
As stated in my last report, the first installment of money for purchase of books for the Aila-affected students of the Bijoynagar Adarsha Vidyamandir (BAV) high school was handed over to Mr. Sukumar Paira, Headmaster of the BAV, on 20 June 2009, in Kolkata. We had collected a little over one lakh rupees and based on this, and the promises made for more contributions by friends, textbooks worth Rs. 1.6 lakhs were ordered with the school's books supplier. (I may mention here that the supplier, Mr. Pradip Kumar Pradhan, himself a former student of the BAV, is not charging any commission for the books he is supplying; moreover, he is paying for the cost of transporting the books to the BAV from Kolkata from his own pocket. He has also donated some blackboards to the school. All this means that every rupee raised is being used to buy books at the highest possible discount.)
The formal distribution of the books was scheduled for Monday, 29 June 2009.Mr. Mudar Patherya, a friend who has been running relief supplies to the Sunderbans since Aila struck, contacted the Linc Pen and Plastics company whose Managing Director, Mr. Dipak Jalan, kindly donated four pencils, one pen, one eraser, one sharpener and one ruler for every student of the BAV.
On 29 May 2009 the following individuals went to the BAV to witness at first hand the distribution of the textbooks and stationery to the students of the school. Professor Supriya Chaudhuri (of the department of English, JU), Ms. Angana Chatterjee (teacher of philosophy at Presidency College), Dr. Bipasha Biswas (scholar and researcher in public health care, who has worked in the Sunderbans before), Deeptanil Ray (PhD scholar, JUDE, who had gone with us on our second relief trip to the Sunderbans), Sujit, Samantak and Sharadindu Khusro Das (a.k.a. Sasthi, student of Patha Bhavan school, Kolkata, and Samantak's son).
Supriyadi and Angana boarded the 5:45 am Canning Local at Sealdah, Samantak and Sasthi joined them at Ballygunge and Bipasha, Sujit and Deeptanil boarded the train at Jadavpur, carrying with them the materials supplied by Linc (which had been stored at Sujit's house at Jadavpur). Rafat came to Jadavpur Station to help load the pens, etc on the train.
We got off at Canning at about 7:30 am and had breakfast. Sujit and Deeptanil contacted two porters who helped us to get the pencils, pens, etc on the boat and to unload them at Dock Ghat after crossing the Matla river. We were lucky to get an auto-rickshaw who agreed to take us all the way to Gadkhali (thus saving us the trouble of changing autos at Sonakhali) for a small extra payment. The day was cloudy and there was quite heavy rain on our way to Gadkhali.
At Gadkhali, where we reached at about 9:30 am, we realised that the cartons in which the pens and pencils and so on had been packed had basically melted (they had been loaded on to the roof of the auto). Fortunately, we had carried extra bags with us and we managed to transfer the pens etc to these and carry them to Kalida's boat. Once again, as on our last trip, four young men (all former students of the BAV) had come along to help us and give us company.
We reached the BAV a little after 11:00 am, shortly after the first period had commenced. Mr. Sukumar Paira was there at the school's jetty, along with some students, to receive us. The short
distance from the jetty to the school had been rendered extremely muddy by the rain and we barely managed to keep our footing as we slipped and slid to the school.
The textbooks for the students had been kept in neat bundles, class-wise, for us to see and we unloaded the pens, etc that we had carried with us. We handed over cheques and cash worth Rs. 51,000/- (this being the amount that we had collected since 20 June 2009 from friends and well-wishers of the school), to Mr. Paira. As usual, he was effusive in his expressions of gratitude at the "generosity", as he put it, of the donors. (You will note that with this Rs. 51,000/-and the Rs. 1.8 lakhs we had collected and given to Mr. Paira earlier, the cost of the books ordered in this first installment has been – almost – covered.)
We were taken to meet the teachers and staff of the school and, despite our requests that there be no formal ceremony, we all had a leaf of the sundari tree pinned to our chests as a kind of welcome to the school. A simple yet deeply moving moment. We were impressed at how much the school had been cleaned and made ready for classes in such a short period of time and at the dedication of the staff and teachers who have made this possible.
The textbooks were then dispatched to the classes and distribution started as we wandered about looking in to see how things were proceeding. The pens and pencils etc donated by Linc were arranged on the school's stage, and some students from Class V (for whom no textbooks could be bought) came and received their sets (4 pencils, 1 pen, 1 eraser, 1 sharpener, 1 ruler each) from us. Once this had been done, the rest of the pens, etc were distributed in the classrooms.
One of the most moving and heartening things we heard was that when Aila struck, the first things that many students had tried (often successfully) to save had been their school books and uniforms. Others have managed to get new uniforms after Aila, despite the obvious difficulty (which is not just economic) of doing so. Living proof, if ever proof was needed, of the hunger for education among the most marginal and neglected sections of our society. (Some of you may recall that I had stated very definitely, in my second report, that all the students of BAV had lost all their school books. I had not counted on how much their school means for these young people and this is one occasion when I am delighted to have been proved wrong!)
What this also means is that our initial estimate of the cost of purchase of textbooks goes down by a bit, since about 10-15% of the students have succeeded in saving some of their books. On a less happy note, another 5% or so of the students have already indicated that they cannot continue with their studies. They will obviously not need either textbooks or exercise-books any more. We had estimated Rs. 3.6 lakhs for purchase of textbooks, that figure is now closer to Rs. 3 lakhs.
In each classroom, there was a list of students and the textbooks each student required. Teachers called out the students' names and they came forward to receive their books – most needed the full set of texts, some had managed to save a few texts and a small number had successfully saved all their books – and signed next to their names on the roster prepared for this purpose. I was struck by the quiet efficiency and discipline with which this was done. We
divided up into groups of two/three, to observe the proceedings without causing too much disruption, and took a few pictures to bring back with us. (Some of these are given at the end of this report.)
The distribution was completed by about 2:00 pm and we left at 3:00 pm, after holding discussions with Mr. Paira about what other help the school needed to get back to its normal functioning and how the rest of the money could be raised.
As we were about to leave, a student of Class VIII, Asgar Ali Mollah, came and showed us some of the paintings he has done, including a striking one of Cyclone Aila. Asgar comes from an
extremely poor family (his father is a petty fisherman and his mother works as a domestic help) and has suffered terribly in the aftermath of Aila, but the colour, freshness and skill of his paintings left us deeply impressed. With some guidance, Asgar may yet turn out to be an artist of some consequence in the future. (We were not surprised to learn that Mr. Paira and some of his colleagues pay from their pockets for the paints and crayons and so on that Asgar needs for his work.)
We took Kalida's boat back to Gadkhali, had a (very late) lunch and then took an auto to Sonakhali, changed autos for the trip to Dock Ghat, crossed the Matla and took the 6:40 pm local to Sealdah. Sujit, Deeptanil and Bipasha got off at Jadavpur, Sasthi and I at Ballygunge and Supriyadi and Angana went on to Sealdah, and thence to their homes in Salt Lake.
Mudar had told me, when we had been talking of this trip, that he might be able to cover the cost of the rest of the textbooks and he was trying to get schools to donate exercise books for the BAV.
Today, 1 July 2009, Mr. Sukumar Paira and Mr. Pradip Kumar Pradhan (BAV's books supplier) came to Kolkata and we went along to Mudar's office, near Menoka Cinema. After taking into account the textbooks already bought, the books saved by students, and the money raised by us after the 29th, the cost of purchasing the rest of the texts comes to about Rs. 1.3 lakhs. Shalini, Mudar's wife, told us that they would pay for the purchase of these books. Mr. Pradhan has stayed on in Kolkata to procure the books, a process which should be completed by the beginning of next week. Shalini and Mudar have also got donations of some 1,250 exercise-books and these will be sent to College Street on 2 July and transported to the BAV along with the textbooks. These textbooks and exercise-books will be distributed on Wednesday, 8 July 2009 at the BAV. Do let me know if you want to come along to see the distribution.
So, thanks to all of you and your generous response to our appeals, all the students of the Bijoynagar Adarsha Vidyamandir will have textbooks and (some) exercise-books for this academic year.
We have succeeded in getting textbooks for all students of the BAV. Thanks to Mudar and Shalini's efforts and the money promised by friends which will come to us in the next few days and weeks, we ought to be able to get exercise-books for all of them as well.
But much still needs to be done.
In the many discussions and deliberations we have had with Sukumar-babu, and his colleagues, he has indicated some of the needs of the school (not all them caused due to Aila). Among these needs are tables and benches for some of the classrooms (which have never had tables/benches before), repairs to the damaged buildings, blackboards, and so forth.
I should be able to prepare a comprehensive list in some days' time and then I will get back to you.
Thanking you once again for your kindness of heart and generosity of spirit.
P.S. In my last report, I had included a list of donors' names. Let me repeat that this list includes only the names of those who have contributed to the collection for buying books for the students of BAV. Others who contributed very generously to our first two efforts at providing relief in the form of foodstuffs, tarpaulins, medicines and so on, were not included in that list. If I have offended anyone by doing this, my sincerest apologies, for no offence was intended.