One architecture student and other chemistry graduate were looking for a meaningful way to work against injustice and oppression met in 1980s in Narmada Valley.

Amit quit School of Planning and Architecture while Jayshree had bachelor’s in chemistry from Fergusson College. Both want to be known by their first name. Both began working with Adivasi women on issues of health, dignity, forest rights and education and joined the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Alirajpur, campaigning tirelessly against the exploitation and displacement of tribals.

After they got married in 1989, they spent the first eight years travelling, organising meetings and mobilising people to become aware of, and demand, their rights. They lived among the Adivasis, learning to understand their needs and world view. They imbibed life skills that would guide them throughout their life and work.

After their children, Revali and Sarang, were born, Amit and Jayashree moved to Sendhwa in Badwani district in 1997. They began to set up the Adharshila Learning Centre with the support of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, a people’s rights organization.

“We learnt our first lessons about the critical need for quality education in those years in Jhabua,” says Amit. “We would meet teenage tribal boys who were studying in the state-run ashram schools and be startled by the fear and lack of confidence in them. Mainstream education reinforced in them the feeling that tribal language, lifestyle and culture was inferior and had to be rejected. They were embarrassed of their own families. Instead of empowering them, their experience of education seemed to have completely disempowered them.”

“The Adharshila Learning Centre is a collaboration in progress,” says Jayashree. It is evolving every day. This school is the result of sahbhagita, the collective participation of a community, students and teachers.”

Situated on a hill, amid six and a half acres of farm land, Adharshila is a residential school. It is now in its 17th year. This year, they have 125 students from almost 50 villages in Badwani district.

“When we first arrived here, this land was barren and rocky. The soil cover was thin and it was hard to grow anything on these slopes,” explains Amit. “When we started to build the classrooms and hostel, everyone from the community contributed what they could. People would gather at dusk after their work in the fields was over and, overnight, we dug foundations and began to build this school.”

The same barren land now not only produces grain and pulses but also record levels of vegetables. Over the years, the soil has been nurtured with organic manure from bull dung. Jayashree and her team have learnt about soil and seeds and used drip irrigation to grow enough food to sustain the school kitchen for at least eight months in a year. “All our students are children of farmers,” says Jayashree. “Their years in school must enhance and reinforce the traditional knowledge and skills of their community. We don’t need to teach them about the dignity of labour. Every child contributes in farming and tending to the animals with innate enthusiasm.”

“What is unique about our experience is that we were both students and teachers while we were at school,” explains Kamal Dudwe, an alumnus. “We studied harder and more carefully when we had to teach a class.” Dudwe, who is from the first batch of students of Adharshila, has completed his master’s in economics from Banaras Hindu University and is preparing for his Public Service Commission entrance exams while completing his PhD from Allahabad University.

Majali Janu, another student from the first batch, is a dedicated teacher at Adharshila and now also a trainer of new teachers.

The Adharshila theatre group is called Naatak India Company. They travel and perform many original plays and are regularly invited to tribal rights sammelans (meetings) and education.

Amit and Jayashree decided early on to steer clear of all institutional funding. About 50% of the school’s financial needs are met through fees, and the rest through an informal network of friends, individual donors and community support. Volunteer teachers and artists from India and abroad stay on campus and teach for months on end.

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Asif Ullah Khan

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