The Vanasthali Rural Development Centre, Pune opened doors in 1981 to work in rural child education. Its founder, Nirmalatai Purandare, a social activist with more than 40 years of experience in this field, was driven by the motto 'A balwadi (nursery school) for every village.' Today with over 210 balwadis in nine districts of Maharashtra, she feels heartened to see that her efforts have yielded fruit. But there is a long road ahead, she is quick to add. Rasika Dhavse speaks to her about her ideas and her work.

To begin at the beginning, how did Vanasthali get started?

Since 1957, I have been working with a group called Students Welfare Association in Pune. Its primary aim is to assist students who come from rural areas to pursue college and higher education in Pune with their accommodation and other needs. While interacting with these students, I learned that the dropout rate of school children, especially girls, is very high in villages. While pondering about the possible reasons, it came to light that 'no exposure to education' was possibly the main cause. These students who came to the Students Welfare Association were the lucky ones who had made it as far as the city colleges. But a majority stayed back, and the doors of education were closed for them, simply because of lack of access.

That was when I began to toy with the idea of taking education to their very doorstep. A lot of the rural kids will never have the opportunity to make it to a school located in a distant taluka place or city, and hence it is imperative that we take the school and education right up to them.

But why the emphasis on child education?

The child in the city is groomed into the process of education. Play groups that are conducted for children in the age bracket of 3 to 6 years mould the child to function as a member of a group and ready him for the process of learning. However, this preparation for socialisation, so to say, is almost always absent in villages. Because primary education is compulsory, the child is picked up at the age of 6 and put into a school. But he has neither been groomed to accept schooling nor is he ready. Consequently, the dropout rate is high in the subsequent years. What we need is a grooming ground for the rural child, similar to what his urban counterpart has.

But who will teach him? City teachers do not find it feasible to travel all the way to villages to teach. Hence the best way out is to provide local residents some minimum training, and urge them to take on the mantle of teaching. And we decided it has to be the woman taking on this role, as educating a woman is often the path to educating her entire family too. That was how the idea of the 'Balwadi teacher' took root.

How do the statistics read today?

Our first workshop to train women to become balwadi teachers was conducted at the taluka level in Shirur in 1981 and attended by 35 women. Today we have about 200 to 250 such workshops to our credit. More than 10,000 women have undergone this training. In our 200-odd balwadis, about 8,000 children are being groomed by our teachers. During the summer and winter vacations, we conduct personality development camps and more than 600 rural women have benefitted from them. Ratnagiri, Kolhapur, Pune, Baramati, Rahuri, Morachi Chincholi, Nashik, Alibag, Koynanagar, Sangamner, Panshet, Ralegan Siddhi - various corners of the Maharashtra state have been home to our programmes.

Tell us about the training workshops. Who comes there, what is it that you want them to take away from the workshop, ...

Our premise is to work with whatever resources we have. We don't wait till we can find a girl who has passed her matriculation exam in order to train her. In all probability, we may not find such a qualified person in some of the villages. So any woman who can handle children and is willing to learn in order to teach them is an ideal candidate for our six-month-long training programme.

Our emphasis is on practical training - basically to help the child prepare himself for a formal education. Toward that aim, we also stress on all-round development of the child. So our balwadis also incorporate hobby classes and we teach crafts, song and dance in addition to basic recognition of numbers, alphabet, colours, etc.

Our balwadi manual covers a wide range of topics such as child health and nutrition, child psychology, teaching methodology and the actual syllabus. It has been recommended by the Maharashtra state government as reading material for some other organisations running similar programmes.

What does the balwadi teacher gain from this experience?

Our balwadis serve as a training ground for the teachers too. We organise advanced training camps for teachers so that they can travel outside their village and see other places and interact and learn from their counterparts elsewhere. They are all local women, who start with very low confidence levels. But they emerge as persons of importance in the village because of their status as the balwadi 'tai' (elder sister). Character-building, employment and empowerment of these women is as important a part of Vanasthali's endeavour as child education.

When you look back at 1981 and where all this began, ...

I started out knowing that this was going to be a long process. We had to begin by creating awareness about the need for education and convince the parents how it would benefit their child. In so many places, we even had to explain what a balwadi is. Then came the process of preparing the teachers. From their backyard, we led them to the forefront of an entire village, and they had to be taught how to talk, prepare teaching material, how to conduct classes. They were the ones who had to persuade the village superiors to grant land for the school, sometimes appeal to the parents to pay some nominal fee, and to get that simple village girl to this level can be a long journey.

But when we see the numbers of our balwadis multiplying, when government officials ask us to help draw a similar pattern for their primary schools, when parents see the progress and the adaptation of their child to the education system, we know we have done a bit of the work we set out to do.

What do you see as the major changes in this whole process of rural education?

The government agencies have neither encouraged us nor hindered us. They don't mind people carrying out their activities so long as they are not asked for monetary assistance!
There have been many changes over the years, the primary one being that awareness about the significance of education has shot up remarkably. There are still remote hamlets where we have to do the groundwork, but the need for education has permeated to the grassroot level too. The attitude towards the balwadi teacher is also changing. She has been able to create a difference in her environment and that is something to be appreciated. You see that the parents too are developing a new attitude. Earlier we even had to exhort them to buy footwear for their school-going children. Today, we see them eagerly preparing for their child's first class.

What has been the role of the government in all this?

The government agencies have neither encouraged us nor hindered us. They don't mind people carrying out their activities so long as they are not asked for monetary assistance!