A Food For Action –
My Vanyatra To EKAL Schools

India is a diverse country with 29 states, seven union territories which are holding a population of 1.27 billion people. I feel, the best method to understand India is to visit her heartland, and keep wishing for strength and conviction to go back there again and again. It’s not easy! But, that’s one of the ways to resolve some of the conflicts which confuse our inner thinking.

The foremost bridge to India’s future is education; education will build one of India’s sturdiest bases to eradicate poverty and ignorance.

Knowledge will spring a huge positive surprise: amidst the inhabitants dwelling in the remote forest regions, small villages and in the developing towns of India. This is where the EKAL concept of providing ‘basic education’ in tribal belts is proving its success.

I want to share the experience of my recent Vanyatra. On 11th June, 2014, I visited Umraj, Dhand Pada, Gaydhond hamlets – situated in the forest belt of Peth, near Nasik-Maharashtra. From Mumbai to Nasik (one way) by the Bombay Agra Highway, the journey by car was 210 km. In order to reach the tribal villages of Umraj, Dhand Pada, Gaydhond meant that we had to drive another 90 kms into the interiors. Therefore, the round-trip expanded to 600 kms. Given that, my first piece of advice for myself is that I should do more Vanyatras. My advice to my team members is that they should also try and go for Vanyatras. My suggestion to the donors is that they must become Vanyatris!

The gentleman who accompanied me on my Vanyatra is Rajendar Sonawane. He is a coordinator of the West Zone, and travels around 100 EKAL schools operating in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. He sees to the working of EKAL schools – his role is to supervise the operations of the karyakartas – the volunteers whose task is to implement the principles of EKAL. This means continuous monitoring by the karyakartas and the zone coordinator to see that the EKAL schools keep running properly.

Rajendar Sonawane is an interesting man who was initiated into the learning of the Hindu philosophy through the scripture – Gita. He says with pride, ‘I was only nine years old when I started on Gita lessons.’ He was quoting from Gita in fluent Sanskrit, and then translating the content into the Hindi language for me – it was an auspicious verse seeking the Almighty’s protection to make our long journey safe and successful. That is how the topic of his background came up when I expressed that we should say a small prayer before we hit the road for our Vanyatra.

The pilot of my car is from the Indian Navy. He is interested in philanthropy, solar energy, wind energy, bio-diesel energy. His name is Shivraj Megraj Rajeghatghe – he trained as a paramedic from Kochi-Southern India, and has recently completed his PhD in Dynamic Science.

Could I have been in better company for my 600 km. Vanyatra!

So… I am in the car, and we set off from my residence (South Mumbai) for Nasik at about 7 a.m. The skies are grey and we say to each other that a shower or two would ease the soaring temperatures of nearly 40 degree centigrade.

Our first brief halt is for breakfast at a village called Yewi – before the Kalyan Toll Bridge. The large café has South Indian, North Indian, Chinese cuisine on its menu. Yes, there is also pasta and pizza… and I am thinking that in a couple of hours, we will be among the tribals in their forests! But then isn’t this contrast that makes India unique?!

After breakfast, we cross Shahpur to Igatpuri; the road is smooth and our car moves without much hassles of traffic jams though trucks are alongside a regular feature of movement. As we pass through Igatpuri, the landscape is changing. A range of hills known as the Satpura Range is majestically showing the contrasting speckled cloudy sky playing truant… not a drop of rain appears to be coming our way. The hills appear greener than I would have imagined during the heat of this season.

The word ‘Satpura’ derives its origin from a Sanskrit word meaning seven mountains – sapta means seven, pura means mountains. The range rises in Eastern Gujarat State near the Arabian Sea coast, running east through the borders of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Rajendar Sonawane points to a jutting tall hill’s peak arising in the easterly direction. He says, ‘This is the highest shikar – peak in Maharashtra, it is known as Kalsubai – after the goddess Ambe.’ I tell Rajendar Bhai that I have already been to the Ambewadi Adivasi (tribal) village situated at the foot of the peak – where one EKAL school was visited by me on my previous Vanyatra.

As we are on our way to Ghoti and Nasik, I have many questions to ask Rajendar Bhai. He explains about the zonal system maintained by the EKAL organization. ‘We have five zones – North, South, East, West and the Central Zone to see that the EKAL schools are divided in such a way that each school comes under a specific zone to show its records of working, or, disruption.’

Through my experience, I know that to run EKAL schools is not an easy task by any means. I have seen that every tribal village is different in its way of thinking and living. Some among the Adivasis are grasping the importance of education. Some tribals are still hovering between darkness and more darkness – to them blind belief of cultish rituals, superstition are a way of life… a way to raise their children. This is where the EKAL concept of education comes very handy – to lift the downtrodden and give them the power to identify their own true selves.

This means that every EKAL karyakarta, every EKAL zone coordinator like Rajendar Sonawane has to be kind, wise and diplomatic to win the affection and goodwill of the tribal people to change their mind-set. That is a very challenging ordeal.

I also strongly believe that donors like me who visit the tribal belts and actually inter-mingle with the tribal population are giving a soulful meaning to the purpose of EKAL Vidyalaya Foundation. I say this with deep humility and passion. You see, unless we are not able to visit the EKAL schools, how can we come to any conclusion of positivity or negativity? Seeing is believing.

Yes… for me seeing was believing… when I visited Umraj, Dhand Pada and Gaydhond. As information goes, Gaydhond rests right at the edge of Gujarat border. In fact, the villagers pointed out to me a cultivated patch of land which was only a five minute walk to take me into another state… Gujarat… this was a fascinating visual for me!

By early noon time, one by one, we visited Umraj, Dhanda Pada and Gaydhond; the entire population gave us a very warm welcome. Earlier on, the karyakartas had met up with us on their motor-bikes to take us into the interiors where the three villages are nestled at some further distance from each other. There was music and flowers to greet us with the Tilak ceremony. The tarpai player was something else! He blew on his big pipe made out of gourd and kept dancing near us to show his skills! The women clapped and danced all the way… the moments were very special for all of us.

The children in all the three villages told me in front of the village elders that they were attending the EKAL schools on a regular basis. The parents nodded with satisfaction about EKAL learning. The EKAL teachers are receiving their well-deserved stipend. I had a couple of quizzes for the kids in terms of numbers and alphabets, and they seemed to be alert but shy. I realize more than ever that these hamlets require many basic things of life, and we cannot give up on doing something or the other for them… no matter how small or big. I, as an individual cannot give up by simply saying: Oh! How can I help when the ocean of despair is so deep? By raising such a question, I am simply defeating the purpose of my own living.

When I was having a dialogue with the parents and the children, they expressed satisfaction on the running of the government local schools – this was naturally heartening news for me.

As per Population Census of India 2011, the Literacy Rate of India has shown an improvement of 9 percent in the last 10 years. Maharashtra has in the last decade come in the elite group of states that records over 80% literacy rate. However… India has by far the largest population of illiterate population at 287 million, amounting to 37% of the global total – according to a report by United Nations – highlighting the vast disparities existing in education level of the country’s rich and poor. This is where EKAL is playing its role to bridge some of the gap. I believe, the EKAL field workers are gradually changing the “thinking-process” of the tribal elders and their children. This is a process to be studied by every EKAL donor because it is an enriching experience of great knowledge on how EKAL faces the challenges of bringing positive changes in a section of society which is rigid, poor and depressed – almost unaware of the meaning of progress. With EKAL’s ‘basic education concept’ of imparting the fundamentals of good family values, hygiene, national pride, all this adds up into a chalice of a rich harvest! Because of EKAL learning program the tribal adults are now becoming aware of R.T.I. (Right To Investigate Law).

In the evening as we were returning homeward, Satpura Range of hills appeared different in the light of a full moon. Though we never received any rain throughout the day, the night had brought some coolness. A once-upon-a-time description of the Satpura Range was that it was a natural area and meeting point of many animals and birds. It is still lush green, especially after the monsoons, and there would be flora and fauna, I guess. But, the elephants and tigers are long gone!

The Satpura Range has national parks, pilgrim towns and hill retreats, like Toranmal and Chikaldara. Melghat Tiger Reserve is a sanctuary located in northern part of Amravati District of Maharashtra. So, these alluring spots for my readers are mentioned to encourage them to visit some EKAL schools, nearby!

I reached home around 1:15 a.m. Rajendar Bhai and Shivraj would reach home even later.

After a cold water shower, I was snug in my bed dreaming of the hills and the EKAL children who had given me their best smiles as memories. In the morning when I woke up, I was thinking more and more of my beloved country and her beloved children. Over a cup of ginger-tea, I sat in my balcony feeling calm and yet charged with new energy. Rabindranath Tagore’s poem was rhyming in my heart. It flows thus:

Where The Mind is Without Fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by Thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

I had to share the poet laureate’s lines with you and myself!

To view the photographs of my Vanyatra, kindly click onhttp://geetachhabra.com/photo_news/Vanyatra.php

For information on EKAL, kindly click on

Geeta Chhabra
President EKAL UAE Chapter

The diarist is grateful to Smt. Nayantara Jain and all F.T.S. members who made her Vanyatra so purposeful.

Geeta Chhabra Comment Form
Form a link. Comment inside the box below. Your views will be published in a coming edition.