My EKAL Vanyatra to Melghat, Amravati District-Maharashtra, India – from 14th October to 18th October 2016.
(An Idea of a Pilgrimage)

By a mere coincidence, my EKAL Vanyatras started more than a few years back. Ever since then, after every Vanyatra, I feel a sense of rejuvenation because I know my soul has been through a cleansing cycle. Later in the years of 2016 and the start of 2017, my journeys have become more intense to the forests and rural areas of India where I go to see how the EKAL Schools are functioning.  My latest expeditions have lit a hundred sacred candles of knowledge in my heart. I pray, the light will continue to grow in me.


If I were to analyze all the angles – my passages to the EKAL Schools have none of the so-called-elegance of life I lead by the privilege of my birth, or, call it all the fortunate chance of my most comfortable karmic circumstances.


My family has respected my decision to leave home to check out the far away scenes in unfamiliar territories… scenes of disparities, where, in the listings of human priority is: ‘basic’ education inviting my focus, majorly. It is apparent that EKAL Vidyalaya Foundation of India seems to be functioning for this particular social cause engaged in the upliftment of tribal children in India. My role and personal goal is to travel to unknown distances to see and record the functionalities of EKAL Schools.   


Through my most recent Vanyatras to Melghat in Amravati District, Maharashtra-India and Faridabad District, Haryana-India, I have seen more and more people in rural India – who possess large hearts and courageous smiles; it is a repeated experience for me. Village elders and kids gather around me, and the only thing that concerns me is that the under-privileged communities certainly deserve a better deal in life... and what is that better deal of life? Education.


How can the change arise? I believe, nothing can distract India from making strides of progress – most of us have come to realize the happy fact; however, if we can also recognize the importance of ‘volunteering’ – more strength will add on to the momentum.  So… realizing that I am a speck on this Universe – how can I pursue the cause of making a ‘difference’ in society? Yes, I can, alike, the thousands and thousands of volunteers who function from the other corners of our world, today.


Returning to my specific journey to the Amravati District of Maharashtra – India, the inhabitants of Melghat are predominantly tribal people, belonging to sects of:  Korbu, Gond, Nihal and Balai. They revere their forest because Nature fulfills their domestic needs for fodder and wood; the herbs are vital to them for their medicinal qualities. The Indian government has given them free land to till, where crops of vegetables, seasonal grains are produced to be sold and consumed by the tribal families. I covered my EKAL Vanyatras to Melghat on the 14th, 15th and 16th October 2016. I spent a considerable time at Jarida’s government forest lodge – the British-built lodge was my base of return to spend 3 nights over there. From Jarida, my road trips took me to the different tribal villages like, Piplya, Biba Dhana, Hirda, Ruipathar, Chiladi, Sumita.


There were limitations concerning my trip to Melghat. The schools were unable to commence according to their fixed sessions; as the funds had arrived late, and hence I had to ask the EKAL committee to renew a fresh term for the schools which I was visiting. While I mention this fact, it is also relevant to state that I had a specific aim in mind, when I visited Melghat. Al Maktoum Foundation – Dubai (UAE) is sponsoring 15 schools in the region, and therefore, I felt personally obliged to visit those schools. EKAL profusely thanks H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum for the kind gesture.  I also thank H.E. Mirza Al Sayegh in finalizing the process.  


To answer a query of some people: Did Al Maktoum Foundation have the thought that the schools should be allotted in predominantly Muslim villages?  My answer comes by quoting the exact words of H.E. Mirza Al Sayegh, ‘Education is our priority.  Education for the kids in India.’ Bravo! For such a broad-based vision of Al Maktoum Foundation, which is the brain-child of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum – Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance & Industry of UAE.


At the northern extreme of the Amravati District of Maharashtra, at the border of Madhya Pradesh is Melghat – nestled in the Satpura mountain ranges. I covered around 900 kilometers by road to visit the various EKAL schools. The EKAL volunteers accompanied me on my long road trips. Nagpur to Paratpada to Jarida to Biba Dhana to Hatru, Piplya and other villages – it meant, cutting through the dense forests… the roads were not always the best, though overall the transport system has greatly improved in some places. Since the EKAL Schools run only in the late afternoons after the regular school hours, my tours to the remote areas kept me on a nervous mode as our car raced through the dark hours of the night with no network available for our mobiles. The EKAL volunteers told me that they always travelled in pairs in this region which is inhabited by wild animals, such as, bears, fox, even tigers.


After completing the work of my mission – I drove down for a night to Chikaldhara from Jarida to visit the wildlife sanctuary of Chikaldhara. So, you see, these EKAL Vanyatras make anyone richer with other experiences of life, too! I got to see some wild fowl, bisons, and a serpent eagle soaring close to our travelling jeep. No sighting of a tiger, yet, for me! I learnt that the Melghat area was declared a tiger reserve in 1974. Presently, the total area of the reserve is around 1677 km.


During my Melghat stay, I had a long conversation with Shri Manohar Gidwani, whose association with EKAL goes back to 1988. In fact, he travelled from Paratpada to Jarida and came along to visit the EKAL Schools in Biba Dhana. He and his family are long term residents of Paratpada (earlier known as Achalpur). He acquainted me with the local background of EKAL in this region. Shri Gajendra Yeole, Shri Tulsiram Gedam, Shri Gopal Gayam and Shri Mangal Singh Dhurve also appraised me on EKAL schools which were on my list to visit. 


Shri Manohar Gidwani expanded on our dialogues with his own sentiments: ‘Till small scale cottage industries are not established for the tribals, the Adivasis will not change much. Village development will speed up with cottage industries. The tribal people will enjoy creating items that bring out their basic culture and heritage. Bamboo-craft, incense-sticks-making and other handicrafts can be revived here. Now, connectivity by road and networks of banking have improved. We can take advantage of the incentives provided by the government for the tribal communities. The villages need guidance along with education.’


My information also shows that the crime among the Adivasis is negligible. They are simple folks wanting to assemble their thoughts with the changing world. What they require is continuous monitoring and counseling.


Adivasis get government subsidies to buy tractors, tillers, jeeps and other agricultural machinery and tools. Similarly, educational facilities and medical aid is available to them – but the remoteness of the Melghat villages can be a challenge in implementing all such programmes. Poverty was seen in the places which I visited. I definitely feel, the EKAL schools over here will require more focused supervision – communication is slow, and it needs to improve the core working of the EKAL Schools. I spoke at length to the karyakartas and the committee members in Nagpur, before I boarded my flight – back to Mumbai. I have also brought up the subject in Mumbai and in Delhi with committee members.  The positive consequence of our dialogue has been that the term of the Al Maktoum sponsored schools in Melghat received a fresh lease. 


The other EKAL Schools are in Seelati, Seemori, Seemori Dhanna and Badnapur. I learnt from the EKAL volunteers that no donors have gone to Hatru – up to the time of my visit to Hatru. They said, ‘Hatru has water. Hatru has grass. We want the Hatru people to stay in the village and sow two crops. They need not come to the cities for work – which is a challenge by itself for them, today.’ I agreed with the thinking of the EKAL volunteers and they assured me of improved functioning of the schools, here.  


When I visited the villages, some of them were practically empty because the harvesting season was on. In Piplya, it was the same – the parents had taken their children to the fields to give a helping hand. These are the times when EKAL schools slacken over here. I was told that during the local festivals, children are distracted – with the result there is interruption in classes.


Shri Tulsiram Gedam is a Vanvasi with the ancestry of the jungle people, and he is proud of his ancestry. He followed me to Chikaldhara and that was a pleasant surprise for me. Over our evening meal at my hotel, we got the time to discuss a little more on the schools.  Shri Tulsiram Gedam hails from Wadvat in Yatmal District of Maharashtra. He travelled with me and shared among other information, his own childhood. He said, ‘I remember going on hunting trips as a kid with the village group. I remember climbing trees, very high ones. Gum can be very sweet. Amla, berries, jamun were plenty to pluck. I caught rabbits, birds. I played by coloring birds and then releasing them – till my mother told me to stop coloring the birds. She told me the bird becomes the outcaste.’


Many Vanvasis came to the Jarida forest lodge to help me get the local picture of how the EKAL schools were running in Melghat. People like Shri Manohar Gidwani and Shri Tulsiram Gedam assured me that they would certainly invigorate the performance of the schools I had visited. The EKAL Committee in Nagpur were also very receptive to my suggestions and said that they would do their best in every way to see to the improvements. I told the committee members that I had missed out on some of the schools as the roads were slushy and it was risky to venture into those villages, late in the evening.


There was so much to learn and explore from my Melghat Vanyatra.  On my long car journeys, I had different topics to engage in with Shri Manohar Gidwani and Shri Tulsiram Gedam.  We spoke of the government incentives given to the tribals. For instance, the tribal communities get rice at Rs.2/- per kg. Wheat is at the same rate. Child delivery at the government hospitals is free. Education is free up to school level. Ashram Schools provide boarding facilities.


However, on the large-scale-level, there are the high and low points. EKAL schools can fill in the wide gaps by imparting ‘basic’ education to the tribal children. The key lies in running the schools with a much greater efficiency in Melghat. Concerted directions from Nagpur, Mumbai and Delhi will solve the problem.  


I am grateful to FTS-Mumbai for planning my Melghat EKAL Vanyatras.


The diarist, Geeta Chhabra, travelled to Melghat in Amravati District, Maharashtra-India between 14th & 18th October 2016.

Geeta Chhabra


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