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“Jungle main mor naacha, kisi ne na dekha, meri aatma ne dekha” – “No one witnessed the splendorous dance of the peacock in the jungle, but my soul” surmises Jaskaur Meena encapsulating the effort of 20 years that she has dedicated to bringing quality education to tribal girls of the remotest villages in Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan.
Ritu Goyal Harish spoke to the dynamic 65-year-old educationist, one-time MP and full-time agriculturist about the driving force behind her reformist work in the region.

Picture courtesy: artofliving.org

Jaskaur Meena is the daughter of a farmer who belongs to a district in Rajasthan – Sawai Madhopur – that was known to be extremely backward especially when it came to education.

The statistics speak for themselves: In 1991, Rajasthan’s literacy rate was only 38.55% with the percentage of literate women at 20.44%. In 2001, the State’s literacy rate increased to 60.41% (43.85% female) and Sawai Madhopur’s female literacy rate was 35.17% according to the Directorate of Literacy and Continuing Education, and State Literacy Mission Authority, Government of Rajasthan. In Census 2011, Rajasthan’s literacy rate saw the highest leap in the percentage of literacy recorded in India - 67.06% (80.51% male and 52.66% female).

Although Rajasthan's literacy rate is still below the national average of 74.04% and its female literacy rate the lowest in the country (closely followed by Bihar at 53.33%), the state has been praised for its efforts and achievements in raising male and female literacy rates.

A significant part of this credit must go to Jaskaur Meena, who started the Grameena Mahila Vidyapeetha in 1993 with just 15 girls in Mainpura in Sawai Madhopur district that comprised some of the most backward regions of the state.

Jaskaur Meena receiving the Rajasthan State Best Educationist award.

Jaskaur belongs to the backward tribal Meena community whose main occupation was agriculture. Her father inspired her to study and she received formal education in a school till class VIII. In 1962 she appeared for her Xth privately, and followed it up with a BA, B Ed, and MA, despite being married at a tender age. She recalls, “My daughter was already born when I gave my Xth board exams.”

Literacy to combat backwardness

The seed of empowerment through education was sown in Jaskaur’s mind when she embarked upon a career as a teacher with the unstinting support of her family. “There were times when people would say nasty things to my mother-in-law (‘You’re living on the salary of your daughter-in-law’), but she was very supportive” she says.

After she had headed a secondary school as Head Mistress for a few years – the first tribal woman in Rajasthan to do so – she was appointed District Education Officer (Zilla Shiksha Adhikari). This was another first for a tribal woman from Rajasthan. Jaskaur would often be accosted by girls from remote tribal villages who wanted to receive an education.

Through her own experience she knew that there were no resources to educate a girl child in this remote region of Rajasthan. Since she was aware that the only way to break the cycle of backwardness, both social and cultural, superstition and discrimination was education, she decided to do something about it.

Grameena Mahila Vidyapeetha as it exists today

Grameena Mahila Vidyapeetha

In 1990 she started a small centre, “in one corner of a temple compound” with 16-17 girls where they were taught to write letters, sign their names etc. in an informal environment. These girls had never been to a school in their lives but were dedicated and quick learners. Soon Jaskaur realised that she wanted to reach out to a larger number of girls.

In 1993, she started a primary school and girls of all ages clamoured for admission. “Even married girls, older girls, all of them wanted to join the school and study” she recollects. Girls would leave their children with willing parents and in-laws, some would work in the fields during the day and come to school later, such was their desire to study.

Over the years, Jaskaur added classes to the primary school and today the Grameena Mahila Vidyapeetha imparts education to over 1,000 students (of which 90% are from tribal communities) from schooling to graduation and has a hostel where residential services are also offered to 400 girls (who are given three square meals a day, free of cost) from faraway districts.

The reputation of the institute attracts girls from as many as 10 districts of Rajasthan. “Now we don’t have to convince people to send their daughters to school. Parents come by themselves” she comments.

In a clear shift from the scenario that existed in the 80s, parents today want their girls to work, earn money and become independent, says she.

Accomplishments

To Jaskaur, the achievements of her students and the value based education imparted at the school/college draw girls to it.

Gleaming with pride she says that in the 13 years that students from the school have been appearing for class XII Board exams, the school has given 100% results, which means that all the students have passed, and many with flying colours. “124 students got first division this year” she submits.

Since the school and college are modeled on the principles of fruitful education for all-round development, laying emphasis on co-curricular activities, scores of girls who have passed out have pursued careers successfully.

In an internal survey conducted by the institute recently (as part of completion of 20 years of its existence), astounding figures have emerged. Consider this:

More than 700 girls who have passed out from the college have become school teachers, 17 girls have joined Delhi Police, careers such as airhostesses and hotel management are being actively pursued and two girls have also been placed in a renowned IT company recently.

Jaskaur’s pride in the achievements of the students is understandable when one recalls the backgrounds of these girls. Most of them come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds, some don’t even own footwear. Many have lost a parent and some are orphans. The manner in which these girls have risen above their disadvantaged birth circumstances to build better lives, is laudable and extremely inspiring.

Brick by Brick

Building the school and college was no cakewalk especially for someone who didn’t have the privilege of money or power to back her. All she had was her commitment to the cause of education. To Jaskaur, that was a starting point.

Once the school started and began to grow, she approached the government for funds and support. The district administration applauded her work and granted the school a 10-acre plot where the current building stands. “With the exception of the period when a grant of Rs 9,200 per annum, per child was given to the institute by the Government of India, she has devoted all her means to the cause of education".

“I didn’t take fees, but asked the parents to help me in kind in whatever way they could. Someone would drop off a sack of cement, somebody a sack of grains. Everything helped us build the school and feed these underprivileged girls” she iterates. Contributions by the community also gave them a sense of ownership for the institute.

Going the extra mile came easy for her and she never shied away from personal contributions to her dream. “For 10 years, I gave my entire salary of Rs 16,000 (as District Educational Officer) to the school, buying chalk, books, uniforms, bags etc. No one in my family complained or objected.”

Village women expressing their gratitude to Jaskaur Meena

Self-Sustaining Model

While she forged ahead in the field of education, Jaskaur’s calling as an agriculturist saw her adopt eco-farming in a very major way.  Her eco-friendly practices, promotion of eco-manure as opposed to fertilizers and urea, vermicomposting, adoption of greenhouses, adoption of technology in farming etc. have become a model for farmers to emulate.

True to her mission as a teacher, she teaches eco-farming practices to farmers from across the region, “To teach them that pashu paalan (cattle rearing) and kheti (farming) can be bonded”. Students of B Ed visit the farm for a weeklong course and students from the agriculture and horticulture department of the government also come for training.

In addition, the model of eco-farming as promulgated by her has made the students and the farming community understand that agriculture can be lucrative economically. “Children of farmers are now inspired to take up farming instead of baying for jobs in cities” she adds.

While she champions the cause of safe farming techniques, her farm has also helped her gain sustenance and sustainability to run the school and college. The produce of the farm (including the dairy farm) is used to cater to the needs of the school and college and the rest is sold in the market. She also started the region’s first hotel, Treehouse Anuraga that supplements her income and fuels her cause. “This has made me independent and I don’t want to rely on any government agency for support to run Grameena Mahila Vidyapeetha” she avers.

“The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” – William James

Jaskaur Meena whose work has influenced almost 20,000 families in the past 20 years in Sawai Madhopur and adjoining regions is humble when she says that by starting a school and college and empowering many girls to better financial futures she merely reciprocated. “I give them what I received – an education.”

She hopes that others will be encouraged to start schools in their tehsils for the larger benefit of the society.

 

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