Over the last three decades, my summer trips to India from the United States were primarily about visiting family and friends and leisurely travel. The trip in July 2022 was very different, life-changing in a way. Was it my two-day visit to an organization called Swanirvar in West Bengal that made the difference? Was it meeting the children? Was it interacting with the teachers? What was it really? Perhaps you could help me figure it out.
On arrival at Swanirvar on 28th July 2022, I was overwhelmed to see how well-prepared the team was for my visit. I was given a tour of two Swanirvar facilities, located on organically farmed land in a self-sustained idyllic setting. I was served a sumptuous breakfast and then taken through an agenda for the visit. We were to visit Jasaikati primary and secondary schools (day 1) and Banglani primary school (day 2) in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
On day 1, I was greeted warmly in both schools. First, I attended a literature class that was full of interactive learning. I was enthralled by the teacher who used puppetry to build her students’ imagination, creativity, and observation while getting them to learn language skills as well. The bell for the science class shook me out of my classroom reverie. The science class was equally interesting. With the use of inexpensive materials available in our day-to-day life, Mr. Subhankar Bhabak , the science teacher engaged the children in hands-on activities. He did a fabulous job of explaining how science and scientific reasoning can be used to explain observed phenomena. Very cleverly, he went on to show how blind faith and superstitions are based on falsehood and should always be examined through a scientific lens. I have seldom seen children so engrossed in classroom teaching. The result was whenever the teacher asked a question, most hands went up. Taking liberty, I asked the children who among them wanted to become a scientist. Needless to say, every hand in the class went up excitedly.
Apart from formal education, Swanirvar places great emphasis on co-curricular activities like music, drama, art, craft and gardening. I was treated to a song and dance performance by the children, following which I visited the flower and vegetable gardens that were cultivated by children and teachers using organic farming techniques. Children also informed me about the bio-diversity register they were maintaining.
On Day 2, I visited Banglani primary school in Swarupnagar, located close to the Indo-Bangladesh border. Here the children and teachers performed a song and dance for the entire school including many parents. There was a display of some highly impressive drawings and paintings that the children had created. I also interacted with teachers who had much to say about the help they had received from the Swanirvar team and the positive changes they had witnessed in their school because of that.
Amidst this enriching environment, bursting with knowledge and enthusiasm, I was slightly dismayed to hear about the employment prospects of the children at Swanirvar schools. Only 3% of students graduating from high school are successful in getting good jobs. I can see that they are full of promise. The best leaders and analytical minds can potentially emerge from this gravely underdeveloped area, with just a little push of technology, digital training, and exposure to apprenticeship and academic opportunities. I sincerely hope this push comes in strong and comes in soon.
Now you’ve heard my story. Can you tell me what was it that made my India trip a transformative experience? It has been a conundrum for me ever since I returned.
Swanirvar Visit Captures
Swanirvar is an organization that strives to promote an evolutionary model, for a sustainable, collaborative, and effective transition to a prosperous India. It has four focal areas: education, community health, women empowerment, and agriculture.
While Swanirvar works extensively in primary schools, high schools, and undergraduate colleges, their primary focus is on schools. Presently, they are working with 160 schools in places like Deganga, Baduria, Swarupnagar, Bongaon, and Sunderban in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. After the precipitous drop in student attendance and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is encouraging to see that children are now flocking to schools where Swanirvar is operating. An invigorating environment welcomes you when you step into the premises. Teachers use diverse teaching-learning materials and activity-based learning methods. Student-teacher interactions are positive and heart-warming. Parents are highly involved in their children’s education, unlike what parents at government schools are wont to do. All this has led to zero dropout rates and high enrolment. In fact, students are leaving their schools to come and study at Swanirvar-run schools.
With respect to other initiatives, Swanirvar provides rural health care and paramedical services in 10 villages and 27 hospitals in the North 24 Parganas district as well as in Kolkata. Women in self-help groups (SHGs) are trained in skills like making traditional food and spices, handicrafts, and running small entrepreneurial businesses. They are also supported in getting business loans. The team at Swanirvar travels across the district to teach organic farming techniques – like preparing bio manure, seed conservation, and propagation to the locals.
Vibha’s partnership with Swanirvar began in 2006. Vibha primarily supports Swanirvar’s teacher training initiatives. Additional funding was provided for a few years to Prayaash, a program focusing on children of migrant laborers who are not enrolled in school or have dropped out.