Namo Jamdoba, a tribal village in Jamuria block close to the coal city of Asansol in West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district, presents visitors with an unusual sight. On one of its main streets is an outdoor school, with small blackboards painted on mud walls: here, on any given day, one can find young children confidently using gadgets like microscopes and laptops, and teaching adults how to write.
The credit for the project goes to Deepnarayan Nayak, a 37-year-old primary school teacher of Jamuria’s Tilka Manjhi Adivasi Free Primary School, who is popularly known as rastar master (literally, teacher of the streets). Back in 2014, he started this innovative open-air learning space where underprivileged children receive education free. The project is entirely self-funded, with Nayak still continuing with his day job at the school to support his passion. Each day, he spends at least 5-6 hours at his study centres after finishing his school duties.
The idea of the project came to him from his experience in his school, which, like many other schools in the tribal areas of Bengal, has a high dropout rate caused by financial stress, generational illiteracy, and a lack of access to roads, water, and electricity. While male children drop out to work in the nearby shops or coal mines, female children leave school to help their parents with housework or to be married off at an early age. The vicious cycle is perpetuated in the absence of access to education at the grassroots level.
This is where Nayak stepped in. He says: “I realised that to solve this problem, I have to take the classroom to the children, rather than the other way around. But the parents had no money for sponsoring their children’s online education. So, I devised a cost-effective solution, and painted blackboards on the village walls.” Once he started converting the mud walls of village houses into classroom walls, writing letters of the alphabet and inspiring quotes in Bengali, English, Hindi, and Santali, the villagers responded enthusiastically. Children started lining up to study. When the parents noticed the progress their children were making, their attitude to learning too changed, creating a positive feedback loop.
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Slowly, Nayak introduced the “3G” model of education: three generations of women in the same household teaching each other. Rebati Marandi, a second-generation learner, said: “My 6-year-old daughter, Sangita, taught me how to write. I feel good about myself and I am so proud of her.”
Like most backward villages, Namo Jamdoba too suffered because of superstition, malnutrition, and miscommunication stemming from the language barrier (most of the villagers speak Santali, while the language of officials is either Bengali or Hindi). Keeping this in mind, Nayak introduced the children to instruments such as the microscope, which can show them how germs, rather than, say, curses, cause diseases; provided them with afternoon snacks of milk, bread, and fruits as a way to combat malnutrition; and used the Ol Chiki script for the Santali-speaking children.
In March 2020, when the pandemic resulted in traditional schools getting shut, Nayak continued his work, maintaining physical-distancing protocols, and travelling from one centre to another on his motorbike. The benefits of his intervention were evident after the pandemic, when several youngsters who had dropped out of school during the COVID-19 outbreak came back to study. Raj, a teaching assistant at the street school of Nilpur Adivasi village, was a dropout himself. He quit his studies in his second year of graduation in 2020 but resumed his studies after getting inspired by the street school. He later joined as a teaching assistant at the street school in his village.
Nayak has expanded his project in several villages and employed educated youth from the local community as teachers. He now runs 50 such centres across six districts of West Bengal and Jharkhand, with 150 teachers. About 10,000 students have benefitted from it. The project attracted national and international media attention, and Nayak ended up as a finalist for the 2023 edition of the prestigious Global Teacher Prize, presented by the Varkey Foundation in partnership with UNESCO. Nayak did not win the award ultimately but his popularity soared.
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While the demand for open-air study centres is on the rise, there are several hurdles to setting them up. But Nayak is undaunted by the challenges he faces—from funding to convincing parents—in taking education to the underprivileged. He says with a smile: “My motto is ‘Where there is a wall, there is a way’.”
Sudip Maiti is a professional photographer exploring the intersections of mythology, climate change, the environment, and human relationships with the wild.