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Village panchayat brings a forsaken school back to life

© UNICEF India / 2006
The benches supplied by UNICEF in 2005 to the Panchayat Union School in Therku Poigainallur, Nagapattinam.

By Sumithra Thangavelu

Therku Poigainallur, Nagapattinam: At the Panchayat Union Middle School in this village, UNICEF’s After School Programme is underway. Ms Pramila Manoharan, UNICEF Assistant Project Officer, Education, is interacting with the children when a carpenter passes by, carrying planks of wood.

Dusk falls and the carpenter continues to work, chiseling the wood to form benches. Occasionally, he gets up to measure a bench, the dimensions of which he is partly replicating.  This is one of the 60 benches supplied to the school by UNICEF last year.

Curious, Ms. Pramila walks up to the carpenter to enquire about the task at hand. The Panchayat, the carpenter explains, had ordered 20 new benches for the school to plug a shortage. The “UNICEF bench” came as a handy inspiration. ``I was very happy at that point. Even those in authority only look for favours, but this Panchayat went right ahead to fulfil a need,’’ says Ms Pramila.

Ten years ago, it was a different story.  For nearly two years since 1995, the school was closed down due to an indifferent administration and irregular teaching staff.For nearly two years since 1995, the school was closed down due to an indifferent administration and irregular teaching staff. The panchayat too was non-functional.

When R Balakrishnan was elected Panchayat President in 1996, he wanted the situation to change – and fast. ``The school is a village treasure. I knew that if neglected further, it would fall into the hands of the unscrupulous. It wouldbe very hard to get it back,’’ he says.

To set the process rolling, the president embarked on the uphill task of regaining the villagers’ trust. As a sign, he took his daughter Sivaranjini (Class III) out of the private school nearby, and admitted her to the government school.

Together with Ranjini (Class I) and Karthick (Class II), the children of P T Selvaraj, vice president of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), and Balakrishnan’s brother Anandan, the three children become the symbol of new beginnings for Therku Poigainallur.

With them, the president and his team walked the streets of the village, urging the people to enroll their kids as well. ``We will bring in good teachers. There won’t be mistakes this time,’’ he promised.

© UNICEF India / 2006
The school has ensured that all-round growth goes hand-in-hand with academic pursuits at the panchayat school.

Commitment, coupled with generous cash donations from the well-to-do and panchayat funds, helped reverse the earlier cycle of inefficiency. To start, the panchayat resumed the noon-meal scheme, bought chairs, tables and utensils, and set up a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to actively involve the locals – over 1700 families live here – in the school’s administration.

In early June 1997, the first group of 10 children was admitted to grade one of the Panchayat Union Elementary School. In six years, the school – first started in 1973 – grew to become a Middle School and now has over 200 children. ``We’ve come a long way,’’ says Mrs. Leela Devi, the dynamic headmistress who took charge a month after the school reopened.

The Panchayat and the school administration have spent over Rs. 50,000 on creative pursuits alone, unimaginable for a government-run school in India.

This year, the 18 students in class VIII will be the first batch to pass out from Middle School. ``It’s a proud moment for us,’’ says Mrs. Devi. Students in this class were among the first to benefit from the UNICEF benches. They are excited just talking about the functional niches and corner-spaces in it. ``I find it useful to do my homework, and to keep my bag and things’’ says Punitha.

Therku Poigainallur truly seems a world apart. It’s a remarkable pointer to how the long-standing involvement of a panchayat can bring about great change to the people, and its children. It’s also a poignant note on the impact a participative community can have on sustainable development. As Nandakumar, a resident, proudly says: “That school is an important symbol for this village.”

 

 

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