22 year old Nisha Danu is the torchbearer of change in the Himalayan villages

8 March 2017 | by Shruti Kohli | Khati, Uttarakhand

Twenty two year old Nisha Danu shrugs it off when you ask her about walking 20 odd kilometers nonstop through the Himalayan mountains to make it to her organisation’s very first formal meeting in Khati, the last village in the lower Himalayas before you hit Pindari Galcier.

 
She would rather talk about how two children from the batches she had taught had qualified for the Navodaya Vidyalayas this year. The sparkle in her eyes is obvious. Because it’s an Olympian achievement. And why? Because it happened in Dhoktigaon, a village which doesn’t even show up on an ordinary map, a village which has no internet and has a phone network as good as non-existent.

 

Nisha Danu of Dhoktigaon, a forgotten village in the lower Himalayas

Nisha Danu of Dhoktigaon, a forgotten village in the lower Himalayas.  Photo by: Shruti Kohli

 

Nisha’s village, like the other villages in these parts, starts existing for the rest of the world every few years during elections. It’s the time when these otherwise sequestered villages get pampered as mantleshelves to showcase the flags, placards and posters of political parties wooing the villagers for votes.

 

Unaesthetic posters displaying photos of candidates and party symbols litter the walls of the most aesthetically architectured mountain huts. Once the show is over, lights go off, curtain come down, and these villages become invisible.

 

Life goes on uncut for 10 year old Chandni and her grandmother as a cacophonic poll poster sits easy on their serene facade of their hut

Life goes on uncut for 10 year old Chandni and her grandmother even as a cacophonic poll poster sits easy on the serene facade of their hut in Umula village.  Photo by: Shruti Kohli

 

Nisha, like many others, couldn’t be informed about her organisation’s meeting because of the shoddy phone network. The information took its own time to reach her traversing the ups and downs of the rough mountain terrains. But as soon as she heard of it, 24 hours later, she was on her way, walking the 20 kms nonstop so she could at least meet the management. She and her 70 year old father left home at 4am and reached Khati at 10am.

 

Nisha Danu proudly talks about high attendance at the school in her village

Nisha Danu proudly talks about high attendance at the school in her village   Photo by Shruti Kohli

 

‘The attendance in the school is above 95 per cent at any time,’ she says pulling out a longish book from her bag. It is the attendance register that she made and manages. It has the details of students’ presence and absence punched in there in the most handsome calligraphy.

 

The lone primary school in her village has one full time teacher hired by the government. There are 30 students and a handful of subjects to be taught. Nisha is one of the 29 substitute teachers, or Education Consultants, appointed in various villages in the Kumaon Himalayas under the Himalayan Villages Education and Development (HIMVED) programme initiated by Swami Dharmanand who is stationed in a cave in the Pindari Glacier.

 

Fifteen of these 29 consultants are women. In a region where it’s a norm for women to sleep in the cowsheds along with the cows during ‘those five days’, their towering presence in something as progressive as education is striking. 16 of the 30 students in Nisha’s school are girls. The ratio is around the same in the other schools.

 

‘In my village only the educated parents (read fathers) think of a career for their children. Usually, sons end up farming or doing other menial jobs and daughters end up marrying after which they too have to get into farming for lack of choice,’ she says. Only an army jawan’s (read educated father’s) sons have a higher likelihood of getting a good career.

 

During a social science class at the school in Khati

Class 8 during their social science period at the school in Khati                        Photo by: Shruti Kohli

 

‘But my father was determined that all his children would study and get professionally established,’ she says proudly and smiles when reminded of Dangal. She has seen the movie.

 

Nisha is pursuing MA in History. She wants to be a permanent teacher and she wants to teach in the middle and high school. Her elder sister is about to finish a course in Horticulture from Ranikhet. Her brother is an engineer and works with a private firm in Gwalior. Her father is a mason.

 

‘The small percentage of villagers who manage to get reasonably educated, find it difficult to get suitably employed within the villages or even within the region,’ says Govind Singh, HIMVED’s Project Supervisor from Jhuni village. They have to depend on the traditional kira jari, or caterpillar fungus, trade or on agriculture for livelihood.

 

While agriculture does not have much to offer, selling kira jari across the border, to the Chinese, is lucrative business as well as a promising occupation. The fungus is used to make aphrodisiacs and energy boosting medicines.

 

A single fungus sells for Rs 200-300, that’s as much as a day’s farming would earn for a person. A kilo of it fetches a cool Rs 1 lakh, if not more. But this business also has serious glitches. Collecting the fungus at freezing altitudes of 16,000 feet is prone to illnesses and hardships. Plus, it’s illegal to sell this fungus.

 

‘The HIMVED project was initiated with the two-pronged approach of creating employment for the educated youngsters and also of improving the quality of education in schools by filling up for the lack of teachers,’ says Singh.

 

Lunch break at the school in Khati

Lunch break at the school in Khati                                          Photo by: Shruti Kohli

 

The consultants are picked on merit. Nisha was popularly ‘elected’, if that is the term we can use to describe a situation where Nisha’s villagers collectively rested their trust in her to be the torchbearer of progress in their village and proposed her name as education consultant in 2015. It’s her education, the bachelor’s degree in Arts, that made her a popular pick.

 

And they have not placed their bet wrong. Nisha is not done coming up to her own expectations yet. She has her focus right. ‘I am not marrying till the time I am properly settled. Even my father will hate it if I jump the gun,’ she says.

 

And what’s ‘settled’? ‘Having a permanent job in a high school,’ he says firmly and immediately adds, ‘I would finally want to teach in a big college.’

 

all photos by: Shruti Kohli

 

 

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