In the heart of Maoist-violence torn Chhattisgarh, Ashish and Shalini Shrivastava have started one of the most interesting and courageous education initiatives in India

Sukma in Chhattisgarh is not known for its schools. It lies in the heart of a raging war between Maoist guerrillas and Indian security forces. Transportation is iffy, phones barely work. The only news that usually comes out of places like Sukma is a steady drum-roll of body count — either killed by Left-wing guerrillas or by armed forces.

But one year ago, one couple decided to ignore the bloodshed and open an education foundation in Sukma called Shiksharth that works with government schools helping teachers teach better and assisting students from some of the most impoverished and violent parts of India learn better. The dream of Ashish Shristava and his wife Shalini Shrivastava, along with team mates Vikas and Neeraj, self-confessed ‘outsiders’, is that Sukma, Dhantewada and the entire blood-soaked Moaist belt should one day be known for its world-class students and not the conflict.

Ashish Shristava is an electronics engineer from a remote belt — Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. After graduation from Bhopal, he worked as a software engineer for Infosys in Pune, where a giant like Microsoft was his client for four years. His wife, Shalini, graduated in science from Varanasi. She is passionate about teaching science and that is where she has been contributing by conducting workshop with children, extracting science based concepts from local references. Both of them know the impact that good education can have on transforming one’s life.

‘I felt something missing through my work at Infosys — and so I volunteered with a small non-profit, called Prarambh, on the weekends to reduce school drop-outs, and eventually even lead its operations. In 2009, I took the plunge as the first batch of Teach for India fellows. Ever since, my mission to ensure that good and relevant education is accessible to all has seen no u-turn,’ says Shrivastava.

Through his work experiences, Shrivastava developed a deep understanding of education and technology — a combination not universally seen, especially in the low income segments of education. Post the Teach for India fellowship, Shrivastava worked to promote rural skill development for technology trainer NIIT, where he travelled extensively to the hinterlands and was finally led to Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh.

Shrivastava discovered that most non-profits working in education targeted similar schools and similar geographies, leaving these certain regions ‘dark’ or completely bereft of development. That’s when he moved to Dantewada as a founding member of the not-for-profit, Bachpan Banao, which sends fellows to work in schools with little resources and trains them to see the world through the lens of the community. Shrivastava talks about the life-changing experience in working in these remote regions.

‘Being patient and humble are two critical values we see in ourselves and in our fellows developed after working in these affected regions. It’s really hard — but knowing that no one else is there to fill the gap we are filling keeps us going,’ says Shrivastava.

After growing the not-for-profit from a staff of 4 to 20, in 2015, Shrivastava moved with his wife to Sukma, where the need seemed even more urgent. In their experience, students are able to write only their names and copy text from the board as random patterns, without really imbibing what is taught. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), an annual status check of education in India, indicates that a 3rd grade student reads text as a 1st grade student, while a 5th grade student can at most solve a problem of a 2nd grade student in this region.

The weak foundation leads students to drop out during primary schooling. Moreover, students can’t relate to what is taught in the schools. For example: ‘We asked the children to write an essay on Holi. In Sukma, they do not even know what Holi is! How do we expect a text on Holi when they don’t know what it is like to experience it? Why can’t we test same calibre through essays on the festival of Fagun Mandai, which is held at a similar time and is contextually relevant for these students?’

Shiksharth is trying to solve the problem of providing local context to school curriculum Subject Labs — which uses local language, culture, resources to make subject curriculum contextually relevant to be taught in schools.

For instance, Newton’s third law of motion is taught using bows and arrows. The focus is also multi-lingual — including local languages of Halbi and Gondi beyond English and Hindi to teach concepts on math and science, making it easier for the students to grasp.

This is no mean task — contextualising subjects will take up to two years for primary schooling, according to Shrivastava. Simultaneously, he is working with the district administration to improve education at the systems level.

Shiksharth has worked with over 200 teachers, sensitising them on teaching techniques, creating reading corners in classrooms to engage the students and enabling student leadership and computer education in the region. These simple steps have gone a long way in building local confidence. Additionally, Shiksharth has worked with the district administration to build a first of its kind Science Park in the region — with simple and locally available materials to teach science concepts like motion and direction.

All this has been possible with a team of four, and initial grant funding from friends and family of Rs 3.7 lakhs.

But Shiksharth has its eyes set on the direction forward — getting its Subject Labs ready for implementations across schools, launching a Research Fellowship to give the youth a platform to contribute towards rural education and designing and supporting implementation of a teacher development plan for over five hundred teachers in the region.

But Shrivastava says money is not the most pressing problem for their vision — but human resources are. Armchair activists, even from socially conscious colleges like JNU, thrive in talking about the problems in the Naxal and tribal region — but when it’s time to act, they find it difficult to recruit these youth according to Shrivastava.

This needs to change. And the time is NOW.