Last week, as I was enjoying lunch in Janakpur with my softly spoken colleague Dev Narayan Mandal, he said something in passing that caused me to down my cutlery. It was one of those "run-that-past-me-again" moments.
I was surprised that in the two-and-a-half years that I have known Dev, he had never before considered sharing with me how his remarkable intervention six years ago had saved a boy's life. And in doing so transformed the educational prospects of the lowest castes in his home area. But then again, maybe not. Dev is the antithesis of the self-publicist. Anyway, the subsequent conversation spurred me into visiting that lad's home last Sunday and solicit first-hand the evidence and details that could so easily form the basis of a moral tale.
But first some backstory.
In 2012, Dev returned to live in his home area of Dhanushadham, Dhanusha District, southeast Nepal after ten years' employment in Delhi, including at SOS Animal Rescue. Coincidentally, this was soon after I returned home to live in the UK after eight years living in Nepal. We never met but it is easy to see how our paths could have crossed in India. For during my time in Nepal, I was heading up operations to rescue Nepalese child slaves (trafficking victims) who were performers inside Indian circuses. The last operation I conducted was to free a number of little girls from the dangerous Great Apollo Circus at Dehradun. A little before that rescue, Dev had been involved in a raid on the same circus to free some bears. I digress.
In returning to Nepal, Dev was choosing to leave a good job in Delhi and set up a new NGO, The Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT). He was determined to try to reverse the environmental damage that was being done in the beloved local woodlands that in his boyhood he had bunked school to enjoy. The principal threat to the forest was the illegal felling of trees (although these were supposed to be "protected"). He decided to tackle that by launching a reforestation programme. This involved soliciting the volunteer support of retired forestry workers and the collaboration of the 13 village communities that surrounded the Dhanushadham Protected Forest. And the rest is history, including his securing my support in 2020 in the ambitious and pioneering rewilding programmes that are now central to our joint work in Nepal.
But there was another issue; the hunting and poaching of wildlife that was endemic within the local "Musahar" ("Rat-eater") caste group. Historically, the Musahar had hunted on behalf of higher castes, although they were not allowed to eat what they caught and killed. They were only permitted to eat rat-meat. Times had changed since the early twentieth century when this was custom and practice, yet this old tradition was surviving in another form. Dev knew that he would have his work cut out to change their ways, but reasoned that one approach might be to set up a Community Learning Centre (CLC) that would support the children of Musahar and other low caste groups in mainstream education. Dev's rationale was that, aside from the edifying impact of education on young minds, at least if the kids were in class they wouldn't be poaching in the forests.
So, he decided to make a start by supporting extra tuition for the first 28 Musahar children at the home of a college student, Jit Narayan Sada. The small allowance that MWT paid to Jit would allow him to complete his college studies. The response from the Musahar community was cool, at best, but three years later a boost was to come from the unlikeliest quarter.
One day in 2016, twelve-year-old Musahar boy Bishnu Sada joined a group of adults on a hunting trip into the woods. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, he felt the most overwhelming thump in his stomach that knocked him off his feet. He lost consciousness almost immediately. He had been charged and gored by a wild boar, leaving him partially disembowelled. The group chased off the boar and carried Bishnu back to the village, traumatised and fearing the worst. But Dev sprang into action and went with Bishnu to Janakpur hospital, about 45 minutes away. Upon arrival, the surgeons told Dev that Bishnu was beyond saving. To attempt to do so would be a total waste of money. Undeterred, Dev contacted Biratnagar Hospital, which is 200km to the east and four- and three-quarter hours away. He sent the surgeons pictures of the gaping wound and exposed intestines. They agreed to attempt to save Vishnu's life. Against the odds, they were successful.
This was far from the end of it. A great persuader, Dev encouraged Bishnu's village community, impoverished as it was, to contribute the £3,000 that was required to meet the medical bills. After that, he sat down with the community leaders and asked them to quantify the annual financial return from their hunting activities, illicit or otherwise. After a great deal of discussion and number-crunching, they concluded that these were worth £2,000. Therefore, Dev could point out that for this past year, they'd effectively been in deficit. He suggested to the village elders that they'd have been better off investing in their children's education rather than continuing in their old ways. They agreed! Dev then asked each household to make a contribution towards the set-up of his first CLC according to their means. This would be a simple construction of wood, clay and thatch; at the very least, each household could contribute a piece of timber.
Since then, the CLC has grown from strength to strength, the original centre replaced by a brick-built one in February 2020 through a grant provided by the McGough Foundation (UK). By January this year, the number of attendees had increased to 286, with extra tutors being provided by the NGO SAATH. The teaching model is innovative as our tutors must move on after they have completed college to allow uplift and the same opportunity to other students. Jit Narayan Sada himself has had to leave but his was a very happy one. He and his brother were able to enlist in the Nepal army, the first time that members of the Musahar community had been allowed to join up. Now, funding permitting, we are aiming to support leaving tutors for up to four more years so that they can complete B.Ed while being support teachers at other schools. This year, we are building new CLCs at two other locations within the District.
When I met Bishnu on Sunday, I was greeted by a shy, slightly built lad, with a ready grin. These days, he has every reason to smile having last year passed his 10th Grade Secondary Education Examination (SEE) - a rare achievement in poor rural community schools. And he is currently a scholarship student in his first year of a Diploma in Engineering course.
I will follow Bishnu's academic progress with admiration for him and for the man who saved his life.
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