Amarkantak (Madhya Pradesh, India):
Dr Prabir Sarkar is a young man at 62. His boundless energy and indomitable spirit at this age is awe-inspiring. He has been waging a virtual war against educational inequality in a faraway place in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) in India.
His is a story of unwavering commitment, selflessness and relentless pursuit for the good of humankind. His mission: Ensuring primary education for poverty-ridden Baiga (most primitive tribe in the state) tribal girls in MP’s Anuppur district.
A qualified homeopathy doctor, Sarkar did his BMS (a degree in homeopathy) from Calcutta University, in 1976.
Known as Babuji, among his students, Dr Sarkar landed at Pondki in 1994, 14 km from Amarkantak in MP. (Pondki, a sleepy village, 130km from Bilaspur, in Chhattisgarh).
Dr Sarkar met Swami Suddhatmananda, who told him about the abject poverty local tribals were steeped in. “Why don’t you do something for these poor and hapless children,” he told Dr Sarkar.
Inspired by the ideals of great Indian thinker Swami Vivekananda, Dr Sarkar embarked on a formidable mission. “On that day, I took the pledge of educating local tribal girls,” he recalls.
Since 1994, Dr Sarkar has been battling against odds to raise funds for his school, Ma SaradaKanya Vidyapith at Pondki.
India has approximately 23 million out-of-school children aged 6-14 years, of which about 60 per cent are girls.
Tribal Girl Students at Ma Saradakanya Vidyapith, Pondki, Amarkantak
Getting funds for the school has been a Himalayan task for Dr Sarkar. “I went to Sonia Gandhi in 1997 and former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee for funds,” he says. Nothing happened, he rues.
In 1999, Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, who was an MP, told Dr Sarkar that she would raise questions in Parliament over tribal girls’ education, Dr Sarkar recalls.
Finally, Dr Sarkar met finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who assured him of some financial aid.
Ministry of Tribal Welfare sanctioned Rs 20 lac for Dr Sarkar’s school. Unfortunately, the money didn’t reach him. Reason: Bureaucratic tangle and deep-seated corruption.
“I went to the Collector’s (the district’s administrative head) office many a time. But, corrupt officials want commission. Well, I won’t give that,” he says.
Dr Sarkar is proud of Gulabbati Baiga, 21, who is doing her BA in Indira Gandhi Central Tribal University in Amarkantak. She is the most promising tribal student the school has ever produced, he says. “I want her to be an IAS officer,” Dr Sarkar adds.
He is grateful to South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) for extending help to him. LIC (Mumbai) donated Rs 9.42 lac for building a two-storey house at the school premises.
“Over the past ten years all Baiga girls got First Division in Grade 8,” he says.
Even today parents of these girls earn Rs 20 a day by selling lakri (wood collected from forest), the doctor says.
Dr Sarkar opened an eye clinic for the tribals in April this year.
In 2005-06, the school students wrote to former President APJ Abdul Kalam explaining their misery. He asked the local administration to probe the incident. The collector, district police chief swung into action and promised help. But, nothing was done, Dr Sarkar alleges.
Unfortunately, Dr Sarkar’s lone battle and single-minded devotion to his pursuit did not get any media attention.
Ma Saradakanya Vidyapith is central to his self-identity and his karma.
Also published at The Good Times