Field sociology in Phaltan

"In rural Maharashtra, I would suggest Phaltan…," replied the incisive commentator and good friend Dilip D'Souza, in April this year, when I asked him about a possible place to work during my summer vacation from college. I had only heard of the place once before. Anxious and excited, I decided to pack my bags and go teach English at a Marathi medium school for a month in Phaltan. It turned out to be a fine lesson in field sociology.

Phaltan is a small town some 300 kilometres from Mumbai and 100 kilometres from Pune. A tableland in Satara district of Maharashtra in India, it wears a facade that is typical of many backwater towns. A theatre that plays B-grade Bollywood productions, Internet surfing parlours (popularly called cybercafes), a supermarket – all punctuate the grammar of this town that has more temples than any other place in western Maharashtra. The distant charm of Bombay and the lesser romance of Pune have ensured an ironic, but unavoidable, confluence of the definitely traditional with the apparently modern.

Phaltan was the seat of the Naik-Nimbalkar royalty, the family of the wife of the Maratha warrior Shivaji. While the 'idea' of the Indian republic has clearly reached the corridors of the town administration, it is yet to make a mark in the minds of its residents. Descendents of the 'royal family' still control, if not govern, all aspects of life here. The sitting member of the state Legislative Assembly belongs to the royalty.

The 'family' owns and runs everything from educational institutions to luxury hotels, not to mention innumerable hectares of real estate. Of nearly 60,000 residents of the town, a handful of business families live it luxurious. For the rest, it is the typical story: unemployment, lack of opportunities, little upward mobility, minimal economic infrastructure, and the social mires of caste and, yes, religion.

A society in transition needs a catalyst to engineer that process. In the 1960s, Yashwantrao Chavan, Maharashtra's first chief minister conceived that catalyst to be the Cooperative Movement. Cooperative sugar factories were assumed to be the key to empowering the rural populace of this region. But the movement today is seen as a colossal failure of state policy, one which only fed the political elites who came to be known as the Sugar Barons. The cooperative sugar factory that was set up in Phaltan initially provided jobs to a number of people. However, corruption, political feuds and faulty agricultural policies of the government resulted in the shutdown of the factory. This factory produced its own sugar baron – one of the three brothers of the 'royal family'. Sugar dreams turned sour, even bitter. And the town is still reeling from the social frustration that characterises the end of a utopian dream.

Progressive education

In the midst of social and economic problems, there is also a transformation for the better occurring in Phaltan, primarily due to the efforts of some enterprising and committed individuals. Dr Maxine Berntsen, an American by birth became an Indian citizen and settled in Phaltan in 1966. Berntsen began by picking up kids from 'untouchable' families and 'lower' castes, and dropouts from under-privileged backgrounds and providing them with education. In 1986, she started a school, the Kamala Nimbkar Balbhavan (KNB). From its initial years when Berntsen had to convince parents to educate their children to its current status as a vitally important institution, KNB has come a long way.

How is this school different from any other? "Experiments in teaching methods, a strictly secular environment, committed teachers and students, and no political backing. This is what attracts the parents," says Dr Berntsen. Dr Manjiri Nimbkar, a physician by profession and teacher by choice, who joined KNB in 1994 and became its unpaid principal in 1996 adds, "It's the new ideas that we incorporate in our teaching process that helps our students think beyond narrow horizons." And students are indeed thinking beyond the immediate. Wasim Maner, a former student of KNB, is now pursuing a career in professional documentary filmmaking. Given the extreme poverty he came from, this would normally have been considered an audacious choice for a youngster from Phaltan. Wasim is currently working on a documentary film related to a United Nations project.

Individual initiative and commitment have led to positive changes in other areas as well. The Nimbkar Rehabilitation Trust, set up by late Kamalabai Nimbkar (again an American who married an Indian and changed her name) started the first school for mentally retarded children in Phaltan. Bon Nimbkar, a colourful and visionary entrepreneur, was an agricultural pioneer and is currently working in animal husbandry. Roping in breeding experts from Australia, he first spotted the potential of helping the poor through breeding a fast-growing goat and a twining sheep. Bon also started a fishery and later a Fishermen's Association in the town. The Nimbkar Group employs around 350 people permanently and over 150 women for seasonal work. An impressive effort when there is little else for the residents of the town to rely on.

The underbelly

Despite some positive changes, the dark Indian reality of caste discrimination, communalism and poverty continue to define life in Phaltan. Stench welcomes you to the 'Muslim colony' of Qureshi Nagar, whose Khatik community has registered little growth on any of the social indicators over the decades. Situated at a distance from the rest of the town, it is in this locality that the dynamics of the mass-elite relationship is most visible. While the 'community' leaders send their own children to English schools, they fear that widespread education will loosen their grip on the people. And with religious leaders themselves thriving in a situation of abnormality and discord between communities, they would rather have people of Qureshi Nagar continue their ghettoized existence.

As a ploy to deter Qureshi Nagar parents from sending children outside the ghetto to Marathi medium schools such as KNB, community leaders open Urdu medium schools. Marathi, the stereotype goes, is language of the Hindus while Urdu is the "Muslim' language. Two or three months hence, however, they wrap up the ghost school, ruining the child's education. Only one boy of the ghetto, Kalim Qureshi, passed out of standard 10 last year from KNB.

The Dalit Basti stands as the mute semi-urban corroboration that caste segregation is alive and well in Phaltan. It faces Qureshi Nagar across the road, home to extreme poverty and rampant illiteracy. Nothing more need be said.

Yet, there are efforts underway to undo the wrongs of history and faith. Datta Ahivale is a journalist, Dalit activist and a teacher all rolled into one fine human being. He edits and publishes a Marathi weekly that raises Dalit issues and runs a school for Dalit kids, all this while surmounting tremendous economic and social hardship. Somnath Ghorpade is in charge of KNB's Outreach Programme that focuses on providing learning techniques to the government schools. "Is there any hope?" I once asked Ghorpade, while checking his report on a visit to a government school. (He was my student, learning basic English). With a smile, and a fair share of optimism, he replied enigmatically, "I am here only because someone else hoped I could be here." These activists believe that social change would remain incomplete if the marginalised are neglected.

The striking thing about Phaltan does not lie in its uniqueness- it is like any other town that occupies the Indian rural landscape, with the same problems, the same feudal mores and similar community practices. What is remarkable about Phaltan, however, is that it represents and reveals the power of individual initiative as well as the empowering role of education. The focus now has to shift towards making this change more inclusive.

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