Summer Issue - 2017

Smile Foundation

smilescapes

IN FOCUS 2

Cultivating Tea & Dreams

Snow covered gigantic mountains, lustrous tea gardens and lots of soothing fresh air welcomes you at Kalimpong – a quaint tourist destination in West Bengal. It is difficult to believe that this mesmerizing land that is a haven for travellers is at the same time a rough struggle for its own inhabitants.

400 every month. But it cannot go on like this”, says 77 year old Geeta Rai of Tuttihatta village. Geeta is clear that her granddaughter Supriya’s future would be different. The old lady has been the girl’s only family after her parents passed away. She has never let Supriya work in the tea gardens like the other children of the village did to support the family income; rather she chose to send her to school.

Majority of the native population in Kalimpong works in tea gardens and estates, toiling hard to make ends meet and living on a bare minimum. The average daily wage of a tea plantation worker here is a meagre Rs. 65. To add to their woes, in recent years, tough competition from neighbouring states has led to the closing down of many tea estates.

“These are hard days. We do not get work every day, sometimes even for a whole week. Then we have to manage through other means. I go and cut wood from the forests and then take it to the market and sell. With that I can get Rs. 300-

Geeta was also one of the first parents in the village to welcome the Mission Education centre, which finally brought school closer to the children who earlier had to travel kilometres in the tough terrains to reach the nearest school in another village. Distance has in fact been a major reason behind the alarmingly high drop-out rates in Kalimpong, with isolated hamlets consisting of as few as 8-10 houses spread across the region, cut-off from the most basic amenities. In the rains, it became impossible to brave the

Kalimpong has recently been declared the 21st district of West Bengal, but it remains to be seen what impact it will have on the lives of the plantation workers and their families.

muddy hills to reach the school and led to long gaps between lessons, ultimately forcing the children to go to work at the plantations.

“For how long can we survive this way? We might run out of work in a few years. Our children will have to do something else, it will be best for them. But for that we need to start preparing for their future now. We must make them educated so that they can get good jobs”, adds Geeta. She encouraged other parents in the village to enrol their kids at the Mission Education centre and thanks to her efforts; the children are now back into the fold of education.

A similar initiative was taken by Gopal Lokhandri of Garlang village. Having six mouths to feed – his wife and five children, Gopal had already been finding survival difficult when he lost his job at the plantation. For six months now he has been working twice as hard to find work every day and not let his family suffer. But he refuses to make poverty an excuse for taking his children out of school.

“Three of my children go to the Mission Education centre in the village, the two youngest are not of age yet. I drop them to the school myself and make sure they do not miss a single day. We never got this opportunity, but at least our

An ongoing class at the Dong Basti Mission Education centre

Single mother Sonjita Rai from Kharbari village wants to bring up her children Diya & Dipjal as good and responsible human beings

children are getting it, that too free of cost”, says Gopal. Taking cue from Gopal, other parents also, hesitantly at first, enrolled their children at the centre. Gradually however, they have gained conviction and have started taking active part in the parents’ teacher meeting sessions held regularly to update them with their children’s progress.

Besides Tuttihatta and Garlang, three more Mission Education centres are currently operational in Kalimpong at Dong Basti, Kharbari and Peshok. Similar stories of grit and determination from parents in all the five villages have set the wheels rolling to usher in change. Despite their daily struggle for survival, they have decided to ensure a secure and dignified future for their children. These plantation workers are not just cultivating tea – they are cultivating hope, they are cultivating dreams!

An ongoing class at the Dong Basti Mission Education centre

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