(Project of the Yusuf Meherally Centre for the education of the children of migrating Fishermen in the sea coast of Kutch District, Gujarat)

A walk on the sea shore of Randh Bhandhur in the Mundra Taluka of Kutch District, Gujarat State, we come across a row of wooden poles surrounding an area of about 6'x 6' with black torn pieces of jute rags hanging from them. Stretching along the seashore as far as your eye can see.

Till May 2010, they were homes - yes, homes of the migratory fisherfolk community who eke out a meager existence by fishing from the sea. Rarely does it cross our mind to ask how do those who fight the vagaries of the sea to bring succulent Bombay Ducks and Lobsters to our tables make a living? Who really nets the Rs.500-800 for a lobster paid by the end user? Is it really the fishermen who catch it or the middlemen who live in the large houses a little away from the seashore?

What about their children? When you try to find the answer, an interesting story unfolds and the role that the Yusuf Meherally Centre plays.

Yusuf Meherally Centre (YMC), a voluntary organization engaged in rural development, was established in 1961. It was conceived as a memorial in action for the meaningful remembrance of the freedom fighter, the Late Yusuf Meherally.

YMC's association with Kutch dates back to its Manav Jyot Yatra for promoting communal harmony in 1993. The yatra started at Bhadreshwar in Kutch, home to the ancestors of the Late Yusuf Meherally, and ended at Tara in Raigad district, the address of one its most significant projects that contributes to rural development in the region. YMC went to Kutch again in 1997 for building contacts and working there. But a more enduring relationship with this region took root immediately after the Earthquake of January 26, 2001 which devastated lives and property. YMC decided to work in Bhadreshwar and its surrounding areas after surveying the untold misery the earthquake had left in its wake.

After the initial relief work, YMC started planning for the rehabilitation of the victims of the earthquake in Mundra Taluka. In the course of it, it made a survey of the lives of the migratory fishermen community and found out, among other things, that their children lost out on both childhood and education. The survey revealed that without educating the children, it would not be possible to bring the community into the mainstream. The parents were least interested in the education of their children, as in the scheme of things, the children had to be an active participant in their family profession.

Ultimately, YMC decided to take education to the doorstep of the community, rather than attempting to get them to the portals of education. Thus came into existence the Non Formal Classes in the worksite of fishermen in the sea shore, popularly known as Sagar Shalas. Still, the parents were required to be motivated to send their children to those sagar shalas. And convincing them of the need for educating their children took some doing.

The effort has borne fruit. In all, 569 children attended the eight Sagar Shalas run by the YMC at the work-sites of the fisherfolk during the academic year 2009-2010. Namely, Randh Bhandhur (240), Bharkoti Bhandhur (60), Garudia Bhandhur (46), Luni Bhandhur (60), Juna Bhandhur (55), Kutadi Bhandhur (40), Tragoti Bhandhur (40) - all in Mundra Taluka- and Vira Bhundhur (28) in Anjar Taluka.

YMC has received, from time to time, financial support and cooperation for this venture from Rashtra Seva Dal, Terre Des Hommes, Sarvashikshan Abhyian (Government agency), Care India, Asha Pura group, America India foundation and the Government of Gujarat.
So what happens to a child's education when fishermen are not permitted to go into the sea during the monsoon months of June, July and August?

The children study in government schools in their respective villages from the beginning of the academic year till they return to the seashore along with their families to resume their fishing trade by August end or September beginning. Once they come to the seashore, which is the work site of their parents, they will continue their studies in the respective syllabi in the Sagar Shalas run by YMC.

In the Randh Bundhur, the writer of this report, who accompanied Dr. G.G.Parikh, Chairman, YMC, in the third week of July, saw a two-room structure constructed by YMC for running the school. Two YMC teachers man the classes. Pre-primary children will come in the first shift and other students in the second shift. In each room, there are different groups according to their respective classes to which they belonged to in the government schools in their villages. YMC sends the attendance report of the children to the respective government schools in their villages. On the strength of their attendance record at the YMC Sagar Shalas, these children are permitted to write the annual examination by their respective government schools in their villages.

So far as the children coming from far away districts are concerned, arrangements are made to allow them to give the annual examinations at a government school close to the sagar shala. Thus, the YMC has turned out to be an effective instrument to protect the education of the children of the fishermen community in eight of the aforesaid seashores.

All these fishermen are Muslims. More than 3000 children have already benefited since the inception of the project in October 2002, no mean achievement.

In the Randh Bhandhur, we also saw many pedestals sponsored by Asha Pura Charity Trust to provide Solar Light in the area.

A Hostel for Boys:

YMC is running a hostel for boys at Bhadreshwar. There were 50 boys during the last academic year 2009-10. Earlier, there was a girls' hostel, but presently there is none, because the girls' hostel building is let out to run a government school for students of Classes VII to X. The government is constructing its own building, which will be ready soon. As soon as they shift to their new premises, YMC will again start its girls' hostel.

In the boys' hostel, presently, there are 16 children, all children of Muslim fishermen. They study in classes above that of Class VII. Others will join in August/September. These 16 children could not remain to study in their village schools as there are no schools to cater the children in classes above Class VII. Two of such children had gone to a Muslim Hostel as they could not afford the hostel fee of Rs.400/- per month. Another one joined a month later, as the father of the child had to raise a loan to Rs.1500/- to provide for his ward.

Devendrabhai Kandolkar, YMC Social Worker who stays with the children in the hostel says that they are very poor and further added, "My heart aches when I hear such stories from them". Of the 16, there are two children who are rank holders in their respective classes in their village school, securing 1st and 2nd ranks last year. We found them very articulate. They put up two skits when we visited them on July 16, 2010, one relating to the ill effects of "Gutka" and another on "Child Labour", conveying the message effectively. Some of them had won prizes in the Taluka Level Elocution Competitions. They had won first prize in a district level drama competition, that too, without any costumes. Now they have it, thanks to Smt. Mrudulaben Thacker, a retired Principal of a Government High School, who was with the YMC, since Day One of its presence in Bhadreshwar.

Devendrabhai told a very interesting story. It took place in a government school in Vendi Village, Mundra Taluka, in 2008-2009. The school had classes upto Class IV only. After the annual examination, TC (Transfer Certificate) was given to the children who passed Class IV and were asked to get admission in some other schools in Class V. When the parents approached the Head Master, he told them that he was unable to continue them as there were neither facilities nor teacher for a Class V. Then the affected children passed a resolution at a Bala Sabha demanding education under the Right To Education Act. However, the Head Master did not accede to the plea of the children. Thereon, they approached the TDO (Taluka Development Officer), who asked his Education Department to act and they gave orders to the Head Master to start Class V and admit all the affected children. The story repeated in 2009-10, when the children were promoted from Class V. Here again, the TDO helped the children to continue their studies in Class VI in the same Government School.

It would be highly unfair to conclude this piece without a word of about Devendrabhai Kandolkar. He is from Goa. After putting in 20 years as a school teacher, he works for the education of the under privileged. As a volunteer with YMC, his commitment, clarity of thought and purpose and, above all, the down to earth simplicity are worthy of emulation. He lives with the children in the hostel, eats the same food and avails of only those conveniences available to the hostelites and nothing more.

Devendrabhai's living example reminds us of Gandhiji's words "We must first come in living touch with them by working for them and in their midstů we must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots and in which their cattle drink and roll. Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, as surely as I am writing this, respond to every call."

The discipline of the children, their performance of the skits he wrote are a testimony to Devendrabhai's commitment and sincerity. He was never seen prompting a single word or giving instructions to the children throughout the programme.

Non Formal Class at Sukhpur:

YMC is running a school in a one room tenement at Sukhpur, Mumdra Taluka in Kutch for children of a disadvantage segment of society. There are 20 children in the school. These are children of those parents who are either engaged in cutting of woods for fuel and charcoal, and want their children to help them in their work, or are of separated parents. Most of the children are dropouts too. YMC teacher, Joroben gives them special training, as per their respective syllabi (Bridge Training) and gets them enrolled in the appropriate class in a government school. The school in turn tests them before admission. So far, Joroben has helped 60 such children get enrolment in government school - all children of Muslim parents. Simultaneously, she imparts training in stitching and tailoring skills to teen aged girls.

Here is an opportunity to pay back to society by supporting these efforts of YMC. An opportunity, particularly, for authorities such as Port Managements and other organisations, both in the public and private sector, who, as CSR Chief of an International Container Service put it, "earn generously from the sea."

Abraham Mathai Puthuparampil

Inputs from:
Dharmendra Kumar
Devendrabhai Kandolkar
Bhadreshwar, Kutch

For more particulars and needs of the project, please contact:
Shri. Dharmendrakumar
Project Coordinator
Yusuf Meherally Centre
Gopal Bhuvan,
Tal: Mundra,
Dist: Kutch, PIN 370411
Gujarat State, India
M: 09825287275/ 09909985222
Mail Id: