Constant giggles, playful pulling of plaits and teasing is common in girls' schools. Though the Baba Aya Singh Riarki College in Gurdaspur is different in many ways, it is filled with similar scenes. This school is an exceptional experiment in education for rural girls of Gurdaspur and Amritsar. It dates back to 1934 when a social worker called Baba Aya Singh established a small ‘putri pathshala’ (girls’ school). He also set up the SKD High School in 1939. Since then it has pioneered women education and empowerment in the state.
The female child sex ratio is amongst the lowest in the county (at 846 much lower than the national average of 914) in Punjab because of which the college has been crusading the importance of girls. It has, for almost eighty years now, been providing young women with an intrinsic understanding of self-reliance, self-resilience and self-sustenance. Today, Principal Swaran Singh Virk steers it ahead.
“Women are the pillars of any society. With a weak foundation how long can any structure possibly stand?” retorts Virk as he emphasises on women's education and values. He recalls the early challenges the college faced in a society reluctant to grant its daughters an education. “In 1974, after campaigning from village to village on the importance of higher education for girls, I was promised 34 students. Twenty backed out and so we started with a batch of 14. These girls sat for the Prep exam (equivalent to Class XI) and Giani (a Punjabi language examination) and secured excellent results.”
Today, the school has the required number of teachers and is affiliated to the Punjab School Education Board. There are around 3,500 girls – boarders and day scholars – who are enrolled from Class VI to the Masters level. The college falls under the jurisdiction of the Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU) but is not affiliated to it, as it is not a conventional institution. The college students appear privately for their graduation and post-graduation examinations.
The college has six teachers, who teach the senior classes. The remaining classes are taken by senior students through the ‘each one, teach one’ approach. This not only cuts down the cost of hiring another teacher, but also inculcates a sense of responsibility and confidence in the ‘student lecturer’.
The college and school have no funding or subsidy from outsiders. Interestingly, the tuition fee is only Rs. 800 a year. Boarding and lodging comes for an annual fee of Rs. 5,500. It is one of the only institutions that offers to educate anyone willing to learn - there are classes for those who cannot pay, those who can pay little and those who can afford to pay all the fees.
With such limited resources, the school is an exhibit of excellent and foolproof management. Homespun rugs, or ‘durries’, are used to seat the students; desks and benches are used only during examinations. The college utilizes naturally and locally available materials like sun light, cow dung, human excreta etc. for the generation of electricity and biogas.
The eight-acre school farm supplements the vegetables and grains and the dairy products from buffaloes in the schoolyard provide for the girls’ dietary needs. The girls are in charge of everything on campus. Student-secretaries run the administration, and each class has one. Even the menu is discussed and cooked according to what everybody agrees upon.
There is no ‘imparting of education’ to students here. They learn what they practice in their daily life. The girls schedule their day in line with their duties - in the kitchen, manning the gate, etc. They intersperse their regular classroom learning with music classes and religious studies. Stitching, sewing and cooking, first aid and decoration are a few other areas that the girls are trained in. Along with the generic curriculum of the school and college, the girls imbibe life skills deeply rooted in values, culture and tradition through practice. A city-bred student might take offence to such tasks at school and complain of the remote nunnery, but here in Tugalwala, the girls pride themselves in looking after their school.
“We would rather do without aid than take dictate. We use solar lighting to save on electricity. We have no fuel bill as we have our own biogas plant. The stationery and general store is run and managed by the students and does a profit of Rs. 1,50,000 in a year. Even the fittings and infrastructure is recycled or sold for scrap,” explains Virk.
The excellence in standards extends to the classrooms. The students pride themselves on an unblemished record in examinations and this, without a single case of cheating. The college offers a reward of Rs. 21,000 to anyone who can spot someone cheating or copying in the examinations. The girls also publically admit to incidences of cheating in prior schools unapolegetically. When asked if they are ashamed of acknowledging the fact, they proudly respond, "I should have been ashamed of cheating then not admitting to my fault today."
Values are of utmost priority here. Sikhism is part of the curriculum but the students are taught to respect all faiths. Various sayings from different religions adorn the walls of the school inspiring these young minds. The institution also boasts of treasuring culture and tradition. The campus houses a museum of old utensils and other things that were once deeply ingrained in culture, like handmade pots, madhaani (churn), coins, etc. reminding the young ones of the rich heritage that is now almost lost!
The love for the school and peers resonates in Simran's (a second year B.A student) declaration. "There is no place like home and this is home! The bonds we build and share here are nothing short of our familial ties. So it is obvious we miss each other and the college when we are at home…”. Keerat, a final year B.A student adds, “each time we go home for vacations, we are filled with mixed emotions. Sometimes midway through the vacation I feel like running back here. The freedom of thought and speech we have here sometimes outbids our status at our own homes.”
Going by the student's words, it seems that the school has achieved what it set out to.
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