Its difficult these days to agree with most of what Mr. Virbhadra Singh, Chief Minister of Himachal, does or says, whether its playing ducks and drakes with the bureaucracy, or further despoiling the environment with hare-brained proposals like plundering 23 kanals of forest land on the Dhauladhars ( at 12500 FEET) to build dharamshalas for the Himani Chamunda temple, or regularising thousands of building violations in Shimla, or attempting to bypass a High Court order to remove encroachments on forest lands. But it is even more difficult NOT to agree with him on a statement that he made on Teachers' Day on 2nd September this year. To paraphrase, he deplored the fact that awards were cornered by those teachers who had good connections at Shimla, and that those who served with greater dedication in the remote areas of the state were never even considered. I can't agree more with the Hon' Chief Minister, for once.
This malaise is not limited only to teachers but to all categories of awards doled out by the central and state govts. Not service, not talent, not contributions but networking and proximity to power centers is the essential key to getting these awards. Teachers, of course, are a highly politicised class of govt. servants, and it therefore follows that their awards too would get politicised. But if you were to look even at the Army or Police awards you would find that seniority and rank are the chief determinants, not contribution of any notable quality. ( The exceptions, obviously, are the gallantry awards which probably are the only genuine citations). It would be rare indeed to find a senior Army or IPS officer who does not sport an award or two while the 98% ORs are generally ignored. If you serve long enough, and rise high enough in the ranks, then you will get some award or the other as surely as night follows day. But I digress.
Coming back to teachers who render exceptional and selfless service, I can think of no one who deserved recognition more than Shastriji. This is not his real name but that is what we called him. He is a TGT and teaches in primary schools; I still remember the time I first met this humble but courageous man.
I had gone on a foot inspection of the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu in 2002. We had trekked twenty kms. from the road head at Neulli in the Sainj valley and arrived by evening at the tiny hamlet of Shakti, one of only two villages still within the Park's boundaries. The other is Maror, eight kms further up the valley. They consist of about twenty houses each. Both are notorious for being launch- pads for illegal activities in the GHNP and Sainj WLS- poaching, extraction of medicinal plants and grazing of sheep, among others. Their residents are naturally wary of outsiders, especially govt. officials, and do not welcome them with open arms!
We were sitting around the camp fire that evening when a man in a simple white kurta-pyjama and sleeveless woolen jacket, a jute bag slung over his shoulder, walked in and introduced himself as the primary school teacher in Shakti. He gifted us some delicious " siddhus" ( he had cooked them himself!) and invited us to visit his school next morning on our way to the GHNP. This was Shastriji. We went to the primary school the next day, and therein hangs an amazing tale of commitment and devotion.
Shastriji belonged to Shensor village much further down the Sainj valley. One day he was ordered to be posted to the Govt. Primary School, Shakti, a new school opened under the govt's policy that wherever there was a cluster of twenty school- age children a primary school would be opened. A commendable policy, you would think, except for the fact that there was no school building there, as Shastriji discovered when he landed up at Shakti after the twenty km trek from Neulli ! He did have about twenty five prospective students ( Maror was also part of the catchment area) so it was imperative that he arrange a building for the school without delay. His superiors- the BEO and the DEO- naturally could not be bothered: in govt. the privileges and powers are usually centralised while the problems are delegated. Shastriji was told to make his own arrangements.
He pleaded with the good burghers of Shakti to give him a couple of rooms in a house but they refused: they thought he was a plant of the Forest Department sent there to spy on them, that schools were a waste of time, that their children would do better in life by learning the jungle lore ( especially the illegal ones!).A month passed with no progress. Shastriji could have just given up and sought another posting. But ( he told us later) he was so taken up with the miserable plight ( and future) of the children of Shakti and Maror that he resolved that he WOULD teach them, building or no building. He found a location for his school ( which is what we visited the next day).
The school was located in a cave ! About half a kilometer from the village and 200 meters above the river, the cave had a mesmerising view of the river and the rolling, pristine forests of the GHNP across it. It opened onto a fairly wide ledge where the students could sit on sunny days. The cave was about twenty feet deep and fifteen feet wide. Shastriji had hung a curtain across it in the middle: the front portion was the school and the rear was his spartan living quarters! There were about ten youngsters busily poring over their books, and Shastriji proudly informed us that the villagers had now accepted the school ( though not him!) and willingly sent their children to study. The school had been in existence for more than a year, and somehow he kept it going, the visit by an occasional bear or leopard notwithstanding. Once a month he shut down the school for three days to enable him to walk down to Neulli/ Siund to collect his salary, rations and teaching material. Life was difficult, he told us, especially the lonely evenings and nights in the cave, when the children had all gone back to their homes. He had no comforts, no company, no social life, but all this was out-weighed by the fact that he had managed to establish a school. I heard his narration with a sense of guilt: I thought I was doing public service from the comfortable environs of Shimla- it was nothing compared to Shastriji's labours in this remote village!
The lessons we picked up that day at that humble primary school cannot be taught in any university. On returning to Shimla I met the Education Minister and apprised him about the cave-school, which, incidentally, happened to be in his constituency! He was oblivious of it. But he took immediate action and a regular building for the school was sanctioned immediately. I went back to Shakti a few years later, to find a brand new school building in the village! Shastriji, of course, had left by then. I was informed that he continued there till the new building was inaugurated and then requested for a transfer- his job was done. I have no idea where he is now.
If ever a teacher deserved an award I can think of no one more suited than this simple, intrepid soul who lived in a cave for five years in the 21st century, just so that his pupils could go out into the wider world outside. Can you ?