By Pankaj Adhikari, Amarkantak (Madhya Pradesh) – This story is about a doctor in central India. He is fighting a lone war against government apathy and bureaucratic bungling to raise funds for a school for tribal girls in a remote village called Pondki in Madhya Pradesh. He is badly in need of funds for the girls’ school that he set up against all odds, with no help from the state or central governments.
Dr. Prabir Sarkar is a young man at 62. His boundless energy and vigor is inspiring. He has been waging a virtual war against educational inequality in a faraway place in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India.
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His is a tale of selflessness and relentless pursuit for the good of humankind. His mission: ensuring primary education for poverty-ridden Baiga tribal girls (the most primitive tribe in the state) in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh.
A qualified homeopathy doctor, Sarkar received a BMS (a Bachelor’s degree in Homeopathy) from Calcutta University in 1976. Known as Babuji among his students, Dr. Sarkar landed in Pondki in 1994, 14 km from Amarkantak in the state of Madhya Pradesh. (Pondki, a sleepy village 130 km from Bilaspur, now falls in Chhattisgarh state.)
Dr. Sarkar met the monk Swami Suddhatmananda, who told him about the abject poverty local people were steeped in. Inspired by the ideals of the great Indian thinker, Swami Vivekananda, Dr. Sarkar embarked on a difficult mission. “I took the pledge of educating local tribal girls,” he says.
Since 1994, Dr. Sarkar has been battling against the odds to raise funds for Ma Sarada Kanya Vidyapeeth school at Pondki.
As India has approximately 23 million children aged 6-14 years who are out of school, of which about 60% are girls, getting funds for the school has been a Himalayan task for Dr. Sarkar. “I went to Sonia Gandhi in 1997 and former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee for funds,” he says. But nothing came of it. Finally, Dr. Sarkar met Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who assured him of some financial aid. In addition, Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, who was elected a Member of the Indian Parliament in 1999, said she would raise questions in Parliament over tribal girls’ education, Dr. Sarkar recalls.
The Ministry of Tribal Welfare sanctioned Rs 20 lakh (approximately $34,700) for the school. Unfortunately, the money didn’t reach its destination due to bureaucratic red tape and deep-seated corruption. “I went to the office of the Collector [the administrative head of the district] many a time. But, corrupt officials want a commission. Well, I won’t give that,” he says.
Despite the lack of funds, Dr. Sarkar is proud of the students, including Gulabbati Baiga, 21, who is completing her BA at Indira Gandhi National Tribal University in Amarkantak. She is the most promising tribal student the school has ever produced, he says. “I want her to be an IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officer,” Dr. Sarkar adds. “Over the past ten years, all Baiga girls got First Division in Grade 8,” he says. First-division results require a minimum overall grade of 60%.
Dr. Sarkar is grateful to South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL), the largest coal producing company in India, for extending help. And Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) in Mumbai donated Rs 9.42 lakh (approximately $16,350) to build a two-storey house on school premises.
In 2005-06, the school students wrote to the former President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, explaining their misery. He asked the local administration to look into the matter. The police promised help. But, nothing was done, Dr. Sarkar alleges.
Unfortunately, Dr. Sarkar’s unwavering commitment and the single-minded devotion to his pursuit haven’t gotten much media attention. Nevertheless, Ma Sarada Kanya Vidyapeeth is central to his self-identity and karma. The tribal people are also close to his heart. In April this year, he opened an eye clinic for the people.