Bartering Bharti?

On International Literacy Day - the eighth of September 2010 - I found myself in Kusumbhara in Bihar, India… a village in which the majority of children do not attend school.

When I asked my local contacts – two TV reporters and a secondary school headmistress - why this was the case, various answers were forthcoming: Kusumbhara’s inhabitants are so poor that many cannot afford to pay even 50-70 rupees per month in school fees (around 1 euro); because the parents are illiterate themselves, they do not consider schooling to be important for their children; and - perhaps the most crushing reason of all – members of the Mahadalit caste (one of the social groups classified as “Untouchable”) “normally don’t go to school.”

One young lady from Kusumbhara, however, has broken the mould and become the exception to this unfortunate rule: Bharti Kumari, aged approximately 12 years old – and she was the reason why I had come here. Every day Bharti takes the bus to a well-reputed public secondary school, where her teacher describes her as diligent and focused as well as gifted. When she returns home in the afternoon, at around 4:00 p.m. she gathers her young neighbours together… so that she can share with them what she has learned.

Watch the video:

I had read about Bharti in a brief Sunday Times article published on April 18th 2010, which described her as the “head teacher” of Kusumbhara’s “school”. Moved and impressed by her determination, I decided to go and meet her in person.

Yet Bharti’s story is not without its riddles… The Bihari TV reporter who facilitated my visit to Kusumbhara was very insistent on “monitoring” any and all communication with Bharti, including donations. What exactly is this individual’s interest in Bharti, and his relationship to her community? – I often wondered to myself.

One of this reporter’s colleagues made a point of finding me in my hotel room on the evening I arrived in the town of Delhri-on-Sone in order to introduce himself as “the one who first covered Bharti’s story.” Thanks to his work, he said, several Indian businessmen had put 11,000 rupees (180 euro) into a bank account for Bharti, and he indicated that I ought to follow suit. I have since asked repeatedly to be put in touch with these businessmen and to be provided with the banking details of Bharti’s trust fund – only to be met with a wall of silence.

Even if one expects to haggle a bit over the cost of products and services, should a line not be drawn when it comes to turning a profit on the poverty of others?

Tragically, research that I have since done into the socio-political situation in Bihar and adjacent regions has revealed a vicious circle that seems intent on perpetuating itself: the ongoing presence of Naxalite, or Maoist, insurgent groups in these remote areas, acting as a kind of parallel administration, feeds the Indian government’s apparent lack of commitment to their socio-economic development – this in spite of both the current economic boom and the abundant mineral and other resources to be found in these provinces. The result, in a nutshell, is that development schemes are drawn up at the national level, funds are allocated… and then literally disappear, leaving the inhabitants who would have benefited from these initiatives in exactly the same situation as before.

In such a political vacuum, unfortunately, it seems that anyone and everyone is fair game.

As for my impression of Bharti herself, at first she was quite withdrawn: sullen? sad? dejected? Or some combination of all three? At one point, when I was asking her about the obstacles she faces in teaching the other children, she simply stared at the ground and said: “I feel so alone.” Rarely have I felt so helpless in the face of another human being’s pain – or have I so wanted to be able to do something useful or constructive.

“I myself love studying,” she says, “and I want to share that with the other children.” Surely the bearer of such noble sentiment towards her fellow man should not be obliged to walk alone.

For more background: to learn about how a powerful mining company is ravaging tribal land, rivers and forests in Orissa, East India, watch The Real Face of Vedanta by Surya Shankar.