| Students working to save a forest. Picture by Sanjib Mukherjee
Tapobhumi (Khurda), June 8: Seven years ago, high-school children in Khurda district demanded drinking water in schools and villages.
After 18 days of agitation in front of the Bolgarh block office, the J.B. Patnaik government got the students arrested for waging war against the country
The children, however, did not give in. The district administration finally buckled and got a borewell dug.
More than 90 borewells have been dug since. And one of these has contributed to the transformation of Tapobhumi, once a huge wasteland located 56 km from Bhubaneswar.
With water from the only borewell in the area, the schoolchildren have transformed the arid laterite soil into a 400-acre forest of fruit-bearing trees and medicinal plants.
Tapobhumi, the only canopy of green amid miles of dusty, red earth, is now home to papaya, woodapple, chirunji, Indian gooseberries, harid and bahada trees.
The students, along with local villagers, recently planted 2,00,000 saplings of woodapples that will grow in three years.
“The little hands have done a great job,” Chandra Sekhar Patnaik, a teacher in the local school, said.
Social worker Chitta Ranjan of Lok Mandal recalls how the children’s agitation for drinking water kicked off a social awareness movement in Bolgarh and Begunia blocks of Khurda, and Ranpur block of nearby Nayagarh district. “For the first time, the government was forced to listen to the school students,” Ranjan said.
For the 2,000-odd students living in the three blocks, social work is no longer an empty word mouthed by some NGO workers.
Anil Sundarray and his friends in Bolgarh have no qualms about plunging their shovels into the soil of Tapobhumi, toiling away in their blue-and-white school uniform during the socially useful productive work (SUPW) period.
Their hands-on approach has moved elders into pitching in, like in Kadaba village where Class VII student Saroj Kumar Champati acted before the local pond could turn into a sewage tank.
On a Saturday morning in March, guided by their teachers, Champati and friends stepped out of their classrooms and into the muck of the pond.
As they cleared away the toothbrushes, old clothes and livestock placenta that callous villagers had dumped in the pond, elderly villagers and housewives joined in. About 48 hours later, the pond was clean.
“We were responsible for creating the mess. Now our children have shown the way out,” housewife Sushama Sahoo said.
Several handwritten placards were later put up, urging people not to throw waste into the pond. “Some people still do, out of habit. But we clean it up quickly now,” Saroj Kumar said.
Since then, scores of ponds in the three blocks have been cleaned by students and their teachers.
Fired by the successes, the schoolchildren last August began building a mud road between Talatumb and Bariko villages, usually isolated from each other during monsoons.
Students from five local schools picked up spades and shovels to build the road in 100 hours. “It was tough. But I liked the work,” said Swarnalata Behera, a Class X student of Paschimeswara Vidyalaya in Talatumb.
The children, backed by teachers, also picked on their elders’ habit of drinking liquor. As a result, residents of Gudum, Daleiput and Chatua villages and neighbouring Talatumb have given up country liquor and other addictive substances.
The students have now turned their attention to mock assemblies, where they highlight the lack of lavatories for girl students and of drinking water and teachers in schools.
Here, too, the students have set an example by not staging walkouts or rushing to the well of the House like legislators do in the real Assembly.