Students of St. Anthony’s English Medium School gather around a faculty member, Father Cheria. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
A student from Asha Niketan, a school founded for the “Rag Pickers.” (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Destitute street children. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Children from the village of Dumrikhas gather for the balwadi, an informal school. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
One participant from St. Mary’s has had enough of the day’s games. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
At St. Mary’s, the day ends with a rap number. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Being Catholic in northeastern India can be dangerous business these days. Brutal attacks by Hindu nationalists on Catholic religious leaders make regular headlines. These attacks are, in part, the Hindu nationalists reactions to the churchs work to improve the lives of the poor. The nationalists fear that this work will destabilize the traditional caste structure of Hindu society.
Improving the lives of the poor calls for intelligence and organized planning, not maintenance and handouts. At least that is how one diocese in the poor and predominantly Dalit (low-caste) state of Uttar Pradesh sees it.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Gorakhpur encompasses one of the most heavily populated areas in northeastern India a region stretching more than 11,000 square miles from central Uttar Pradesh to the border of Nepal in the north and the border of the state of Bihar in the east.
The potential for violence in this nationalistic and politically conservative state is real. Yet ever so quietly and tactfully, priests, sisters, brothers and lay professionals of the Diocese of Gorakhpur go about their work first in providing better health care services to the 13.6 million people in the area and then in providing an education and ensuring literacy for all children and those adults who desire it.
For most of the city and village populations in this provincial part of India, education is an essential element if the work of the diocese is to succeed. The overall literacy rate for the area is a meager 36 percent. About half of the states male population can read, compared to only 18 percent for women.
When the Holy See erected the diocese in 1984, entrusting it to the care of the Congregation of St. Theresa (better known as the Little Flower Congregation), it operated 11 primary schools, 5 high schools, 1 junior college, 14 adult education centers, 15 balwadis (informal educational programs for children) and 5 boarding schools.
Ten years later the diocese boasted 17 primary schools, 7 high schools, 2 junior colleges, 76 adult education centers, 107 balwadis and 6 boarding schools.
The diocesan chancellor, Father George Kalladanthiyil, C.S.T., explains how education for village children affects child labor practices: To end child labor we begin by educating the villagers. We build schools so children are motivated to go to school rather than work as underpaid laborers for the carpet or brick-making industries.
Children in rural villages are expected to help their families with the harvest. This work requires them to carry heavy loads of produce on their heads for several miles while walking barefoot. Some children may make four cents a day helping neighboring farmers, perhaps catching rats and other pests that attack the vulnerable wheat crops.
Other more fortunate rural children attend St. Marys, a Hindi medium school in Padri Bazar. St. Marys is one of 22 Hindi medium schools that the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Gorakhpur operates to serve the poor.
These schools are financially supported by 11 English medium schools also operated by the diocese that require tuition. Students in these schools are sons and daughters of upper caste professionals and civil servants.
On Jawaharlal Nehru Day, a national holiday, the children of St. Marys line up to race. Barefoot boys and girls run back and forth in 50-yard dashes. These races involve different tasks. Children grab a piece of fruit with their mouths and place it on the finish line. Other children try to pop their classmates balloons while protecting their own all with their hands tied.
These children did not want to come to school, explains Father Jose Manjiyil, C.S.T., who oversees the school and the adjacent parish church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, which is being built with CNEWAs help.
They wanted to work in the fields for one rupee a day, the priest continues. So we went to the houses and told them that, once they finished school, they would get better jobs.
We have to motivate the childrens fathers to make this happen. If money is the problem I tell them not to worry. All we ask is that they give their children bread to eat at break, the priest adds.
Some 364 students now attend St. Marys, many of whom are older than they should be for their grade. Some come tattered and barefoot, but they still come. Many walk two to three miles to get to school each day. The more fortunate hire a rickshaw, usually a bicycle driven by a boy not much older than the child he carries.
Although most of the teachers at St. Marys are Catholic, religion may not be taught and prayers must be generic.
In the villages speaking about God is forbidden, says Father George. Most of the families are Hindu. Rather, we are on a humanitarian mission. When we first came here only 19 percent of the population could read. The situation has improved.
At St. Josephs, an English medium school for grades 5 to 12 that offers a first-rate education to more than a thousand Hindu students, children dressed in bright white uniforms with blue ties and red V-neck tennis sweaters assemble outdoors in the morning chill. Their feet are protected by sturdy running shoes and their arms are heavy with books and papers.
Of the many children who apply each year, only a fraction are accepted. All pay the equivalent of three to five U.S. dollars a month for their tuition.
The classrooms of St. Josephs are spread around the grounds of the diocesan center, not far from Asha Niketan (Home of Hope), which is more familiarly known to the local people as the Rag Pickers school.
Asha Niketan offers classes in reading and crafts to young children who would otherwise scavenge the streets of the city for food or for refuse to sell.
Sister Christopal, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, gives lessons at the school in shaded quarters filled with wide-eyed children. From a makeshift blackboard the children draw and recite the letters of the Hindi alphabet, assisted by 16-year-old Chanda, an alumna who, when she was eight years old, was taken from her duties as a house servant to spend the rest of her childhood at the school. Every child has a story, Sister Christopal explains. For now they are smiling, despite their wild hair and torn clothes, as they show off the embroidered napkins and silk-screened cards they have made to sell for Christmas at an upcoming bazaar.
We want to create a vocational guidance center, says Sister Christopal, a native of the southern state of Kerala. We also teach English and math.
Most of these children are from lower castes. Not so long ago, they were not even allowed to enter the temple, lest they make it unholy.
Now the children go to this school for seven years and receive a certificate that is honored in India, she says.
All of the students learn to read and write; some learn embroidery. More than 100 students have graduated and have either married or taken jobs.
Some of these children had been sold to other families, she says. Others had been taken to child labor factories. Its challenging; we have to pick them up either from these places or the street.
The lower castes do not want to educate the girls. They bring them up like animals. Sometimes you want to cry when you see the children, the nun continues with a touch of sadness.
When I go to the homes, often the parents will ask, Will you make them Christian? I say, No. We will make them self-respecting.
In the remote village of Bisumbura, in the district of Dumri, no one is in a rush. Families bring rolls of wheat from the fields for threshing. Women gather by the well, drawing water, exchanging gossip. A balwadi provides most of the schooling to a hundred or so village children who live there.
On most mornings they gather on mats in a village clearing for lessons taught by local masters. When their lessons have ended, usually around the ninth grade level, these children will know how to read and write, how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. They will be able to apply these skills and develop a sense of self-esteem.
A ten-minute walk down a shady dirt road leads to a boys boarding school and a nearby girls boarding school. These institutions are run by Father Scaria and Sister Valsa, one of five sisters from the Society of Helpers of Mary who oversee educational and health matters for the 30 villages of the district.
Most of the students at the boys boarding school are extremely poor with no other means of receiving an education. At the boarding school they are educated through the eighth grade.
It is very difficult to get these boys, says Sister Valsa, who coordinates the social outreach and literacy functions of the rural station.
We have to go to the villages and fetch them by giving them sweets. The parents are often willing to send them. They want the discipline.
At the girls elementary school, each girl washes her own clothes, helps with meals and maintains her own sleeping mat.
We teach the girls everything, says Sister Valsa. We teach them food preparation, stitching, reading. We educate them on how to live a worthy life. These girls will be liberated; they will not become brides for child marriages.
A scene from the childrens celebration of Nehru Day at St. Marys Hindi medium school poignantly sums up the challenges facing the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Gorakhpur: The children have staged a talent show.
Four little girls dressed as angels perform a traditional Hindu-style prayer dance.
Breaking with tradition, however, a six-year-old boy with sunglasses and a loud shirt tries to break dance like the American pop artist Michael Jackson to the music of a riotous rap number.
In a cluttered yard next to the school an eight-year-old girl stands alone, staring at the empty sports field, listening to the music and excitement coming from the classroom. Her hair is matted; her tattered dress is smeared with dirt. Why does she not come to the school?
Eventually, she will come, Father Jose says. We may have to go and get her. Her father is always drinking. But she will come.
Lark Ellen Gould, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, has covered stories from Asia and Africa for more than 15 years.