Sukma/New Delhi, Jan 1 (IANS) Sodi Mada has a thing for children. Just like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, this resident of Sukma district of Chhattisgah lures children away - but to school.
Mada, in his early 20s, first befriends village children and then charms them into playing a game of football. Using this as bait, Mada tries to entice children to join the village school, promising them more games and fun.
Mada also counsels parents on the merits of education.
Mada is no stranger to residents of Dabaras village of the Maoist-dominated Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. He is a local who earns his living by farming. But he is also a Khel Mitra, a volunteer under the Unicef's Sports for Development initiative. He has been trained to motivate children who, driven by civil strife in their areas, have dropped out from school, to enrol again.
He has even managed to organize a cricket tournament involving teams from different villages.
Many a time the children themselves convince their parents to enrol them so that they get a chance to play their favourite game.
"When the local Unicef officer approached me to take the initiative for my village, I did so willingly," Mada, who was in Delhi for a Unicef programme, told IANS.
Speaking about the programme, Unicef's education officer in Chhattisgarh Madhusudhan Sheshagiri said in a region like Sukma that is deeply impacted by civil strife, sports and physical education are proving to be effective in drawing back children to school.
"The programme was launched five years back when the disturbances led to large-scale displacement of people. It initially began as a humanitarian response and as a tool of psychosocial support for children living in camps. The children face a great deal of trauma seeing the devastation all round them and it was meant to help them overcome it," Sheshagiri told IANS.
He said under this initiative, young boys and girls from the villages with some educational qualifications as well as school teachers were mobilised to become Khel Mitras. There are about 45 Khel Mitras apart from the teachers. Their efforts have helped enroll several hundred children in schools, says Sheshagiri.
Sita Kashyap, mother of 12-year-old Anil who had joined a school in Dabaras with Mada's help, feels the programme has come as a boon for children in the region. "My son had been roaming around, doing nothing and wasting his life. When Mada approached Anil, he was reluctant to join in. But today, he loves his school and wants to become a teacher when he grows up."
The programme is based on the Primary Education Card methodology which emphasises on stimulating the children's growth through age appropriate activities like warm ups, stretches and games designed to promote speed, agility and balance in children.
The Khel Mitras participate in the programme purely on a voluntary basis. "They are not paid any honorarium. It is entirely up to them to take part in the programme. They work part-time and are engaged in other activities for their livelihood. For them, it is a way of giving back to their community," says Sheshagiri.
He admits that many a time the Khel Mitras work for a while and then give up the work as some migrate to cities in search of jobs or others get married and go off to some other villages.
The programme is now being run in 80 schools of Sukma district, which is one of the worst Maoist-affected districts of the state. It had also been initiated in 65 schools of Bijapur but has not been as successful as the Sukma experiment.
The success of the Sukma initiative has encouraged the state government to propose expansion of the scope of the "Sports For Development" initiatives to all the 93 Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas across the state.
Chhattisgarh's Rajiv Gandhi Shiksha Mission (RGSM) Director R. Shangeetha feels that the programme would help fill a crucial gap in the schooling experience of all children under the Right to Education Act. "The RGSM is very keen on this initiative in 2013-14 to cover all schools in the state. Towards this end, we will make the necessary allocations in the annual work plan for the next year," Shangeetha told IANS, urging Unicef to widen the programme's reach.
(Mitali Mohanty Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)