A Picture a Day Goes a Long Way
The motorboat chugged along steadily in the autumn twilight on the majestic Brahmaputra. Sailen, the eight-year-old son of my guide, tugged at my sleeve, ‘Look look,’ he pointed with his index finger excitedly. Across from us was a small boat. A man was squatting on it and pulling up a fishing net. My eyes widened as I saw the catch, hundreds of tiny silver fish thrashing about. I smiled at Sailen. Earlier that day, I had feasted on something similar in the circuit house, which the cook had called pura masor pitika (or smoked fish mash, a tongue-twister!), and I smacked my lips, hoping there would be something like that for dinner. We were returning from one of the chars or riverine islands of Barpeta in Assam. I asked Sailen who nodded vigorously and pointed to his stomach, which growled loudly. I laughed and tousled his hair playfully before returning my gaze on the fisherman across our motorboat.
Nestled between the foothills of Bhutan in the north and the mighty Brahmaputra in the south, lies picturesque Barpeta. Most of its population, an overwhelming 92.3%, lives in rural areas, especially on the char islands.
Barpeta had a delta rank of 73 among the other aspirational districts for the month of August 2019. It has been making consistent progress in the areas of education and financial inclusion specifically, where it stood 50 on the delta rankings. Barpeta has had some legacy issues in the area of education. The literacy rate in the city is 63.81%, according to the 2011 census. There was a marginal increase in the previous decade, where the literacy rate grew from 56% to 63.81%. But, in recent years, the district, in collaboration with the Piramal foundation has been making remarkable progress.
In this regard, BaLA (Building as a Learning Aid) was initiated in the elementary schools of the district. BaLA is a unique initiative to ensure qualitative improvement in education by providing a fun-based physical environment for children in the infrastructure of a school.
The initiative was taken up by the Barpeta district administration and SSA (Samagra Siksha Abhiyan) in collaboration with the Piramal Foundation.
Parts of Sailen’s school building—floors, walls, pillars, staircases, windows, doors, ceilings, corridors, toilets—had been brightly painted with a number of images, thereby using such spaces as learning resources.
After the implementation of BaLa, schools became a source of attraction for students, teachers, and communities. A visible increase in enrolment of students was also reported.
A 2012 Vinyas and Unicef report says, ‘[. . .] BaLA elements can be used in different self-learning situations by children, teachers can use these elements creatively to meet the various learning needs of the children. These elements can be brought alive by giving exercises, using the abacus, or the map in the playground. BaLA elements will make the school more enriched. Children need many real experiences in language, art, science, maths, and geography. BaLA elements help facilitate this learning. Without real, concrete experiences, children cannot learn. BaLA is a tool to promote learning, curiosity, care and concern, wonder and lifelong learning. It helps children to practice and revisit concepts. It also helps learning to take place everywhere—in the classroom, the corridor, the verandas, the outdoors, etc. Initiating BaLA in schools helps to understand how children learn differently apart from the tradition teaching-learning method. It helps in developing language, communication and numeracy skills, among others.’
The district is also making progress in providing healthcare to its people. It has started converting its sub-centres into health and wellness centres, and deployed boat ambulances to reach people in more than 50 riverine islands within its boundary.
These islands have a huge potential to utilize solar energy, with lithium-ion battery storage. This can help the islands prosper and help the district administration provide health, education, banking and other facilities effectively to the population.
Barpeta is in the saddle to be the jewel crown of the country. With an effective focus on health, education, agriculture, financial inclusion, and basic infrastructure, the district is sure to reach new heights.
Abhishek Saxena is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.