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A school for Mr Datta

Denied state support, octogenarian Kanailal Datta set up New Barrackpore's first school for mentally and physically challenged children

As the 82-year-old walks briskly in the scorching sun towards the whitewashed two-storeyed building, the determination integral to his personality is immediately apparent. Kanailal Datta is an eternal optimist. How else could he have been running a school for physically and mentally challenged children for the past 10 years without any government or non-governmental aid?

Datta's school, called Haripada Biswas Pratibandhi Vidyalay (HBPV), functions and has grown over the years thanks to random donations by well-wishers.

Located in New Barrackpore, a suburb of Kolkata, HBPV was set up with the idea of imparting education to disadvantaged and challenged children in the area; it's the only special school in an area of 30 km.

New Barrackpore is largely dominated by Bangladeshi refugees. Post-Independence, this was one of the places where hundreds of people settled down to start new lives. The educated middle class were determined to set up schools and colleges in New Barrackpore. Local educationist Haripada Biswas had set up primary and secondary schools and also three undergraduate colleges in New Barrackpore. After a few years it became evident that a sizeable percentage of school-going children were being excluded from the education process, as there were no schools for physically and mentally challenged children.

Datta and his friends carried out a door-to-door survey in New Barrackpore and the adjoining areas, which revealed that most disadvantaged children had no opportunity to go to school. Some came from very modest economic backgrounds and couldn't afford the school expenses.

Datta took up the challenge. He approached the state government's education department for academic affiliation and aid in 1996-97. But nothing worked; Datta was denied even basic support. In fact, he and his small team of enthusiasts had to give the government an undertaking that they would run the school on their own. HBPV finally got academic affiliation with the state government in the academic year 2004-2005. Aid continued to remain elusive.

Datta didn't give up. He approached the Government of India's social welfare department, reminding them that the government did have a scheme for special education. His application was rejected on grounds that the word 'pratibandhi' or 'disabled' was not stated in the objectives of the school, in the application!

Meanwhile, Datta acquainted himself with the mode of education for special children. He began meeting teachers and special educators at deaf and dumb schools. The team also got in touch with the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, for a technical understanding of the teaching process that's generally adopted for such children.

Finally, on Swami Vivekananda's birthday, January 12, 1997, Datta's school opened. "Whether it was God-sent or not I don't know, but at the start itself I managed to get a team of dedicated special educators. I can hardly pay them; they are working for such paltry amounts... I never wanted to lose the battle. I am a Gandhian, I thought somehow we have to make a difference in the lives of these children."

No form of government assistance would be forthcoming until the school had a structure. So, in 1998, thanks to a donation from a well-wisher, the school had a building of its own. Prior to that, it was run in a room at the local primary school. From an early enrolment of three students, the school now has 89 students, 56 of whom are mentally challenged, the remaining physically challenged.

"We have realised that more than education, what they need is vocational training that would help them become economically independent. So we run booking-binding, tailoring, incense stick-making and needlework classes. Apart from these activities, the children also learn painting and music."

The 'struggle' phase would appear to be over. Today, HBPV is the best special school in the district. Its students have received awards at the state level. Two of their students are running small income-generation set-ups from their homes.

But the octogenarian still has plans lined up for the school. Ask him, and pat comes the reply: "There are so many things that the school needs: better infrastructure, equipment, and more teachers. We want more vocational education schemes to start, like candle- and chalk-making. The children need to be self-sufficient at the end of the day."

Does he ever regret the fact that he never received any institutional funds? Datta's answer is typical: "I don't expect funds to come from any government departments, and we have been able to survive with donations. I believe sincere, relentless work is taken care of some day."

-- Nilosree Biswas

(Nilosree Biswas is a journalist and filmmaker)

Contact: Haripada Biswas Pratibandhi Vidyalay
51/1, Netaji Shubhash Road, New Barrackpore
Kolkata 700131
Tel: 033-25672078

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006