“Without SWISSAID the school would never be where it is today”

A large tree, a teacher and three pupils: what started in India as a tiny village school for disadvantaged children is now – thanks to a historic donation from SWISSAID – a well-run boarding school for 2,700 children.

January 2015, and one of the first grey working days of the year has started at the SWISSAID office in Bern. Nobody imagined that the day would have another big surprise in store.
Hours later an Indian wearing a neatly ironed shirt entered the office. He was here on behalf of the school association “Gram Nirman Kelavani Mandal” that manages several schools in India. He had come to say thank you, Vijay Upadhyay explained to the baffled office team.

In 1970 SWISSAID donated one million Indian rupees for a small school project for disadvantaged girls and boys in the Indian Gujarat State, so providing the initial incentive to set things up. In 1970 one million rupees was equivalent to 575,000 Swiss francs – a big contribution, which the school management invested so well, that until today 30,000 pupils could attend the school. But let’s take things in order.

Education against social injustice 

India in the 1960s: Mansinh Mangrola, a young teacher and follower of Gandhi, as a profound opponent of social inequalities in his country, is travelling through India. In Gujarat State he arrives in the small village of Thava, a centre of an Adivasi community. The indigenous Indian inhabitants live on the margin of society. They are completely impoverished and just about survive with some farming. Food is in short supply and going hungry is an everyday occurrence. The mistrust of the Adivasi towards state institutions is deep-seated; the children are needed as cattle drovers and labourers on the fields – none of them attends school.

Arithmetic, writing and food

Mansinh Mangrola starts a conversation with the indigenous inhabitants and offers to teach the children free of charge and to provide them with a daily midday meal. At first there are only three pupils who assemble in the shade of a large tree to learn arithmetic, to write and read. Soon there are more children and Mansinh Mangrola dreams of setting up a real school for the farmers’ children.

Support without long debate 

Since he had heard that SWISSAID supported Adivasi communities, Mansinh Mangrola used his own money to travel to Switzerland. At the Bern office he requested an appointment with Heinrich Fischer, at that time SWISSAID’s General Secretary.

What nowadays would be unthinkable without stacks of forms and detailed applications, took its course: shortly afterwards, Heinrich Fischer travelled to the sub-continent and together with Pierre Oppliger, Head of SWISSAID’s office in India, he visited the village school that by now had expanded slightly and was accommodated in a small hut. Both Swiss visitors are impressed by the teacher’s commitment – without any support he had largely secured the trust of the sceptical Adivasi parents; he was teaching more and more children and thus contributing to the long-term development of the isolated community. Together they discuss how things should proceed – and finally they agree without any long debate to support the school with one million rupees.

Help for the long term

“Without this financial injection from SWISSAID, the school would never be where it is today”, comments Vijay Upadhyay almost half a century later. Only with this generous contribution was Mansinh Mangrola able to build the school building and accommodation for the pupils, as well as to employ teachers who taught the quickly expanding cohort of pupils. In February 2016 the school celebrates its 50th anniversary.

In Gandhi’s spirit 

The school offers various training options: from the primary school to technical skills and the teacher’s seminar as well as home tutoring for those with physical and mental disabilities. Entirely in Gandhi’s spirit most of the 2,700 pupils – girls were entitled to join classes from the start – live in Ashram or shared accommodation within the school grounds. Fields are cultivated around the buildings where vegetables, fruit and grains grow for the school kitchen. The children not only learn in the classrooms, but every day they join in with manual, farming and school activities to acquire the skills that will prepare them for a self-determined life. 

“I would like to give back this good fortune”

Until today, except for the teacher training courses the school does not charge any fees, but is funded by state resources and private donations. As an honorary fundraiser Vijay Upadhyay is responsible for ensuring that sufficient funds remain in the coffers. Why is the successful businessman so actively engaged on behalf of the school? “India is undergoing change and education is incredibly precious. It is vital that Adivasi children also attend school and have the same opportunities.” He himself grew up in the countryside in very modest circumstances and repeatedly benefitted from plenty of opportunities. “I would like to give back this good fortune.”