Ranjit Tanti - Making a Real Difference
At the prospect of a better means of livelihood, and consequently, a better life, Ranjit’s grandparents travelled from Orissa to the tea garden in Hatigarh, Assam. Here, they worked in the garden as pluckers, never returning to the place they once called home. His parents were born and raised here on the garden and followed in the same footsteps as the earlier generation. Soon after the children arrived, Ranjit’s mother, Suborno Tanti, retired as a tea-plucker to take care of the family while his father, Bistu Tanti, moved between different jobs on the garden for years. The mother tells her son that there is no work his father has not done on the estate. This is Bistu’s 25th year of service in the Company, having gradually climbed the ladder to become the Head Carpenter on the estate, a graded staff position. Ranjit’s parents have never known a life outside the tea garden of Hattigor.
Growing up, Ranjit recalls, life was hard. Living in the worker’s line, their family of five barely made ends meet. Nonetheless, his parents were never willing to compromise on the one thing they knew would be their saviour – their children’s education. While no one can call either of Ranjit’s parents educated, it was the couple’s conviction that a good education, even if it meant sacrificing what little comfort they had, would be the answer to all their troubles. Therefore, Ranjit’s sister attended a local convent school while Ranjit and his brother were sent to Don Bosco’s, Tangla, in the Udalgiri district of Assam. For this, Ranjit is eternally grateful to his parents.
Once Ranjit had acquired his Bachelors degree in Arts from Tangla College, he spent the next few years taking teaching assignments in schools in Itanagar, Ziro and Kalaigaon, finally returning to Hatigarh to a peculiar situation. The Bright Star, a school located just outside the periphery of Hattigor tea estate, once attended by him, was on the verge of permanent shut-down. This was terrible news for the garden workers and nearby residents. Being the only school in close proximity of the tea garden, if it shut down, it would mean that parents would have to send their children to schools 10—20 km away in Panneri or Tangla. Ranjit knows, when pressure of this kind was involved in simply commuting to school, both parents and their children would begin to lose interest and faith in the pursuit of education altogether. The entire community, especially Ranjit’s relatives looked to him as the messiah, entrusting him with the Herculean task of saving their school.
Ranjit, all of 25 years, was apprehensive. After all, it would take much more experience and financial support than what was available to him to make this happen and this thought did not escape him. Finally caving in under parental pressure, he agreed to go ahead with the plan of taking over the management of the school. Ranjit had dreamt of running a school of his own one day, but not quite so soon. There was too much riding on him. Getting two of his close friends on board, the resultant three barely managed to raise Rs. 1,000 each with which they printed posters and procured whatever minimal material was required to conduct admissions to the school. They knew it would not be easy but what they had in abundance now, was the firm resolve to make this dream come true.
The school reopened in 2012 with 13 new students. Today, four years later, with the dream still “under construction”, Bright Star boasts of 250 students and ten teachers. It has been an arduous journey so far and still is, for all those involved. Salaries for teachers are low with no room for a raise. While catering to the garden workers’ children may be a noble cause, it also means that the parents are not always able to pay the school fees on time. On numerous occasions there has been a year’s backlog in fees payment for some students. But in Ranjit’s words, “the school is not like a godown where you stop supplying the goods just because someone cannot pay. We have never done this. But it is not easy to run a school with such limited funds”.
While this in itself is no mean feat to accomplish, what makes Ranjit’s tale extraordinary is the philosophy behind it. It is only on really talking to him that you realise that this is a man who is wise beyond his years. Someone who has gone through life absorbing every experience – thinking about it and learning from it; someone who takes the time to understand the world around him, the people and their problems. Someone whose passion is palpable in the way he describes what he wants to do in the future.
In his own words, “education has progressed and reached incredible heights but civilization has lagged behind. Education does not simply mean what we learn from books. It means good values with which we live our lives. I want to be able to give that to my students. I want to train them in sports, teach them the importance of discipline, talk to them about health and hygiene. This is the holistic education a good school gives to its students”. He laments that his people, the adivasis or ‘tea tribes’, as they are commonly known, have lost their way over the course of time. Their progress has suffered, despite their immense contribution to the State. He fears his peoples’ culture, their language, and their values are disappearing. He has a burning will, but by his own admission, not enough of a ‘way’. That’s why he wants to do his bit for the village, the garden he grew up in, no matter how small that contribution might be.
That Ranjit consciously practices the values his parents exposed him and his siblings to early on in life is obvious. Despite the tight budget and a lack of external funding, he and his teachers have pledged to take on the schooling of one student from the `below poverty line’ (BPL) category every year, for free. He believes that if he can do for one child, what his parents did for him, it would be an immense achievement on his part. That is not all. He wants to provide teachertraining programmes at the school for graduates from the region who do not find employment elsewhere, so that they may be able to take on teaching assignments at local schools. Ranjit has an ulterior motive which he reveals only after some probing. He says teaching automatically inclines one to have a “more social bent of mind”, just like it happened with him, where he desperately wants to be part of the solution to whatever social problem he sees around him.