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Sainji is a village of around 400 people situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in the North Indian state of Uttarakahand. The villagers live by growing rice, wheat, maize and vegetables on steeply terraced hillsides.
The local language, Jaunpuri, which is a dialect of Garhwali, is unique to the 250 or so villages located in this first fold of the Himalayas, although many, especially the younger people, also speak Hindi.
Sainji displays many of the complex challenges and opportunities which characterise sustainable development and these are compounded by the challenges associated with a rapidly changing climate. It is also a real-life example of how international development strategies, notably the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), play out at a local level. The opportunities for sustainable development in Sainji and its neighbouring villages are, in many ways influenced by its school, the Garhwal English Medium School (GEMs) and the dedicated work of Kunwar Singh Chauhan and his wife Lori McFayden.
Universal primary education was one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which preceded the SDGs.
Between 2000 and 2015, India made great strides in ensuring its children had access to primary education and more than 96% of all children in India are now enrolled at school.
Unfortunately the quality of the education children receive, especially in free Government-funded schools is often extremely poor. Teacher absenteeism is high and ‘rote’ methods of teaching are commonplace. Private fee paying schools, which educate around 30% of children nationally and 41% of children in Uttarakhand are far beyond the means of most of the subsistence farmers who live around Sainji. As a result most children from Sainji and its surrounding villages have until recently had little prospect of gaining an education which would help them improve upon a life of physical hardship and poverty
Six years before the international community was able to agree on and publish its Sustainable Development Goals, local resident Kunwar Singh Chauhan and his Canadian wife, Lori, set up a school, the Garhwal English Medium School (GEMS) with the aim of providing a quality and affordable education for local village children.
Its mission directly addresses what became the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education with a focus on providing an inclusive and quality education. GEMS school is aiming to provide local children with an education which can be critical to raising family income levels and resilience. For example, by gaining paid employment locally or becoming agricultural innovators and entrepreneurs able to safeguarding and improve agricultural production.
Almost 40% of pupils at GEMs are girls, addressing Goal 5 of the SDGs simultaneously. This is an enormous achievement in an area where ‘investment’ in a male child’s future is prioritised. The school teaches in English, giving its pupils a vital skill to enable them to compete with their better-off peers for paid employment.
Lori McFadyen, Kunwar's wife, is head teacher at GEMs, and through her contacts in North America and Europe has been able to raise sufficient funds to help finance the running of the school and ensure school fees are affordable for even the poorest families. Kunwar and Lori also host a regular stream of volunteers to work with the teachers and pupils to raise the quality of their English and education.