Universal primary education was one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and between 2000 and 2015, India made great strides in ensuring its children had access to primary education. 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 in rural areas, is often 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 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 could help them improve upon a life of physical hardship and poverty.
In 2015 the international community published its 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which included a commitment to Universal Quality Education (SDG 4). Six years before this, local resident Kunwar Singh Chauhan and his Canadian wife, Lori, set up a school, the Garhwal English Medium School (G.E.M.S.) with the aim of providing a quality and affordable education for local village children.
G.E.M.S. mission directly addresses the essence of SDG4 with a focus on providing an inclusive and quality education by providing local children with an education which gives them a chance to raise family resilience and income levels. For example, their education can help them gain paid employment locally, become agricultural innovators or entrepreneurs.
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 is head teacher at G.E.M.S., and her tireless fundraising efforts have enabled there is just enough money to 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.
Strict lockdown measures have meant that during the Covid-19 pandemic G.E.M.S. has been closed for extended periods and students have lost many months of schooling which will be very difficult to catch-up on. Lori and the teachers have tried their best to continue some form of education, including using WhatsApp to deliver lessons and tests! This is another example of the complexities of sustainable development, which often sees the poorest in society most impacted by societal challenges.
There are no healthcare facilities in Sainji village.
For many people who become ill traditional medicines, including herbal and Ayurveda therapies and visiting traditional healers, will be their first port of call. Pharmacists in nearby villages also play an important role in providing primary healthcare services and access to a wide variety of medicines which in the UK are only be available via a doctor’s prescription.
The nearest hospital, Landor Community Hospital is a 45 minute drive, near the town of Mussourie. Depending on your ability to pay, there are a number of hospitals in Dehradun, some two to three hours away by vehicle.