The 29-year-old RajiniKanth Mendhe, is the government-appointed schoolteacher for the village of Chandar in Bhor. A 12-km mud track through the hills, with 400ft drops on either side, takes Ranjinikant Mendhe to his workplace. More than 100km from Pune, the village is home to 15 huts whose 60 residents are probably outnumbered by snakes. For two years, Yuvraj Sangale, 8, has been the only student at the village school.
On reaching school, Mendhe’s first job is to go looking for his student. “I often spot him hiding in the trees. Sometimes I get him from his hut. I understand his reluctance. He has to go to school without friends. Why would anyone look forward to classes here?” says Mendhe, who has been making the perilous commute by bike for the last eight years.
During rains, it is extremely difficult for Mendhe to cross that mud track because it gets messy. It is risky to go to Chandar village school in Bhor because the area has many snakes.
“Government? The last we heard from them was when officials turned up with the polio vaccine,” says a resident.
Mendhe, originally from Nagpur, says that when he started teaching in Chandar eight years ago, there were 11 children. “I had smart kids. Many dropped out because higher education facilities were 12km away, at Mangaon. Many girls were sent to Gujarat to work as daily-wage workers at farms or factories. I tried pleading with the parents to keep them in school, but soon gave up,” he says.
The Chandar village school was built in 1985. Until a few years ago, it was four walls without a roof. An asbestos sheet filled the gap recently, but nature has found ways to unsettle the teacher. “One night, a snake dropped on me from the school’s roof. A few months later, while riding my bike on the mud track, I fell on a snake. I don’t think I will survive a third encounter,” Mendhe says.
But he has improvised. Using a few wires and a tiny TV set, he has been able to rig up an “e-learning facility” despite the fact that the village has no electricity. “Village officials provided us with a 12-volt solar panel about two years ago. I use it to power a TV that screens downloaded content. I later bought two tablets to boost Yuvraj’s interest in the world beyond.”
This exposure is vital. “Other children learn and play with those of their age, but Yuvraj has just me. For him, school has become four walls with empty desks,” says Mendhe.
Chandar’s isolation also leaves the grown-ups trapped. Livelihood here has been reduced to a few cows and stone breaking. Baban Sangale, 49, had to quit a Mumbai job to return and care for his ailing mother. Pointing towards the tall peaks, he says, “There is nothing there. We use kerosene lamps for light. Three solar-powered lamps on our street stopped working years ago and we have just about enough power (solar-generated) for one lightbulb per house and to charge phones.”