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by FR. FELIX RAJ, SJ, DIRECTOR |  « back

My experiment with Students
Indian Current-July 23, 2000

In May 2000, a group of thirty College students camped for ten days in the midst of twelve tribal villages near Malda, West Bengal. They stepped out of the portals of St. Xavier’s, Calcutta into the scorching heat and the narrow streets of Eklakhi villages. They worked along with the local youth to construct two small low cost school buildings for the local children. These villages have known no school since independence.

The students lived and mingled with the people, spoke to them, shared their hardships and learnt what life means. The local people took care of their board and lodging. As a teacher, I was with them and pleasantly observed in them a process of true, value-based pedagogy that produces, as the Jesuit educational charism goes, “men and women for others”.

It was not a sudden exposure. It was the outcome of a long-standing friendship between the villagers and my students. Remember! 1998 was one of the worst years in this century for Malda district in Bengal. The devastating floods in the month of September washed away hundreds of villages and left thousands homeless. Scarcity of drinking water and food made the condition still worse. People were starving for days together. Here was a concrete situation of human suffering that called for a spontaneous response from fellow humans.

I called some of my students and briefed them about the situation. I issued a challenge, “Are you ready to plunge into this humanitarian mission and dirty your hands for the sake of the suffering masses?” “Yes”, they said, “unanimous and wholehearted”. A small group of 25 volunteers, largely belonging to the AICUF movement, with heart and soul, and worked day and night for nearly twenty days.

They went from class to class and contacted every teacher and student of both school and college. They conscientized the entire teaching and student community. Every student contributed his/her share, in cash or in kind. One day I took a police officer, who had dropped in, to the room where the students were working. “You see, how generous and wonderful students are when it comes to serving others!” I said to him. “Then, why do you think we want to put our children in your college?” he answered me smilingly.

The total collection was “great” and beyond our expectation - four-truck loads of clothes, medicine and food materials, and around four lakhs of rupees. Thrilled by the generous response, the volunteers themselves went to Malda and the surrounding villages, camped for fifteen days and distributed the relief materials with the help of Mother Teresa Sisters and the local administration.

Before returning to Calcutta, they made a careful survey of the area and identified fifty deserving families for more sustained support. The money collected was used to build 50 low cost houses for these families. Small groups of students regularly visited these villages and continued their close association with the people. More than once, they carried slates, pencils and notebooks and so on as their gift to the local children.

Some of the villagers reciprocated by visiting our college a few times and one of them even addressed a small student gathering. The bond between the villagers and the students has grown stronger and may continue to do so for many years. The soul of these villages long suppressed has found utterance in the company of young, but dedicated student leaders serving a great cause.

“College to Village and Village to College”: this is my latest pedagogy. And how I ardently wish that some day, at least a few from these villages will benefit from the facilities offered in institutions that impart some of the best education in our country!

Felix Raj, SJ
St. Xavier’s College
30, Park Street, Calcutta – 700 016

The author is Rector and professor of Economics at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta – 700 016



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