How one man’s spark lit up a community in Jharkhand

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VK Balanjinappa | 59 Founder, Divine Spark School, lohardaga. Photo: Ushinor Majumdar
VK Balanjinappa | 59
Founder, Divine Spark School, lohardaga. Photo: Ushinor Majumdar

VK Balanjinappa, 59, was taken aback when a tall man in his twenties stopped him in the middle of the road and touched his feet. This young man, Roshan Kujur, a Hyderabad-based commercial pilot for a major airline, was only thanking his teacher for inspiring a poor, tribal boy to live his dreams.

Kujur is not the only former student grateful to Balanjinappa. There are others, including Sana and Seema Sadaf, both girls from backward families, who are now engineers. As is Abhishek Singh, who has also completed his be from Tamil Nadu, and Rupa Kujur, a field officer with the State Bank of India.

Balanjinappa’s story is not unique for the education he imparted to his students. All teachers do that. He is unique because of where he chose to start his school, and for whom.

The Divine Spark School at Lohardaga, Jharkhand, 60 km from state capital Ranchi, is a shining example of how education can bring change. In 1995, after a short career as a wrestler, Balanjinappa left his hometown Bangalore to take up a teacher’s job at the Seventh Day Adventists School in Ranchi.

At the school, he was approached by Lohardagabased contractor Balbir Deo and journalist Deepak Mukherjee, who wanted him to educate underprivileged tribal children in their district. Balanjinappa packed his bags and moved to Manho village in tribal- dominated Lohardaga district and started a school with eight students, and thus began a long journey.

Within a year, the school had 70 students who paid around Rs 10- Rs 20 depending on their economic condition, although Balanjinappa taught most of them for free and even put them up at his own house as he could not afford a hostel building.

During a conflict between two local groups, one of his students was kidnapped and this forced Balanjinappa to move the school to Lohardaga town, which had a functional police station. The name ‘Divine Spark’ was inspired from the teachings of his idol Swami Vivekananda and his spiritual guru Chandrashekhar’s Divine Park in Mangalore, Karnataka.

With time, the school attracted more students and Balanjinappa was able to hire local teachers, even though the fee was only nominally raised. By 2000, it was Rs 30 per student, a nominal fee by any standard.

“When I first met Balanjinappa,” recounts Virendra Vidyarthi, a senior journalist from Lohardaga, “I tried to help him get a loan for his school building. Since banks were not forthcoming, he took private loans. The interest was heavy but he did not let it affect the students. He kept the same fees and is still repaying that loan. This is unheard of at a time when schools charge so much.”

Balanjinappa’s contribution can be gauged from the jump in the literacy rate of Lohardaga: from 2001 to 2011, it shot up from a little over 53 percent to around 68 percent. However, to slot his contribution as an educationist alone would be as much a disservice to Balanjinappa as to Lohardaga.

Two years ago, he approached the district jail authorities with a request to teach the children of prison inmates. He was granted permission and he brought them to his school. In a Maoist infested area this was a bold step.

The story of Phillip (name changed) is telling of Balanjinappa’s influence. As a teenager, Philip and his gang of friends were petty thieves who had their brushes with the law. Today, he runs a small business in Lohardaga, as do most others in his ‘gang’, who all went to Divine Spark.

Balanjinappa’s story would not be complete without talking of his wife HT Hniing Hring. Originally from Anal Khuano in Manipur, she was introduced to Balanjinappa by her brother, a CRPF officer stationed in Ranchi. After marriage, Hring, 38, joined him in the school where she teaches English and social studies.

Hring also gave Lohardaga its first national-level female athletes — Regina Anal and Ringtha Anal.

In 1997, Regina and Ringhta became the first girls to represent Lohardaga at the national athletics meet in Rajasthan. While Regina won the gold medal in the 100 metre sprint, Ringtha won her gold in the open cross-country race.

The Lohardaga community made Balanjinappa president of their district wrestling association and he went on to become the state secretary of the Jharkhand Kickboxing Association.

If it is difficult to imagine a wrestler as a teacher, it is even more so to imagine him writing, acting and directing children’s plays. In the past four decades, Balanjinappa has written plays on various subjects from child psychology to disrupted families to coming of age. Some of his plays have been particularly popular, such as Beti Bachao and Papa Rajneeti Chod Dijiye. The latter is such a hit that Balanjinappa is now working on a sequel called Mummy Rajneeti Chod Dijiye, which is about women who have entered politics. The troupe has won coveted awards, including the Natyashree and Natyabhushan that now adorn the school’s shelf.

The love for theatre runs in Balajinappa’s family. While elder son RD Vivekjoy Anal has been awarded as many as 16 times as the best child artist at various competitions across the country, younger son RD Gurudevjoy Anal has also won accolades for acting in his father’s plays. Despite the long list of students who have attained financial independence, however, the school still struggles for money.

Balanjinappa’s family lives in a modest one-room “house” attached to a classroom and have somehow managed to keep the loan sharks at bay. At 3-4 percent a month, they pay a lot more interest than they would have if the loan had come from a bank. Moreover, due to the modest size of the school, the cbse refused them affiliation and the couple have had to cut corners to get proper certification.

They had to let go of middle school students and have decided to operate only till Class VII till they get full affiliation. As a result, the number of students has dropped from 850 last year to 650 in the current academic session. Of that, around 40 percent are from poor tribal families.

“The boarders pay about 600- 1,200 rupees a month. Some can’t even afford that,” says Balanjinappa. “Somehow, we manage. I am part of this community. If someone can’t pay, I can understand it.”

In a corner of Balanjinappa’s living room is a rare symbol of harmony. Mounted on the wall, above a shelf of Hindu deities and Buddha idols, is a crucifix. The family celebrates all Hindu and Christian festivals and though spirituality is infused into the school curriculum, religion is kept out of it.

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