A story that never stops repeating itself, in every village, every town, every city. Who do these children grow up to be? Does anybody care? Some do, like 32-year-old Pandey, who returned to Banda with the zeal to change the lives of the disabled. His contribution: the Vikalang Awasi Vidyalaya Evam Prasikshan Kendra (vavepk). "I didn't complete school but I never stopped learning and sharing my lessons in self-help with others," says Pandey.
It's been an uphill struggle for the man who can only walk with the help of crutches. After repeated knocking on state welfare doors with even simple requests like a loan or the donation of a crutch failed (he paid Rs 125 in bribes for a Rs 45 crutch), Pandey resolved to go it alone and spearheaded a movement for the physically challenged in Banda in the early '90s. Says he, wryly: "There are 12,200 disabled in Banda district alone. The UP government has nothing to show after its Rs 50-crore budget for them. With my meagre resources, if I can set up even 50 children, I'll be happy."
Enthused by his spirit, the educated but disabled youth of the village joined him and the foundation for Pandey's school was laid in '97. Today, as director of vavepk, he has about 100 children aged 5-17 in his school and a staff strength of 14, all of whom work without remuneration. His trusted lieutenants - Krishna Murari Singh, a first-class degree holder, Vimlesh Sahu, Kallu Prasad Prajapati and Shyam Babu Tripathi, all in the 24-25 age group.
"We started with 10 boys," informs Pandey, "and no money". But recognising the nobility behind the purpose, a Banda jeweller donated five bighas of land and part of an unused tile factory that stood on the land. Says Krishna Murari, principal of the school: "Children poured in from a 20-30 km radius around Banda - the disabled, orphans, drug addicts." The first lessons were held under the trees and today, Pandey's children have blossomed.
Pandey recounts how he networked with the schools in the area and students began contributing atta and rice, pencils, paper and other educational material that could be of use to Pandey's flock. He admits with gratitude that the chief development officer of the area, Komal Ram, helped a great deal with food, mattresses and blankets as did other fairly well-off villagers, some with fruits and vegetables, others with sackfuls of potato and channa. He has also enlisted the support of 20 doctors who help out with free check-ups and medicines.
"We need about Rs 2,500 per day to run the school, but have resolved not to ask the government for help. In fact, we don't accept hard cash, only donations in kind." Pandey has also convinced the village commercial establishments to switch over from the use of polythene to paper packets and cardboard boxes made by the children, which contributes towards earning them a living. Says Prashant Sharma, National Youth Awardee 1996-97, employed with the Watershed Development programme: "I help out in my spare time and Pandey's work needs to be lauded."
For his part, Pandey isn't the least bit interested in accolades or laurels. His eyes burn bright with the fire of determination as he talks about his children's futures. He takes them on regular excursions to give them a wider world view, introducing them to new sights and sounds.
It's still a long haul ahead for Pandey and his able group of volunteers. And he realises that. "I'm not in the business of just getting my children a degree. I want to instil self confidence in them, encourage their latent talents and set them on the path to self-reliance. If I succeed with even four children, they in turn will do the same for 10 more. My mission: not to let any handicapped person cry," says the man, standing tall on his crutches. If you want to help, write to U.S. Pandey, near Rabbani Press, Aliganj, Banda, Uttar Pradesh.