Nagin Baria smiles as he watches his 15-year-old daughter Arunaben get ready for school. Hastily packing a couple of parathas in a lunch box, she stuffs it into her school bag and, dressed in a black and white churidar kurta – the school uniform colours – she runs down a road leading to the river Hiran, in the village of Sahanpura in Gujarat, India.
Arunaben is keen not to miss the boat that will take her, along with 124 other pupils, across the river to Utavali High School. She remembers all too well what it was like before this service existed. Until just six months ago, with neither boat nor bridge, these boys and girls were forced to swim across the 600m stretch of water to get to school.
Crocodiles are known to stalk the muddy waters and sudden strong currents have swept away strong men – yet this made no difference to the youngsters. Swimming across the river was the only way for them to get an education.
“I used to wake up in fear every day at the thought of my daughter going to school,” says 43-year-old farmer Nagin. “I dreaded it. A couple of elders used to watch them but how could that set our minds at rest? It was truly awful. There were instances when children were almost washed away and it was only due to parents on the banks that they were saved.
“Crocodiles have been spotted in the river too, although thankfully no child has been attacked.”
Once at school, the girls would have to sit all day in soggy uniforms. In summer, their clothes might have dried by the time they had to make the afternoon journey back home. But in the rainy season, the youngsters simply got used to being damp.
“It was difficult to learn or concentrate like that,” says Arunaben. “We did our best because what else was there to do?”
Traditional boats aren’t suitable on this narrow stretch of the river because the water, reaching shoulder height, was relatively shallow. A bus by the quickest road route would have taken more than 90 minutes – once all 125 children had been picked up.
Village elders, meanwhile, had been asking local officials for a bridge for years, without success. It felt like nothing could ever be done.
That was until some 10,000km away at his home in New York, a non-resident Indian learned about the difficulties and dangers faced by these village youngsters.
Businessman Varinder Bhalla saw the issue raised on a newspaper website. He says that he knew instantly he had to help. “That this was happening in 21st-century India when the nation is emerging as an economic superpower…” Varinder tells Friday. “It set me thinking.”
The 60-something-year-old, who moved to the US four decades ago, discussed the issue with his wife, Ratna, who is the deputy director of emergency housing at Nassau County, Long Island. “I was determined to make things better,” he says.
Eventually Varinder got in touch with the writer of the newspaper report who, in turn, put him in contact with elders in Sahanpura.
And so, after making a few long-distance telephone calls and getting to know the problem in detail, the couple decided to make a trip to India to see for themselves if there was any practical way they could help.
“When I first saw the situation in person, it was nightmarish,” says Varinder, who runs his own IT consultancy. “The situation faced by both the children and the parents who had to watch them swim across the turbulent river, while praying for their safety, was horrible.”
The children, he saw, would each cling to a gohri, 20-litre brass pot, that helped them stay afloat and, for the boys, acted as a place to keep their clothes dry after they stripped down for the journey.
At the other side of the river, the lads would get changed back into their uniforms. But for the girls there was no such luxury. They had no choice but to enter the water in their clothes. Once on the other side, they would wring out as much water as they could and then, in wet, clingy clothes, continue on the rest of the journey to school – which was a 5km walk away.
“It was so tough but I admired the zeal of the children,” remembers Varinder. “I found their willingness – to go through this life-threatening ordeal on a daily basis to get a good education – commendable. I was equally impressed by the support of their parents, who despite being uneducated themselves, were determined to give their children every chance in life.”
The Bhallas – who founded the AWB Food Bank in 1991, a Delhi-based charity that has distributed more than 10 million meals to children – toyed with several ideas including setting up a school in Sahanpura.
“Another idea we had was to rent a faster bus that would pick up the children from the 16 villages and transport them over the bridge 20km away to their school,” says Varinder.
The school idea came to nothing because of the sheer amount of red tape involved. The bus proposal was also scrapped because the time taken to travel by road with 125 children simply wasn’t feasible. Two weeks later, disappointed by not finding a solution, they returned to the US.
Then by chance, one morning Varinder spotted a photograph of a young boy paddling around in a small inflatable boat after heavy rains in the Long Island area of New York.
“It suddenly occurred to me that this could be a practical solution in Sahanpura – inflatable motor boats,” he recalls. “They could be used in the shallow waters as well as deeper ones. Unlike traditional boats, they would also not be damaged by the rocks that the river is full of.”
The Bhallas spent Dh11,000 buying such a boat. Another Dh5,000 was spent on life jackets and other necessary equipment. Then they transported it all to India.
“We’d been planning a family vacation to Florida, but decided to skip that and go to Gujarat again,” says Ratna taking up the story. “Not for a moment did we have any qualms about relinquishing our cruise dreams; helping the children was much more important.”
Taking three weeks off work, the Bhallas arrived at Sahanpura last September. The entire village turned out to welcome them and watch as they assembled the boat.
“It was almost like a festive occasion,” says Varinder. “Kids were on rooftops, while men and women stood in a circle around us. There was excitement in the air and the village elders thanked us profusely; they were appreciative and grateful.”
Several days were spent training villagers in how to assemble, inflate and maintain the boat, as well as operate and navigate it. Pupils, meanwhile, were instructed on safety measures and procedures.
While in Sahanpura, a sudden rain shower left the Bhallas soaked, and it took a while for the philanthropic couple to reach their distant hotel.
“For four hours that day, we experienced what the kids have been enduring every single day for years,” remembers Varinder of his wet clothes. “It was both physically and emotionally distracting and we couldn’t even begin to comprehend what the children had been going through all this time.”
After several test runs, the boat was formally launched on the river on September 15. “It was a major occasion,” recalls Ratna. “The villagers distributed sweets and performed traditional rituals before the kids embarked upon their first-ever motor boat crossing.”
The students, it is fair to say, were pleased with their new mode of transport. “This is truly one of the best gifts we could get,” says 15-year-old Tinkal, one of the first to try the boat. “Earlier, we were frightened to swim across but now we enjoy the boat ride and are no longer afraid of having to cross the river.”
The Bhallas also presented a few children with bicycles.
Piyush Kumar was one of the lucky ones. “We can now reach school on time and concentrate better on our studies,” he says. “It earlier took us 30 minutes to cross the river but now it takes just a few minutes.”
And just as overjoyed as everyone else, of course, was young Arunaben and her father Nagin.
“The best thing is that we do not have to stay in wet clothes all through the day,” she says.
“It is a luxury we never thought we could possibly ever enjoy.”