ANIRBAN CHOUDHURY AND VIVEK CHHETRI
Subala Deewan (in blue shirt) meets Deepa Rai in Hamiltonganj, JalpaiguriLittle Flowers English School, from where Deepa passed her CBSE Class X exams, and where she would like to study again
Facebook has not taken away from 17-year-old Deepa the drudgery to earn her meals, but it has brought donors’ cash to her doorstep.
The girl’s account of how she sold momos every evening after her daily journey to study in a school 37km away from her home in the Buxa forests was published in The Telegraph on May 22.
Deepa Rai got 66 per cent in her Class X CBSE exams in the results released last month.
The score was not exceptional. But add to that the trip Deepa made to school, and a hard statistic — that 18 students out of every 100 drop out of secondary school every year in the state, many of them driven by poverty. The score may then seem harder to achieve.
Santlabari, where Deepa lives in Jalpaiguri district, is 30km from Alipurduar town.
On the map, the forested India-Bhutan border is closer to Santlabari than any town in north Bengal with an Internet connection. The village is in the Buxa Tiger Reserve area.
Deepa’s trip to school was more of a journey than a daily commute.
To reach Little Flowers English School, Deepa would leave home at 6.30am, walk 5km to Jayanti More through the Buxa Tiger Reserve. There she would take an autorickshaw to Rajabhatkhawa. Then another autorickshaw would take Deepa to Damanpur in Alipurduar town, where her school bus would pick Deepa up. It took three hours. The routine was repeated on the way back.
But another journey, a more pleasant one that spanned several continents, awaited Deepa’s story.
Deepa had been unsure if she would study in Class XI given her family’s weak financial condition — her father is a small farmer and her dumpling shop is the only source of stable earning. But she is not unsure anymore.
By mid-June, donors from as far as Canada, Australia and Kuwait, and closer home in Delhi and Bangalore had sent the schoolgirl Rs 37,000.
After the report came out in the Metro section of this paper, Deepa’s story kind of took a life of its own.
It went on the Internet — through the paper’s website — and was picked up by a Facebook group in Darjeeling town.
|The May 22 Metro report on Deepa. Pictures by Anirban Choudhury|
In Darjeeling, Rinchudoma Dukpa took the first step. “The initiative started following a report in The Telegraph, and was picked up by local news sites,” she said.
Dukpa said she contacted the Facebook page administrators for Darjeeling Chronicle, the group on the social network that highlights news reports and events in the Darjeeling hills.
She requested members of the group if they would “open a bank account for Deepa (after speaking to her). The administrators contacted the principal of Little Flowers,” Dukpa said.
The principal got the Darjeeling Chronicle team in touch with Kiran Chhetri, a teacher in Santlabari who had been helping Deepa and other students from this remote village for several years.
Chhetri did the legwork of contacting all the donors who wanted to help Deepa but were scattered across the globe and did not know how to reach out to her. “Mr Chhetri provided (the donors) the account details,” Dukpa said.
“People have contributed from as far away as London and as close as Hamiltonganj, which is a few kilometres from Santlabari. A professor in Uttarakhand offered to educate the girl if she was willing to leave home,” Dukpa said.
On June 1, she received Rs 5,000 from a lady who was from Darjeeling but now worked in Calcutta. Subala Deewan said she came to know about the girl’s struggle after reading the paper. “I decided to help. I went to Hamiltonganj, where my sister stays, to hand over the money to the girl. I pray to the almighty for her success,” Subala said.
Deepa said she could not believe her luck. “I have received Rs 37,000. I am very happy and grateful to The Telegraph,” she said.
“The way people have helped me, I am confident I will not face any financial difficulty in the future. So many people have got in touch with me,” she said.
Asked about the donations, the overjoyed girl reeled off names of people in far off places. Deepa had heard about Facebook but never seen a page of the social networking site. “One person from Kuwait whose name is Gajendra has sent Rs 2,500. Someone has sent Rs 5,000 through Western Union. Subala Deewan gave me Rs 5,000. One person named Siddhartha Rai has sent Rs 2,000. I never imagined that people from different parts of the world would come forward to help me,” she smiled.
“I will use this money to pay my tuition fees and my transport expenses every day.”
She said her school principal had told her that many others had taken my account details from him.
“He has assured me that all the money that people are donating would reach me.”
Deepa said she “will take admission in Little Flowers to study humanities in Classes XI and XII”.
The school said it would assist Deepa with free tuitions and hostel accommodation.
Under child labour laws, Deepa’s work of making and selling dumplings can be categorised as hazardous, as it involves the use of fire, and hence illegal. But to keep the family running, Deepa may need to work in the shop with her elder sister, who had to drop out of school to support the family.
Little Flowers’ tuition fee is Rs 1,000 a month and Deepa would spend Rs 60 for autorickshaw rides daily. With her family’s income of around Rs 6,000 a month, Deepa would have needed all the help she got. “My sister Hema runs the shop alone when I go to school. After returning from school around 7pm, I make momos and sell them,” Deepa had said earlier.
Sandeep Karkun, the director of Little Flowers, said the institution was “proud of the girl”. He had got calls from Perth in Australia, Delhi and Siliguri.
“They have taken all the details about Deepa,” Karkun said. He said if Deepa found it difficult to pay the school fees, the institution would teach her for free and allow her to stay in the hostel without any charge.
“I have told Deepa that she can stay in our hostel if she wants to. She was uncertain if she could study further. But on May 31 when she came to me, she was confident that she would. We want her to continue studying and we will see to it,” he said.