Lucknow-based couple running 'Swatantra Talim', speak of alternative education & beyond

A learning space for the children, of the children & by the children.

Established back in 2013 by Ridhi and Rahul, Swatantra Talim represents the freedom to choose what and how an individual wants to learn and to some extent, when to do so. In a pursuit to motivate, build and give children a platform to fuel their dreams and quench their curiosity, Swantra Talim has been in action, ever since they set their minds to nurture alternative education. It is a safe space where children, adolescents and the youth, can practice the principles of free speech, free association and the freedom to choose their own learning paths.

Head, Heart & Hand; A Democratic Education Process

Rahul, a CA by profession with a degree from Shri Ram College of Commerce, was involved in a cushy corporate job at Airtel and Pepsico, before this but he gave it up in 2012 to be involved in this venture on a full-time basis. Ridhi, an alumna of Lucknow's Loreto Convent, Lady Shri Ram College for Women and TISS, quit her job too and shifted her focus to the education sector. Her first step forward was when she volunteered with Manzil, a Delhi-based NGO, where it was all about curating new and creative learning ways for children from low-income backgrounds.

In a conversation with Rahul, he mentioned, "It all began back in 2011-12, when Ridhi started going to Ramdwari, a village which is almost 90 kms away from Lucknow and this place didn't even have solid roads. I accompanied her one day and saw that there were a bunch of young girls, awaiting her arrival under a tree. We soon realized that the boys here, didn't indulge beyond class 2-3 at max and the girls were usually married off by the age of 13-14. So we knew that something needed to be done in order to co-create an environment where young minds could blossom and hence, Swatantra Talim was birthed."

He further added, "We set up our first learning centre here in 2013 and started our classes with 40 girls at first and then we established another one for boys, back in August 2014 because co-ed education was still a no-no for many families. But then we merged these two centres and now we have around 120 sons and daughters who are actively involved. Our teaching method is play-based and involves arts and crafts- we like to call it a 'maker space'. Puppet shows, nukkad nataks and story-telling are also a part of our curriculum. We question stereotypes and propagate equality amidst everyone; we learn, play, sit down and eat together because there is no authoritative rule but a democratic learning process. Our focus is on contextual learning with an aim towards bringing high-quality education to the villages at minimal costs."

A learning space for the children, of the children & by the children

Swantantra Talim has been conducting Daan Utsav annually, which is a celebration of the spirit of humanity. Under its banner. the team conducts a host of activities and events, which simply spreads joy and awareness amidst children, pertaining to various aspects. This year, they launched an Open Library in the city's Aashiyana Colony, Aurangabad (near Shahid Path) and Ramdwari village, in an effort to promote reading habits among children.

"We didn't lock this library and we have placed it at a central space so that anyone from anywhere can have access to the books and we didn't place any rules or regulations for it. The children simply can come, check it out and take the books back home to read and return later- no questions asked. The entire concept has also been designed by our students. A person doesn't even have to be literate to read the books which have been kept here; we've also included pictorial books as well, for the ease of surfing through them by anyone."

Rahul also told us, "We took a few of our students to Delhi via a flight for a workshop and that was the first time ever, that they stepped out of their village and of course, boarded an airplane. The amazing part of it was- they funded their own trip by selling handmade chikankari items! We couldn't have been prouder and this was a move which bolstered their self-integrity as well."

He added, "Now due to the pandemic at hand, the children have been studying via exchanging voice notes on WhatsApp. We host 2 sessions with two different age groups for 2.5 hours. We give them assignments to do- like the other day, we discussed with the children to make a water consumption report of their household, which will give them an insight into how they can manage water wastage and consumption. They had also made a solar mobile charger because the village has electricity issues and this also impressed their parents and encouraged them to send their children to schools for coming up with such solutions. The children at Ramdwari are currently working on a menstrual hygiene project, where they are trying to make eco-friendly sanitary pads which wouldn't be hazardous to the environment. These are all efforts towards an integrated learning process, for the betterment of their future. The success of these projects further help in boosting their self-esteem and morales while also polishing their critical thinking aptitude. We take steps to make the children aware of their fundamental rights and duties, which would prevent them from being exploited or undermined."

With the help of Khoj Dabba, Khoj Shaala and Khoj Aalaya- concepts designed to help Swatantra Talim children to spread their wings, the team has paved a pathway of alternative education in and around the rural parts of Lucknow and surrounding areas, like no other!

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