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Sainji is a village of around 400 people situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in the North Indian state of Uttarakahand. The villagers live by growing rice, wheat, maize and vegetables on steeply terraced hillsides. The local language, Jaunpuri, which is a dialect of Garhwali, is unique to the 250 or so villages located in this first fold of the Himalayas, although many, especially the younger people, also speak Hindi.
India’s 2009 ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’ made it compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14 to be enrolled in school. This Act has been successful in raising enrolment in rural India to over 96%. Unfortunately the quality of the education children receive in government schools is often extremely poor. Teacher absenteeism is high and ‘traditional rote’ methods of learning are commonplace. Private fee paying schools, which educate around 30% of children nationally and 41% of children in Uttarakhand are far beyond the means of most of the villagers. As a result most children from Sainji and its surrounding villages have until recently had little prospect of gaining an education which would be able to help them improve upon a life of subsistence farming and poverty.
Since 1980, Sainji village, under the headship of Kunwar Singh Chauhan has made significant progress. It now has a road, irrigation canals, and at least sometimes, piped water and electricity. In 2009, Kunwar and his Canadian wife Lori set up a school; the Garhwal English Medium school (GEMS) with the aim to provide a quality and affordable education for local village children. Their vision is to provide an education which will give them choices; to work within and for the community to ease the toil and hardship of village life or seek paid employment elsewhere and return remittances to their families.
Enrolment at GEMS currently stands at 174, and almost 40% are girls. This is an enormous achievement in an area where ‘investment’ in a male child’s future is prioritised. The school teaches in English, giving its pupils a vital skill to enable them to compete with their better off peers for paid employment. Lori McFadyen, Kunwar's wife, is head teacher of GEMs and through her contacts in North America and Europe has been able to raise sufficient funds to help finance the running of the school. Kunwar and Lori also host a regular stream of volunteers to work with the teachers and pupils to raise the quality of their English and education.
In July 2017 GEMs suffered a serious setback when they were evicted from their school following a legal dispute. However, with the help of local villagers they have built a new temporary school allowing the children’s schooling to continue.