In a few years from now, you will spot a young journalist on television. Watch out for ‘Sakshi Patel’, whose factual reporting style on the issues encountered by remote Indian villages will take you by surprise. There will be no mincing of words as she digs out solutions to the daily battles fought by children in these rural hinterlands, particularly when it comes to access to education. Sakshi will demand answers.

Her stories will be tinged with personal experience. After all, she is speaking about a subject close to her heart. Sakshi Patel will be a name to reckon with — one day.

But right now she is just a little girl with big dreams of becoming a journalist, as she tells me. The Jansa village in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, where she lives, is home to a number of children like her; children whose parents are engaged in odd jobs such as boring wells, building homes and stone cutting, cleaning lakes and flower selling on the ghats (the area leading to the banks of the holy Ganges river).

Sakshi is a firm believer that simply dreaming is not enough; one has to act on these dreams for them to come true.

The nine-year-old girl is enrolled in the Jansa Primary School, which witnesses a footfall from a majority of the village children. However, for the last three years, Sakshi has been attending extra classes at a centre in her village, where her beloved Shyam ji chacha (uncle) devotes time to brushing up on her concepts, increasing her vocabulary, and playing with her.

Mujhe yaha aana bahut accha lagta hai (I love coming here),” she says before running off to join her friends who have just started playing a game.

Shyam ji has created a centre in Jansa village in Varanasi where labourers' children are taught for free
Shyam ji has created a centre in Jansa village in Varanasi where labourers’ children are taught for free, Picture source: Shyam ji
The children who attend Shyam ji's centre come from very poor families and do not have access to food, books and sanitation facilities.
The children who attend Shyam ji’s centre come from very poor families and do not have access to food, books and sanitation facilities, Picture source: Shyam ji

When Shyam Shrivastav (65) started this centre in Jansa village, he never fathomed it to amass so much love. It was simply an attempt at giving back to society, he says, referring to surviving a 2018 diagnosis of bone marrow cancer, which had progressed to the fourth stage.

“A point of no return,” his doctors at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre in Delhi had pronounced. So, you can imagine their disbelief when two years later, Shyam ji showed excellent signs of recovery.

The centre that he has set up in Jansa village is one of three — the other is at Rajatalab village and the third is at Ravidas Ghat. While each centre caters to around 200 children at any given time, it is the Jansa centre that needs your attention.

The children look forward to learning maths, English, physical education, social studies and more at the Jansa centre,
The children look forward to learning maths, English, physical education, social studies and more at the Jansa centre, Picture source: Shyam ji

A crumbling roof is killing many dreams

In 2023, NGO Pratham Foundation published an Annual Status of Education (ASER) report that spotlighted the gaps that exist in education in rural areas. After surveying 28 districts across 26 states, the report suggested 42 percent of children in the age group of 14 to 18 years in rural India cannot read easy sentences in English.

Why was this the case despite children being enrolled in schools where English was taught?

On interacting with the children in Jansa village, Shyam ji unearthed the reasons. “Most of these children are enrolled in schools but do not attend school. Their parents are engaged in odd jobs and do not have time to check on them. Most of them do not have food to eat and aren’t in good health, so, education takes a back seat,” he shares.

In an attempt to ensure that these children were not wasting their lives away, Shyam ji started his first centre in 2019 at Jansa village where he hails from. The idea was simple — teaching a handful of labourers’ children under a neem tree. But this model wasn’t conducive for more reasons than one; it wrecked the children’s postures while the rain and scorching heat would play spoilsport many times.

Shyam ji asked around the village for help and used the donations he received — to the tune of Rs 6 lakh — to build a makeshift hall. However, he concentrated on the walls and foundation, so when they came to the roof, there weren’t any funds left.

Two tin sheets were fitted on top of the shelter to keep out dust, rain, and stones. But the contraption is of no use in times of heatwaves — as Shyam ji recently discovered when temperatures soared to 45 degrees Celsius earlier this month in Varanasi. While the villagers prayed to the rain gods for some respite, Shyam ji feared the worst. “When it rains heavily, the tin sheets will be useless. The rain will make its way inside the shelter and drench the students, their bags and books. I feel so sad to watch their plight,” he sighs.

The centre at Jansa village that is built by Shyam ji needs a roof to prevent heat and rain from entering, Picture source: Shyam ji
The centre at Jansa village that is built by Shyam ji needs a roof to prevent heat and rain from entering, Picture source: Shyam ji
The tin sheets that are forming a protective covering over the centre are starting to corrode and this is posing a problem to the children's education, Picture source: Shyam ji
The tin sheets that are forming a protective covering over the centre are starting to corrode and this is posing a problem for the children’s education, Picture source: Shyam ji

The only option left in such situations is to cancel classes for the day. While this greatly disappoints Sakshi, who looks forward to meeting her friends and studying English, it has a greater toll on her friend Sonakshi Patel. The latter who lives 8 km away, walks for half an hour to reach school. So imagine her disappointment when she discovers that the walk is futile.

“I know it isn’t fair,” Shyam ji reasons. “But what other option do I have?”

“Build a new roof, maybe?” I suggest.


“Where will the funds come from?”

And this is where you can help.

The estimate given by the contractor who will be building the new roof for the centre,
The estimate given by the contractor who will be building the new roof for the centre.

A story of resilience

While Shyam ji went on to start the Rajatalab centre in 2020 and the Ravidas Ghat centre in 2021, the centre at Jansa village continues to be his prized project, as it sees maximum footfall. The walls echo rhythms of perseverance and determination.

“These children have big dreams,” Shyam ji says. “Helping them is my way of living my ‘new life’ in a productive way.” Shyam ji is referring to his survival through bone marrow cancer. Post his bone marrow transplant in 2019, his doctors had told him that he did not have much time left.

“While the diagnosis left me in shock for a week, I decided that I would face this headlong. I decided to double my willpower to survive and that has been my best medicine,” he notes. Ask him how he feels about having recovered, and he says “one day at a time”. “Recovered is not the right word. My injections and medicines are still ongoing. And so, I keep telling myself that in whatever time I have, I want to do good.”

The idea of reaching out to kids visited Shyam ji during the time he spent in the cancer ward. While contemplating his own fate, he would watch children as young as a few months old being admitted for cancer treatment. “It was so sad to watch these things,” he says, adding that these observations set a precedent for the way he wanted to live his life.

But he soon realised that coaxing kids, who did not have access to food and basic hygiene, to study, was counterproductive. “Children need a good environment to study,” he reiterates. And so, Shyam ji’s centres are hubs where the children are cared for, sometimes fed, helped with studies, played with, and given everything they need to dream big.

One would wonder why these children, who are already enrolled in government schools across Varanasi, exude enthusiasm to come to Shyam ji’s centres.

The answer lies in the incentives they get here — an education kit complete with books, pencils, and bags, food on the weekends, chocolates and sweets when a donor obliges, and the attention of youth who are sent here by Hope Welfare Trust, a platform started by Divyanshu Upadhyay to extend help to underserved communities across Uttar Pradesh.

Shyam ji not only teaches the children who come to the centre but also provides them with food, games, and a holistic education
Shyam ji not only teaches the children who come to the centre but also provides them with food, games, and a holistic education, Picture source: Shyam ji

The children flock to the centre from their villages of Dindaspur, Rameshwar and Jansa. “They are of all ages,” says Shyam ji; the youngest age group is eight years old, while the oldest is 15. At the centre, the children are taught Hindi, English, social studies, physical education and mathematics. There are games to be played and interactions with their peers to have.

“We also need to study, right?” Sakshi argues. She has a point and will make a great journalist, I think to myself. In a few years from now when you see Sakshi on TV, she won’t be highlighting problems, but instead solutions. And, we at The Better India are excited to watch her trajectory unfold. 

Right now, a crumbling roof is putting a stopper on her dreams. Your donation towards building the centre’s roof has tremendous power in putting Sakshi on the road to becoming one of the best journalists the country will see.

Edited by Pranita Bhat