Teaching Dalits to ride for social horsepower
Civil Society News , Hyderabad
How do you get socially marginalised children to see themselves differently? One way is to put them on horses and teach them to ride. To be in the saddle is to be on top and in a position of control. It can be a transformative experience, which, in an instant, upturns old equations.
At the social welfare schools run by the government in Telangana, some 500 children have been learning horse riding from Captain Mehboob Arastu, a retired army officer who runs an academy for riding. From stroking a horse to mounting it and commanding it in full stride, the children get to know what it means to be in command.
It is a wholly new experience for them because the children come from Dalit and tribal families which are extremely poor and socially disadvantaged. At the social welfare schools run by the Telangana government, they are looked after in hostels and get a full education at government cost. A great many of them go on to acquire higher degrees and find jobs that take them out of poverty in one generation.
An important part of their education is to see themselves differently and enable them to seize opportunities that normally go to the privileged in society. Learning English, for instance, is one way of empowerment. Getting onto a horse, customarily reserved for the rich and powerful, is another.
“We made riding a reality for our children as we strongly believe the gap between being rich and poor is just an opportunity. With riding the idea is to promote leadership and problem-solving skills and thereby help young boys and girls enter the modern world as independent and confident individuals. And we deeply believe that a person who can tame the horse can tame any wild situation in life,” says Dr R.S. Praveen Kumar, who is secretary of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) and the Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential Educational Society (TTWREIS).
Dr Kumar is an alumnus of the same social welfare schools he now heads. He was for 25 years a very successful police officer till he opted for this assignment in 2012. Coming back, he has made path-breaking efforts to help children deal with the problem of identity and show them that they can reach for the stars. He achieved this quite literally when Malavath Poorna, a tribal girl, and Anand Kumar, a Dalit boy, scaled Everest in 2014.
Dr Kumar brims with positive energy. He is a lean man with a shaven head and, though he is 52, looks 20 years younger. He says that is because he runs at least 30 km a week. But the real reason is probably his indomitable spirit and celebration of life.
Like the students he enthusiastically shepherds now, he emerged from a childhood in extreme poverty to get an education at these very same schools, became a police officer, and also studied at Harvard. Dr Kumar believes everyone can do it.
In the past four years, students have got admission to colleges in Delhi University, the IITs and NITs, the Azim Premji University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
“As an emancipated person, I strongly believe that dreaming is very important for the most deprived sections of society and poor children must not kill their dreams no matter what their family and economic background,” says Dr Kumar.
“I saw my priority as creating an opportunity for children to realise their inherent capabilities. If not us, who? If not now, when? We launched an identity re-engineering mission by telling our students that they are not inferior to anyone and nothing is beyond their reach. The students were introduced to a host of empowerment programmes with a view to freeing them from all sorts of inhibitions, inferiority complexes, negative stereotyping, and enslavement,” explains Dr Kumar.