It was around seven in the morning that I reached Kudal State Transport depot after an overnight bus journey. It was drizzling and the locals told me that there was a storm in the night. Taking a State Transport bus to Malvan I got down at Dhamapur stop. Swapnil Patil from Syamantak was waiting for me. From there we walked to the ‘institute’ which was nearby. Calling it an institute is something anyone who has visited the place would not do, instead they would call it a family-‘The Syamantak Family’. As I walked in I was greeted with a smile by Sachin and Meenal Desai. They invited me for tea. At Syamantak the tea has a value attached to it; when the students prepare the tea Sachin and Meenal pay for it. The principle is that if you have not worked to get it, then you have to pay for it.
As we talked I came to know that Sachin Desai was a typical youngster from Mumbai who learnt hotel management, since it was a lucrative sector. Took up a job with Baskin Robbins in Baroda. He later moved to Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh where he started working for the education of tribals. He also got interested in Gandhian philosophy. The turning point came when, at the insistence of his grandfather, he met Dr Srinath Kalbag of Vigyan Ashram. He was impressed enough to give it all up and return the house built by his great grand father Prof Vishnupant Desai and start ‘Syamantak’ – which means a jewel of the Sun, which wards off hunger, poverty and want. The motto of Syamantak is education through development and development through education. I spent two days at Syamantak, observing how it functions. The day begins with morning prayers after which they walk through the village to collect cattle dung. This keeps the village roads clean and provides a valuable energy resource for Syamantak in the form of fuel cakes. This is followed by daily chores. As the students gave me a guided tour of the place what struck me the most was their communication skill; they are fluent in English, Marathi and in the local language, Konkani. Students are encouraged to read and to do internet based research, this has led to innovations like the hand-made telescope which was designed and manufactured the students at Syamantak. The water pumping system developed here is one of a kind and very efficient. Fuel cakes made from cow dung and Coal made from Biomass are two fuels which the students produce and use for cooking. What is common to these innovations is the need to conserve the environment, which is emphasized as Syamantak. Such an open atmosphere is because there are no teachers at syamantak. Everyone studying here as well as Sachin and Meenal are accountable to each other. There are no closed door meetings or conversations everything here is an open book accessible to anyone. There is nothing here that is hidden (even from journalists for that matter) from anyone. The day at Syamantak again ends with prayer and then dinner is served. This was followed by a sky gazing session. Even the hand held telescope used during the session was made by the students The next morning Sachin took me to the Resource Centre that is a few kilometers away from the institute. I was there to see vermiculture production which is to the tune of 15 tonnes a month. A remarkable achievement indeed, considering that the first two or three attempts to manufacture vermicompost had failed. But not giving up is a way of life here, whatever the difficulty they will face it together. As I came back it was evening the villagers of Dhamapur had organised a function to felicitate Sachin Desai. As the function was going on Mr Sachin was kind enough to come and drop this correspondent to the bus stop that was 11 kms away. That speaks volumes about the humility of the man. What began as an assignment had ended as an experience. An experience that would remain with me for the rest of my life.-Aniket Bhatkhande