New Delhi: Even as 16-year-old Suraj Bhosale tells a younger student to stop crying, a smile tugs at the elder boy’s lips.

“The new boys cry like babies," he says. “Rivers of tears will flow here this month."

8e255278-4d00-11dd-833a-000b5dabf636.flvAt the remote Sharadabai Pawar Ashram School in Jakatwadi, Satara in western Maharashtra, it wasn’t always so.

The school, established for children of so-called criminal nomadic tribes, such as Laman, Wadar, Gosavi, Banjara, etc operates on a model of self-sustainability. Students, often the first in their families to be educated, baulked at the thought of learning and working at the same time.

Most figured they could stay back home, and at least make money for their efforts.

“We had to literally catch them by force from neighbouring villages and get them here to study and stay," says 56-year-old Laxman Mane, the founder of the school and the youngest winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, a prestigious literary prize.

But today, the school is a success story on three levels: families are flocking here, the school is producing enough to sustain itself and sell a surplus, and 99% of students are passing the class X board exams.

Established a decade ago and spread across 9 acres, the school’s teachers and students farm and sell the produce to keep the school going.

A different idea: Children of so-called criminal, nomadic tribes at the Sharadabai Pawar Ashram School. The school sells the products farmed by the students to sustain itself and to provide them meals.

“But we also follow our own syllabus," says Mane. “These children have never even seen a textbook before they come here and have traditionally been branded as beggars and criminals by the British first and then the Indian government. And that’s why we make them farm and teach them the value of hard work."

Mane is associated with Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party and is also the chief of the government’s Nomadic Tribal Welfare Board. He says India’s nomads have a literacy rate of a mere 0.06% and “are reduced to mere walking skeletons."

Indeed, Suraj is glad to be back to school after a two-month summer “holiday" spent breaking rocks in the mines of Limkhindi, in Maharashtra, with his parents.

There are about 600 million denotified and nomadic people in India, 10 million of whom are in Maharashtra. Since they are nomads, they have no house or any ration cards.

4016a298-4d06-11dd-833a-000b5dabf636.flvSays Mane, “On top of it, they are dubbed criminals and when any crime takes place, they are the first suspects."

For those seeking to end the cycle of their fate, the school guarantees meals twice a day and a chance of educating nomadic children.

That’s one reason why parents flock from all parts of Maharashtra and even a few parts of Karnataka to the school.

“I don’t have a steady income after my husband passed away and this seemed like a good option of getting at least two of my four daughters off my hands for 10 months," says Pushpa Bhausaheb Mane, after an exhausting 6-hour truck ride from Chindowli to the school.

Pushpa’s two daughters, Naveena in class VIII and Prajakta in class VI, are both toppers in their respective classes and have learnt classical singing at the school as well. Pushpa can still barely afford the Rs500 per year she has to spend on her children.

The expense of each child comes to Rs600 per month, of which a small amount is given by the parents and the rest the school provides.

Known as shram daan, the children and teachers toil and farm for 1 hour every day either attending to the flowers in the school compound, plucking fruits from the orchards, watering and ploughing the fields or even milking the buffaloes and washing the toilets every day.

“The younger ones will do small jobs and the older ones will do heavier ones," says Mane.

Three years ago the school began being able to produce more than it needed. Its surplus is sold in the market. The children have maize and dal for breakfast, chapattis and vegetables for lunch, and rice, dal and vegetables for dinner. Their “fridge" is self-designed, a rectangular hole in the ground 12ft long and 6ft deep, surrounded by wet sand. It keeps the vegetables fresh for a whole week.

A clay stove was also designed and built that is 50% more energy-efficient than regular ones. Storage rooms have been built, while rainwater is harvested and waste water treated and reused. There are orchards of chikoo (sapodilla), mangoes and bananas in the school. What is needed—cooking oil and computers—has been donated, by Adani Wilmar Ltd and IBM India Pvt. Ltd respectively.

“We only buy grains like rice and pulses from outside—the government grocery stores at subsidized rates. Everything else we need, we produce here," says Mane. He recalls: “Once the resident doctor told me that the children were deficient in vitamin C and needed to eat papaya. So we bought the seeds, planted them and now have papayas. We have everything we need right here."

The majority of the children who come there speak neither Hindi nor Marathi but tribal languages like Gondi, Oraon and Kurukh. After completing school, most of the children opt to study in the nearby government college in Baramati.

“It’s been five years that they have been studying here and I can see the difference in them," says Pushpa. “They have a future of sustaining themselves, which they would have never gotten at home with me."