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SHOPNOKURI: Enlightening Tea Gardens

Born in a family of workers in a remote Moulvibazar tea garden, Bijoy experienced the bite of severe poverty as he grew up. When he was a child, education was a luxury for his mother, who earned a wage of Tk85 after a full day’s toil in the tea-garden, and his bicycle-mechanic father, who’s daily earning was almost similar.

“I had to work in the tea-gardens alongside my parents and find whatever little time I could for studies,” Bijoy reminisced his childhood days.

Life in the tea gardens is full of turmoil and hardship in the face of all kinds of dysfunctions you could name – illiteracy, superstition, oppression, and above all, scorching poverty. And this is true for most tea plantations, which, ironically, propel one of the biggest foreign currency earning sectors in Bangladesh.

Despite all obstacles, Bijoy Rudra Paul never gave up the difficult uphill task of first finishing his school education and then going on to college to get a graduation degree, becoming one of only a few from his community to do so. Eventually, he ended up getting a job in a local government office. And it finally meant some respite for his family.

But the indomitable fighter inside him was never going to be content with just lifting his family from extreme poverty. He wanted to continue the fight, this time to change the fate of his community – one of the most marginalized peoples in the country.

“Education,” he says, “is the only weapon that we [tea garden communities] have in our fight against extreme poverty.”

In 2010, Bijoy established his social services organization Shopnokuri Shamajik Shongstha (translation: budding dream social organization) with the primary aim of educating children of tea-garden workers.

Needless to say, being one of only a few graduates in his community, he had very little help. So, in the beginning, he was the only teacher. He didn’t have any sponsor either. So, he started carrying out the expenses from his meagre savings; he rented a small space in his locality and gave educational materials to his students for free.

“The school now has five teachers. They work here selflessly without expecting anything in return,” Bijoy says.

Gradually, Shopnokuri expanded activities to preventing social ills such as child marriage, addiction and promoting family planning. His school is called Chhoto Dhamai Ideal Academy, which apart from formal education, provides children and local youth with computer education as well. He introduced scholarship schemes and is now coaching university admission-seekers.

The far-reaching impact of Shopnokuri brought Bijoy the Joy Bangla Youth Award in 2015. From then on, things changed quickly for him. The award gave him the exposure and mileage that he badly needed to take his endeavour to the next stage.

Young Bangla, the organizer of Joy Bangla Youth Award, helped Bijoy by being the promoter of all his good works to the people who mattered – policymakers, professionals, businesses and media. Bijoy was featured in the national electronic and print media as well.

“Now I know what I am doing must be good, otherwise Young Bangla wouldn’t have given me the award,” he says.

Bijoy is not the shy tea-garden boy anymore. He now feels much more confident when he presents his organization’s work before government offices and corporate sponsors. And with that newfound confidence, he is working with more enthusiasm than ever to bring a meaningful change to the fate of his community, forever.