The marushala (desert school) is an alternative school conceived by Urmul Trust – an NGO working in the deserts of Western Rajasthan. The project began in 1992 and at present there are 6 marushalas.

Western Rajasthan has a low level of literacy, especially among women. Pupil absenteeism peaks at the time of seasonal migration to the Dhanis (newly-created hamlets in the command area of the Indira Gandhi canal), when many children work in the fields. By following the agricultural calendar, the Marushala ensures that children are able to study while contributing to family labour. All the marushalas are located in places where no other school exists.

Children from the age of 3 are admitted to the marushala. However, they are taught only from the age of six. Pupils are taught Hindi, mathematics and environmental science. The syllabus has been designed by Digantar – a Jaipur-based NGO. Digantar also provides support in the form of regular training and evaluation of teachers. Compared to other schools, the marushalas have plenty of teaching aids. The teacher-pupil ratio is also much higher than in ordinary schools.

The children in the marushalas set the work agenda. Though teachers prepare for the following day, they modify the plan according to the preferences expressed by the children. The relationship between children and teachers is one of camaraderie. The children are trained not to accept anything blindly, and encouraged to be curious and inquisitive. They are not burdened with homework every day. They are given weekly homework, and the syllabus is designed to be easy for them to comprehend.

Learning in marushalas takes place in a relaxed atmosphere. The children look forward to going to school, and often reach there early. They stay long after the school hours are over, playing with other children. No fees are charged, but parents contribute cash voluntarily. There are no classes in marushalas, but children are graded. The children move from one grade to another depending on their pace of learning. They undergo tests every 3 months, and the tests are conducted as part of the normal school routine. No special emphasis is laid on the tests, so that children do not dread them.

There is no physical punishment in marushalas, though pupils may be mildly scolded if they disrupt other children’s work. The teachers meet the parents regularly in their homes and at school, and inform them of the progress of the children. These meetings also enable the teachers to bring in children who for various reasons do not attend school.

Some parents, however, believe in the dictum that if you spare the rod you spoil the child. Hence they are not comfortable with the marushala philosophy of not punishing the children. The children who are trained in the marushalas also face an adjustment problem when they move to the formal school system in class 6. Unlike the marushalas the formal school system believes in conformity, physical punishment and denial of space for the various skills of children. Children who join the formal school after being in the marushalas are often bewildered by this. Also, they are not enthused by rote learning and such. However, children from marushalas perform well in whichever school they join.