In the summer of 1967, Shiva Balak Misra, a graduate student at Newfoundland’s Memorial University discovered some rare fossils at a place called Mistaken Point near Cape Rock. He prepared a geological map of the region to classify the fossil assemblage which formed a part of his Masters’ thesis. The discovery was reported in Nature in 1968 and in another paper that Mr Misra published in 1969. The 565-million-years-old fossil, Fractofusus misrai, was named after him, in 2007.
This article is not about the rare and spectacular fossil, but about the amazing human being behind it. Dr Misra, a well-known scientist and geologist, started life in a poor family at a village near Lucknow. He walked 12km to reach the only school in the area, determined to succeed. It was important for him to do well in school to get a scholarship and not have to pay fees. He was a topper throughout and completed his Masters’ degree staying at an ashram and teaching other children to earn money. A scholarship to study at the Memorial University in Canada was a turning point. It was there, as a geologist, that he made his famous fossil discovery and earned well-deserved recognition in his field.
But, three years later, when India was reeling from a severe drought in 1966-67, he chose to return home. Having seen great hardship as a child, it was always his dream to start a school in his village near Kunaura. In 1971, soon after his marriage to Nirmala, the couple started Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya (BGV) with his savings. It was an area untouched for decades by education, development and prosperity and had no electricity or proper roads.
Prof Misra’s dream was to ensure that more professionals and scientists emerge from this school. When his savings, which were fully invested in the school, ran out, he went back to teaching at Lucknow while Nirmala Misra (who had never lived in a village before marriage) continued to run the school. But help did come from various quarters and, over the years, BGV has transformed thousands of lives not only through education but also through socio-economic welfare programmes like training courses for unemployed youth, courses for young widows, entrepreneurship programme for women, forestation drives, tailoring courses, etc.
There is a lot that still needs to be done and resources are needed, to make it happen. Mr Mishra’s son, Shailesh, a software engineer, tells us, “While the organisation has brought about enormous change to the lives of people in the area, the task is half done. Even today, many children have to walk over 5km to school. They either drop out or show poor attendance. Physically challenged children cannot study.”
He goes on to say, “We see BGV becoming a powerhouse of energy, creating more people who can be successful in what they do in the village or in cities. When we brought in computers to the school two years back, children adapted and, now, we have had two batches of children who have graduated, everyone getting distinction in Class XII and confidently writing computer programs. Some people doubted that they will be able to do it and they were proven wrong. Today, after Class XII, girls have a challenge since they don’t have a college nearby and parents are not comfortable sending them over 12km away. We also want to focus on education for the physically challenged children who cannot come to school. We want to provide free transport facility to such children. The school would like to run voluntary courses which can enable children to become self-sufficient. The school would like to run free training for focused professions including civil services and medicine. The school would also like to develop the villages nearby to become Internet-enabled, and to adopt the latest farming and horticulture techniques. We would also like to work on forming farmers’ groups.” Prof Misra, who is 78, and his wife continue to serve the school even today.
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Bharatiya Gramin Vidyalaya
Village Kunaura, Post Mahona,
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.