Rural India’s rurban saviours

EducationWorld September 2021 | Special Report

Although the Covid-19 pandemic which has forced the lockdown of all education institutions has made the extraordinary efforts of rural India’s education evangelists more difficult, many have devised innovative solutions to maintain children’s learning continuity

Abhilasha Ojha

Residing in a remote village in the educationally under-served state of Odisha (pop. 45.4 million), unsurprisingly, Rina Bagha (18) hadn’t heard of the Houston (USA)-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Forced to drop out of class XII last year of the state board-affiliated government school in her village after her father, a welder and the sole breadwinner of her family of three, passed away, Bagha, unable to cope with studies and work, quit school and landed a job as a shop-floor welder in Chandaka, Bhubaneswar.

That’s when Anil Pradhan, founder-director of the Kalapada (Odisha)-based Navonmesh Prasar Foundation & School for Rural Innovation (NPFSRI, estb.2015), and the online Young Tinker Academy (estb. 2020) promoted with the objective of “educating students from socio-economically underprivileged households of Odisha through an interdisciplinary curriculum”, discovered Bagha’s potential. Over the past five years, NPFSRI has built a formidable local reputation for providing STEM programmes/education to 150,000 rural children, establishing innovation labs in government schools, designing teaching tools, indigenous rockets and scientific solutions to solve the real-life problems of rural citizens.

Last year, when Pradhan was scouting rural India to put together a team of under-19 students for the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge (NHERC) 2021, during a chance meeting he discovered Rina had the technical and team-working skills to build the hardy and durable remote-controlled automotive vehicle — rover — capable of negotiating the rough surface of the moon as required of student teams signing up for NHERC, 2021. A week later while still touring rural Odisha, he inducted Kailash Chandra Barik (18), another high school (class XII) drop-out employed in a cycle repair shop in Malkangiri, a village 600 km from Bhubaneswar, the admin capital of Odisha, into the team he was building to win NHERC, 2021.

“I have great faith in the inherent innovative and problem-solving capabilities of India’s rural people and youth in particular. Despite being forced by circumstances to attend government schools that have limited resources, they have excellent problem-solving technical skills learned from early age through experimentation and trial and error. That’s how they manage to keep farms and local small-scale manufacturing and service firms running. I am amazed how with minimal training and access to modern tools and equipment, they can perform miracles. To provide proof of the high capability of rural youth, I began recruiting talented youngsters to build a team that would win the testing and highly competitive NHERC, 2021,” says Pradhan, a graduate of the University College of Engineering, Burla (Odisha) who served as innovation mentor at the National Council of Science Museums, Bhubaneswar, prior to promoting NPFSRI six years ago with three children in a tin shed.

Anil Pradhan

Pradhan (centre right) & students: resolute faith in innovation & problem-solving capabilities of rural youth

Pradhan’s faith in the technical innovation skill-sets of rural youth proved justified. In July 2021, the ten-member team of under-19 students including Bagha and Barik created history when their all-terrain automotive four-wheel rover with three gears and top speed of 25 kmph was awarded a bronze medal and adjudged the best entry from Asia, triumphing over student teams from the United States, Brazil, Bangladesh, besides teams from India. The winners of the NHERC 2021 were teams from Texas and Minnesota, USA. Last month, Pradhan, riding on the back of the success of the NASA win, was conferred the National Youth Award by the Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan.

Thanks to Anil Pradhan, the lives of Bagha and Barik continue to change for the better. While Bagha is pursuing an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) course, Barik is a skills instructor in Pradhan’s various ventures. Pradhan is in the process of building a new dream team for NHERC 2022 and the two will assist him closely. “There are millions of talented youth with unutilised potential struggling in rural India who can boost India’s GDP and productivity, given the opportunity,” says Pradhan who recalls cycling with his father over 12 km of bumpy roads to get to his village school in 42 Mouza, a remote area of Odisha.

In a nation where millions of children and youth in small towns, districts, and villages are denied access to quality education because of grinding poverty and dysfunctional government schools characterised by crumbling infrastructure, imbalanced student-teacher ratios, and poor learning outcomes, the NASA win is a praiseworthy success story. It is also a telling reminder of how some well-educated, altruistic individuals are breaking stereotypes and forsaking corporate careers and urban lifestyles to uplift socially and educationally deprived children and youth in India’s neglected rural hinterland which hosts 66 percent of the country’s 1.30 billion citizens. 

For instance, in Sukma district in southern Chhattisgarh (pop. 29.4 million), the epicentre of a long-festering left-wing Naxal movement, Ashish Kumar Shrivastava, founder of Shiksharth (estb.2015), an NGO working to improve the quality of school education in rural areas through “action-based research, design and implementation”, and wife, Shalini, along with two friends, Neeraj and Vikas, are working overtime to positively impact the lives of tribal children, many of whom bear scars of witnessing prolonged civic violence.

Shiksharth’s Shrivastava

Shiksharth’s Shrivastava: community-led education model

An alum of Barkatullah University, Bhopal (formerly, Bhopal University) who gave up a high-paying job with Infosys Technologies to enrol as a Teach for India fellow, Shrivastava switched tracks to enter the development sector in 2009, and has been working on education development projects in the Naxal-hit Sukma-Dantewada areas for almost a decade. He recalls an incident when he requested a group of six-eight-year-old children in Sukma village to draw any scene of their choice.

“Most drew violent combat scenes of people injured in bomb blasts and suffering violence. These children are emotionally scarred by prolonged strife between paramilitary forces and Naxal rebels and have few reasons to look to the future with optimism. Our objective at Shiksharth is to mentor them academically and emotionally. Through a community-led model of education, we are developing and implementing local contextualised curriculums and child-centred pedagogies to realise the latent potential of tribal and rural children,” says Shrivastava, whose NGO has thus far impacted 30,000 children in the Sukma district. However, given that Shiksharth works in collaboration with several other NGOs across the country, 3.5 lakh children have been impacted positively by its programmes during the pandemic.

Given the volatile location of his work, Shrivastava and his colleagues are often caught in the crossfire between Naxals and police forces and have faced many life-threatening situations. “I have survived a bomb blast; my co-founders have often been involved in hazardous situations when they ventured to teach children in the deep interiors. Moreover, the almost total deficit of medical services nearby has made it difficult for us in some personal, trying situations. But our belief and determination that we can improve the lives of these neglected children through provision of quality education keeps us going,” says Shrivastava.

A similarly highly-driven and resolute education missionary who has made the challenging terrain of the Himalayas her social development laboratory is Sujata Sahu, founder of the 17000 ft Foundation, an NGO committed to improving the quality of education dispensed in 900 government schools in the remotest areas of Ladakh. “I started 17000 ft Foundation in 2012 with 25 horses, 1,500 kg of school furniture and 100 eager, smiling children in one of the far-flung schools of rural Ladakh. Today, we work directly with over 220 schools and have impacted 50,000 children in Leh and Kargil districts and hope to reach 500,000 children by 2025 across the Indian Himalayan region,” says Sahu, often described as Ladakh’s Iron Lady.

For Sahu, an alum of Delhi and Savitribai Phule, Pune universities who worked in the IT sector in the US for nine years before returning to India in 2002, and was teaching maths/computer science at the high-ranked The Shri Ram School, Gurugram, a solo trekking expedition awakened her to the dismal condition of government schools in Ladakh. She was struck by stories of extreme challenges narrated by her trekking guide, who was sent at an early age by his family to live in a faraway dorm for education, and eventually dropped out.

“The unavailability of quality schools had prompted many families in the region to send their children as young as four years to boarding schools. It was gut-wrenching to meet these children separated from their families. That’s when I decided to ensure that no young child is separated from her family due to lack of good local schools. The mission of 17000 ft Foundation is to equip village government schools in inaccessible regions of Ladakh with all resources needed to provide good quality education,” says Sahu.

Since then over the past decade, the foundation has upgraded 140 government schools with playgrounds, furniture, painting and carpeting of classrooms and other areas; established 220 libraries; set up 110 DigiLabs and organised training programmes for over 2,000 government school teachers. Moreover, 17000 ft Foundation has upgraded 150 government anganwadis benefiting 8,000 young children, and translated 36 storybooks into the local Bhoti language. The foundation has been supported in its journey by numerous individuals and corporate houses such as Axis Bank, SBI Foundation, HDFC Bank, DASRA, Hero Future Energies, ICICI Bank, Signify Innovations, among others.

Sujata Sahu

17000 ft Foundation’s Sujata Sahu (left): solo trek epiphany

In a nondescript village in rural Rajasthan, a similar education transformation is in the works due to the determined efforts of Lokesh Kalal, a postgrad in social work of CMJ University, a private varsity in Meghalaya. Kalal also has another MA degree in sociology from MLSU, Udaipur, a state government university. He worked in Udaipur-based NGO Seva Mandir before returning to his native village, Kherwara to register the Alfa Society (estb.2006), an NGO working in the areas of “education, youth development, women’s empowerment and peaceful community relations”.

“The composite harmonious culture of my native village, which is on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border was everely disturbed by the violence of the Gujarat riots in 2002. I was a teenager then, but clearly understood that education was the only way to protect future generations from falling into the trap of communalism, casteism, child marriage, and other social ills. That’s why immediately after completing my higher education, I decided to devote my life to the cause of education, returning eventually to Kherwara to do my bit to provide children and youth holistic education, with the aim to develop them into competent, responsible and tolerant citizens,” says Kalal, born into a family of farmers.

Since then over the past decade-and-a-half, Alfa Society has matured into a well-respected NGO which focuses on youth development and peace-building programmes. Alfa Society is behind the Village Spirit Academy, a school which teaches students from class V-XII. Kalal recalls going door-to-door in village homes with his team, begging people to send their children, especially girl children, to school. His efforts have borne fruit and the attendance of girl children in government schools has leaped from single digits to 60 percent, and over 1,000 children have benefited from the society’s activities. Moreover, the society hosts film screenings, organises street plays and cultural shows on pressing local problems and themes.

The factors and impulses that are driving a rising number of well-educated youth and successful professionals from the country’s subsidies-addicted middle class to forsake successful corporate careers and urban comforts and commit themselves to rural education and development are diverse. A common thread is to provide education and social services to the rural poor whom governments at the Centre and states have cruelly neglected. Their common intent is to make a difference in the lives of children by providing them quality education that is increasingly being accepted as the passport to prosperity and better living standards.

Pradhan, Shrivastava, Sahu and Kalal have all chosen to focus their energies on reforming and upgrading rural India’s education system because 21st century technology and pedagogy innovations have completely bypassed it. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) — published by the globally-respected education NGO Pratham — which measures student learning outcomes in rural schools, is a grim reminder of the continuously sliding K-12 education standards in India.

ASER 2019 highlights that in rural India, 50 percent of class V students cannot read a class II textbook; 56 percent of class VIII students are unable to solve basic mathematical problems. Moreover, only 16 percent of class I children surveyed in 596 rural districts can read prescribed texts, while almost 40 percent cannot recognise alphabets in any language. A more recent ASER 2020 report which assesses the impact of the Covid pandemic, indicates that two-thirds of rural children in India did not receive any physical learning materials or online digital learning during the pandemic.

Lokesh Kalal

Alfa Society’s Lokesh Kalal (right): harmony restoration goal

While the country’s political establishment and insular middle class tend to be indifferent to the yawning divide between town and country, a small but growing minority of people with a conscience have taken on the challenges of working in the deep rural hinterlands. These challenges including managing apathetic government officials, motivating local communities, encouraging school teachers to upgrade their skills, enlisting volunteers, introducing digital technologies into administration and education. The rural poor, according to experts whom Education World spoke with, feel that education and health sectors are still mired in the early 20th century. Schools are dilapidated, teachers uninterested and curriculums and pedagogies not customised to suit local needs and conditions. “Every Indian village has its own unique character and culture, and if we are to make any progress in rural education we need to adopt global content-local context as our mantra,” says Ashish Shrivastava, founder of Shiksharth (quoted earlier). According to him, children in rural India have high potential and if given modestly good education and opportunities, they will propel the nation forward both, economically and socially.

These indomitable educators aren’t afraid of confronting challenges inherent in their mission. Sujata Sahu of 17,000 Foundation recalls the daily job of navigating high altitude rural Ladakh as “excessively tough”. She and her team have “slept in cars, pitched camps and cooked meals by the roadsides, washed cookware by the stream, got stranded in snow, sand, mud storms… put kerosene stoves underneath tanks of vehicles when fuel gets frozen”.

Such altruism requires financial sacrifice and material self-abnegation. Ashish Shrivastava liquidated all his personal savings to set up his NGO Shiksharth. “In the early days I survived on just one meal per day. I didn’t have money to repair my only pair of shoes. It was a particularly low moment. I still have those shoes as a reminder of my early years’ experience as a social activist,” he recalls.
Lokesh Kalal of Alfa Society admits to facing taunts from local villagers and his own relatives even to this day for not following a conventional career sector.

Rural children: bypassed by 21st century pedagogies and innovations

The tribulations faced by urban social activists in rural outbacks are formidable. They include official hostility, public indifference, widespread illiteracy, pervasive poverty exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has taken a grim toll of lives and livelihoods countrywide (32 million infections and 4.37 lakh fatalities). A large number of individual/corporate donors have stopped sponsoring education programmes citing pandemic-related financial difficulties. For instance, Anil Pradhan, was in the middle of constructing a school in his village in Odisha when the pandemic struck, upending budgeted funds flow.

Similarly, Shrivastava’s mission to upgrade the quality of education dispensed in the Sukma-Dantewada region has suffered a setback because of prolonged closure of schools. The National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2017-18 household survey estimates the number of out-of-school children in India (6-17 years) at 32 million. The pandemic, warn experts, will double this number if schools don’t reopen soon. Ten million girls in India could drop out of secondary school, according to a Right to Education Forum policy brief. Children have dropped out of the school system countrywide, and have been forced into early child marriage, inducted into the labour force, and trafficked and forced into prostitution.

Malnutrition levels have also hit alarming levels. The India Child Well-being Report 2020 of World Vision India, a Chennai-based NGO, says the pandemic has placed 115 million children countrywide at risk of severe malnutrition. Moreover, several reports including an Azim Premji University study estimate the learning loss suffered by children because of schools closure — only 4 percent of rural households have access to computers as compared to 23 percent in urban households — at around 80-90 percent.

“While the world is celebrating innovations in online education during the pandemic era, rural areas that we are associated with barely registered 5 percent digital penetration. In many difficult geographies of India, online teaching is a nonstarter,” rues Shrivastava. Clearly, the 16 months’ closure of schools countrywide has undone much of the work done during the past two-three years to improve rural education standards.

While the pandemic has made the extraordinary efforts of rural education evangelists more difficult, particularly in the remote hinterland, many have devised innovative solutions to maintain children’s learning continuity. Lokesh Kalal and Ashish Shrivastava have mobilised clusters of volunteers to teach children in small groups while maintaining strict Covid-19 safety protocols and are providing daily worksheets in various subjects. These worksheets have benefitted 3.5 lakh children in ten states through partner NGOs with content translated into Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi.

Sujata Sahu’s 17000 ft Foundation introduced the Tablet in Every Hamlet, a unique digital learning progamme for areas without electricity and mobile connectivity. Roughly 1,000 Android tablets were distributed to children to take home which enabled them to continue their studies at home during Covid. Similarly, Pradhan has set up innovation labs in several government schools in Odisha and is all set to collaborate with ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) for a simulated satellite mission.

Unsurprisingly, a multiplying number of edupreneurs and social activists including the individuals cited in this feature have transformed into local education heroes and saviours of rural India’s children — abandoned by the government — for providing them opportunities to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Their efforts have already yielded results and many children who would have derailed are now thriving under the nurturing guidance of unsung heroes planting seeds of literacy, numeracy and hopes of a better future. They deserve official and social respect and the support of all right-thinking citizens.

Challenge and Response

The Covid-19 pandemic has massively disrupted education of India’s 240 million school-going children. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education in its report ‘Plans to bridge the learning gap… and plans for re-opening’, submitted to Parliament on August 6, admits that 70 percent of India’s 240 million children have had no access to online learning over the past year. Against the backdrop of unprecedented disruption of education and low learning during the past 16 months, several education leaders and organisations have ideated innovative responses to overcome pandemic challenges and ensure learning continuity of children in rural India. Some shining examples:

• C. S. Satheesh, a teacher in the Government Lower Primary School in Mullur village in Kodagu district, Karnataka, has built a makeshift room at the top of a mango tree, to enable him to access cellular connectivity to conduct online classes.

• Education start-up ThinkZone promoted by Binayak Acharya, a former World Bank consultant, has provided learning support to over 10,000 children in the Odisha districts of Khorda, Bhadrak, Kendrapara and Cuttack since the start of the pandemic last year. Acharya’s edtech start-up has provided class I-V children remote instruction on feature i.e, non-touchscreen phones through text messages and automated voice calls.

• Class Saathi started by Pankaj Agarwal, an alum of IIT-Kanpur and Harvard Business School, has innovated tech-enabled at-home learning smart solutions for government schools in rural Madhya Pradesh. This initiative is funded by global tech giant Samsung.

• Livolink Foundation, an associate of Tata Trusts, has provided a home-based learning support programme for tribal children in the districts of Kalahandi, Rayagada and Kandhamal in Odisha state for over one year.

Also Read: New pathways for rural education

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