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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.

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