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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Early Days

By E.S. Ramamurthy
Founder. Sikshana


I have been covering my personal experiences during the early days of Sikshana in my talks to various fora and in my infrequent writings. I was asked quite often why I have not gone ahead and documented them, since some of these could be useful for those who may want to enter the field of public education system now or in the future; at the least, it will help those who are interested in Sikshana to understand the programme and its evolution better. Whether it really serves these goals or not, it would most certainly be a very happy and satisfying exercise for me.

I had two options here: to write about them from the organizational angle of Sikshana or to do so from my personal view point. Here I have adopted the latter since the narrative is bound to contain my own views on many issues, which in all fairness should not be foisted on Sikshana.

Many of the incidents covered here date as much as eight years back; I could possibly be off the mark in some of the minor details for which I tender my apologies in advance. I can only promise to keep the spirit of the events true to reality in all cases. Regarding the names of persons involved in the narrative, I will give the real ones where those concerned have given their consent or have no reason not to; as for the rest, you will find that I have used abbreviations.

The narrative is intended to cover the period when Sikshana was verily a one-person show. Rather, that should read a one-family show, since you have to count my wife in here for two reasons: it was her funds with which I started it and she was perhaps as active as I was at that time. The transition to a phase where more people started taking active part, thereby reducing my load (and my worries with sleepless nights), was not sharp; it was pretty gradual. Using the Author's prerogative, I have decided that I will trace the growth till Sikshana extended its coverage for the first time into Kanakapura, away from the City, with the support of Vibha; this was really a milestone as the programme, at this point, finally cast away its image as one centered around individuals and became an entity on its own merit.

With all the above pre-amble, here goes....

The Birth of Sikshana

The idea of starting something like Sikshana dates well before Nov 2001, when it eventually took off. The origin of my interest can be traced back to my days with the Industry when I was personally involved with Renewable Energy Systems—their design, manufacture and deployment. Since these systems are invariably deployed in remote rural areas, it gave me an opportunity to get exposed to the needs and aspirations of the really poor and dispossessed in the country. It did not take long for me to realize, on a first hand basis, that education is the most needed and vital tool for removal of abject poverty. Surely, that was not a great piece of enlightenment, but to get it after an exposure to the gross realities of rural India is something one has to go through. It is an experience that changes one's views on life as a whole, and it just did that to me.

I quit the assignments in my field at the peak of my career, with a view to doing something that is socially relevant and focused on the education of the poor. Considering that the kids belonging to these strata invariably go to State-run schools, I decided to concentrate on them—to start with at the primary level. A look at the voluntary sector at this time showed that, except for a couple of honorable exceptions, most efforts tended to focus on a few schools which were in their area of influence—the number depending on the extent of available funding. None of them were interested in the systemic issues involved or the sustainability of such ventures over a period of time; most also adopted a top-down approach built around the personal preferences of the Founders. One other aspect bothered me: why is it that the conditions continue to be so poor in spite of the 100 plus ventures in Bangalore City alone? Surely it cannot be for want of effort or expertise, as most of them involved with these are very dedicated and competent persons committed to a cause. It appeared that there was a need for some one to take a fresh look at the scenario and come up with a few out 'of the box' solutions.

It is this thinking that gave birth to Sikshana.

The Entry

Looking back, the year 2001 appears to belong to a different age—information available on almost any issue was pretty scarce. I knew I had to adopt a school to start, but I did not know what needed to be done for me to 'enter' a school. Today it appears laughable even to me, but it is fact that I went around for almost a year knocking on all doors, real and imaginary, without any success.

Finally, as it always dawns on people pretty late, I adopted the direct and the most obvious route: go to a nearby school and ask them. The first school I approached was the one in Uttarahalli. The staff here was very helpful; they not only briefed me about the entire process but also gave me a good insight into the workings of a higher primary school. Unfortunately, the school appeared too big for me at this stage, with nearly 400 kids. The funding coming solely from my personal resources, it seemed better to concentrate on a smaller school with 100-150 children. Very reluctantly, and with good grace, the teachers directed me to a nearby school at Arehalli, which was where Sikshana was ultimately born.

By this time, thanks to the teachers at Utarahalli, I knew that all I had to do to adopt a school was to approach the nearest Block Education Office and make a request. It took less than half an hour to drive down to this office. Ignoring all the bureaucratic niceties, I barged unannounced in to the crowded office of Mr T, the BEO, and told him of my intentions. The reaction exceeded my most optimistic expectations; he cleared his office of all other visitors, offered me a seat and a cup of coffee, and patiently explained to me the salient features of the scheme for school adoption under the Department. Once I confirmed my decision to go ahead, he was delighted and immediately asked for the necessary documentation to be prepared; in the process he persuaded me to take up two other lower primary schools, ironically taking the total number beyond 400! The entire process took less then an hour, with the BEO bearing the expenses of documentation out of his pocket, much against my insistence. His reaction still rings in my memory: "you have come forward to do so much with your funds for our schools; if I can't do even this, what is the use of my being here?" I got a glimpse of the other side of the much reviled system, offering me lots of hope for the future and convincing me that the step I had taken was the right one. Another interesting bit of information: it was 2:30 p.m. when I entered the school and by 5 p.m. it was all over!

The signed official document enabled Sikshana to do any of the 20 things that were listed, which was almost everything that we would ever want to. The schools were in Arehalli, Chikkakallasandra and Gowdenpalya-all within walking distance from where I lived.

It was 23rd Nov 2001 and I was the proud 'friend, guide and philosopher' for three schools with 500 kids; it was really an exhilarating feeling!

First lesson from Arehalli

I was in the school at Arehalli promptly the next morning. Mr Prahlad, the Head Master of the school, came in a bit late and, to his surprise, found a visitor waiting in his 'office', which was essentially a partitioned area of the 7th grade classroom. He was even more surprised to hear I had adopted his school and was raring to get started on the job. He did not, however, look deeply impressed by my approach, the reason for which I discovered a lot later. At this point, I should have appeared the more nervous of the two.
I told him of my interest in helping the school to improve itself, provided of course the school really wanted it. Looking at me, and the car in which I came, Prahlad should have come to the conclusion: here is a guy who has money and wants to give it to the school, so why not tap him for the limit? He came to the point rather bluntly: how much money does your Trust have to spare for us? I was prepared for this and told him that we have as much as is required to improve the learning outcome in the school. That floored him since this probably was the first time in his life when he heard money and learning levels being linked together. There was some verbal sparring at this time; then I came to the point for which I had gone prepared.

By this time the other teachers all joined in, seeing something interesting is going on in the HM's room. The exchange thereafter went more or less like this:
Me: How would you rate your school?
Staff: very good, better than others.
Me: How do you say this?
Staff: Our pass percentage is very good in the open examinations for 7th.
Me: How much would that be?
Staff: Last year we got 70%, this year too we will get it. We have 17 students in the class and we are confident that 13 of them will pass.
Me: In that case let us take a common pledge to make the lagging four also to pass. That will give us a 100% result which is uncommon among Government schools.

There was a veritable uproar at this stage. These kids can never be made to pass because: they have been lagging for the last six years; their parents are illiterate; no one from their communities have ever gone beyond 7th; they are just dumb—cannot even read or write Kannada; with just four months to go, it is impossible to make up for all the lost time…

I told them that is where we come in; we will provide whatever resources are needed to make them pass, but they do not have the option of shooting at a goal less than that. This led to a stalemate that lasted a full week; every day I used to go to the school with the same message and I was getting the same response. Finally, the school blinked; they gave a list of items they needed—teaching aids, workbooks, paper and a few more. I gave them enough money to buy all these on the spot; to be fair, they got all of them the same day. I was there in the school again the next day to check whether they needed anything more. Prahlad asked me for time, saying they needed a week to discuss matters among themselves and come to a decision.

I gave them a break, during which I used to go to the school and talk to the kids, but not engage the teachers in any manner. Prahlad came to me sheepishly before the deadline and told me that they need my help and guidance to decide on what else is needed to produce the desired result. At last we had our first meaningful interaction, in which all the teachers participated. They agreed that with whatever they had, they could have achieved better results if only they had set their sights on such a target; and that the four lagging kids had no reason to fail. The only shortfall they could come up with was that they were short of teachers; they could have managed with one more, but with the limited time available, they would need two. I gave them enough funds to recruit two teachers locally and that sealed my end of the bargain.

What followed was really amazing. The teachers put in a lot of effort, working late in the evenings and holidays, focusing on each of the identified 'weak' kids. Come March, the teachers accompanied the kids to the Examination Centre and briefed them right up to their entrance into the hall. Mark you, these were the same persons who were denigrated as '10 to 4 workers' who would demand overtime wages beyond this. It did not surprise me that when the results came in May, every one of the kids had passed, the school scoring a perfect 100. True to form, they invited me to come and distribute the certificates to the students; and in an impromptu function, praised me to the skies—reflecting the all-pervasive feudal mindset. I told them bluntly that the credit goes to every one of the teachers in the school, just as the blame would have come to them if they had not succeeded; they should learn to shoulder the responsibilities entrusted to them and not pass the buck on to others. I got the impression that the message finally went home.

Interestingly, this is the approach to which we are finally returning after trying out many other complex ones during our seven years in the field; but then it is another story to which we will revert later in this narrative.

The Mid-day Meal Programme

While all the above was going on, I was visiting the other two schools too: at C.K. Sandra and G. Palya. These were lower primary schools, far easier to handle—or so I thought.

At C.K. Sandra, I was giving the usual pitch on taking studies seriously and doing better when something struck me forcefully—the kids appeared very listless most of the time I was talking to them. It took some time before one of the teachers, Ms Vijayalakshmi, ventured to tell me a home truth. The kids were plain hungry; they either get a breakfast or lunch from home, rarely both. This means you could expect them to be alert either in the morning or the afternoon session, not both. Ms V assured me that the situation would more or less be the same in all our three schools. Being new to this environment, I was shocked! How insensitive I must have sounded to them, talking of high-brow stuff like quality when they were on an empty stomach. I realised I had 500 plus kids on my hands and I had to do something about this before I took the next step. I vowed and announced on the same day—in mid-Feb 02—that before the end of the academic year in March, I would have an arrangement in place to feed them at least once in the day, at lunch. That was a pretty reckless thing to do, considering the funding situation—I could barely keep up the ongoing commitments. But then, I was lucky enough to be trained by stalwarts in my field to think differently: set the targets first and if you are committed enough the rest will fall in place.

These were the days before the advent of State-run Mid-day Meal Programmes. I started looking around for a source to provide this meal and this soon brought me in touch with a wonderful person—Appaji Gowda—whose story would beat mine any day. Gowda was comfortably employed in Amco in Bangalore, when he happened to visit a Government primary school in his vicinity. It was lunch time and he found some of the kids eating and the rest doing nothing. To add to it, he found a foul smell permeating the dining room; not surprising since the kids had brought as lunch leftovers, often two days old. It shook him up so much that he left his job and took it upon himself to start feeding poor kids in schools. He sold a part of his land and with the proceeds started a kitchen, in which his entire family got involved in various capacities—cooking, distribution, procurement of supplies etc,. For funding he literally went around begging for support. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to get on board the Fans' Club (Abhimanigala Sangha) of a famous film star. Soon, he was feeding 3000 kids from his kitchen. His setup was called Kannada Kasthuri Yuvaka Sangha.

Mr Rajanna, Head Master of C.K. Sandra School, told me about this organization and suggested that I meet with Mr Gowda. I was at KKYS the very next day and met Gowda with my request for support. Gowda thought he had found a soul mate in me—these were his words, not mine, and he promptly offered all the help he could render. He said that with whatever he had, he could provide lunch for 600 kids, but he had no facility for transporting the food to the schools. The cost of providing this too was beyond my means, because it was substantial. We sat down and started discussing the options available; soon we found one that could work. The vehicles suited for this purpose cost at this time about Rs 120,000, but they could be got on hire-purchase or lease with minimal down payment. Both of us went to the Distributors on Lalbagh Road and Gowda did a good job of the negotiations. We could bring the first payment down to Rs 30,000. Now redemption of my promise to the school hung on this thread: someone should come forward with a cheque for this amount. Up to this point, apart from my own funding, the largest payment we ever received was Rs 5000 and we were just three months old; so it looked an unrealizable dream still.

What followed next would certainly strain your credulity to the maximum, but then that was what actually happened. During the preceding weeks I had sent emails to those who were close to me, informing them of what I had started, but stopping short of explicitly seeking funds. (This is a weakness I carry even today.) Later I checked and found that I had sent just 20 emails in all. Just three days after the above meet, I got a cheque from Mr S for exactly 30K. Mr S does not know even today how much Sikshana owes him just for this one gracious act.

The vehicle came in and was registered by the second week of March. The service of lunch started promptly on 16th March in all the three schools, as promised. This was kept up for the next 15 months till the State-run scheme commenced. By the way, this habit of 'rashly' announcing a scheme ahead of finding a source of funds follows me even today—and I have never regretted it.

Besides the direct benefit, this successful outcome gave me an enormous amount of confidence with which to face the future. I consider this as my first milestone in the Sikshana way.