New Innovations Are Needed in Educating Rural and Tribal Children in India

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By Sheela Balaji

Ms. Sheela Balaji, Managing Trustee & Secretary, AIM for Seva shares her experience and views how AIM for Seva is serving the nation by educating the Rural and Tribal Children in different part of country.

Sheela BalajiWhen AIM for Seva was born a decade back, little did we expect to cover so much ground in educating rural and tribal children in India. There were two choices before us: to duplicate and replicate the existing models of education, or should we innovate? We chose the latter as innovation seemed to offer the best of both worlds: taking two tested ideas and amalgamating them into a new programme that exceeded the sum benefit of the two existing separately.

The two tested ideas were around for centuries. One was the school, a time tested institution for learning and child centered growth. The other was the home. Conventional wisdom and experience has shown that both are needed for the all-round development of the child, or what is commonly referred to as “holistic “development of the child: body, mind and soul living in harmony. Only when this harmony is attained can we expect our children to study and grow into responsible citizens of India and to be able to contribute meaningfully to their communities. But sadly with nearly one-third of the populations still living at or below the poverty line, the luxury of good schooling or “holistic “development remains a pipe dream to millions of children.

If the basic necessities of life are not taken care of, as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us, the focus of living will be on eking out a living just to stay alive. Also, often rural and tribal communities tend to be in such remote locations that access to education is not always easy, making a long trek to school an unwelcome and undesirable chore. And even if they did make it to school, what about the nurturing home environment needed to support the child in after school work, like tuitions, or character building activities like sports, art and yoga, to name a few.

AnaikattiGirlsonTourWhat then if we built free student homes close to existing government schools? Would that not be desirable? For one, we would save huge sums of money on the capital and recurring cost of running a new school. And if free board and lodging and after school support was provided in the home, would it lead to more children going to school? This is when we came up with the novel concept of a Free Student Home or FSH, an innovation that draws on the concept of a school and a home to create a new programme, the FSH. And we know it works as there are nearly 3000 students in 96 FSH spread across 14 states of India. The students are motivated to study and they all pass their board exams. Nearly 14, 000 children have got a new life, a new beginning through the project.

Many people ask me what makes your organization flourish like an oasis in the desert. ? The first and foremost is the confidence in our ability to make a change. If we believe we need to touch the lives of children in rural areas , we live that belief, we breathe it every day of the year, because the stakes are high  and the responsibility to succeed placed on us by society is immense. If we did not believe in our mission, we would fail, so belief is the first mandatory. And the belief in AIM for Seva derives from the Patrons’ vision, Pujya Swamy Dayananda Saraswati, to use education as an enabler of socio-economic change.

Chikkamagalur_KarnatakaRecently, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on the shortlist for the prestigious Times of India Social Impact Awards, 2012/13. I would like to reiterate 3 truths of our project that went into the submission. One, that the model works because our school dropout rate is less than 1 % compared to the national average of 60%. Two, all our students who appear for the board exams pass, an unblemished 100% pass out record. And thirdly, our overheads are among the lowest in the country for charitable organizations, less than 8 %, which means more money goes into programme activity rather than on salaries and other expensive overheads.

How do we raise the money to support our work is a valid question. While CSR is being spoken about and seen as a revolutionary element in the social transformation of India, the amounts being mentioned, even 2 % of profits, is minuscule compared to the work that needs to be done. I am not arguing against CSR, and as an entrepreneur myself, it places a huge responsibility on us to give back to society that helped created the wealth in the first place. But I never cease to be humbled by the contributions of individuals for our cause. Indeed, over 70 % of our investment is met through individual donors; last year alone we raised over 10 crores of rupees to meet our running cost. And I have not included the generous individual donors of our 97 student homes across India, running into several hundreds of crores of rupees. I am convinced by our work and example of the need to propagate the concept on Individual Social Responsibility, which would complement and augment the work of the corporates.

Ms. Sheela Balaji, Managing Trustee & Secretary, AIM for Seva

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