Grover logs in

It is arguable that one of the major causes of the abysmal learning outcomes which is a defining characteristic of Indian education is the low self-esteem and poor social standing of the teachers’ community. Uninspiring teacher training curriculums, grudging pay packages, overcrowded classrooms and unsupportive environments apart, the country’s 5.5 million academics tend to be islands entire unto themselves, deprived of a sense of community or professional camaraderie.

This is a deprivation which Shuchi Grover, the Bangalore-based founder of an ambitious online portal is determined to fulfill. Although activated barely a month ago this user-friendly portal/website promoted by Hit Factory LLC — a US-based venture fund constituted by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to encourage "ambitious and innovative use of the internet" in under-served domains like education — is generating considerable enthusiasm among teachers/educators scattered across the subcontinent. It has already chalked up over 1,000 registered users and membership is set to grow exponentially.

"Teachers and educators are a neglected community in India with conspicuously little space to showcase and exchange their ideas and best practices. This website is a user-friendly, interactive forum for this neglected community. The next important constituency to be addressed will be parents of school-going children," says Grover.

The chances of this unprecedented initiative succeeding are excellent because Grover brings considerable erudition and experience into the project. An alumna of the renowned Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani, Case Western University (USA) topped with a Master’s in technology education from the blue-chip Harvard University, Grover began her career in the American software industry helping to nurture a profitable start-up enterprise before signing up as a research associate with Harvard Business School where she helped to author case studies for MBA students. A firm believer in the effective use of technology to build and empower online learning communities, Grover continues to assist Harvard University to conduct training programmes for teachers around the world — including sub Saharan Africa — on Harvard’s distance learning platform, although she is physically located in Bangalore. Meanwhile in the garden city she has kickstarted the initiative with technology vision and support provided by a small team of IIT-Kanpur alumni.

"Although it is early days yet, I am certain that will mature into a stimulating forum for the vitally important teachers’ community. Similar websites have worked very well in the US and have built a strong sense of community and camaraderie among educators there. This has enabled them to share knowledge and best teaching-learning practices to considerably improve the quality of public education. There’s no reason why a similar initiative won’t succeed here in India," says Grover.

Fair winds!

Dilip Thakore (Bangalore)

Historic mission

EducationWorld’s special correspondent Srinidhi Raghavendra arrived to a warm welcome in Bangalore on April 15 after a four-month, action-packed, four-nation motorcycle adventure that began on December 3, 2006. The objective of his motorcycle odyssey (undertaken with Kishore Patwardhan under the aegis of Borderless Bikers) was to spread the message of the vital developmental importance of Equal Quality Education for All. During their four-month tour the duo traversed 18,700 km visiting 120 cities and thousands of hamlets in four countries — India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh — interacting en route with numerous school teachers, students, parents and educators (see p.66), exhorting them to upgrade teaching-learning standards.

A microbiology graduate of Bangalore University and journalism postgrad of Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan who signed up with EducationWorld in 2003, Raghavendra has been reporting extensively on education and develop-ment issues. Though statistically aware of the pitiful condition of India’s public (i.e government) primary school education system, Raghavendra professes shell-shock following first hand experience of the multiple deprivations of food, clothing, shelter and learning opportunities which India’s uncomplaining children routinely suffer. "The actual quality of education dispensed in government schools is far worse than portrayed in the media — indeed beyond description. In the Hindi heartland states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in particular most primary schools lack even the most basic infrastructure and teacher absenteeism is openly tolerated. Most children opt out of school — not because their parents want them to work as per popular belief — but because little learning happens in the classrooms of government schools," says Raghavendra.

Though this four-nation biking tour de force is Raghavendra’s longest and most notable achievement, it’s not the first time he has ridden for a worthy cause. In 1999 he rode from Bangalore to Ladakh to express solidarity with Indian soldiers fighting the Kargil war. Three years later he journeyed again to Ladakh: this time to promote tourism in insurgency ravaged Jammu & Kashmir.

"Although in the past ten years I’ve travelled extensively across India, this was the first time I journeyed across international borders and visited countries where the primary education infrastructure is in even worse condition. I’m pleased with the impact of our mission for education equality. Access to equal quality education is a right of every child in India and our neighbouring countries. The infrastructure and teaching-learning standards in government schools must be immediately upgraded to Kendriya Vidyalaya standards. This is an urgent imperative," he says.

Back home in a familiar environment Raghavendra is determined to fulfill the promises he made to heads of several schools to help them improve and upgrade their institutions. "This will require writing to education department officials, heads of trusts and corporate philanthropists. I will redeem my promises by using all media including EducationWorld," says Raghavendra.

Most welcome!

Summiya Yasmeen (Bangalore)

NRI varsity ideator

On March 22, when the Union
government gave the green light for establishing a NRI/PIO university in India in any one of proposed special economic zones (SEZs) under S.3 of the UGC Act, 1956 and supervision of the ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Delhi-based J. C. Sharma, former secretary in the Union ministry of external affairs had special reason to feel elated. "I am very happy that finally something good has come of much spade work. I only hope that the proposed university has a healthy mix of domestic and foreign students which will bring people of Indian origin (PIO) abroad closer to our people," says Sharma, the chief architect of the project.

The seed of an NRI/PIO university began germinating in his mind when Sharma was appointed India’s consul general in Vancouver (Canada). "While in Vancouver I became aware that there was a high-potential connect between political developments in the parent country and the diaspora. I started writing to New Delhi about these matters," recalls Sharma, whose green paper on the subject in 1998 finally cut ice with the government of India.

In September 2000 the NDA government showed considerable enthusiasm and appointed a high level committee on the Indian diaspora under the chairmanship of L.M. Singhvi with Sharma as its member secretary. "On January 8, 2002 we submitted a 600-page report to the government which is a comprehensive document covering almost every area of potential connectivity between PIOs, NRIs and people and governments here. Recognising, celebrating and connecting them to us culminated in the ministry of external affairs organising a pravasi divas (PIO day) every year," recalls Sharma, who chose January 9 to celebrate pravasi divas, a day which also commemorates Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India after 22 years in South Africa.

International cooperation in education is a subject dear to Sharma, and according to him must be supported in the national interest. "We have a great chance to promote education diplomacy in Africa, central Asia and South-east Asia. The other aspect is that most PIOs/NRIs are keen to set up schools in their native villages and donate to universities. Let’s not forget the 5,000 strong Indian teaching community in North America which can be a treasure house for enhancing education through exchange programmes, if we provide them platforms," enthuses Sharma.

Unsurprisingly he is pained that the entry of foreign universities into India has been hanging in the balance, and reforms in higher education are being delayed by the political class. "By conservative estimates, Rs.9,000 crore per year is spent by Indian students abroad. It makes more sense to save this huge annual outflow by permitting foreign universities to set up campuses here. I would even suggest an SEZ for education," argues Sharma, who is currently education advisor to the Ansal Group — a big name in real estate which has promoted the Charanjiv Charitable Trust and runs a couple of architectural education institutions and several secondary schools.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)

Culture missionary

Her passion for south Indian culture, art and heritage inspired her to found the Madras Craft Foundation (MCF), a registered, non-profit organisation for preservation and promotion of the arts in 1984. She then promoted DakshinaChitra in 1996, a heritage centre and museum spread over 10 acres on Chennai’s East Coast Road which showcases the rich art, crafts, architecture, culture, skilled artisans and folk performers of peninsular India and houses 17 pavilions representing the architectural heritages of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Her next venture was an Institute of Arts Management, set up in 2005, which offers its arts management internship diploma programme to prepare students for careers in art and cultural organisations.

Today, 23 years after art historian and anthropologist Deborah Thiagarajan launched her one-woman cultural odyssey, her enthusiasm and involvement in the folk and art traditions of village India remain undiminished. "The DakshinaChitra complex receives 100,000 visitors annually and has aroused dormant curiousity about lifestyles of the past and inherited skills of rural artisans of south India. This complex provides a platform for folk performers and marketing opportunities for artisans and craftspeople," says Thiagarajan, a French and German graduate of Smith College, Massachusetts and postgrad of the University of Pennsylvania with a Ph D from Madras University.

Deborah moved to India in 1970 to join her husband Raj Thiagarajan (now deceased), former chairman of the Bank of Madura, whom she met as a student in the University of Pittsburgh and later married. In India she worked at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and travelled extensively in rural Tamil Nadu where she experienced a pauline conversion. It was a defining moment for Thiagarajan for whom pristine folk art became a cause and medium to be exposed in urban centres.

Currently, Thiagarajan is focused on training professionals in arts management to manage cultural institutions. This unique 11-month arts management internship diploma programme offered by MCF and DakshinaChitra which is now into its third year, is open for admissions until end June 2007. The programme which inducts ten students annually, is currently being supported by the JRD Tata Trust, Mumbai and offers fellowships including a complete tuition fee waiver of Rs.50,000 plus a stipend of Rs.30,000 to meritorious candidates, besides scholarships to deserving graduates.

This never-say-die missionary of Dravidian culture has ambitious plans for the future. "We want to transform DakshinaChitra into a major centre for training, education, folk arts management and resource centre for craftspeople with little access to business management know-how, credit schemes, new technologies and designs. We are looking for funding from philanthropists so that we can offer these services and sustain DakshinaChitra."

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)

Dedicated sanyasi

"In my internal world I practice sadhana (spiritualism). For the external world, the guru’s command is ‘Do all the good you can; In all the ways you can; At all the places you can; To all the people you can; As long as you can.’"

This is the samaritan philosophy of Nityeshananda Avadhuta (66), a sanyasi of the Ananda Marga order and coordinator of Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team (Amurt, estb. 1965) which works in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives. There is hardly any disaster site ranging from the Latur (1993) and Bhuj (2001) earthquakes to the tsunami (2004) that he and his fellow sanyasis haven’t visited immediately, to rehabilitate the displaced and dispossessed.

In 2003, Nityeshananda promoted the Amurt rehabilitation centre for children with physical and mental disabilities in New Delhi, a completely new diversification for Amurt India. In this centre children with disabilities are educated and taught life skills through the play-way method by five full-time special education teachers. Classes are held between 9 a.m-2 p.m on week days.

"At Amurt we welcome the opportunity to serve challenged children as an opportunity to serve God. By investing sincere effort to enable and empower children with disabilities to lead independent lives with self respect, we fulfill one of the objectives for which we left our homes years ago when we took sanyas (renunciation)" says Nityeshananda.

Since 2003 the centre has been providing special services to children with disabilities and their parents through home-based programmes. A structured assessment of each child is made on the basis of inputs received from experts. An intervention plan is designed and parents are counselled. A detailed whole day planner is provided and parents are advised to act accordingly to meet the child’s requirements. "Moreover awareness programmes about the legal rights of disabled persons and how to protect their interests are also organised by us from time to time," he adds.

In a tumultuous life marked with the rigours of a sanyasi’s vocation, Nityeshananda has spent a good 40 years working and serving his fellowmen besides providing spiritual solace as ordained by the Sadguru Shri Shri Anandamurthiji. Currently the Ananda Marga has over 2,000 ashrams countrywide in addition to 500 spread across the world. It also runs about 1,500 schools including 300 abroad.

"You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars guides you too," says Nityeshananda.

Arun Srivastav (New Delhi)