Purposive philanthropist

For socio-economically disadvantaged higher secondary school students in Tamil Nadu’s rural Erode district (pop. 2.5 million) pursuing tertiary education was a distant dream until Ram Duraiswamy, a US-based NRI (non-resident Indian), decided to lend a hand. In December 2003, he promoted the Toplight Educational and Social Trust in Chennai to identify academically bright but economically challenged class XII students and fully fund their college education.

Since then the trust has funded 102 students from the district who are currently enrolled in colleges across Tamil Nadu. "As a first-generation degree holder from an agrarian family, I am well aware of the benefits of higher education. Providing capable but economically disadvantaged students opportunities to pursue higher education is my way of giving back to society," says Duraiswamy, an engineering alumnus of Madras University, with a Masters from the University of Texas.

After postgraduation Duraiswamy signed up with software major Oracle for two years before co-promoting Kintana, an IT governance software firm with two friends in 1995. In 2003 after a successful run, Kintana was acquired by Mercury Interactive with whom Duraiswamy served as vice-president before he decided to call it quits. Currently he is a San Francisco-based software consultant.

To manage the Toplight trust, Duraiswamy roped in his uncle K.S. Palanisamy, former director of research at the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Chennai, as managing trustee. With the help of volunteers in Erode and Chennai, the trust identifies meritorious but needy students. "We have established a good rapport with state education officials in Erode district who connect us with school headmasters to identify bright students. The trust gives preference to orphans, children of single parents and widows, and those with many siblings. Thereafter we visit their homes to assess their socio-economic condition and persuade parents to allow them to continue their studies. Currently our scholarships are restricted to students who have chosen maths or biology as their main subjects in higher secondary, as they have better scope for employment," says Palanisamy.

The motivation and support offered by the trust has reaped rich dividends. The 102 students funded by Toplight are proving their potential in reputed government engineering colleges, teacher training institutes, medical, nursing and agriculture colleges, while some have secured employment in software and other firms.

For the future, Duraiswamy is keen on expanding the catchment area (number of schools and students) of the trust. "We want to fund 1,000 scholars by the year 2012 and also provide job security to students. Our motto is ‘inspiration, motivation and realisation’ and we can proudly say that we have not only inspired students to study hard and avail of college education, but also philanthropists who want to set up similar trusts to serve the cause of education," says Duraiswamy.

Right on, brother!

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)

Children’s champion

"On Children’s Day (November 14) every year, it’s a customary ritual for the Central and state governments to hoodwink the public into believing that the welfare of children is top priority with them. But in reality, it’s a blindspot of governance in this country." That’s the blunt opinion of Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the newly constituted National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

According to Sinha, the commission has got off to a bad start. "In the first quarter of the commission’s existence beginning June this year, we sent notices to several state governments on issues of health, nutrition and education of migrant child labour as well on corporal punishment. But most of them failed to even acknowledge our communiqué," she says.

A committed child rights activist, Sinha believes that thousands of children from Rajasthan and other parts of the country are being trafficked to work in the cotton fields of Gujarat, Maharashtra and elsewhere. "There is widespread awareness but little acknowledgement that most migrant child labour is working at the behest of organised sector companies including MNCs. Therefore the commission’s first priority will be tackling this issue. We intend to follow up with the states involved until this issue is squarely addressed," says Sinha, who is well-known in NGO circles as the founder of the M.Venkatarangaiya Foundation (better known as the MV Foundation), which helps rehabilitate child labour by enrolling children in schools.

In 1999, Sinha was awarded the Padma Shri honorific of the government of India and the Albert Shanker International Award, in recognition of the MV Foundation’s outstanding work in combating child labour and spreading education. Moreover in 2003 she was awarded the Ramon Magasaysay Award for community leadership. Determined to create awareness of children’s rights and societal obligations towards them, in her new job as chairperson of NCPCR she has initiated discussions with corporates, state bureaucracies and NGOs and is banking on media support to put the government in a campaign mode.

An alumna of Osmania University, Hyderabad and JNU, Delhi, Sinha served as a professor of political science at the Hyderabad Central University for several decades. In her new avatar, she has great expectations of the teachers’ community. "If every teacher makes a genuine effort to teach her class, a knowledge revolution is certain to occur. The teachers’ community must acknowledge that quality education is every child’s right, not a favour conferred by teachers or governments. This understanding is critical to national development," says Sinha.

Free and frank advice typical of this children’s champion.

Autar Nehru (Delhi)

Victoria emissary

The word is obviously out that fast-track, shining India, stuck with inadequate tertiary education capacity, is perhaps the world’s largest market for foreign universities. With an estimated 100,000 students heading abroad for higher education every year, the number of student recruitment delegations from abroad arriving in India is multiplying exponentially. With tuition fees in the US and UK hitting circuit breakers, Indian students have discovered Australia as an offerer of relatively cheaper and globally accepted higher education. To showcase Aussie universities in southern India, the Victoria Government Business Office, Bangalore (estb. 2005) invites varsity delegations to recruit students, enter into collaborative partnerships with Indian education institutions and corporates and to invest in India.

The latest delegation to visit Bangalore on September 26 from Victoria was led by Dr. Dahle Suggett, deputy secretary, Office of Learning and Teaching, department of education and training, Victoria. "Indians are the largest nationality enrolled in education programmes in Australia and over 50 percent of them enroll in institutions in Victoria where 26 percent of all students are Indians followed by Chinese students (23 percent). With the software industry booming, study programs in computer science and information systems are very popular with Indian students. We are here to consolidate this relationship and enter into strategic research partnerships with institutions of higher education," says Sugget, an education postgraduate of Monash University with a doctorate awarded by the University of Melbourne.

Suggett is well qualified to market Oz and Victoria in particular, as a tertiary education destination. Starting her career as a teacher in Victorian government secondary schools, Suggett signed up as assistant commissioner of the Commonwealth Schools Commission. In 1998, she switched streams and signed up with Allen Consulting Group as a consultant (1998-2004) prior to accepting her current assignment with the Victoria state government.

According to Sugget, of the 38,848 Indian students enrolled for study programmes in Australia in 2006, 19,487 study in Victoria. "The student inflow into Victoria has increased because universities in Melbourne are innovative, flexible, provide supportive learning environments and have very strong research and development capabilities. In addition Melbourne has been consistently ranked as the world’s most livable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit (UK) since 2002," she says.

Looking to the future, Sugget feels that academic cooperation between India and Australia is poised for a giant leap, with new partnerships involving short-term student and teacher exchange programmes at the secondary school level on the drawing board. "We have established excellent synergistic partnerships at the university level. Now we would like to explore possibilities of partnering with secondary schools for teacher and student exchange programmes. We are discussing this with a few CISCE-affiliated and international schools, and hope to expand India-Australia academic cooperation," she says.

Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)

Conflict resolution counsellor

Barbara Coloroso, a US-based expert on non-violent conflict resolution, recently visited Woodstock School, Mussoorie for a week-long series of keynote presentations and faculty and student counselling sessions. The objective of her visit was to educate faculty and students on ways and means to build democratic and harmonious relationships within the institution. Woodstock (estb. 1854) is an internationally respected K-XII co-educational residential school with an aggregate enrollment of 474, including 279 students from non-SAARC countries, offering the Advanced Placement and British IGCSE curriculums.

An acclaimed author who has written seven books on issues ranging from parenting and school bullying to healthy family dynamics, Coloroso based her lectures and workshops at Woodstock on her bestselling book The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander (Harper Collins, 2004). "Bullying is a common problem in schools worldwide. It happens because there is an imbalance of power between those who intimidate and those who feel powerless to stop injustice, either from within the situation or as witnesses to bullying," says Coloroso, an alumna of the University of Northern Colorado who has recently published her latest book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide (Nation Books, 2007).

According to Coloroso, the antidote to bullying or ragging of fresher or junior students by older ones is development of an "ethic rooted in deep caring" within the institutional culture. In her sessions with Woodstock’s 100-strong faculty from ten countries, she stressed the importance of teachers — particularly in boarding school environments, traditionally associated with brutal ragging and the lash — creating "humanised climates". "In a boarding school, educators include residence staff and dorm parents. Supervising students 24/7 can either be a risk or an opportunity for doing great things. Sometimes in residential education environments, the line between school and residential life gets blurred. School is academics but residential life, though educational, must remain essentially ‘home’. Teachers must not only strive for excellence in academics, but also in parenting," says Coloroso, whose visit to the school was sponsored by the Winterline Foundation, a US-based non-profit trust which encourages the transformation of individuals into global citizens.

Therefore Coloroso advocates creating cultures of inter-dependence in education institutions, particularly those in remote locations, which are becoming popular with the aspirational Indian middle class who want to get their children away from the country’s incrementally polluted and uninhabitable cities. "Teaching children by example to create caring, sharing and helpful communities will go a long way to reshape communities the world over," she says.

This is sane advice to the managements and faculties of India’s boarding schools which urgently need an image makeover.

Alex Hoekstra (Mussoorie)

Institution supplies entrepreneur

From modest beginnings as a wholesale dealer in foodgrains in the small town of Baugmandala (pop. 3,000) in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, Rajendra Desai has come a long way. Today he is the promoter-chairman of the Mumbai-based Raj Educational Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd — an ISO 9001:2000 certified company with an annual sales revenue of Rs.4 crore. Currently Raj Edu’s client list boasts more than 200 schools and education institutes across the country, including the Ryan International and St. Xavier’s groups. The company which began manufacturing green glass boards (a refined version of the traditional blackboard) in 1995, has since diversified its product range and manufactures classroom furniture and laboratory equipment for educational institutes.

Looking back, Desai credits his wife Jayshree for encouraging him to migrate from Baugmandala to Mumbai. "Jayshree was determined to provide high quality education to our two children and preceded me to Mumbai in 1989. I followed two years later, and started a proprietary firm under the name of Raj Sales Agency in 1995." Desai started his business by producing green glass boards and marketing them in Raigad district. "There was no demand for this product; I created the demand," he says.

Since then there’s been no looking back. Having built a rapport with several schools and education institutions, Desai became aware of their need for quality furniture and equipment. Raj Edu now manufactures and/or outsources a range of institutional products including display boards, dual desks, book racks, library cases, laminated platforms as well as the entire infrastructure for geography and environmental science, mathematics, and even language laboratories. "We established the first language lab complete with equipment like headphones, speakers etc in Mumbai in 2000 for the National Education Society," says Desai.

Skillfully juggling the plethora of education-related products spewing out of the company’s six factories in Mumbai, Desai who is assisted by his son Viraj, shows no signs of slowing down. His next objective is to transform Raj Edu into a national brand, and roll out the company’s products nationwide and across Africa, starting from South Africa, a country to which he has been exporting black and green boards since 2002.

"Education has become very technology intensive in the new millennium. I believe that our laboratories can help developing countries bridge the education technology divide between third world and developed countries," he says.

Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)