Friday, July 4, 2014

An Outsider’s Education

Ajay Singh on Ekal Vidyalaya and how to end illiteracy in rural India

By: David Gittess

Ajay Singh is a serial educator with no sense of boundaries. His resume spans wildly from management training to lifestyle education, and when he speaks, he goes on with the patience and excitement of someone who has built a life around passing on knowledge. He is also part of a small group of people who think they have the key to ending illiteracy in rural India.

Ekal Vidyalaya, for whom Mr. Singh works, is in one sense an organization of numbers. Big numbers, in fact, like 51,717 (the number of schools they run) and 1,489,373 (the number of students currently enrolled in these schools). Since their modest beginning in 1986, they have brought rapid improvements in literacy and life management across India, making incredible progress in the patchwork of cultures, languages, and topography that comprise the countryside. Where the government has trouble making education accessible, Ekal Vidyalaya has stepped in with an approach grounded in the fundamentals of education and community, promoting smart agriculture, intellectual curiosity, and gram swaraj, the ideal of “self government.”

The results speak for themselves, backed up by a highly sophisticated monitoring and evaluation process that has allowed Ekal Vidyalaya to demonstrate quantitative success over the past 25 years. They have a goal of eliminating illiteracy in rural India by 2015…and they may just be able to make it happen.

Mr. Singh is confident in the future of Indian education. Here, he explains why.

DDev: What inspired you to work in social activism?

AS: I wanted to return to the society what I had taken. I have been in business for nearly 30 years, so I thought I have played my one inning, and in my second inning I must plan my business like this so that I pay back what I have taken from society.

DDev: Why do you care so much about education as opposed to public health or good governance?

AS: The one thing that can save a person’s life is their education. It is the same for any human being. India is a country of villages. My countrymen, my people in the villages are not getting the important things for their development, and I thought that this was the right place to give back to the masses. At the other time, I’m working on education itself. My inclination to education is very natural. And I thought that I would give back to the villages, so they can spend better time and have a better life.

DDev: What are the major hurdles that face education right now in India?

AS: Number one: the villages are in the parts of India where the roads are not there and electricity is not there, so reaching those people is not very easy. Secondly, we do not have a sufficient number of teachers to go there and teach them. Thirdly, the poor people do not prioritize their education because education is not giving them livelihood directly. We have to interest the person in their education and let him know the benefits he can drive out of education. Until bread and butter are secure, he will not be interested in anything else.

DDev: How do you address the challenges of education through the Ekal Vidyalaya model?

AS: Our model is economical. We are spending $365 a year running a school in a village. This is the beauty of the game: we are teaching the trainer from the same village, so there’s no overhead, he’s more responsible to his fellow villagers, and he’s available 24/7 to the villagers. Our school is of the village itself. It is not difficult for the students to walk down to the school and drive, come, learn, and all those things.

We are also educating their parents. We are training them how to make more money out of agriculture, how you can better your life. Our job is not just to educate the students; instead we are working for the entire village development. Indian economics is basically built on agriculture. So what are realizing is, if our villages are willing to do agriculture in the best possible manner, then the villages will get more income, and the economy of the country will improve.

DDev: This sounds like microfinance, where it’s a community venture, not just one person. Everyone is responsible for making sure the loan is repaid, or in this case, the student goes to school.

AS: Correct. But it is different from microfinance because microfinance is concentrated on only one part. Our idea is multi-dimensional. Education is how to make your agriculture better, it is how to make your life better, how to remain healthy.

DDev: If the goal is to remain healthy, then how do you monitor the retention of these skills maybe two, three, ten years later?

AS: The monitoring process is actually in-built. We have got the teacher at the village level who teaches, and then we have a supervisor. There is one supervisor who is looking over 30 villages. Then there is one more supervisor looking over 30 multiplied by 4, 120 villages. So we have got a multi-level supervision process. Moreover, we keep on doing the assessment survey.

DDev: How do you maintain such a high efficiency rate? I notice in your magazine that 90% of the money goes to schools as opposed to administrators.

AS: Actually, what happens is the people like me and more, they are all volunteering. We are spending from our own pockets. Money is not the only motivation. We also provide the marketing and all those things. We keep it minimal. We believe more in doing the work than publicizing it. Otherwise, it is very difficult to do it, yes, you are very correct.

DDev: It seems as though volunteer commitment would be a challenge. You may have a problem where if somebody wakes up a little late or whatever, they might not show up until halfway through the day. How do you handle this?

AS: We have the problem of the poor taking care of their families, so we provide assistance they might need for securing their future. We have people who have done a lot for themselves and now they are satisfied, and now they want to volunteer… Many students have been successful, they have gone to highest careers. And the beautiful thing is, many who have been a student of Ekal Vidyalaya have come back to give back to their society. They learned that is not our life that is important to us, it is our society that is important to us.

DDev: Why did you choose to include a moral component even if it’s so subjective? If one culture prioritizes, say, women’s rights more, then it might be more or less receptive to your program, and your goals may be jeopardized. How do you deal with this?

AS: It’s a tough question to answer in one sentence. At the moment, I can only say this much, that all the schedules can be altered. India is divided into so many parts, and it is so different, that one program cannot be applied everywhere; it has to be on a case-by-case basis. Like in Jammu and Kashmir, the human situation is different than it is in Kerala. Some women are already getting literacy, they are working, whereas in the Kashmir part, women are not working and they are not going for education. The challenge is very different.

DDev: Where will Ekal Vidyalaya go after you’ve hit your goal to eliminate illiteracy, currently set for 2015?

AS: The first step is to reach 100,000 villages. Then what we plan to do in the second job will be to make them skillful. At the moment we are not able to do that and all those other things in a proficient manner. We would like to create a better market in the villages – a group of villages will be given a possibility to create their own markets, so that the middleman can be provided.

DDev: Do you think the Ekal method can be exported to other countries? This program came up to address a specifically Indian concern, but do you think there are parts of it that would translate well across the globe?

AS: Our model is very much replicable. But yes, there are, there may be some customization because local needs are different in my country and in African countries. But is the importance of education is there? Yes, no doubt. Our target is to employ the local person to solve the local problem. The same model can be replicated everywhere, and it is beyond doubt that the local person who is living in the same community will be more responsible. What we have to do is send some of our experts to those countries, find out what are the local problems, the local means, and then implement it in the system that has been developed by us for the past 25 years. In fact, we have planned for this kind of development also.

But we thought, first let us do it in our home, find out and meet all the targets, and then we can look for work with foreign partners. But yes, we are open to it, and this year we have announced that we are going to invite students from America and other countries to do fellowships in our organization. They will be here for four weeks, eight weeks, see our system, study it, write their paper, and find out what we have been able to do well. What we have not been able to do well, they will let us know, and we will improve.

DDev: Is there anything else you would like for me to include? Anything you find interesting?

AS: Actually, the most interesting thing is, when I was working for myself, I was not feeling so happy. When I started working for the society, then I was more happy, more content, more prepared, that’s what I can say. I am doing it for my people - that is the most important thing to me.

1 comment:

  1. Ekal is doing a Great Job. They are real unsung heroes. Away from the lime light of media.