Thursday, August 02, 2007

Education in India and the work of Chandra Kant and Rebecca Shourie

Readers who know me personally will be aware of my admiration for the work of Chandra Kant Shourie and his wife Rebecca, who founded Satya Niketan School in Nagod, Madhya Pradesh, Central India over 20 years ago).

Bruce Katlin, of Katlin Consulting in New York, is training to run a marathon to raise money for the school, and it will be wonderful if readers feel able to support his effort. As he points out, the school needs the equivalent of $3000 in order to buy a new electricity generator as their rather aged one is fading, and they need electricity in this extreme hot weather. The school started in the living room of the Shouries and has now expanded to 400 children. You can support a child's education there for about $5 a month!

Here is a brief and understated history of the school and of what it has achieved:

History of Satya Niketan
(Satya Niketan means the Home of Truth)

The year 2006 was the 21st year of Satya Niketan High School. What began as a small kinder garden class of 20 children, sitting on the floor on mats, and around an old dining table, in the our living room, (Rebecca and Chandra Kant Shourie) with both of us joyfully pouring out our love upon the children; has today grown to a full fledged High School, with 400 students. It is the only high school in the area providing quality education to the children of the Nagod District. The education is in English Medium so that the children get a chance to go forward in the world, equipped to address the challenges of higher education in the different fields which are opening up in our developing country.

Some of the satisfying fruits of our labours have been working with children from very poor homes, for whom it would never have been possible. Satya Niketan has graduated students who are working as Engineers, IT professionals, doctors and in many other fields, earning enough to lift their families out of the vicious cycle of poverty! Equally important, Satya Niketan has become an interface, a point of dialogue with the established society, in terms of challenging long held superstitions and beliefs which have been detrimental to the development of our society and nation. A point of challenge and change, as any educational institution, by its very definition ought to be.

To understand and appreciate the journey of Satya Niketan, it would be helpful and beneficial to understand the reasons and motivations that brought a couple like us to a backward and remote place like Nagod, and be motivated enough to give the best 25 years of our lives to the building of this school. Rebecca Shourie holds a MA (Hons) in English Literature, Delhi University, and BSc Nursing, Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur College of Nursing, Delhi, and Chandra Kant Shourie – holds a BE (Hons) in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science.

A deep spiritual experience led us to commit our lives to serving our country. We are highly qualified and have had a number of top order career options lined up before us but instead of pursuing personal careers, we have opted to dedicate our lives to serve others. We feel strongly that the doctor is needed where there are sick people. So, we embarked upon a path which led us to the poorest and undeveloped parts of our country. As we cast ourselves upon this path, a series of events led us to the place called Nagod in the District of Satna, in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh, India.

Nagod, is a small town, with a population of about 25,000 to 30,000 and serves as the centre – (administrative, market, social and political) for about 600 villages which surround it, each with an average population of about 1,500 to 2,000 people. Nagod has an old fort, which is still inhabited by the royalty of Nagod State (a small kingdom established in the thirteenth century, by Parihar Rajputs ), with the royalty of Nagod still enjoying power in free India. The oldest living Prince of Nagod is currently the Home Minister of State in the present Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Madhya Pradesh.

During the rule of the Parihars, the society was organized according to the Feudal lines - Landlords being given a number of villages as their fiefdoms, in return for their loyalty and allegiance to the king. Independence here has not made much of a difference in the daily routine of life – the difference it has made has been that now these Kings and Landlords have to fight elections (or rather put up credible facades of elections ) in order to maintain their fiefdoms and their influence over their constituencies instead of being born into privilege. This feudal system which is present in a unique form is in the northern part of India, and it is incorporated into the all pervasive caste system, which is still maintained in all its former glory and rigidity in these parts.

Our advent into this land exposed us to this society in a very dramatic way. Among other things, one of the things that we felt very deeply about was the lack of education in this area. There was hardly any education worth its name. In the early 1980’s if you happened to take a walk around the town, or around the villages, you would come across groups of young children between the ages of 8 to 15 sitting around, playing cards and gambling. Often these sessions would erupt into violence. We personally witnessed many such incidents.

We also found that the whole education scene was negatively commercialized leading to a complete breakdown of the system in this land. There are centres of examination where for a certain amount of money mass copying is organized. In the government schools, (which make up the majority of the schools) there is no teaching and during the exams, children are allowed to copy. This continues up-to the college level. As a result you have students with a first class Masters degree in English Literature and they cannot write a single sentence in proper English!

Along with these factors and the need expressed by some of the prominent people in the locality made us seriously think of using our education to promote a higher level of quality education amongst the children of this area. So, in 1985 we got a small group of children between the ages of 3 and 6 – around 20 of them, and started a small class in our living room. We had no money, no resources, we started with just - (can you believe it?) just 10 paise and a torn Rs.2 note in our pocket!

We had very good response from our first batch of students. Unfortunately this caused resentments in another quarter. The only other educational institution of some repute, which was being run in this town was Saraswati Shishu Mandir – an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) a fundamentalist Hindu organization. They began to feel threatened and launched a defamatory campaign against us seeking to undermine the confidence of the people in our efforts. The two prominent accusations they used against us were one; that these people have no roots here, they can go away anytime, and then what will your children do? The other of course, was the communal card: that these people are Christians and they will make your children into Christians and spoil your religion.

This propaganda continued unabated for 10 – 12 years! The result was that in the higher classes we had very few students. However, we had made a commitment to the students who had come and their parents had put their trust in us. And, we made a commitment that even if we had only one student in our class we would still keep our part of the commitment. And we were put to the test. One year there was only one student in our tenth class!

Another cause of major opposition came from the high Caste people, especially the Brahmins (the priests) and the Ruling class and the Merchants. Their major problem was that we did not distinguish between the students on the basis of their castes. In fact, we encouraged the children from the poorer sections of society (in 95% of the cases poor meant lower Castes or untouchables), to get the benefit of education. We felt that was one thing which would enable them to break through the vicious cycle of poverty and its effects. This became a major factor with some of the high Caste people strenuously objecting to the fact their children were being forced to associate with people of low birth and that was having a detrimental effect on the upbringing of the child. Some of them went to the extent of taking their children away from our school for this very reason.

Finances have been and continue to be a very big challenge. The area here is very poor and the people do not have high paying capabilities – especially the people who really need the benefit of education. So we have had to keep our fees very low, so that it is affordable. Today we are charging a fee of Rs. 200 per month, (approximately, $4.94) and for a large number of people they are unable able to pay. Today, 25% of the students are either studying on a concession or we are giving them free education. The weather here can also be a challenge. During the rainy season we have many floods and we lose power and that is why we need a new generator to power the school.

Apart from the above problems, the other major challenge was to get qualified teachers. This proved to be the biggest problem. However, in miraculous ways during our worst times, help came from unexpected quarters – at different times we had volunteers from New Zealand, Australia, England, Holland and the United States, who came and stayed with us for periods ranging from 3 weeks to 2 years, and helped teaching in the school. Over the years the only sustainable solution that we managed to develop was to train some local people and teach them to teach. This was the only solution which would work long term. So, now we have a staff of about 20 people including the teachers, office staff and the staff running the vehicles.

Struggling with all these handicaps, 10 students from our first batch of students who started with us in 1985, appeared for their High School examination in the year 1905-06! That was a milestone. This year, our 12th batch of High School students will appear for their examination. It has been very encouraging that the students who have passed on from our school have done very well in their careers. Some have become engineers, some IT professionals, and some are working to become doctors! And a few have volunteered to come back and help us in the school for some time. That is very encouraging indeed.

So, over the years, as we have persevered. Today we today have the strength of 400 children studying from Kindergarten to class 10 - what we call High School. We still have shortage of space and staff, so the school runs in two shifts: morning shift for the Juniors and the afternoon shift for the Seniors.

We believe that we have made a significant impact in the local surrounding through the running of Satya Niketan High School and interacting with the children and their parents in this area. Over the past three years we have seen the school grow in terms of the number of children and the confidence, which the local people are now having in the school.

The two major arguments of the people committed to opposing us and wanting us to close down are: that we will leave and their children will be left in the lurch, and that we will convert their children to Christianity. Over the past 21 years both these accusations have fallen to the ground. We have not left in spite of great adversity and we have only tried to make the children better human beings.

We hope that we will be able to continue to serve the children of this land and the work that we have built up will be carried forward by the children who have caught the vision with which this work was begun.

Rebecca and Chandra Kant Shourie Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Bruce Katlin said...

Dear Prabhu:

This is to inform your readers that the marathon has been completed as trained for. Although monies were raised we fell short of our $3000 goal and raised a much appreciated $1295.

Running the marathon in Portland, Oregon was a wonderful experience, and I am now looking forward to my second come April in either Paris, FR or Big Sur, California.

Thank you once again for the introduction to Rebecca and Chandra who are two of the most courageous people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.