At a time when most social activists believed in starting small and taking it one step at a time, Madhav Chavan dared to dream big. He co-founded Pratham Charitable Trust with educationist Farida Lambay in 1994, which set up 3000 balwadis across Mumbai in just three years - at a time when educational non-profit organisations said this could not be done, for want of cash and space.
In these balwadis, housewives and young women from local slum communities offered informal pre-school education to thousands of children in 'classrooms' as unlikely as temple compounds, local commercial offices and homes.
In the 18 years since then, Pratham has expanded its various models of learning-oriented education to 21 states across India, reaching out to about 3 million children across 30,000 villages and cities every year.
Last week, Chavan's work was recognised by the international community and hewas awarded the 2012 WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) Prize for Education, considered the Nobel in that field, in Doha, Qatar.
"In the 1990s, Mumbai needed about 4000 balwadis, but municipal officers said there wasn't enough space," says Chavan, 58. "Our balwadi model proved that, even without money, space or trained teachers, you could plan on a large-scale if you just cleared the restrictions in your mind."
Chavan's innovative approach has attracted sponsorships and support from some of the biggest names in India Inc. But before distinguishing himself as an educationist, he inhabited a completely different world.
Chavan has a PhD in chemistry, which he completed in the US in 1983 and followed up with post-doctoral research. In 1986, he returned to his home city and began teaching the subject at the University of Mumbai.
Then-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had just launched a national literacy mission for adults, calling for a people's movement to help the government raise India's abysmal literacy rate.
"I was attracted to that idea and decided to participate," says Chavan, who then set up an NGO - the Committee of Resource Organisations for Literacy - with a group of like-minded friends. His work involved roping in youngstersfrom the slums and schools of Chemburto spread literacy among adult members of their families.
In 1991, the university allowed him a three-year sabbatical to pursue his education mission. During this time, Chavan scripted and anchored a DoordarshanTV series in Marathi, among other things. Titled Akshardhara, the series sought to promote adult literacy through inspiring stories of those who had learnt to write late in life.
"Chemistry was fun, but the challenges and highs in the field of education were totally different," says Chavan.
In 1994, the United Nations Children's Fund asked Chavan and Lambey to spearhead a plan they had formulated to raise literacy levels in Mumbai by getting private companies, civil society and the government to work together. This is how Pratham was born. With funds steadily trickling in by the late 1990s, organisations and private companies across India began to express a desire to replicate the Prathammodel. "That's when we began to help NGOs in other cities to set up similar networks," says Chavan.
In the next phase of Pratham's operations, the NGO decided to address the issue of the quality of instruction in public primary schools. Thus was born Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report, which has since earned a reputation for its startling findings about the levels of reading, writing andarithmetic ability in public primary schools.
Pratham then began to work on solutions, through the Learn to Read and Read India programmes.
The former is a carefully designed and tested model that helps children learn how to read effectively in six to eight weeks, while the latter focuses on mobilising lakhs of volunteers to help tutor batches of children across the country.
While Pratham is constantly expanding its outreach and its programmes, Chavan believes the Right to Education Act has been of no help so far. "The Act focuses on building classrooms, appointing teachers and providing mid-day meals, but these are not pre-conditions for reasonable learning," he says. "Fortunately, with the 12th planning commission, I believe the government is now shifting its focus to learning outcomes."