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Getting ready for social change

The Piramal Gandhi Fellowship aims to bring about social change by transforming rural education reports Eva Mary Pangracious

education Updated: Jul 21, 2010 09:24 IST
Eva Mary Pangracious

The Piramal Gandhi Fellowship (PGF), initiated in 2008, is a youth leadership-development programme, which the Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF) hopes to develop as a platform to generate the next batch of nation builders. They are set to follow in the footsteps of luminaries like Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s ‘white revolution’, and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Azad, former president of India, who are both known for providing grass-roots level leadership. PGF provides a platform to get engaged, understand rural issues, build skills, confidence and networks to bring about social change. “The biggest constraint to social change in our country is no longer money but skilled people” says Aditya Natraj, director, KEF.

Start with education
The foundation had identified a gap that needed to be filled and developed the Principal Leadership Development Programme. This, according to KEF, is a key tool to support rural school headmasters to become leaders and bring about change within their sphere of influence -- their school, community and the education system, as whole.

The KEF decided to work with headmasters because in villages, headmasters hold significant influence over a child’s learning outcome. KEF had found that headmasters across Indian villages didn’t have the kind of support that would bring about the necessary social change. The foundation says that headmasters usually receive little or no training to develop their skills and abilities. It formulated a plan to send urban-educated youngsters to aid and support these educators.
For the first batch, started last year, the foundation received over 800 applications from across India for just 40 seats. KEF selected candidates for the first batch of fellows on the basis of their ability to display empathy and teamwork.

A different world
Qualities of empathy and teamwork were important because these urban-educated youngsters would face very different conditions from the ones they were used to. “I am a girl who would never think of going and staying in slums. But this programme, that I conducted in a village in Rajasthan, has changed me a lot”, says Shreya Tiwari, who is doing her Master’s in elementary education from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Leaving behind all the comforts of city life, Tiwari immersed herself in the village’s community. She says she immediately took on the role of a trainer, teacher and stakeholder in the success of the programme.

Finding acceptance
The first batch, which comprised 11 fellows, were allotted different villages to work in. Each of these villages was at some distance from each other. Hence, communication problems arose.

Tiwari was initially apprehensive was about rowdy, drunken men, various illnesses and tales of women being assaulted in villages and a lack of means to stay in touch with her batch. However, she said she was proven wrong when she discovered that the village people were very kind and loving. Tiwari lived with a family that has traditionally taken care of horses. They took her in as their own daughter and relieved her of her fears. Every day, the family shared its food with her and even gave her a traditional dress to wear.

In the two-year-long fellowship, each fellow was allotted seven to eight headmasters in the first year.

In the second year, the number was brought down to three to four headmasters who were chosen from the bigger set. At first, the fellows faced some resistance from the headmasters some of whom questioned the fellow’s experience levels. However, with the passing of time, there was a substantial change. The headmasters, who were used to meting out corporal punishment took the cue from the fellows and started mixing with the students and even danced with them as part of the learning activities. All this helped break the ice with the formerly reticent students and learning became fun.

However, there were a few unpleasant experiences, as well. Tiwari recounts a boy named Arpit who did something that was a normal thing for his community. He ‘gifted’ a dead rat to ‘the didi from the city’. “I didn’t know how to react” says Tiwari. She took it in her stride and convinced him to take the dead rodent elsewhere. Another bad experience had to do with one of the headmasters and the negative way in which he reacted to her when she started working with him. However, she says, she was able to change his attitude by concentrating on the job and helping him with various school activities.

Tiwari is a much stronger person thanks to those experience and looks at the future with much hope. “I want to see a change in the education sector in the coming ten years and I want to change India’s National Curriculum,” she says. Tiwari is currently working with the same programme as a project leader and is also supporting the next batch of fellows.