A voice booms in the open, airy classroom.
It seeks out Aishwarya and asks: “Why weren’t you in class yesterday?”
A nervous 17-year-old stands up and looks solemnly at a new, black, wall-mounted LCD screen and says she was unwell, and that she’ll catch up with the Physics work she has missed.
Every day, two batches of 40 students each gather in this large room to learn from a 63-inch flat screen television, the largest in Akola and probably all the neighbouring villages.
The booming voices from the TV, the students hope, will help them build a future that even their parents could never have imagined.
It is the only Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE) coaching class in or around Akola, a bustling town 611 km north-east of Mumbai, and it is the only hope of several such aspirants.
The coaching class, officially called Safe Hands but better known as ‘Oak Sir’s class’ (after Nitin Oak, the founder), has tied up with Mumbai’s IITian Pace, a leading JEE coaching class.
The classes are conducted via video-conferencing, with the same faculty that teaches students in Mumbai, to ensure teaching standards are maintained.
Before this, students from rural areas could not avail of JEE coaching unless they moved to cities like Mumbai and Pune. And that would mean double the expense — for the tuition and for accommodation.
Now, coaching classes from Mumbai are opening up avenues for rural students. In January, Ideal e-live, another big Mumbai-based coaching class, tied up with coaching classes in smaller towns in Maharashtra for competitive exams for professional courses.
Classes are transmitted via satellite.
The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimates that the coaching class industry for IIT and other engineering institutes is worth Rs 10,000 crore, at an average of Rs 1.7 lakh per student.
Bright students from places like Akola cannot afford that cost. So Safe Hands offers coaching at Rs 50,000 for two years, which most parents pay in interest-free installments.
For Priyanka Bhusari from Mehkar, 100 kilometres from Akola, Safe Hands has been a dream come true.
No one in her taluka knew what an IIT was. “When I said I wanted to join IIT, they all thought I meant ITI and wondered why I needed coaching for that,” says the 17-year-old, clutching a set of thick books.
Her mother, a single parent, has shut down her beauty parlour and moved with her to Akola to fulfill her dream.
“No one in our taluka has ever gone to such a big college. But I could not afford to send her to the city alone,” says mother Alka, speaking in Hindi. “We have taken a big risk, but I never wanted Priyanka to say I didn’t allow her to follow her dream.”
Their dreams might be the same as city dwellers, say the students, but their motives are very different.
“Unlike students in the city, we are not indifferent to politics,” says Tushar Aggarwal (17), who dreams of someday heading a political party of his own. “We have had tougher lives, so we want to change the future.”
After IIT, Tushar wants to study for the Indian Administrative Service exam. “It is only when educated people become part of governance that the country can change,” he says.
Aggarwal and his group of friends spend a lot of time discussing the political party they want to form — after working for a few years and collecting enough funds.
But now it’s getting dark, so the students reluctantly get on their cycles and head home. They have to finish studying before the daily power cut, one thing that has not changed in Akola over the last five years.