Our politicians are also capable of doing good work

Prolog: I am taking a bit of a break from the History series because i need to do some more research. Myself, NK Sreedhar and Priya Raju are actually working on the Farmer/Sproat/Witzel paper to try and disprove it.  It appears Parpola has not done a good job of disproving the paper.

Myself, Priya Raju and a group of about 20 volunteers have adopted a Corporation School near our office. We volunteer our time to teach the students computing, english speaking etc. The Program Manager for this CSR initiative in our company is Archana Raghuram. For non-Indian readers, a Corporation School is the equivalent of a Public School in the USA. But the similarities stop there. In India, most children attending Corporation Schools come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The first few sessions with the school, that we have completed so far, have been very illuminating about the challenges primary/secondary schools face in India. This school is part of a school system that targets 192 million children in 1.1 million habitations.  This is just to give you a sense for the staggering size and complexity of anything in India due to our sheer population.

We found the children very enthusiastic about the program and surprisingly the teachers also are very supportive.  I happened to spend about an hour with the Head Master (Principal) of the school one-on-one and i was blown away by the sense of community involvement he displayed.  He told me a few things that made me revise my view of India’s politicians and I am sure you will agree that is not likely to be an everyday occurrence in India.

Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan(SSA) [Universal Primary Education]

The first thing he said was that about 5-6 years ago during the AB Vajpayee BJP Government days, he was made part of the ambitious Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan program. Till then he was a regular 9-5 teacher and after being a part of the program he is now a reformed man who constantly thinks about the community issues he is dealing with and that education has to be seen in the context of the community his school’s students are from. For instance, most students of this school come from disadvantaged backrounds – they are children of daily wage construction workers, menial workers, petty shop workers etc. Most of the parents are themselves illiterate making these students, first generation entrants to the school system. Female students face significant hurdles due to being forced out of the school system in the 9th grade due to societal pressures to get them married early or to make them assist their parents in their jobs etc. 

As he explained the situation, it was all becoming painfully clear. He took me outside his office to show a wall which had the goals  of the SSA program:

  • All children in school, Education Guarantee Centre, Alternate School, ‘ Back-to-School’ camp by 2003;
  • All children complete five years of primary schooling by 2007

  • All children complete eight years of elementary schooling by 2010  

  • Focus on elementary education of satisfactory quality with emphasis on education for life

  • Bridge all gender and social category gaps at primary stage by 2007 and at elementary education level by 2010

  • Universal retention by 2010  

You can see just from these goals the nature of the challenge faced by India. I went through the website for this program to further understand the program. Interestingly, the headmaster said that when the Congress government took over, they decided to continue this program. It is typical in India for succeeding governments to repeal/rewind most of the work done by the previous government. The fact that the Congress government did not do that, told me that, we are faced with a set of politicians who are comitted to making a dent on this garguantuan problem cutting across party lines. This is the human face of India’s politicians that is often not seen by us, when all we hear about is how corrupt everyone is.

Noon Meal Program 

As the headmaster started explaining i asked a number of questions. One of the programs that has been bothering me is the Noon Meal Scheme (or the Mid-Day Meals Program for School children). I always thought that this was yet another way for politicians to line up their pockets and giving poor quality food to the children. This is the perception i had even though i had read reports in the Western media about how good this program is for retaining children in school.

The headmaster then told me how the noon meal scheme was created and that blew my mind away – a true example of path-breaking creativity:

In the 1960s, K. Kamaraj, the then Chief Minister (similar to USA’s Governor of a state), was visiting a village and he happened to see a few young kids tending to cows. When he asked them why they were not in school – the boys asked Kamaraj if he will give food if they went to school. Within a few weeks, Kamaraj started what is the world’s first noon-meal program for grades 1 through 5 and later in the 1980s, MG Ramachandran, another Chief Minister, expanded the program to cover 6-12.

The headmaster said that the noon-meal program is one of the principal reasons why students stay back in school. He said that in the villages it has created a massive dent on school dropouts making dropouts almost non-existent.

Overall, SSA and the Noon Meal Programs are the kind of bold and ambitious initiatives we need in India to make poverty non-existent.

Way to go India.




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    Hello there. I was sent a link to your blog by a friend a while ago. I have been reading a long for a while now. Just wanted to say HI. Thanks for putting in all the hard work.

    Jennifer Lancey

  2. Quote
    Saraswathi said March 23, 2008, 11:36 pm:


    It was really inspiring to read about the initiatives taken by Indian Govt. towards education of children. As you have mentioned, many of the good deeds at times go unnoticed.

    Kudos to you and the team of volunteers for taking up this noble initiative. It makes me want to come back to India though 🙁

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    Saraswathi said March 23, 2008, 11:37 pm:

    Oh the above sentence sounds as if I don’t want to come back to India. I meant it makes me homesick and want to come back to India asap.

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    Thanks for the kind words Saraswathi. I empathize with your homesickness. Staying in touch with India via the blogs is a great way to keep homesickness at bay until your next visit here. Please give us a shout when you come to Chennai next.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 24, 2008, 7:44 am:

    Thanks for the kind words Jennifer.

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    Awesome effort!! Kudos to you and the entire team. Like Saraswathi mentioned, makes me want to come home.

    Sukumar, I know nothing can replace ‘volunteering one’s time’. But still, is there something that we could do from here??

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    Akshaya Patra and a few others take financial donations as well (that’s tax deductible 🙂 that then gets used for mid-day meals programs. Akshaya Patra is founded by leadership from the ISKCON group, if you’re okay with that.

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    First congratulations for working on the volunteering program. It is a noble gesture and must be some of the most satisfying hours in your lives.

    Until I read this blog, I am not aware that SSA is such a successful program at the field level. I congratulate the leaders who are behind this.

    I remember about 20 years back we used to have a district collector in Nellore by name K. Raju. He is one of the dedicated Govt servants. He made 100% literacy in Nellore district as his goal and was totally passionate about that. He even insisted his subordinates to give slate pencils and black slates on New Year Day instead of cakes, fruits and garlands(as the normal practice). His personal involvement increased the adult literacy.

    Inspired by one of the chapters in the curriculum about womans empowerment, the women in Dubagunta, Nellore District started anti-arrack agitation. It became a true mass and grass roots movement and snowballed into a state wide campaign. Finally AP Govt had to prohibit liquor. It showcases how close literacy and citizen empowerment are related. (Now AP Government carefully scrutinizes all the text books and censors any such empowerment chapters!!! So much for being a progressive state)


    Unfortunately, none of this is available on the Net freely. I will try to get as much data as possible and create a page in Wikipedia.

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    One more article about Rosamma. She explained how adult literacy program influenced the ant-arrack agitation

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 24, 2008, 9:39 am:

    Thanks. One of the tasks we have just begun is to collect some problem areas for which money may be required. Archana is planning on holding a concert whose proceeds will be spent on improving the school. One thing you can do sitting from there, is to buy some tickets and gift it to your friends and family here. They will enjoy the concert on your behald and the school will benefit. I had not thought about collecting funds from abroad for this untill your comment. I will do a post when we finalize the concert and you and the others that are interested can donate.

    Sreedhar, thanks for the tip. Akshaya Patra sounds like a wonderful initiative.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 24, 2008, 9:43 am:

    Thanks for the kind words. Rosamma’s story is very inspiring. We need more such Rosammas all across India. It is interesting that the spark in her was created through the adult education classes. I think it is fairly obvious that education is a key ingredient in human development. Rosamma’s story just emboldens the case for education.

    Recently Sujatha Manivasagam shared with us a research study showing that when women start earning their life expectancy starts increasing.

    Clearly, education and economic independence for all must be the 2 key things that we must strive to give all Indians and eventually all human being across the globe.

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    Thank you Sukumar. We’ll wait for the update.

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    You and your team have done a tremendous job in the school. It is really inspiring to see such a busy person like you make time for community service initiatives. Your example will serve as an inspiration for many people in our company.

    Even I have had several pleasant surprises about our government after I started working on this program.

    A month back I had gone for a meeting at Elcot. I met people from social welfare department. They had collected information on all schools in thrivalluvar district that did not have toilets. They were requesting the corporates to sponsor. They were looking at conducting computer training programs for transgenders. They were speaking about a previous initiative where they provided vocational training to transgenders and placed them in jobs. They acheived 100% placements.

    I heard another interesting piece of information from colleague. He was editor of a newspaper. He was telling how MGR decided to make 11th and 12th std part of school. In most other states it is part of college. He said there are about 100 colleges in TN but 600+ schools. If we make 11th and 12th part of school we would provide access to a larger section of students. That decision alone has led to TN being one of the top states as far as education goes.

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    Thanks Archana for the kind words. We have just started. It is too early to claim victory. I hope we can sustain the momentum and create a meaningful impact on this school.

    It is great to hear about the government initiative for transgenders.

    I didn’t know about MGR’s decision about the 11/12 classes. That is brilliant.

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    Hi Sukumar,

    Really nice to see your initiative . Inspired !
    Sometime last year, some of my friends and me decided to get along and start a small informal group and get together to change the ‘standard of living’ of children in India. This includes education of children regarding a simple & better way of living & helping them get settled in their life after initial education.

    We too faced a similar problem with some of us being in US and rest in India. We decided that people in US would contribute more with their research (taking into account the fact that ppl here spend more time before the internet) and potential learnings from US. We conduct fortnightly meetings on skype to brainstorm.
    Still in a naive state though., worth a look 🙂 http://targetingtheroots.blogspot.com/

    This blog is not the initiative though, its just a means to reach out to the world and in some cases organise ourselves with our direction.

    I saw some comments on how ppl in US can help. There are some organisations like ASHA, AID India which you might want to check out.

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    Thanks for visiting. I went through the blog you pointed to. It is very heartening to see young people like you commited to improving India. Keep up the great work.

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    Amazing that you can find time in your busy schedule to pursue this endeavor. Keep us posted on the progress and let me know how I can help.

    (I posted this via my iPhone)


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    Thanks for the kind words. We are yet to make any significant impact to claim victory. Hopefully we will be able to.

    Posted by iPhone. That is very cool. I am eagerly awaiting the iPhone official entry in India. Please do a post on your experience with the iPhone.

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    sujatha said March 27, 2008, 3:49 pm:


    Wow! What a great way to contribute to our school system. All the information about SSA is very interesting and eye-opening. Inspite of your busy schedule you are all donating your time and knowledge. Kudos to you all.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 28, 2008, 10:23 am:

    Thanks for the kind words Sujatha.

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    SSA was really a visionary project .. There were new outlooks even in class rooms newly built in the school..

    When My father took the project, there was an instruction that class rooms be build in hexagonal structure, and the roof top like pyramid.. It was an engineering challenge for him at that time, as the masons & centering persons were new to this type of model. Particularly, the pyramid type of roof was most challenging.
    I went to the sites along with my father, and interacted with the teachers. (during my college days). The teachers and headmasters were active, as they were apprehensive about the new building model. I think, the purpose was to break the traditional environment, and bring about a change in class room atmosphere.

    Its a good thing is that next congress government did not scrap this.. The central governments are more sensible than the state governments..

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    Andhrapradesh, and gujarat are pioneering in education and development. Andhra is the first to open rural ATMs. following that, Gujarat is heavily investing on rural development.

    Gujarat has laid down optical fibre networks, which is largest in asia and second largest in the world.

    I read the speech modi made at chennai, at thuglak’s annual function.. he told, a rural village in gujarat will get the connectivity, with a speed equal to that of Washington. that means, a student in a village can learn from a teacher in chennai using this connecivity..

    Whether this is feasible or not is next question.. but to have that vision is really a great thing for indian politicians..

    The school drop out rate is brought down to 3 % from more than 20%.. When the entire gujarat was affected by earth quake, each village was supplied with design, money and material bank for constructing school.. the people themselves were entrusted for building their school.. due to this people’s participation,
    there were lot of savings, and using that additional facilities were made for the schools..

    We are having few visionary politicians, who stands out of the normal ones.. this gives some hope..


    This laying of fibre optics would be completed by another 8 months as per his speech.. I was amazed at the very thought of that.. Its going to trigger a revolution in Gujarat in the coming years..
    By this network, it means, a BPO company can be started in any part of Gujarat.. Data centers coming in rural areas, thus reducing infrasturcture costs in terms of land and building.

    I wish, the same model be emulated all over india. An India with strong fibre optic connectivity all over would unleash great power..

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