Pratham was seeded in Mumbai by UNICEF and Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai back in 1994 with a mission to ensure "every child is in school and learning well". Formed as a tripartite partnership between the government, the corporate sector and citizens, today the mission has now expanded to 21 of India’s 28 states and is the largest non-governmental children's charity working to provide quality education to underprivileged children in rural and urban India.
Dr Madhav Chavan is the brainchild of this organization, and was deservedly the recipient of an award in the name of Social Entrepreneurship at the Skoll Foundation Conference at the University of Oxford last month. In conjunction with this award, Pratham will receive a three-year $1,235,000 grant from the Skoll Foundation to create an institution dedicated to identification, training, and nurturing of leaders, managers, and entrepreneurs who will not only continue to run Pratham programs around the country but who will also independently build new ideas and strengthen efforts in the area of education in the country.
There are few real visionaries left in the world and it was an honour for me to speak to Dr Chavan about his thoughts on the educational system of India and his hopes for the future…
How did Pratham begin?
We started about 18 years ago. I used to teach chemistry back then at the university in Mumbai. I moved back to India from the US in 1986 to become a researcher, but my career swerved into education. There was an appeal from the national literacy movement in India, and the government wanted people from different walks of life to help them out. I started working on my evenings in Mumbai with them. I got a good response from the people, and it seemed a little more exciting than the university work I was doing.
Originally Pratham was a different organization, working in the area of adult literacy, which I had personally set up. Then after a while, Unicef started talking about universalizing primary education in an unusual way: by bringing civil society, business and government together. And I thought that was a good idea, so I was put in charge of building that mission, and that’s what became Pratham.
How does Pratham function?
Pratham works in the area of primary education. 97% of the children in India go to primary school, but the problem is that about half of these children don’t even learn basic reading. So we try to help the governments improve their productivity. We are currently collaborating with 25000 villages to help children in education.
We work with volunteers on a very large scale. As we cannot pay our volunteers, we teach them skills. They can then use these long-term skills to help them find jobs afterwards. It’s a kind of vocational skilling. They are also given the opportunity to be trained to a specific vocation if they so wish.
We hear your current work is an Open School Program on girls’ education.
This is where we apply our title ‘Education for Education’, for young volunteers to help out. There are many girls, who drop out from school in the villages. Many of them are very bright – they just didn’t get to finish their education due to a variety of reasons. We ask them if they would like to complete their secondary schooling. If they say yes, they are given the option to pay for it, or if they cannot pay for it financially, we offer them to pay us back by teaching 20 children in their village. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in this.
They begin with a one-year refresher course, where they relearn their basic skills due to the time lapsed from dropping out of school, and then they start learning the secondary school curriculum and taking exams. We’re working with about 2000 girls at the moment.
Even with the number of girls in education rising, there still tends to be a habit that parents marry them off as soon as their education is finished.
There has been a social transformation. More and more women are now working, so there are role models for other women to look up to. It’s no longer the only option to opt for marriage, stay at home and look after the kitchen. This is changing rapidly in India.
India is growing to be one of the big superpowers and people are tending to stop seeing it as a 3rd world country. With this in mind, why should people from the UK feel they should raise money for Indian children?
If people are asking “why should we give”, they should not be giving. Giving is not a function of argument. Giving is a matter of good sense, emotions and thinking.
There’s a prediction that India will be the next superpower, but India is nowhere near. There are 1.2 billion people. Out of this population, there is a small proportion that has got very wealthy. That does not mean all Indians are rich, or that everyone has the same level of access to knowledge and education. The problem is that, although the case is true that India is getting wealthier, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. If we don’t educate people in India properly, it could lead to a demographic disaster, and as the largest single democracy in the world since world war 2, this could be seen as a global danger as well.
With organizations like Pratham, you’re not giving money to the Indian government. You’re giving it to people who want to change things at root level. But as I said: if you are asking “why should I give”, you should not give.
What projects do Pratham have for the future? Say 5 years time?
The Girls Education for Education programme is the next big thing that is going to happen. It’s already started rolling and we’re expecting excellent results and once this happens, we’ll be taking it to a much higher scale.
In 5 years time, we hope that the Pratham programmes will be replicated fivefold at least. We hope to not only be working in the primary education sector but also the secondary schooling sector too. One of the things that we want to do is to start getting into these open schools, because these schools are failing the masses. With the new technology coming in, there is a need for new content and a new way of teaching. We are trying to get this together, as to how the new technology can be used to its advantage. Many people now use computers. We’re thinking about how content can be changed and how children can access knowledge in a non-linear manner, as opposed to the step-wise curriculum that exists today.
We’ve been trying to develop applications to teach English on a mass scale. It is an illusion that most people in India speak English. In a village environment where nobody knows English, how do you teach it? For now, we have volunteers working in the cities, making phone calls to schoolchildren and giving them the opportunity to have conversations in English. We’re trying to do similar things in science for example. Instead of teaching science from books, we teach them popular science that they’ll be interested in, and then they have the option to explore the details of exact science and the technology they are personally interested in.
It’s a matter of approach, and we’re still working on it. And we hope in the next 3 or 4 years, as connectivity in India improves, we’ll be ready for it.
What can NRI’s do to help Pratham?
It depends on what you can do as an individual. One thing people can do is give money, but we are increasingly looking for people who can provide technical assistance. For example in the sphere of vocational skilling, we’re looking to see if there is anyone who can help in the software sector. There’s a whole bunch of things, it all depends on what you’re inclined to do and how much time you have.
Would it just be a matter of dropping you a line if they wanted to get involved?
We wish to attract young people after they’ve finished college to come for 2-3 months to help out in some tasks. That way they can get to see the how we work and what we do, before they commit to something long-term.
Pratham will be holding a UK Gala in London on Friday 5th October 2012. Kajol, the new ambassador of Pratham, will also be in attendance.
Photo credit: Pratham Books