Archive for April, 2011

The Sikshana Story – 4

April 28, 2011

The story with a personal touch

Phase I – The Schools that taught us Lessons

In the early days, Sikshana went through three distinct phases of growth. The first one saw it growing from three to fifteen, all in the City. Under the second, we added nearly 40 schools, all in Kanakapura. The third phase involved addition of all the remaining schools in the Taluks, along with a gradual disengagement from the City schools. This story is mostly about the first two phases and a bit of the third.

Word started getting round that there is a Program called Sikshana and there are a few crazy guys who keep coming to the schools and talk about the Quality of Education seriously. Though the money they distribute is nothing much to talk about, it seemed to be attractive enough to tide over a few routine expenses that the teachers would otherwise have to meet out of their pockets. The schools knew about the adoption scheme of the Government; they had heard stories of the riches bestowed on the lucky ones- mostly by Multinational Companies and Guys visiting in ‘ Benz Cars’. ( The last phrases are not mine; I should have given them in quotes.)

I went to the Department and got the numbers as I was also curious to know the reality. In ’03, there were 30 cases of adoption in the Bangalore South III, of which 28 were dormant ; the adopters had not even bothered to visit the schools. Two others used the visit the schools once in a while, mainly to distribute items like note books and ‘uniforms/ties’ (?); they were not interested enough to ask whether the kids are better off in their studies as a result. To use  a cliche, we were sticking out like a sore thumb in this scene.   No wonder we were talked about the periodic HM’s meet and a few of them from the nearby schools started trickling to request us to adopt them too.

The first schools that came in were Gubbalala, Ittimadu and Kadirnehalli – followed by Kariasandra, Kumaraswamy Layout, Chandranagar and Vasanthapura. The last to get added in the South Zone were Srinivasan Colony and Turahalli. Somewhere on the way, we collected three schools from other zones in the City- Adugodi in South I and RT Nagar Tamil/Urdu medium schools in North. Our experience with each one of them was a case study for us in a way, since we were very much on the learning curve ourselves at this stage.

Let me start with our failures first; these were the schools that taught us the essentials of working in this field. There were three of them, which we had to abandon finally – each for a different reason; the lessons we learnt from them would stand by us  in the days to come.

Adugodi

This is a State designated Model school in a VIP locality; it had everything a primary school needs and more. There were 21 teachers for 13 classes; they had three more class rooms more Ghana what they needed. The school had a well equipped library and laboratory, also spacious playgrounds. The HM proudly stated that the school got kids coming in from long distances with bus passes as the school had all the facilities of a good private school. We would not have got into this school but for strong pressures from Oracle; their reason was that the school was within easy commuting distance of their Office and that would facilitate volunteering from their staff. I had known one thing for sure by this time- that for a serious volunteer commute is never an issue. It is wishful thinking that people will visit schools if they happen to be in the vicinity. I tried to communicate this to the Oracle group without success. Considering the co- operation we were getting from Oracle, we decided to make an exception to this school which was beyond our area of operation and adopt it.

The program never got off in this school; the very first visit and the meet with the HM turned out to be a ‘disaster’. With great difficulty, I got a time slot to interact with students. I went into the Sixth Grade class and tried to assess the learning level, especially in Kannada. To my surprise, I found many kids unable to write a simple sentence, something I could get easily in any one of the other schools. The class teacher butted in and took me away very soon to meet the HM. This guy had an impressive office- Assistant and Attendant included- and looked least like a teacher. It took a lot more time for me to realize that such schools are not easy to get posted to and you have to be ‘somebody’ to be that lucky. Anyway, he started off first without giving me a chance; his introduction included the names of all VIP’s who are behind his  school and the fact that the Department had just approved Rs 20 lakhs – to which the latter have added some more –  for construction of new multiple-storied block after demolishing the existing ( what looked to me like very habitable) building. He bluntly told me that his school had a good academic record and did not need any external help to improve it; on the other hand they have some unfulfilled requirements in other areas on which he expected help from Oracle and us. The question ‘such as what’ elicited two immediate responses- an expected one which was computers and another unexpected : a table tennis table. I had already come to the conclusion that this school has no need for  us, a feeling very much reciprocated.   The program lasted a few weeks during which we rarely went there and the Oracle staff put in their appearance even less. Thus ended the story of Adugodi school; we never came round to informing the Department about our decision as a result of which it is highly likely that the official records may still show us as the ‘adopter’ of this school!

This school taught us not to step into a one unless we are wanted there. It also confirmed our view that infrastructure alone does not make a good school.

Kariasandra

This school is located in a thickly populated area which is communally bipolar and hence sensitive. It had an Urdu medium school close by and they had running issues between them. The kids were great and deserved all the support we can provide. There were serious  problems with the HM and we could do nothing about it. To start, he was a ‘political appointee’ and none could move him; the parents had earlier tried, failed and given up. He used to put in his appearance now and then in the school, as he had some business running on the side. Notwithstanding his irregular attendance, he had iron fisted control over the teachers, who were scared of him and would not talk to anyone on anything concerning the school. Worst of all, he was aggressive on communal issues which made it impossible for the school to function in the locality.

We provided everything the school asked for- teachers, teaching aids, note books and even a pump and storage tank for water supply. Soon we found that the school premises were being vandalized almost daily by other kids in the neighborhood and nothing that we gave was safe. I had a heart to heart talk with him and counseled him to make peace with his ‘constituents’ ; I even offered to accompany him to meet the ‘Imam’ of the mosque in the vicinity and request his good offices for issuing an appeal to respect the school premises. The parents were fully with me on this but the HM would not budge. His response was in such unacceptable language that I dare not reproduce it here. I made one last ditch effort to sort out the issue with the local Corporator; I was not surprised to find that his  views were not very different, which closed all avenues.

We stopped taking active interest in the school hoping that the HM may be changed; but that was not to be. We never went back to this school.

This school taught us that, to be successful, it has be on the same wavelength as the community around it. It could manage to do well even if the latter is indifferent, but not when it is hostile.

Ittimadu

This was the saddest case of all, especially in the light of the efforts we put in to upgrade this school and the wonderful kids studying there. When we went in for the first time, we found to our horror the kids were literally having their classes on the road. Being  a side street, there were no major issues with traffic but whenever it rained the students used to take shelter in the available two rooms and all teaching stopped. To avoid the sun the classes were held under the shade of a tree in an adjacent house. The school had a strength in excess of 200 already and had to turn off parents to other schools for want of space.

One of the first things we did was to extend the mid day meal scheme to this school too-  thanks to Appaji Gowda. Next, we went about scouting for funds to build two additional class rooms after refurbishing the existing ones. Since the space available was severely limited, the proposed addition has to be on an upper floor which meant that the existing building needed to be strengthened for taking the load. This was the first major effort in fund-raising we got involved in; we tried local resources with little success. Nagamani Rao took up the job with tremendous enthusiasm networking with her friends and the business associates of Mr Rao; and before long we had the required funds in the bag. We got a warm hearted contractor to take up the work who completed the job in record time. Much to the consternation of the local bigwigs, we got the new block inaugurated by  ‘ the best’ kid from the school.

We went into the fast mode in the implementation of the program; the kids and teachers were responding very well. There was visible improvement both in attendance and learning outcome; the school got upgraded to an Upper Primary school in no time.  Two volunteers came in from USA – Anne and Sunil- to do internship in this school. I will revert to their experience a little later but for the present, it is enough to state that they were an amazing success with the kids. Eighteen months down the line, the picture was all rosy; and then disaster struck – not as a single stroke but in a series, one after the other as bits of information that we could not ignore.

We had two trust teachers working in this school, and as was our custom, distributing their honorarium through the HM. Once late in a month, one of the teachers came to me and requested that she be paid the amount early as she had major domestic issues. I was surprised to hear that since the amount has already been handed over in the beginning of the month to the HM; on further questioning she said that informed me that the HM told her that she was yet to receive it from the Trust. When I pressed further, she said that they always get the amount late in the month. An alarm bell rang in my mind; I asked her how much was getting. She was very reluctant to answer this but after a lot of coaxing, she said that they were getting 1200 though the Appointment order mentioned that it was 1500. The HM has apparently told her that was the standard practice with the Trust as was the case with most private schools. I was shocked; apparently this had been going on for some time. Nagamani was acting more or less as the mentor of this school; both of us went there to find out how deep the rot was. We took time to talk to the teachers; initially they were scared to talk about the HM but slowly it emerged that this lady has been doing this for a long time. During that year, we had distributed note books to all the kids from the Trust: apparently immediately after that another NGO came and gave 1000 more. The lady had taken them all back from the kids and sold them in the market. She had even been misappropriating the stipends given by the Department for challenged kids!

We tried counseling with her; she bluntly denied all charges and on going back started harassing the Trust teachers suspecting their hand in this development. In a few days, these girls came crying and requested to be relieved as they could no longer bear the treatment by the HM. Other teachers confirmed what was happening but were unwilling to come forward with their version. Apparently she was so well connected that nothing could be done; some of the parents had apparently tried and failed. The School Committee was totally under her control; so this was ruled out too.

At this time, we were spread very thin in managing the schools; there was no way by which we could ensure that our resources reach the  kids. With regret, we started gradually withdrawing from this school; the HM knew the game was up as far as we were concerned. It was sad that she had the last word in the entire episode; she told us that we were no longer welcome in her school except on her terms.

Our experiences in these schools showed that you need to have the HM with you  if the program is to be effective. Even if this person is not enthusiastic about it, the situation can be handled; however if he/she is determined to derail it, there is pretty little that can be done by outsiders like us. This truth scared me quite a bit and for a long time. It was not until we had had a year of working with the Phase III schools in Kanakapura that I realized that such cases are really rare exceptions; we found that there was only one such school among 127, and even this one was not so bad that we had to abandon it. That was really good statistics to work with anywhere.

Management Books tell you that if you do not have any failure to show, there is something wrong with your  approach;  maybe you are not daring enough. In line with this concept, we did have our quota of failures; let us now move on to the success stories.

E S Ramamurthy

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A Crazy Idea

April 24, 2011

Every good idea which is ahead of its time from one appears crazy to others; History is replete with instances. I was just reading a book “Why Not” by   Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres. You should do it too; that will make it easy for you to understand what follows.

The State spends on a conservative estimate Rs 10,000 plus per annum on every child in school at the primary level. We have now a plethora of problems facing us notwithstanding this munificent gesture. The State feels the kids to be thankful to it; but what do they do? They drop out of schools and / or fail their examinations, adding to the woes of he teachers. Those who are a bit better do even worse; they ‘run away’ to a private school! As for parents, all freebies apart, it does cost them money to educate a kid well even if it is in a Government school; starting from a few hundred rupees at the primary level, it goes up to a couple of thousands at the High School.  This is behind many of the ills today.

With RTE around the corner, private schools are shuddering at the thought of having to admit the ‘unwashed’ among their midst; worse still with pretty little in terms of compensation. I have an idea which will rid the System of all these.

The State could learn to live with Rs 8800 instead of 10,000 (if it is only that) and place Rs 100 in the hands of the kid every month – or Rs 4 per day of attendance-  as long as he is in a State run school. That is not a tough thing to do. The amount may be deemed to be a scholarship – so there is no stigma attached to it.  Let us look at all the positive things this will achieve:

Dropouts and absenteeism will drastically come down; the teachers will not have to visit the homes of the absentee kids any longer.

The enrollment figures in public schools will stop declining; the State may no longer have to worry about closing schools and relocating teachers- both very unpopular measures to deal with.

The private schools could continue to do they are good at- whatever that is- without fear of the unknown arising from RTE.

Who knows, if the amount is linked to MLL’s (minimum learning levels) and a pass in an examination, we may even have spectacular increases in these areas too

The reason why I quoted the above book is simply this: it is often about the Why Not rather than the Why. Why should we always plan on the basis of children having to pay for education? Why cannot the State pay them for getting educated in their schools?  After all, are they not spending a fortune already with pretty little to show?

This will naturally be resisted by those who are going to be affected when the budgeted 10k becomes 8.8 k. I am confident about one thing; these guys are smart enough to find 11.2 k when it comes to the crux. That will leave everyone happy.

Incidentally, the idea did not come just from the book alone. Earlier Pathak of Sulabh fame suggested that the sanitation problem in the country cannot be solved as long as one has to pay for the needed facility. Instead if you start paying some one for using a toilet the situation changes dramatically, you no longer have to sell the idea of using them and not the open space all around or the streets This depends on the technology  for converting the waste into gas and manure which we have and  the entrepreneurship which we are lacking .You solve two problems using this idea. It is sad this concept is still to take off.

A Post Script: There is no sanctity about the figure 100. The results are bound to be even more dramatic if you double it.

E S Ramamurthy

The Sikshana Story -3

April 24, 2011

The Story with a Personal Touch


Part 3:  Sikshana Comes of Age

City Schools – Phase I

The first phase of Sikshana covered the period 2002 to 2004, starting with three schools and going up to fifteen. The three schools were the Lower Primary schools at Chikkakallasandra and Gowdenpalya, besides the UPS at Arehalli.

At this time, there was no concept of exclusions in the scope; both lower and upper primary schools were considered fit for adoption.  We had three key persons in these schools who effectively implemented our program: Srinivas at Arehalli, Rajanna at CSandra and Pushpalatha at GPalya; I have to be eternally grateful to them for providing me with a good start. Of these, the latter two were the HM’s in their schools while Srinivas was only an Assistant Master, a strange designation in the Government hierarchy. He is one of those rare persons who wanted to be with the kids and teach team; for this, he took transfer from a ‘comfortable’ desk job in the Department. He fitted the bill very well for us- to the extent the HM Mr Prahad allowed. We had already started feeling the need and importance of a supportive HM; Prahlad was not one of them. Fortunately Government thought it fit to transfer him out after an initial brief spell and solved the problem for us- though he did come back to haunt us much later but then that is another story. Vijayalakshmi who officiated as HM thereafter did a great job with the support of all the teachers. She proved a point which was more forcefully brought out to us later; she did not even have a Diploma in teaching while Prahlad was a Graduate- but she loved to be with the kids. Rajanna and Pushpalatha were also of the same mould; that helped me a lot. We used to meet once in a month in the Conference Hall of our Apartment to review the past performance and plan ahead. The requirements of the schools were pretty down to earth in those days. 

We had a ball park figure of Rs 25,000 per school per annum as the admissible expense; it was more of a question of finding out what can be done with this amount rather than ascertaining how much is needed to improve the learning levels in a school. As long as we could make a significant impact on the quality with this budget, it was fine with us. A ‘not so well known’ fact: this figure owes its origin to Prabhakaran. We looked at a lot of figures such as the State Budget, the number of schools in Karnataka and even the extent of World Bank funding before arriving at it- in the light of our commitment to the idea of sustainability. 

With just this one concept as our Mission Statement and a Bank Balance that was not enough to excite the Branch Manger of a Nationalized Bank, our long journey commenced. We had not framed our Goals and Vision Statement yet at this time, but that did not deter us from announcing in the public domain that we aim to touch the 1000 school mark in five years! As Prabhakaran said at this time, if we could not even do this, what is the use of launching such a venture at our age. That was the first -and the last time for quite a few years- that we thought of our respective ages; we were far to busy building an Organization.  

It is significant that the ‘ball park figure’ of 25k has not gone far beyond 40k even after a decade, despite revisions in scope and goals, not to mention the effect of inflation; and we crossed the 500 school mark in 8 years; that is not a bad performance at all by any standard if you ask me – but then I am not the right person to pass a judgment on it.  

It is worth going through the stories of the first few schools at some length because we learnt a lot from them. 

The Gowdenpalya School

The GP school had just started functioning and had only two Grades in ’02; it was functioning in a small shed, courtesy the local temple. The school has to be given a day off whenever the temple had festivities, which was often enough. All that they wanted in the first year was an additional ‘blackboard’ and a few mats for the kids to sit, since the floor was damp.  We could provide these and everyone was happy. Soon, the number of Grades rose to three and space – or lack of it – became a critical issue even in the ‘leased’ premises. One class used to be conducted under the temple tree, weather permitting.  

I was pretty idealistic those days; I checked on the net and wrote a personal email to the Chief Minister, requesting allocation of land and funds for constructing class rooms. Presto, I got a prompt reply directing all concerned including CPI and DC to take necessary action under intimation to his office. I thought the problem was resolved; everyone at the school were thrilled! With my years of experience with Government protocol, I should have known better.

I went to meet the CPI to initiate the next step. He told me that the necessary funds could be  allocated for the class rooms as soon as suitable land has been identified and the person I should meet for this is the DC. The experience here was very different; the letter from the CM meant nothing here. I had to queue up – not literally- with sundry guys loaded meaningfully with briefcases for the ‘Darshan’ and managed to get his attention, solely because I was the odd guy and stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd. I was told to meet the Additional DC with whom the matter rested; the latter gentleman thought otherwise quoting some obtuse clause in the Regulations. It took a week of patient followup before a solution of sorts was arrived at- not before one of the decent guys in the Department asked me with pity in his voice- ” so you are doing all this for a Government school and not to get a site for yourself!”.

Apparently the procedure is for the School Committee to find availability of Government  land in the vicinity and apply for allotment; and the custodian for this information concerning the State owned land is the Revenue Inspector of the zone, a minion who reports to the same DC back. Why this worthy official cannot or did not want to use the powers he had to find the land himself ceased to be a mystery after the next step. I requested the HM to go to the zonal office and seek the information. Being a lady, she did not feel up to it; so we entrusted the job to Rajanna. When he did that, the guy in the office was speechless; he literally asked him whether he – Rajanna- really expected him to part with the valuable information for which there are people waiting in line with the cliched briefcases- and for a Government school of all things! 

Finding myself at a dead end, I wrote back to the CM; surprise of surprises, there was a response again in the form of a reminder to the official machinery. There was some reaction this time, though from a different set of people. On a Sunday morning, I got  a call; a nondescript guy rang my door bell and informed me that Mr X and Mr Y – both Corporators of the region wanted to meet at the GP school. Since it was just a 5 minute walk, I was there promptly. I found a crowd of fifty persons surrounding them but I was allowed to gatecrash the cordon. One of the two worthies asked me : ” so you are the guy who is writing letters to CM on ‘our’ school?” . I let that pass; they had a brief consultation with each other and then told me that they are allotting a 30’x40′ site for the school in the ‘Kere’ area. In return, I am to write back to the CM that the matter is settled. I was not impressed; I could see they were trying to apportion the Kere land among their supporters and going by that the area offered was a pittance. Moreover any decent Lower Primary school will need a lot more than the area proposed. Hence I told them that the school is theirs and I am no one to accept or reject the offer. They could take it up with the School Committee; as for my view, the site proposed is not adequate. The guys were amazed at this insolence from an outsider; they told me brusquely that i could go. That was the last I heard about alocation of land for the GP school. There were three sequels to this episode: 

  • The CM changed; that was the end of my direct appeal
  • The school got another temporary shelter in the form of 21/2 hastily constructed rooms in a no man’s land. That is where it stands still, with no permanent solution in sight. With sky rocketing real estate prices in the City, neither this school nor any other State owned one is likely to get land allotted for class room construction.
  • The only good news: the Kere in GPalya is still safe, though it holds no water. The sharks have not been able to grab it – at least not yet.

Chikkakallasandra school

While all this was happening, we were focusing on the CKS school too. This one was also operating in temporary premises – actually at two locations- and its continuance was entirely at the mercy of one Doddavenkatappa to whom the site belonged. This gentleman apparently belonged to a different generation and culture, and had bequeathed his property to a public cause at considerable financial inconvenience to himself and his family. His son, who was aspiring for a political slot has already started giving broad hints at resuming the ownership, placing the continuance of this school too at peril. I suggested to Rajanna that he should seek a site for the school through a resolution of the School Committee. In spite of repeated efforts on my part nothing was moving; after considerable persuasion, he came up with the real reason. He did try it once earlier, even adding for good measure that there is land available at another Kere available nearby which was being gobbled up on the pretext of locating a Bus Terminal as a civic amenity in a major part of it. A few thugs landed up in the school very next day and told him in their own language that his job is to teach and not to get involved in real estate deals- leaving him in no doubt about what would happen to him in case he did not toe the line. This ended not only his interests in land acquisition for a public cause but mine too; though it did come up again for a short while in the school in Kumaraswamy Layout a couple of years later with worse results.  

Land or no land, the kids needed space and the school needed more area, as its strength was steadily increasing. The school did not have any water supply or drainage either; the kids could not wash up after taking lunch. The entire process took more than hour, since the available space was so limited that the floor has to be mopped up and allowed to dry before the classes can commence again. That brought me to another major problem affecting most kids and their ability to withstand the class room rigor; and it was not confined to this school alone. 

Mid- day meals and Appaji Gowda 

These were the days before the advent of the State funded mid-day meal scheme. I found that most kids were either taking breakfast or lunch, not both. I found it inhuman to talk to them all the high brow stuff about education when they were on a hungry stomach. It was Feb 02 when I came to know about it, thanks to Srinivas and Vijayalakshmi at Arehalli. On 15th of the month, I took a momentous decision to announce that we will provide a hot meal to every child in the three schools by 15th March, well before the examinations and closure of the academic year. In retrospect, it appears to me even today that I should have been mad doing it since I had neither the financial means to redeem this promise nor any known source of providing this facility. Mind you, we were operating on a shoe string budget at this time – to be precise Rs 5000 per month- and that was already eating into our capital at an alarming rate. 

I convened the first major meet of the HM’s and had a long session. Rajanna came to my rescue with the information that there are one or two Organizations in the City who supply meals to Government schools but he did not know who they were and whether they did it on payment or for free. I asked them to go around, ask their colleagues and get the required information. After a hectic day or two, they came back with the valuable information that there is one Kannada Kasturi Sangha run by Appaji Gowda, located conveniently in BSK II Stage, which does this but the terms were not known.  That was enough for me to get started. 

My meeting with Gowda was one of those milestone events in the evolution of Sikshana. He was really an amazing guy with a unparalleled dedication for the cause he had taken up- which was to provide poor kids with one good hot meal a day. For doing this, he had left his job with Amco, sold his personal property and set up an enviably modern and hygienic kitchen to prepare something like 25,000 lunches per day. He went on to involve his entire family in this ‘mad’ venture which was getting him pretty little by way of returns. The time he could take off when he was not managing the preparation of meals, he was running around seeking Donors for anything that will make a difference to him. By the time I met him, he had built a network which was very amorphous. There was one person for rice, another for vegetables, yet another for oil and pulses and so on. There was even one benefactor who was a Manager in an Oil PSU; he arranged for cooking gas at ‘concessional’ rates, which was almost a practical impossibility in those days! I learnt from him what it takes to run a philanthropic activity of this type, the humility that is needed and the mental ability required to take a ‘no’ without a hit on your ego. It was because of him that I could bring myself round to waiting in the ante- rooms of minor bureaucrats for small mercies in the subsequent days. 

The first thing he did on hearing that I was running an NGO was to touch me for funding. When he heard that I was a lot ‘drier’ than him, I felt he would lose all interest. It was to his credit he heard me through patiently; the fact I made such a rash commitment to the schools endeared me to him. He said the sweetest words I have heard in a long time: let us sit down and find a solution. It turned out that he was about to commit for another 2000 kids; he said he will somehow accommodate our thousand for a year but even he could do little about transporting the meals to the schools.  He was woefully short of vehicles even for his current commitments. So it came to pass that if only I can get him a ‘Tempo’, he would send the meals to schools. 

He would not let me go at that; he accompanied me to the vehicle distributor on Lalbagh Road and got a hire purchase deal which involved a down payment of Rs 30,000. This amount which looks like pocket money these days was a fortune in 2002; more so when we had committed all our cash reserves to running the schools. This was also the time when, apart from a few hundred rupees here and there, Donors are yet to appear on the horizon. To be fair, what is it that we had to show at this time in the field – except a lot of enthusiasm? I came home and sent just ten requests for funds by email to those close to me among my network; funny, I could not bring myself to mentioning the amount in it, since I felt that would scare people away. 

What followed next will strain your credibility; I can do nothing about it since that is exactly what happened. I got just one response and that was for Rs 30,000. This person is still of our well wishers and keeps himself informed of our progress; but we never got another cheque from him till today. For the non-believers, the financial statement of the Trust is still available for perusal. 

The supply of mid- day meals commenced exactly as promised on 15th March; there was real jubilation all round. The biggest gain was that the credibility of Sikshana never had to be proved again in the City schools. Appaji Gowda and me remained close friends for the next five years. I wish I can close this on this happy note but that was not to be. ; the Government made the scheme a State supported welfare measure, paving the way for the entry of other ‘commercial’ aspirants to take advantage of the subsidy and set up similar kitchens. The idealism that drove the likes of Gowda has to take a back seat. The last I heard of him was that he is still in this business but waiting in line for the monthly doles from the State to keep his kitchen going.  

CKS Again

The advent of mid- day meal compounded the problems in this school. In the limited space that was available, Rajanna had to receive the food, distribute them, arrange to clean up the vessels/ plates and get the rooms back in good and dry condition for the classes to resume. To add to his woes, the school had neither running water supply nor drainage facilities. It was real chaos between 1 and 230 PM, the school losing an hour of teaching time in the process. I could have helped them with an overhead tank but the school needed a water supply connection with the blessings of BWSSB, also a link to the drainage line; the red tape for these steps looked forbidding. 

Rajanna then did what I would never had done; he went to the BWSSB office and got the line man to come and do the job for a ‘reasonable consideration’. For a bit extra, he also connected the overhead tank and terminated the waste line into somebody else’s outlet pipe. All in all, it was a neat job – applauded by the kids and more vigorously by the neighbors who were relieved of the daily bother from them. The latter was so strong and obvious that I felt I lost a good opportunity to tap them for the funds! The summer of 02 was coming to an end and the school at last looked positively attractive, at least to someone like me who had seen what it was like earlier.  

Somewhere during this period, I got the next significant offer of assistance from British Airways through one of the Donor Organizations. I used this to get a new hall constructed over the existing building; that was a big relief to the kids who no longer had to jostle with each other for space. Eight years down the line, discussions are apparently going on still about how and where to relocate this school. 

2003 saw induction of Trust Teachers in all the three schools, who offered the kids an alternate to their process of learning. This eased the pressure off the workload of the Government teachers to a large extent. The year also marked the entry of Oracle Volunteers into Sikshana and induction of the first computers in our schools – thanks to Ravi for both. Teachers were thrilled to be taken to the HP Labs for a training program on Computer usage by the Volunteers. More importantly, Sikshana ceased to be a   ‘one and a half person’ Organization at last – apologies to Prabakaran here. The teachers and the kids were delighted to see new faces; more volunteers have started coming in through various sources signifying the first transformation of Sikshana and its coming of age. 

E S Ramamurthy

THe Sikshana Story – 2

April 24, 2011

The Sikshana Story with a Personal Touch


Part 2: All about People who mattered

2.1 The Management Team

Before I pick up the thread on the school front, I need to touch upon the various people who came into my life – and Sikshana’s- and made all the difference. The first mention goes rightly to my wife, who not only provided the seed capital from her own inherited funds, but also gave me the necessary confidence to go ahead; she was an active partner in the field when I had none else, until indifferent health forced her to reduce her involvement. To let me go away for the whole day to work for a cause – when she has to be all alone at home without me and manage everything on the domestic front unassisted – was itself a great sacrifice, for which I have to be eternally grateful to her. 


 Balamuralikrishna was the next to come in as the Financial Adviser and the third member of Sivasri Charitable Trust. Besides framing the bylaws and registering the Organization, he functioned as the sole arbiter for everything concerning the Trust other than the work in the field. It was a long time before the next member was formally inducted into the Board.

Those were the days when I was still groping around to give a shape to Sikshana. I had a great friend in Prabhakaran with whom I have had a five decade old association from the good old school days. it was to him I used to turn for advise and brainstorming for fresh ideas.  We used to live close to each other and that helped a lot; ironically it was not until I shifted out of this part of the City that the real break came. 

I moved to a new apartment near Uttarahalli for personal reasons; acquisition of this brought me in touch with Indira Sharma. Whenever I was not talking to her about some aspect of the sale or occupancy of this flat, I used to chat about my interest in education and the possible adoption of schools. She was the one who put me in touch with Madhukar of Azim Premji Foundation. Madhukar came into APF with impressive credentials, having organized Pratham in Mumbai- a pioneering initiative for which I have great respect even today. We used to have long chats in his office and at our homes on the various issues confronting the Public Education System.  It is sad that our association could not last long on account of his having to relocate himself; however it did freeze the profile of Sikshana to a large extent as we know it today.  It took years before Prabakaran and Indira came on Board as Directors. 

The next one to come on board was Ravindra, who was introduced to me by a ‘mutual friend’. He was with Oracle at that time and I started going to him with requests for help- volunteers initially and then for funds and computers. These were the days when Sikshana was driven almost totally by Volunteers, many of whom did yeomen service to the program leaving their footprints; I will revert to them later under a separate section. The ones from Oracle were the first lot to come in and put up a structured effort; and I owe this to Ravi. It may look like a small step now, but at that time, it was a breath of life. It was not long before I started nagging Ravi for a web site, both for authoring and hosting. This took me to Prashanth who was busy building up Netkraft at that time in his Office on Richmond Road. I can still recall the guys with whom I sat and put together bits and pieces to come up with a credible web site.   The immense sense of joy the first sight of it gave cannot be described; it was almost as if I had got a real one from BDA!  Both Ravindra and Prashanth came into the Board more or less at the same time. The team that came into being at this point saw Sikshana through a most crucial period effectively for the next three years.

The last statement was not entirely correct, since there was one person all through who was helping me round the clock – with and without my asking. This is Subrmaniam – Subbu as he would like to be called- who used to be my ‘one person think tank’ and sounding board, rolled into one. Residing in the same Apartment Complex gave us greater opportunity to interact with each other- a luxury I could not share with the rest. He was with Novell at that time; for personal reasons of his own he was insistent on participating in the program without a position on the Board for quite some time. Somewhere during this intervening period, his personal circumstances changed and he agreed to come on board – pun unintended. 

Subbu had two friends who had as much passion for the cause as I had – possibly more – who initially preferred to stick to writing cheques especially in times of crises. It took some time before I can persuade one of them – Srivatsa- to join the team, which he eventually did. In these two cases, the transition was so ‘invisible’ that I cannot even say when it took place without going back to my badly maintained records of the period. 

Sometime during 07-08, I started talking to Prashanth and Ravi on the need to strengthen the Board further with Members who could bring in more expertise and add color to the discussions. This led us first to meet Dr Sastry in the lobby of Hotel Chancery. My powers of persuasion should have been at their peak at this time; it took only an hour to convince him to join us. This was followed by a meet with Dr Gurudas, which produced similar results. 

By now, I felt that it was time I opted out of all ‘executive responsibilities’ in Sikshana, having reached an age at which I was overdue doing it by at least ten years. It took all my powers of persuasion to convince Prashanth that he should henceforth shoulder the responsibility of the Chairman of the Board and relieve me from this position. It was extremely generous of him to accept this request of mine; he does not know even now that was the first day I could sleep well in a long time – free of the burden and with the knowledge that someone else will henceforth take care of the payments and salary checks. 

I have a knack of sitting down to write a story and somewhere along the line realize that I have missed out on the ‘Hero’. It is difficult to place the entry of Prasanna in this narrative at the right point. Do I take it that it started when we met in Austin during one of my visits where I was trying my best to deliver an evangelical talk? Or when he came to Bangalore and met me to discuss seriously the possibility of associating himself full time with Sikshana? Or when he decided to relocate himself finally in Bangalore and use the platform offered by Sikshana, rather than start something on his own? Whichever, I have to thank Providence above and him – not necessarily in that order- for the decision he took; which essentially was to take away bulk of the burden I was carrying on my ‘none too strong’ shoulders. 

While I can take some credit for all the above inductions into the team, it becomes a moot point for all additions beyond this stage. Gayathri was the next to join; her decision could very well be due to Prasanth’s presence rather than my persuasive powers. Of course I would like to think it is due to me. In the case of Giridhar who joined subsequently, I could take some credit, since I had known him personally for long. Sudhakar who is just joining us is the last in the list; by this time I feel the program has grown enough to attract talent into the Board. 

In this part of the narrative, I am aware I have strayed away from the theme which is about the Early Days. I will ensure that this is an exception and does not become a rule. 

2.2 Volunteers

The first name that comes to my mind under the former category is Nagamani Rao.  She was a source of strength at times when we needed it most- whether it is the physical presence in schools or raising funds. She was solely responsible for getting class rooms built at Ittimadu when kids were literally in the street for want of space. The pictures shown here should speak volumes on the work done by us; more on this school will come later in this narrative.

She was the brain behind implementing the concept of the library program as a means developing the reading habit among the kids; the first events at Sapna Book House with reputed media personalities talking to the students and narrating stories were roaring successes and captured the spirit of the program better than ever. I would consider them as benchmarks to aspire for even today. Nagamani keeps in touch with us even today and offers help in spite of severe personal constraints.

She was followed by two more remarkable persons- Geetha and Rohini – who kept at serious volunteering in schools for almost two years. The emerging group was led by Pramod and Rohith; they took up the task of making computers accessible and understood by the kids in the schools. Considering that these were used Desktops of different vintage and being used under pretty rough conditions, their job was unenviable. The other remarkable thing was the steady flow of like minded persons from Oracle into Sikshana led by Elango, who also contributed a lot by way of fund raising in their premises and elsewhere. The group was joined by one of my old colleagues from BHEL, Saijee Rao, whose commitment exceeded the conventional limits of volunteering; he was the first to take up serious issues involved in the delivery processes for education in schools and could be taken as the forerunner for Subbu of today. We started around this time the first Yahoo group called Friends of Sikshana which was an effective forum of exchange of views and also to make periodic announcements and pass on information for common use.  

I have mentioned the names of just a few here; the actual number is such that any attempt to list them all will make it look like a telephone directory. Every one of them showed remarkable sense of commitment and dedication for the duration they were with us. Slowly it dawned on me – even before it struck them- that this is not sustainable over a period of time. The exigencies – personal and official- forced them to withdraw from active participation, however much they would not have wanted to. Often it was a case of overestimating the extent to which one can involve in such activities, given the more routine daily duties and constraints. I started studying seriously the subject of volunteering and its role in socially productive causes; the information collected in the process was the theme of many talks I gave at one point of time to Organizations like Asha and Vibha besides many other forums.

I have not covered yet the volunteers we got from other countries and more importantly the amazing team we were fortunate to have in Kanakapura; but these need my bringing the story up to date on other fronts, including our taking up the remaining schools in the City and our entry into Kanakapura.

E S Ramamurthy


























The Sikshana Story – 1

April 24, 2011

The Story with a Personal Touch


1.0 Pre-amble

I have been covering my personal experiences during the early days of Sikshana in my talks to various fora and my infrequent writings. I was asked quite often why I have not gone ahead and documented them since some of these could be useful for those who may want to enter into the field of public education system now or in the future; at the least, it will help those who are interested in Sikshana to understand the program and its evolution better. Whether it really serves these goals or not, it would most certainly be a very happy and satisfying exercise for me.

I had two options here – to write about them from the Organizational angle of Sikshana or to do so from my personal view point. Here I have adopted the latter since the narrative is bound to contain my own views on many issues, which in all fairness should not be foisted on Sikshana.

Many of the incidents covered here date as much as eight years back; I could possibly be off the mark in some of the minor details for which I tender my apologies in advance. I can only promise to keep the spirit of the events true to reality in all cases. Regarding the names of persons involved in the narrative, I will give the real ones where those concerned have given their consent or have no reason not to; as for the rest, you will find that I have used abbreviations.

The narrative is intended to cover the period when Sikshana was verily a one person show. That should rather read a one family show since you have to count my wife in here for two reasons: it was her funds with which I started it and she was perhaps as active as I was at that time. The transition to a phase where more people started taking active participation thereby reducing my load – and my worries with sleepless nights- was not sharp; it was pretty gradual. Using the Author’s prerogative, I have decided that I will trace the growth till Sikshana extended its coverage for the first time into Kanakapura away from the City with the support of Vibha; this was really a milestone as the program at this point cast away its image finally as one centered around Individuals and became an entity on its own merit.

With all the above pre-amble, here it goes….

2.1 The Birth of Sikshana

The idea of starting something like Sikshana dates well before Nov 2001, when it eventually took off. The origin of my interest can be traced back to mydays with the Industry when I was personally involved with Renewable Energy Systems- their design, manufacture and deployment. Since these systems are invariably deployed in remote rural areas, it gave me an opportunity to get exposed to the needs and aspirations of the really poor and dispossessed in the country. It did not take long for me to realize on a first hand basis that Education is the most needed and vital tool for removal of abject poverty. Surely, that was not a great piece of enlightenment but to get it after an exposure to the gross realities of Rural India is something one has to go through. It is an experience that changes one’s views on life as a whole, and it just did that to me.

I quit the assignments in my field at the peak of my career, with a view to doing something that is socially relevant and focussed on the education of the poor. Considering that the kids belonging to these strata invariably go to State run schools, I decided to concentrate on them – to start with at the primary level. A look at the voluntary sector at this time showed that, except for a couple of honorable exceptions, most efforts tended to focus on a few schools which were in their area of influence – the number depending on the extent of available funding. None of them were interested in the systemic issues involved or the sustainability of such ventures over a period of time; most also adopted a top down approach built around the personal preferences of the Founders. One other aspect bothered me : why is it that the conditions continue to be so poor in spite of the 100 plus ventures in Bangalore City alone? Surely it cannot be for want of effort or expertise as most of them involved with these are very dedicated and competent persons committed to a cause. It appeared that there was a need for some one to take a fresh look at the scenario and come up with a few out ‘of the box’ solutions.

It is this thinking that gave birth to Sikshana.

2.2 The Entry into Schools

Looking back, the year 2001 appears to belong to a different age; information available on almost any issue was pretty scarce. I knew I had to adopt a school to start but I did not know what needs to be done for me to ‘enter’ a school. Today it appears laughable even to me but it is fact that I went around for almost a year knocking on all doors – real and imaginary- without any success.

Finally, as it always dawns on people pretty late, I adopted the direct and the most obvious route- go to a nearby school and ask them. The first school I approached was the one in Uttarahalli. The staff here were very helpful ; they not only briefed me about the entire process but also gave me a good insight into the workings of a higher primary school. Unfortunately, the school appeared too big for me at this stage with nearly 400 kids; the funding coming solely from my personal resources required that I look at a smaller school with 100-150 children. Very reluctantly and with good grace, the teachers directed me to a nearby school at – which was where Sikshana was ultimately born.

By this time , thanks to the teachers at Utarahalli , I knew that all I had to do to adopt a school was to approach the nearest Block Education Office and make a request. It took less than half an hour to drive down to this office. Ignoring all the beuracratic niceties, I barged into the crowded office of the Mr T , BEO, unannounced and told him of my intentions. The reaction exceeded my most optimistic expectations; he cleared his office of all the other visitors ,offered me a seat- and a cup of coffee- and patiently explained to me the salient features of the scheme for school adoption under the Department. Once I confirmed to him about my decision to go ahead, he was delighted and immediately asked for the necessary documentation to be prepared; in the process he persuaded me to take up two other lower primary schools , ironically taking the total number beyond 400 ! The entire process took less then an hour, with the BEO bearing the expenses of documentation out of his pocket much against my insistence. His reaction still rings in my memory: ” you have come forward to do so much with your funds for our schools; if I cant do even this what is the use of my being here?” I got a glimpse of the other side of the much reviled system , offering me lots of hope for the future and convincing me that the step I had taken is the right one. Another interesting bit of information: it was 230PM when I left the school and by 5PM , it was all over!

The official document signed enabled Sikshana to do any of the 20 things that were listed, which was almost everything that we would ever want to. The schools were in Arehalli, Chikkakallasandra and Gowdenpalya- all within walking distance from where I lived.

It was 23rd Nov 2001 and I was the proud ‘ friend , guide and philosopher’ for three schools with 500 kids; it was really an exhilarating feeling!

2.3. First lesson from Arehalli

I was in the school at Arehalli promptly the next morning. Mr Prahlad, the HM of the school came in a bit late and to his surprise found a visitor waiting in his ‘office’ , which was essentially a partitioned area of the 7th grade class room. He was even more surprised to hear I have adopted his school and I am raring to get started on the job. He did not however look like being impressed a lot by my approach, the reason for which I found a lot later. At this point, I should have appeared the more nervous of the two.

 

I told him of my interest to help the school to improve itself, provided of course the school really wants it. Looking at me and the car in which I came, Prahlad should have come to the conclusion: here is a guy who has money and wants to give it to the school, so why not tap for the limit? He came to the point rather bluntly: how much money does your Trust have to spare for us? I was prepared for this and told him that we have as much as is required to improve the learning outcome in the school. That floored him since this probably was the first time in his life when he heard money and learning levels being linked together. There was some verbal sparring at this time ; then I came to the point for which I had gone prepared.

By this time the other teachers all joined in , seeing something interesting is going on in the HM’s room. The exchange thereafter went more or less like this:

Me: How would you rate your school?

Staff: very good , better than others

Me: How do you say this ?

Staff: Our pass percentage is very good in the open examinations for 7th

Me: How much would that be?

Staff: Last year we got 70% , this year too we will get it. We have 17 students in the class and we are confident that 13 of them will pass.

Me: In that case let us take a common pledge to make the lagging four also to pass. That will give us a 100% result which is uncommon among Government schools.

There was veritably an uproar at this stage. These kids can never be made to pass because:

They have been lagging for the last six years

Their parents are illiterate

None from their communities have ever gone beyond 7th

They are just dumb- cannot even read or write Kannada; with just four months to go, it is impossible to make up for all the lost time

I told them that is where we come in; we will provide whatever resources are needed to make them pass but they do not have the option for shooting at a goal less than that. This led to a stalemate that lasted a full week; every day I used to go to the school with the same message and I was getting the same response. Finally, the school blinked; they gave a list of items they needed – teaching aids, workbooks, paper and a few more. I gave them enough money to buy all these on the spot; to be fair,they got all of them the same day. I was there in the school again the next day to check whether they needed anything more. Prahlad asked me for time ,saying they needed a week to discuss among themselves and come to a decision.

      

I gave them a break, during which I used to go to the school and talk to the kids but not engage the teachers in any manner. Prahlad came to me sheepishly before the deadline and told me that they need my help and guidance to decide on what else is needed to produce the desired result. We had the first meaningful interaction at last in which all the teachers participate. They agreed that with whatever they had, they could have achieved better results if only they had set their sights on such a target; and that the four lagging kids had no reason to fail. The only shortfall they could come up with was that they were short of teachers; they could have managed with one more but with the limited time available, they would need two. I gave them enough funds to recruit locally two teachers and that sealed my end of the bargain.

What followed was really amazing. The teachers put in a lot of effort, working late in the evenings and holidays, focussing on each of the identified ‘weak’ kids. Come March, the teachers accompanied the kids to the Examination Center and briefed them right unto their entrance into the hall. Mark you, these were the same persons who were denigrated as ‘ 10 to 4 workers’ who would demand overtime wages beyond this. It did not surprise me that when the results came in May every one of the kids has passed, the school scoring a perfect 100. True to form, they invited me to come and distribute the certificates to the students; and in an impromptu function, praised me to the skies – reflecting the all pervasive feudal mindset. I told them bluntly that the credit goes to every one of the teachers in the school, just as the blame would have come to them if they had not succeeded; they should learn to shoulder the responsibilities entrusted to them and not pass the buck on to others. I got the impression that the message finally went home.

2.4. A Hard Lesson from the Kids

As is the case with most ‘ well intentioned reformers’ , I too wanted my school to appear the best to anyone who cares to take a look. I made some provision for expenses for making the environment in the class room less shabby and if possible, a bit more aesthetically acceptable. A few low cost interventions were tried out; these include patching up chipped walls and floor, touching up wall paint, hanging attractive posters and a few well placed pots with artificial flowers. A few hundred rupees were enough in each school and the rooms did appear more attractive even to me. Mind you , the leads in all this were taken by the teachers who did a commendable job on their own.

When it came to the kids, I invariably found them to be shabby especially in their attire – and this after a few futile attempts to correct them. I wanted to take this problem head- on. As I used to do often, I called a few kids together and sat down with them for a chat session. I told them I had always found them to be responsive to whatever I had asked of them but in this one case of personal cleanliness I am not finding the same degree of acceptance even after repeated reminders. I asked them bluntly whether they would go to a temple in such a condition- unwashed and poorly dressed; and if not , how is it that they come to school in such a state. The kids were all looking at each other but none would come forward with a response. It took quite a bit if prodding before one of them took up enough courage to tell what they face everyday, that too coming in bits.

The area in which they live – which incidentally is typical of most parts of Bangalore City- gets water supply only once in three days and for the limited quantity that they can get they had to get up at midnight to collect theirs. This has to be used very judiciously till the next supply day comes up. It is not uncommon that even this is interrupted, forcing them to buy water at exorbitant rates. Under these conditions every one in the family understands that the first priority is for cooking and drinking; then comes personal hygiene, followed by bathing and washing of clothes at the end. Everything thing going well, they can hope to do the last twice a week! Worse still, they dont afford and are not allowed to use soap liberally as it is a high cost commodity. And to think, people like me go and lecture to them about hygiene and the need fir cleanliness.. I was really put to shame before them – I the representative of a Society which is unable to provide the basic minimum necessities of life to the poor but yet have the gall to look down on them , and even pontificate!

I decided once for all at that instant that never again will I ever look at things from a high pedestal but try to understand and learn things from the point of view of these kids and the strata of society they represent. This one lesson learnt the hard way from a bunch of Fifth Graders in CKSandra has stood by me till today; I would like this to be the distinguishing characteristic of any and every one who would like to be part of Sikshana.

PS: To press the point, I asked the Commissioner for Public Instruction in one of our meets why the State should not provide soap every alternate year instead if clothes for uniforms; he laughed and asked me whether I am serious. He reminded me that I too at some point of time was in the Government and should know this is impossible. I agree but then that is where the problem lies…

2.5 Straying into Balawadis

This is one of those chapters in the history of Sikshana in which I do not come up with flying colors. Right at start, I realized that the problem with the Lower Primary school in the Public Education System (PES) is that the kid entering the first Grade comes without the benefit of the kindergarten exposure. The equivalents in the Public System , Anganwadis , that were supposed to take care of the needs of kids between the age of 3 and 6 were few at that time and totally inadequate to meet the needs of the communities in which the LP schools were located. To make things worse, these Centers came under a different Ministry; that means a lot in our country where the bureaucracy runs the show in most fields.

One of the leading NGOs – which I would rather not name- had started a parallel system with similar centers in a different name ; they had a large presence in this segment in and around the City. I talked to them and entered into an arrangement whereby Sikshana could manage the Centers falling within our school ‘catchment area’ . Soon we had 20 Centers in our net and I was delighted to have some degree of control over the input quality for our schools. Our help to start with included provision of a nutritional supplement – fortified milk – and some guidance through our volunteers, who have just started coming in. The women in charge of the Centers were compensated through a centrally funded scheme and the above NGO. I was uncomfortable right from start with the setup since we had no loco standi in it and we were there by sufferance of the other Organization.

Soon the first pin prick came. We wanted to introduce some play material in the Centers since the kids had pretty little to do during their stay; worse still many of the women had started teaching stuff in the traditional manner. Thinking that these Centers were ours, I went ahead with some minor changes in the program. This brought instant reaction from our partner through their field workers that these are not permissible, proving that NGOs can sometimes be as rule bound as the Government. I had a meet with the person in charge – Mr M – trying to explain to him the rationale for our intervention with no effect; nothing can be done in these 20 that were not done in the others under them. More were to come.

I went to the school at GPalya to take a close look at how this system works. This LP school had a strength of about 20 in the First Std of which half appeared to be first timers in a school environment; in fact the teacher in charge told me that the first six months of Std 1 is spent in just trying to keep the kid in the school and not run away! The school had 3 Child Care Centers adjoining it , which I was personally visiting time to time; each had ten or more kids. It struck me that the numbers were not adding up; how is that that in spite of this the LP school gets uninitiated kids in 1st Std , or alternately where are the CC kids going once they reach the age of six. When I started looking at the numbers over a wider area, the real situation emerged. The kids going through these Centers actually go on to private schools as their parents are reasonably well off; the latter use them in lieu of other private day care centers which cost a lot more. They were not catering to the really poor kids who apparently tended to keep away till they reach the age of six. I thought that this is a serious enough situation that warrants some study analysis and correction as the goal was a positive impact on the PES.

I got thoroughly disillusioned when I met Mr M next. He said that he is not interested in studies like that ; he does not care where these kids come from or where they go. His job is to run these Centers and keep increasing their number as he goes along. Of course, that is one way of looking at things – i dont blame him – but certainly it is not mine. We parted ways as friends but unfortunately that ended our short run with the pre-school kids program. I dont know whether in retrospect I did the right thing; maybe I should have stayed on and tried to make it work. I could gave gone up the Organizational structure for a working model ; it looks now that I gave up far too easily. But then 2003 was very different for me.

These days, whenever I give a talk, people ask me whether we should not be doing some thing with preschool kids too under Sikshana. I have always found that to be a very difficult question to respond to.

E S Ramamurthy


To be Continued


Mid-day Meal Scheme- An Open Appeal to ISKCON

April 21, 2011

There is no single intervention in the Public School System that has done greater good for the school going kids of India than the Mid-day meal Scheme. This welfare measure did not come easily; the highest court of the land had to issue a diktat to the States and threaten action for contempt for non-compliance before they fell in line. All the impressive statistics that we see in the area of enrollment and retention are due to this single initiative that went to ensure that the children get at least one hot meal a day to minimum nutritional standards. The scheme has still its shortfalls, thanks to the pusillanimity of the Administration in the States which keep raising issues on the admissible rates for reimbursement, scope of coverage and the inclusion of nutritional supplements. Apparently they have always adequate funds to bail out dubious ventures in other Sectors but cannot find money to feed the vulnerable sections of the new generation. Politics here follow the famous Quote: “What has the next generation done for us to merit special attention for us”.
I still recall the days when Sikshana had to feed nearly 1000 kids in three schools; we could obviously not have preached quality of education to children on empty stomach. Once the State stepped in 2004, the situation eased up quite a bit for us; we did not have to bother about this burden. I have since been following up the progress of this scheme with considerable interest.
Initially, a provision of Rs 2.75 per child was made by the State, the good gesture tainted by many graceless caveats. Typical of them was the stipulation that the reimbursement of materials will be computed based on the actual attendance on a daily basis. At the school, the HM has to initiate cooking with release of material well before the actual numbers are available; kids are known to come late often and they cannot be denied lunch.  It was left to the schools to sort this out; everyone knows that it is such unworkable rules that encourage malpractices and dishonesty among people who would prefer to be law abiding citizens given a chance.
After six years, this admissible rate for a meal stands somewhere near Rs 3.25, the figure depending on how it is reckoned. Though a lot can be written about this subject, which will not reflect well on the State, the focus of this blog is not on this but on another aspect of the scheme that calls for a lot more thought and introspection- the sourcing and distribution. Typically, the school is expected to find its own way to feed the kids with the material supplied. In an urban environment, the logistics could pose problems, given the acute shortage of space in most schools, thereby restricting their options.
The picture becomes different as one goes away from this environment to rural areas. Here, the schools have space not only for cooking but also for growing vegetables for the menu; there is ready availability of local labor too for preparation. Though the remunerations admissible for the cook and the helper are not princely sums, they were still adequate for local entrepreneurship to evolve in these communities which enabled the schools to ensure that the kids are fed well. In many areas, women’s self help groups have come forward to take up the job. This is really a very welcome development. If there are any people with a real interest in the welfare of these kids, it should be these women- more so when some of their own children are likely to be in the same schools. This did put some pressure on the HM’s since they had to keep accounts for money and material, a responsibility grudgingly accepted by them over a period of time. The scheme is now however stabilized and is doing well enough within the given limitations.    
The story unfortunately neither starts nor ends here. Historically, a few initiatives existed that were catering to this need prior to the State announcing its welfare measure.  While it was a very commendable effort at that time, their continuance under the new regime where the State has taken up the responsibility is what causes concern with wide ranging implications.
For understandable reasons, such initiatives are popular in urban areas where space is at a premium; and cooking and distribution within the school premises are logistic nightmares. However when they start straying into areas beyond urban clusters, the issue becomes more complex, requiring a closer look. In far flung rural areas, it makes eminent sense to prepare food locally where it is required for consumption.
I have serious issues with one such initiative in Karnataka, which is actively supported by the State; this is Akshaya Patra from ISKCON. It is one of the most popular ones around Bangalore City and attracts lot of Donor attention. Unlike many of the other ventures in the City, the meal provided by this Organization is subsidized by the State; while exact figures are not available, it is highly likely that the subsidy is higher than the cost incurred by it under its own scheme. The coverage extends to a few hundred thousand children out of a possible 8 million in the State, with no prospects of extension across the state. I do not see the logic behind categorizing the kids under the PES into two streams: one fit for this preferential allotment and the other consigned to the routine State designed menu. Having done that, the State and ISKCON could have restricted the area of coverage to urban clusters, however unfair this would have been for the majority of kids in the public school stream. On the other hand, we find that their operation is progressively expanding with more centralized production facilities and distribution nodes into semi-urban and rural areas.  Unfortunately many Sikshana schools fall under the periphery of some of these new facilities; as a result we come under constant pressure from these schools to get them included in this ‘fortunate’ list.
It is unacceptable to me that some kids in public schools are selected for a Rs 6.5 meal, while the rest under the same system are advised to get reconciled to a Rs 3.2 one. Apart from all the distinctions that we have created based on castes, classes etc., we seem to be introducing a new one along the urban/ rural divide. There are more arguments against this irrational approach. It is an environmentally unfriendly scheme since it involves movement of prepared meals from the central kitchen to the schools in remote areas. Further it deprives the local community of employment opportunities that a decentralized solution would have provided. More to the point, the bonding that this brings about between the schools and the communities is also lost.
Notwithstanding the above, I admire Akshaya Patra for all that it does and keep doing for the welfare of the children. I have only one appeal to make to them. Instead of replicating the efforts of the State, can they try and supplement them? If they care to look around, I am sure they will find many interesting possibilities.  
It is not as if the State has wiped out hunger with one meal for school going kids.   From my personal experience I can affirm that many of these children now come to school without breakfast, since their families are assured their wards will get one square meal at noon. The children now go through three hours of schooling on an empty stomach, eagerly waiting for the lunch bell; some schools even advance the timings to accommodate these kids.  
I am sure it is within the capabilities of Akshaya Patra Foundation to find a far better option than the one adopted by them at present.

E S Ramamurthy