Poets of hope

24 Sep

Some men build empires and some men write poems, but two men have nurtured young India’s dreams for education between them like a parenthesis. Indoo Shivdasani, the reclusive Cambridge-educated, London-based billionaire son of an ICS officer, set up the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation way back in 1976 and more or less singlehandedly created the elite core of modern India’s intelligentsia.

Madhav Chavan, the son of a Leninist politician from Maharashtra, a graduate in chemistry who received his doctorate from Ohio State University, founded Pratham, an NGO that seeks to educate the vast multitude of underprivileged children of India.

Two very different men who have had such an admirable impact on both ends of India’s educational needs and who have done it with such quiet dignity and minimum fanfare.

 

First the Shivdasani story: crediting his years at Clare College, Cambridge with giving him an international outlook which made him eschew following his father into the civil services, Shivdasani became an entrepreneur, and quite a successful one at that — with interests in finance, trade and agro-allied industries in France, West Africa, India and Europe.

His own experience made him a staunch believer in the advantages of higher education overseas and international exposure in the formative years, and he set up his foundation so that other Indian students would also have this advantage.

The best thing the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation did was encourage Indians to break out of the stranglehold of traditional “safe” approaches to higher education. Sure, parents were sending their brilliant progeny abroad for higher education in the decades before, but it was almost always to courses in engineering, medicine and, perhaps, law.

The Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation changed all that. For the first time there was an institution that championed those who wanted to study art and music and media and filmmaking and anthropology and the environment. The results have been astonishing. A look at the Inlaks list of alumni reads like a who’s who of modern India : from writers, poets, artists, journalists, TV anchors, film makers to scientists, lawyers and, yes, engineers, the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation’s intervention has been a huge success.

Madhav Chavan’s achievements are perhaps even more astonishing. From its humble beginnings in Mumbai when it was set up by the UNICEF to establish a tripartite partnership between the government, corporations and civil society to impact India’s crying need for primary education for the underprivileged, Pratham’s contribution to education in India has been multi-pronged.

Since 2005, it has conducted the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), India’s largest NGO-run annual survey, to evaluate the reach and and results of its programs

And that’s not all for Pratham: it launched Read India, its grassroots movement in 2007 to improve reading, writing and basic arithmetic skills of approximately 34 million school-going children who are taught by the school teachers and volunteers that it trains.

Pratham Books, which was set up in 2004 to publish affordable good-quality books and with over 200 original titles in 10 Indian languages, complements the efforts of Read India.

I began this column by saying that some men build empires and some men write poems, but in my book, Indoo Shivdasani and Madhav Chavan have built empires of the mind and written a poem to hope. And millions of India’s empowered educated young people who contribute to its economy and growth are the results of their vision.

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