BACK TO COMMUNITIES FOR A NEW BEGINNING
Do studies define the intelligence of an individual? Is social work really perceived to be an option for those who cannot excel in professional fields? Why isn’t the inner drive to work for the ‘people of my community’ not valued as much as any job with an assured monthly income? With the number of students accessing higher education growing each year, why hasn’t a strong voice been raised against the inequity in the system? These are the questions many have had to ponder with.
Mr Sandeep Mehto, Co Founder of Bharat Calling, a Youth Initiative under Shri Ramesh Prakash Samajik Sansthan, in Pathrota village, Itarsi district in Madhya Pradesh also went through this phase. Soon, he was able to figure out how to contribute in addressing this lacuna in the system, helping students, at least, who were from his village.
Having hailed from this very place and being the youngest among three brothers, Sandeep was able to clearly observe his upbringing. “We were a big family. My parents had eight siblings each. While all their families migrated to urban areas after education and sought employment in the organized sector, my father was particular that we stayed back in the village itself. As we lived here, our relatives had very low social expectations from us,” recounts Sandeep. Very much observant of the ‘relay race’ attitude in middle class families to educate their children one after another so each could settle down with a good job near the city, Sandeep was inspired by his father’s words - “Education must not be commodified.”
Sandeep had the privilege of studying in an elite boarding school after class V. “The way my father spent on our education was always criticised. As if all the negative vibes began to concentrate, the financial situation in our family worsened and my father had to take loans to meet my school expenses. People who kept commenting on our way of life continued to do so when I scored less in my high school.
We are in a country where one has to pursue medicine or engineering to prove his/her intelligence. I also wanted to prove myself,” shares Sandeep who then took up Bachelors in Electrical Engineering. Even before the course concluded, Sandeep was clear that Engineering was not his calling.
Sandeep always imagined his parents chatting over a cup of tea peacefully and wanted to see this happening, for they have struggled all along in helping their children access good opportunities. However, his father’s demise during his final year came in as a big shock to him. “In spite of being a college topper, I did not want to become an engineer. Everything that my father had used seemed to be all around, along with the good wishes from all those he had helped. This thought, which once frustrated me so much, suddenly took me into introspection. I decided to follow my father’s footsteps. I wanted to train myself professionally to work with the communities,” says a reminiscent Sandeep who joined the Masters programme in Social Entrepreneurship with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
The first day at TISS answered a lot of questions in Sandeep’s mind and the course he had taken answered many more. Besides exposing him to the stark reality of inequity in access to educational opportunities, the course encouraged him to do something for those who could not pursue higher education. “Higher education can bring generations out of poverty,” and so in 2009, Sandeep and his friend John decided to visit tribal schools near his village. Although discouraged by the teachers in those schools, they managed to organize an interaction with the children.
Sandeep is surprised even now of what he learnt there. He says: “Children were so sharp, they had scored well in their examinations. They were creative too. But, they did not know how to go ahead in planning their career. They did not even know how to apply for colleges that taught subjects of their interest.” Deeply disturbed, John and Sandeep promised the children that they would come back to help them find good colleges. While in TISS, Mumbai, they filled the college application forms for these children.
In the very following year, they organized a camp for two months to facilitate this process in midst of students and 30 of them secured admissions in reputed national educational institutions. Sandeep is reminded of a boy who failed class 12 twice, but is now a sports teacher in an international school after completing Bachelor of Physical Education. “Nobody thought we would come back. We know this is a small step, but it is a necessary step to break the stereotypes. Why should incomes decide children’s choice of courses?” he quips.
Named after Sandeep’s parents, the society took this initiative to 142 schools in Hoshangabad district. Starting with one school they have now reached out to every high/higher secondary school in Hoshangabad district. The two friends, from the beginning, were very determined not to run this as a parallel system. They engaged volunteers through internships and summer fellowships and trained them to conduct the exposure programmes in the villages. “We just want to show the way. Inspired by these efforts, many of the volunteers have started their own initiatives back in their communities,” says a contended Sandeep.
On the other hand, Sandeep’s family has different thoughts. “My family struggles to explain what I am doing. So, I am taking them to Chennai for the MSDS National Awards Event. May be then, they will realise why I came back to my village,” he smiles.
- Shanmuga Priya. T