Towards the last stretch of our 1.5 hr drive from Lucknow to Kaintain, Sitapur District, where Milaan’s “Swarachna Learning and Resource Centre” is located, Sharat pointed towards the fields we were passing and said, “These are all mango farms, where many parents of our school’s children work.” He went on to tell me that when they visit the school in the Summer months, they always return with a bagful of mangoes.
But what I took away from this comment was that these if these children’s parents are farmers, they are, in all likelihood, first-generation learners. Turns out this is the case as till Milaan’s school, there was no senior secondary school in the area. Sharat went on to explain how back in 2007, the four founders – Dhirendra, Debashish, Anne and himself – had done a 15 day door-to-door survey of 10-15 villages in the area. The survey had revealed that there was no secondary school within a 13 km radius. This meant that most children, especially girls, were going to school till the 5th standard, then dropping out. Against the background of Milaan’s core philosophy, it became clear that they were going to works towards giving Kaintain their own secondary school.
The seeds of the organisation’s core philosophy lie in the experiences and learnings from India Fellows – a six-week leadership program in which Dhirendra was selected to participate in 2007. The Fellowship experience brought into sharp focus the major development gap between children in rural and urban areas; and the fact that it is very difficult for rural children to access the same kind of opportunities that their urban counterparts can. The quartet believed that for India to truly advance, it was necessary to bring about equality in society. Only then would people in rural India have the same kind of opportunities that are available to those fortunate to be in the cities of India. And only then would the divide between the two Indias, so often talked about, be bridged. It is this on this belief that the Swarachna Learning and Resource Centre is built.
The centre currently accommodates standard one to eight. As we walked from class to class, I stepped into classrooms to find English, Maths, History sessions in progress. 5th to 8th standards students were being taught in Hindi, and the rest in English. This is the practise as the older children went to the Government primary school, and so do not have a strong English-language foundation. Sharat shared with me that they will add a standard every year – as children complete the school year. And once the 12th standard has been added, they will also apply for Government-certification.
The school building itself is quite grand. As Uttar Pradesh has a major electricity issue (there is electricity during school hour every other week), it has intentionally been designed with high ceilings and large windows – to give the classrooms enough air and light. Designed by Dhirendra’s father, who is an ex-army man and engineer by qualification, his intense supervision and knowledge has helped bargain for good deals, which has kept costs low. The duo shared with me that during their audit, the chartered accountant did not believe they had constructed the building at Rs. 650 per square foot (which is 60% lesser than the market rate) and kept investigating to see if there were cost details that they were hiding!
At one point during the visit, Dhirendra took me to the roof of the school to “get a whole different perspective.” It’s only when I looked around from the work-in-progress second floor did I understand what he was saying. After a round of the ground floor, it’s the farmlands all around and cycles (which the kids use to get to school) in the playground in front that remind you of the school’s rural setup.
The rural location of the school is quite a challenge. It’s a little inconvenient and also increases the cost of transportation – from construction materials used to build the school to donations-in-kind (like the sofa set in the principal’s office) to groceries for the children’ midday meals. This is also the reason why the organisation prefers cash over in-kind donations; it’s cheaper to buy many items locally and avoid this transportation cost. The location also poses a problem in terms of hiring teachers. There are many buses that will drop you off on the main highway but from there one needs to take the not-too-comfortable shared cycle auto 2-3 kms inside. A cycle auto here is a cart, on which you sit with a bunch of other people (or even animals), attached to a cycle!
While many teachers come from Kaintain itself, others, like the school principal, commute an hour one-way every day. Mr. Gautam Prakash Mishra’s 14 years experience experience as principal of a school in Sitapur made him an apt choice for the Swarachna Learning and Resource Centre. He says, “The children here grasp things much faster than the children back at Sitapur. Maybe it’s because they have been deprived of an education thus far and their eagerness to study is thus acting as a sponge, enabling them to grasp a lot more.” Well, spending just a day at the Milaan school may not be enough for me to lay a claim on this, but the children were extremely enthusiastic to answer questions when I interacted with them during my visit.
We grabbed lunch at the school itself before our 1.5 hour drive back to Lucknow – eating the same lunch of Aloo Bhaji and Rice that was made for the kids. At lunch, I learnt that a couple of years ago, a health check up conducted (through the help of volunteer doctors) at the school revealed that a majority of children were undernourished. Through a follow up discussion with parents they learnt that most children were eating little to no breakfast simply because families could not afford that additional meal. Providing midday meals to the kids, cooked at the school itself, thus started. Though it is difficult to cook for 400 children every day, increased attendance as well as an improvement in grades motivates them to do so. They plan to continue the same until the time an organisation like The Akshaya Patra Foundation services the distant area of Kaintain too.
As someone in my early 30s, Milaan’s mission is one that truly resonates with me. It is a youth-led organisation that works to educate children, enable youth and empower communities in rural India. The name, Milaan, comes from the combination of two words: Milan, meaning coming together and Elaan, meaning declaration, which together signify the coming together of diverse but likeminded people for a declaration of change. Further, the three words on their logo – Educating, Empowering and Enabling – are a reflection of their philosophy. Together they recognise the fact that providing education in itself is not sufficient to bring change. It must be education that not only provides knowledge but also develops the abilities, skills and attitudes of disadvantaged children and youth so that they become capable of reaching out to the opportunities around them and are also able to create opportunities for themselves where they may not exist.
The organisation still needs a whopping Rs. 1.2 crores to complete the school building. When I learnt this, I couldn’t help ask the obvious – “Why don’t you apply for a Government grant? After all, the Government is one body that can dole out such large quantities of fund at a time.” That’s when Dhirendra shared with me that they aren’t keen on Government funds because they’re aware of 2 cases (in Uttar Pradesh specifically) where after receiving Government funding, the officials literally took over the functioning and management of the supported school; forcing the founders of the school to actually pull out of their own venture. That’s too big a risk for Milaan to take. This is an organisation that knows what it wants and after my day with the team, I’m fairly certain that they will get there. It’s just a matter of time.