(The Guardian 30/05/2012) Stepping indoors from the searing subcontinental July heat, Kalavathi takes a seat in her office at the end of a long corridor decorated with scientific symbols and multiplication tables. “Today the children will talk about their ‘bhavishya’” she exclaims. ‘Bhavishya’ or future in Kannada, the dialect of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is fervently on the minds of the children. Their voices; “miss, miss I want to become an engineer…miss, miss I want to work in computing,” resonate through the classrooms. With Bangalore’s burgeoning economy growing annually at an estimated 10.3% only a few miles away, these hopes and dreams have every chance for succeeding.
Images of poverty and riches side-by-side are synonymous with the emerging world; Bangalore is a microcosm for this. Connecting the divide does not have to be complex. Small is Beautiful is a collection of essays written by economist E.F Schumacher championing the role of empowering people in the development process. The right education can empower individuals to make the important marginal changes which lead to brighter futures.
Aptly named, the Hope Foundation School provides for around 400 children living in the surrounding slums of Tannery Road, on the outskirts of Bangalore. Driving down MG Road, the bustling commercial heart of the city, you pass billboards adorned with the face of Deepika Padukone, a Bollywood actress. Raised and educated in Bangalore her image serves a reminder to the children of how dreams can be turned into reality. The reality is that education in any form – art, music, science or language – provides the seeds for opportunity. As the head teacher, Kalavathi places an emphasis on creating a positive learning environment, “we now provide free mid-day meals for the children to encourage them to come to class.” The school was established by the Hope Foundation in 1993, and teaching began in a humble building. The success of the school’s smaller projects, including the mid-day meal scheme has attracted sponsorship. As a result a new building complex has been developed adjacent to the original site, allowing the school to expand its student base.
Every morning Mary, the deputy head teacher, completes registration and collects Rupees from the students. They are not paying for their education. They are learning the basics of financial literacy and savings. The school is also their bank. Kalavathi proceeds down the corridor and enters a classroom. The children arise and all but the clucking chickens in the school yard can be heard. “Namaskara” she says, and the children sit down. As an English-medium school children are taught English from an early age, which is vital for their future. English is the language of commerce in India. Despite having over 20 official languages, the 2001 census data showed that the number of Indian English-speakers was more than twice the UK’s population.
Furthermore, the Hope Foundation’s computer training programme in Bangalore has multiplied rapidly to extend to 8 centres in 2007, beginning with just 4 computers in 1998, and the student base has trebled. Those benefitting from this programme belong to the local community. This small classroom learning on the outskirts of Bangalore is reflective of the larger economic processes occurring in the city. Vast swathes of global technology businesses such as IBM, Google and Yahoo are attracted by the city’s English and computer savvy labour force. “The jobs are complex, and they change rapidly, so we need really smart people,” said Roy Gilbert, Google’s operations director in India for Fortune magazine in 2007. Many of the school’s children have a poor home life, torn apart by alcoholic fathers and a lack of regular income. This specialized education in computing and English is a perfect passport for them to obtain employment, and break the poverty cycle.
The second United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goal-to achieve universal primary education underlies the other goals, including combating hunger and gender inequality. Small changes to encourage greater female attendance in school can also reap rewards through female empowerment. Dr Dhondo Keshav Karve, an early 20th century social reformer on women’s welfare in India emphasized the phrase; “when you educate a woman, you educate a whole family.” Half of the students at the Hope Foundation School are girls, and regular parent-teacher meetings have been put in place to ensure their mothers remain keen to keep their daughters in education. Girls in the local area would otherwise be coerced into being house maids or selling incense sticks in the slum. In the Indian state of Kerala, emphasis was placed on integrating women into the education process, such that the literacy rate for women was reported to have risen from 36 to 88 percent between 1951 and 2001. The UN estimates that Kerala now has the highest Human Development Index in India-higher than that of most developed countries. Small changes to what and who is taught can bring about positive changes for the future.
Change comes not from just being educated but by acting on what is taught. Kalavathi walks out of the main school building and onto the dusty school yard, advancing toward the school’s garden plot. This plot is a perfect symbol for how education works. It may appear quite literally ‘grass roots’, but it is in these chutes of knowledge, that the children and surrounding community can learn about food sustainability and develop a cost-effective way for feeding their families.At the 2010 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, Barack Obama spoke of his time as a community organiser in Chicago, “real change comes from the bottom up, the grass roots, starting with the dreams and passions of individuals serving their communities.” By focusing on what is required, rather than implementing ‘one size fits all’ solutions we can improve the core issues.
As the school day draws to a close, Kalavathi gathers the children under the shade of the school’s iconic Flame tree or ‘Gulmohar’ in Hindi. Today the children have planted the small seeds of Hope. Tomorrow they can grow toward success, anchored firmly by their roots.