MILPITAS, Calif. – “The problems of urban India are more visible, but the problems of rural India are far more neglected and unless they are addressed properly, we cannot address those of urban India. Ekal is one of those rare organizations that is focusing exclusively on rural India and even within rural India, the remotest of areas,” Indian American entrepreneur/philanthropist/community leader Raju Reddy told India-West on the sidelines of Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation USA’s three-day national conference, held Sept. 27-29 at the India Community Center here.
Outlining the nonprofit’s goals, Reddy, who was invited to the event as a guest of honor, noted that Ekal’s reach, the scale of its work, and the organization’s integrity truly inspired him.
Ekal, as one of the largest nonprofits serving rural India, is on a mission to bring basic education to every child. It runs one-teacher schools – known as Ekal Vidyalayas – all over India. It currently operates in 100,000 villages in India.
“In a country of one billion people, unless you touch a large number of people, we are not going to make a meaningful difference…Both in terms of addressing problems of rural India but also of scale,” Reddy told India-West. “Ekal has truly selfless people. It takes a level of commitment that is beyond the normal for people to go to these remote places and function. The model is also not that capital intensive.”
The conference, hosted by the Bay Area chapter of Ekal, under the leadership of Nima Gujar, was attended by over 100 Ekal volunteers from all over the U.S. and India who had gathered to learn about the work that happens at the grassroots level.
Ekal’s model involves one teacher, one school, one village, but not just education, the organization ensures holistic development of rural areas, working in health and skill training.
“Ekal will reach its target goal of 100,000 villages,” said Bajrang Bagra, CEO of Ekal Abhiyan in India, which has over 2.8 million children enrolled in its schools. Bagra described the various new initiatives that have taken shape in India, adding that technology is beginning to play a huge role in the next phase of Ekal.
The Tarsadia Foundation of Southern California, said Bagra, had supported a pilot project, ‘Ekal on Wheels,’ a mobile computer lab that travels to the villages to bring about digital literacy. Buoyed by the success, the program has now been expanded to include over 25 such ‘Ekal on Wheels,’ which cover over 1,000 villages.
“We do a variety of activities to broaden the learning of the children. For example, tree plantation is a key part of our curriculum. We have over half a million tree saplings that we give to the children in the Ekal villages and have them plant them in their homes,” said Bagra.
Reddy told the attendees that Ekal’s work provided a great opportunity to bring about a large-scale transformation.
“It is exciting to have one of the ‘Ekal on Wheels’ hosted at the ‘Kakathiya Sandbox,’” Reddy said.
‘Kakatiya Sandbox’ provides a home to various NGOs to help them bring about sustainable development through a diverse range of initiatives and by partnering with like-minded individuals and organizations.
Reddy, who has been involved in multiple community initiatives over the years, created a sandbox in Nizamabad, his hometown, which is about 100 miles from Hyderabad, about six years ago to improve income levels in that area.
“‘Kakatiya Sandbox’ is an ecosystem for long-term social impact in rural India, in this case in rural Telangana. We pick a close-knit geography, roughly of 10 million population, and everything we do is in just that area. The idea is, if you have 20 such ecosystems around the country, that’s 200 million people and that’s about 25 percent of rural India’s population,” Reddy explained to India-West. “In ‘Sandbox’, there are three things. Applying ‘bottom up’ approach to build solutions. Unless the local people are an active part of the solution, these changes are not sustainable; bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to address social challenges. Charity, unless accompanied by a level of executive excellence, doesn’t have the right impact; and its scale. For example, there is a very active TiE chapter in Nizamabad, probably the smallest city to have it, with a population of six lakh people. It’s a very vibrant, they meet every month.”
‘Ekal on Wheels’ joined other social enterprises, including Agastya, Nirman, etc., which currently operate from the ‘Sandbox’.
Other speakers at the event included Dr. Anil Shah, an interventional cardiologist based in Los Angeles, Calif., who is working with Ekal to transform Ekal villages through his Smart Villages Initiative.
Raghunath Lathi, an early supporter of Ekal from New Mexico, was in India when India attained its independence. He said that Ekal’s work was helping fulfill the promise of development made at that time.
It was also shared at the event that many Ekal schools are now using tablets to improve their teaching and learning mechanisms. Ekal is now planning to use tools developed by the Global Learning X-Prize winners to improve their curricular offerings.
“We have a vision to have tablets in all the 100,000 villages by 2022,” stated Ramesh Shah, chairman of the board for Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA.
Reddy stressed that a partnership with the local governments is the best way to implement noble charitable ideas.
“Often times we end up saying the government doesn’t do enough…I don’t completely buy that because government is just a reflection of us as ordinary citizens. My experience in Telangana is that there are absolutely highly devoted and good execution leaders at the district collector level,” Reddy told India-West. “I think it’s a matter of finding the few that also want to work with you and have the enthusiasm.”
Reddy added that even though government aid is necessary, one shouldn’t be dependent on it. Both government and private initiatives have to co-exist in order to make an impact, he explained.
“I think some of the best ideas can indeed come from the private world. Government helps you scale these things. If you can get a good working model of some ideas like ‘Ekal on Wheels’ and Agastya, which has ‘Science on Wheels,’ or Akshay Patra, you will find people in the government are willing to work with you.”
Agastya, he added, is sparking curiosity and a sense of learning in children, thereby making a phenomenal difference.
“They have 35 vans and six science centers over five years and a lot of the funding comes from the government at the district collector level,” Reddy cited as an example.
The team from India, including Ravidev Gupta, Arun Bajaj, GD Goyal, Nandakishore Aggarwal and Neeraj Rayzada, presented details of the work that is being done on the ground.
It was shared at the event that Ekal India is organizing an event titled, ‘Parivartan Khumb,’ in Lucknow, India, Nov. 17 and 18 to showcase the transformation that Ekal has enabled.
For more information about Ekal, visit http://ekal.org.