Thursday, September 26, 2013
How Shanti Bhavan Came to Fruition
For many years before I left my professional career in America and started Shanti Bhavan, I thought seriously about my life-long ambition to serve the poor and the socially deprived. I had abstract ideas about it -- a cause that I believed in --, but it was not entirely clear to me how I would achieve my goals. Though my vision might have been ambitious, I did not think about it on the individual, human level. The idea of economic and social justice for all, and how I would deal with those issues, did not connect me to children from poor families.
Sure, I felt injustice was being perpetuated on hundreds of millions of people all around the world, but they were blank faces in my vision– merely numbers. The thought that passed through my mind then was about how to make an impact on society. It was just an idea, an ideal that could impact those I did not think I would come to care about personally. The humanity of those I would be serving was not evident to me.
My understanding of American society taught me that it is difficult to alter preconceived notions and prejudices. I also learned that economic equality leads to social equality, and not the other way round. No amount of appeals to the good moral senses of well-to-do people would bring about the necessary changes in the way the society worked, I concluded.
A quick study of the government policies in India led me to believe that they would not usher in prosperity or equality to the lower castes within any reasonable period of time. Setting of job quotas for those within certain communities does not result in sufficient improvement in their status. It is one thing to legislatively assure employment even without the requisite qualifications, but the real challenge is in raising their capabilities to meet the requirements of good jobs.
Well-paying jobs are implicitly linked to many other basic needs: livable houses, quality education, acceptable health care, and sufficiently nutritious food intake. The solution calls for proper education and skills-training from an early age to be able to obtain those jobs. The question was how opportunities could be given to children from very poor families so that they become professionally successful and overcome prejudices in the society.
So what is the solution?
If economically deprived families cannot afford to send their children to schools and colleges to prepare them for professional careers, their children have little or no chance as adults to significantly improve their economic condition. On the other hand, when these children are brought up in an environment with socially acceptable values and a good education, they are likely to compete and succeed.
So here it was. As I returned to India on a social mission after spending nearly 30 years in America, the idea for starting a residential school for children from poor families to offer quality education began to take shape. The plan was formulated and documented in a policy and procedure manual over a period of two years. Soon, Shanti Bhavan came to fruition.
Today, Shanti Bhavan is bringing up over 300 children from some of the poorest families in India. After 17 years since its start, four batches have already entered reputed colleges in different fields of their choice.Further, the first batch of college graduates have taken up starting positions in Goldman Sachs, Mercedes Benz, Ernst & Young, Biocon and other global companies. Their professional success will not only assure a descent lifestyle for themselves and their families, but also for their communities. Their contribution to society and the world at large will be far more significant than what would have been without a good upbringing and education.
The multiplicative impact of each one’s success will carry forward hundreds of others. If and when this model is widely implemented, we will witness a real transformation of the so-called lower castes in India, bringing about both economic well-being and dignity to their lives.
One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years was that the children in my care have faces, and are far more than the cause I had come to pursue. They are as much mine emotionally as they are of their own families, and my ambitions for them are no less than their own. The reason for my work today is their future and the love I have for them.