Krishna Ramkumar, Chennai
The last 2 months have gone by in a flash. It’s been quite a ride. I’ve worked with a wonderful bunch of IIT students at Bombay, Delhi and Madras. I’ve been inspired by ambitious social entrepreneurs at social enterprise boot camps. I’ve met with officials of state education departments who are super enthusiastic about our cause. And the best of all, I’ve gorged on piping hot gobi parathas at Chandni Chowk’s Parathawaligali and good old idli vada sambar in Chennai’s bylanes, while at work.
Today was a typically frenetic day in the office. The 6 AM Delhi-Chennai flight and my formal attire reminded me of my days as a consultant. On arrival at Chennai airport, I headed straight to Chennai Higher Secondary School in Thiruvanmiyur. A few days earlier, our IIT Madras team had conducted Avanti’s first aptitude test in this school. We were to interview 3 students who had aced the test. While we waited for a room to interview the students, a small crowd of curious onlookers gathered. In my broken Tamil, I tried to explain what we were up to. Mithun and Ajit (from the IIT-M team) looked on in amusement as a student walked up to me and asked, “You salesman? What items?”. What else could a man in white shirt and grey pants with a suitcase in tow be?
Meanwhile, a makeshift interview room had been formed beside the principal’s office and we got down to business. We explained the Avanti program to each student in detail and tested them on a few questions. One boy was particularly impressive. Born in a family of fishermen, he has been a consistent topper at school. In spite of his broken English and difficulty in comprehending our questions, he breezed through the interview. We knew we had found our first fellow in Chennai.
The team then moved on to another corporation school where we had a meeting scheduled with Jupiter, an enthusiastic Class X Math teacher. Jupiter offered to help us schedule meetings with principals from 15 schools in the area around IIT Madras. He would also act as a translator in our counseling sessions with Class X students in these schools. Most Chennai government schools use Tamil as the medium of instruction. Even students in English medium schools can hardly speak English because they are just not encouraged to. The IIT-JEE however can only be given in English or Hindi. Who knows how many smart kids from Tamil Nadu miss out only because of the language. We asked Jupiter’s students what the best engineering college in Chennai was. “Anna University”.
The rest of the day was spent at the head office of Equitas, one of India’s fastest growing microfinance firms. Mr. K. P. Venkatesh, President-Operations gave us some valuable thoughts on our financial model. He also talked about Equitas’ education initiatives. They had wanted to set up schools in Chennai to teach their borrowers’ children and fight the practise of rote learning. Space however is at a premium in Indian cities, and the plan did not materialise. So they set up smaller tuition centres called shiksha kendras all round the state, where students could get some peace and quiet to study at night.
I then made a visit to 2 shiksha kendras with the regional manager and 2 field officers. Each kendra had 3 rooms and 100 kids spread across Classes I-X. Students from Chennai’s colleges get paid to teach here every day. The children were excited to see us and greeted us in the ubiquitous sing song manner. We spent some time with them and said our goodbyes. “Vanakkam”. The Tam boy in me felt at home.