Not everyone treads on the road less traveled. But passionate leaders with determination to bring change often take difficult paths. One such leader is Dr.RS Praveen Kumar who chose to serve the cause of education over his lucrative police officer career. His innovative project at APSWREIS had won laurels for imparting quality education in government schools. Students from his schools had consistently shown extraordinary performance and have made it to reputed institutions such as IITs and NITs. Now, in the role of Secretary of Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, Government of Telangana, he is replicating his successes in Telangana. FDR Research team had a candid conversation with the energetic officer who is on an unstoppable mission in improving the quality of education.
1. An IPS officer choosing education and social welfare over the powerful law and order administration is rather unusual. We would like to know the inspiration behind your interest in Social Welfare Education Institutions?
I am the product of the same institutions; I stayed at Social Welfare Hostel when I was in VIII standard. It is this idea of paying back to the system, which is responsible for whatever I am today and has been there for the longest time on my mind. My mother was an agricultural labourer at a young ageand two teachers transformed her life. In 1950’s, they were denied homes in the center of the village; they approached my grandfather and asked him for some space. It is during their stay that they have taken my mother to school and that is how she was introduced to the process of education. Today, she’s a teacher, a mother of an IPS Officer, an Associate Professor and a Doctor. The central point is that when a bonded labourer could become a teacher and the mother of an IPS officer, I thought that this story must resonate in every household. During my Masters in Harvard University, I have met a number of inspiring people and it is those courtyard conversations that triggered the spark. I realized that if not now, my goals would never materialize. It was there that, in colloquial terms, I found my calling so much so that I decided to return to India and took up the opportunity to serve the Social Welfare Education Institutions.
2.When most of the government schools are floundering in aspects of quality education, social welfare schools seem to be outlier as significant number of your students are consistently making to IITs and NITs. What painstaking efforts have been gone into to improve the quality of education and ensure consistency in the outcomes of social welfare schools?
The needy children are pulled out of toxic ecosystem where they are not considered as an asset but as an economic burden, more so in case of girl children. The home environment into which they are born is not supportive of children for various reasons including poverty and deprivation. Keeping this in mind, in our schools, we have created an ecosystem for the children to come out of the mindset of inferiority complex by motivating them to think big and aim high in life, even in the face the of object poverty and adversity The success stories our students in IITs/NITs, medicine, Azim Premji University, central universities, CCIP (USA), CLAT, and
Himalayan and African mountaineering expeditions truly reflect our students’ will to excel in every walk of life.
My strong belief is that children from poor socio-economic background are as bright as other children, but they don’t have opportunities and access that rich and middle-class children have. Exposure, opportunity and attitude take people out of poverty and ignorance. And I earnestly consider opportunity is the difference between success and failure. Keeping this in mind, we are trying to create opportunities, creating an ecosystem and exposing children to role models, so that they know what road they can take.
We promote inclusive and stimulating teaching and learning environment in our schools in a safe and secure environment. We are leaving no stone unturned to bring out students’ talent and creativity in academics and sports. Our students are under constant supervision of dedicated and committed teachers 24*7. The confidence levels our students reached sky-high and they have proved that the successful outcome is not beyond realm of possibility. Our students have earned accolades for their indomitable spirit and never give up attitude.
3.Today, students from Social Welfare Residential schools wear “SWAEROS” as a badge of honor- a first of a kind. Is this an attempt to end caste discrimination? Year on Year, ever increasing achievements of SWAEROS are reinforcing the value of your ten commandments. What challenges have you encountered in making the young children understand and inculcate those values?
At the very outset, it (caste discrimination) is certainly not going to end in near future. But I am hopeful that caste might become irrelevant in the days to come. We consciously discourage the word Dalit and backward since these are all the stereotypes that are recklessly imposed on these children and most of the times, your name decides your destiny and name is synonymous to your self-esteem. Thus, we replaced all these words with a generic term called SWAEROES (Social Welfare Aroe: Sky and air in Greek). These children have tremendous potential in body, mind, and soul and all you need to do is discover, tap and harness this potential so they reach the best of their capabilities in life- this is what we call Identity Re-engineering, for which we have researched and explored the works of Priyanka Pandey, Sukhadeo Thorat, Carla Hoff, Joshua Aronson, Claude Steele, George Akerloff, etc. and then we have concluded that there is an urgent requirement to re-engineer the identity. Once the identity is re-engineered, a set of rituals and a set of practices to be followed so that you can operationalize the theory of change in the identity and its impact. To make this operative, we have ideated the concept of the 10 commandments with huge amount of community research to unearth and discover the fears and uncertainties that these children have. Therefore, these 10 commandments are a tactic to achieve the goal called SWAEROES (it is not just identity but a goal).For instance, you ask Malavath Poorna, who climbed the Mount Everest and 18 people have died that day on their way but still they could make it to the top and when you ask them their secret, they would talk about the 10 commandments. When you are young, you tend to recite things just like we used to recite pledge in our school assemblies, so what we do is, we unpack the lives of extremely successful people and people who have faced horrendous failures; we would then try and explain them that had the person who has failed, followed the 10 commandments, he would have had a roaring success.
I don’t think caste discrimination will end consciously, it has to go out on its own- So if every community including women who feel that they are marginalized and are powerless, will have to do something to change that perception. You help the marginalized group to discover their potential and provide them with a solid target so that they emancipate themselves and does not wait for any Messiah from outside to liberate them. This is a very radical proposition. Caste discrimination would end on its own, you must tell the discriminated people that they are equally powerful and emancipate themselves- this is our model, you cannot have a program to end caste discrimination since that would mean you are imposing your ideas on others. Today, Poorna is a leading example to our students. She is the girl next door and is their hostel-mate who hails from a poor family and thus, they no more feel inferior, which happens to be our first commandment. This is what we mean by Identity Re-engineering. It is for the perpetrators to realize their guilt. Instead, channelize your efforts in transforming the lives of these children by giving them the right kind of environment without instilling any seeds of hatred or vengeance.
4.You have opined on a couple of occasions that “Mere idols of Ambedkar are not sufficient, it is the ideology of Ambedkar which needs to be understood completely”. For the benefit of wider reach, can you please elaborate upon it?
Ambedkar himself was against having statues and idols in a way that it is a symbol of assertion and nothing beyond that. Today, we need to have an environment that can create millions of Ambedkars and that has not happened in this country. Thus, instead of investing on idols, invest in a library, which can create people like Ambedkar. The marginalized people must have a culture to create Ambedkars in their households along with his idols. We need to have a steady stream of intellectual individuals like Ambedkar and having none is worrisome. Many people who install his idols are not clear about his ideas and out of their innocence, they only revere Ambedkar but it is quite rare that they understand the values he stood for and the operational aspects of his ideology. They should go beyond Ambedkar and rediscover themselves with Ambedkar as their solid foundation. I hope our Swaeroism addresses this gap to a greater extent.
5.How is the response to “Bheem Deeksha” (named as Holy Month)? Are students seeing it as another imposed religious practice?
No, not at all. Bheem Deeksha is again a part of our Identity Re-engineering, we wanted to have something that would disconnect us from the hectic routine life and spend atleast a month with pure heart towards our communities. There is no imposition what-so-ever. Infact, it is voluntary for the students and they are free to take a call. It is the process of self-emancipation without looking for an external Messiah and as SWAEROES, we learn and lead by examples, we do not impose anything.
6.Many parents are worried about the future of their children who are studying in government schools. Do you have any thoughts to pioneer policy and institutional changes for extending your initiative on a wider scale in the primary education too?
Yes, it is true. In fact, more than 80% of the children studying in government schools come from poor economic background irrespective of caste and religion. Unfortunately, quite a few students are dropping out of school during the critical learning primary education phase. In fact, I do not want to call them as drop-outs rather I would call them as driven-outs. Because, if I call them as drop-outs, I would be blaming the students and their families there by absolving the education system of the guilt. If we are serious about improving the quality of primary education in state-sponsored schools, we need to bring together school leaders, teachers, parents, and alumni to a common platform and evolve strategies that would transcend individual interests and allow the schools to focus on providing quality education.
The school leaders can make or break a school. The school leader and teachers should strive to win the confidence of the parents and the community, and they should be in a position to provide justification for sending a child to a particular government school. This is the need of the hour. There has been a negative perception among the parents about graduates and postgraduates working in agricultural fields and other occupations which are considered to be less important, particularly in case of girls. This myth needs to be broken, and the successful alumni could play an indispensable role in demonstrating why every penny invested in education is worth it. Mere construction of school buildings and toilets in every school is only a partial solution in my view.
7.We heard that there was resistance from the teachers on the staying at the campus. How did you manage to bring them on board?
There is resistance because we live in an urbanized world. Post liberalization, modernization and urbanization, we do understand their reasonable concerns. Many schools do not have staff quarters .From our side, we are willing to improve the infrastructure but not beyond a point since the state resources are also limited. Therefore, we are trying to optimize to the possible extent and provide them with best of our abilities. Earlier, there was resistance but we have tried to address these problems and the resistance has fairly gone down. However, we have always ensured that minimum number of teachers stay on the campus.
8.Your belief in the value of quality education system is commendable but despite our education system, the social stigma is quite prevalent. What do you think is the way forward?
The stigma will not be prevalent and can be sidestepped only when the victims of this stigmatization and stereotypes are given solid goals and support- moral, financial and physical and explore new domains so that social stigma eventually becomes irrelevant.
9.In your experience, how does the vision of Dalit capitalism stacks up amidst the prevailing caste networks based business contracts?
Control of production by Dalits need to be welcomed with open arms. But the concept of dalit capitalism will have limited or no value if they end up only as millionaires and billionaires. The dalit capitalists should promote payback to society movement in the true sense and help in emancipating the deprived dalit communities from the shackles of poverty. Today, for instance, Parsis, as a community come together as a whole and the billionaires help the poor and this is how they have managed to survive in a country like India. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in dalits becoming capitalists, but that alone will not be sufficient for the emancipation of the poor dalits. It all boils down to going back to your roots otherwise, you will end up one among the many capitalists and your community will not prosper. In other words, the dalit capitalists will end up living in a gated community oblivious of the suffering of your own people.
10.What is your big picture in transforming the present day education system?
We want to head towards a system where a child learns independent of the teacher. We want to promote home schooling, self-learning and design thinking in a way that children are least dependent on the system. We encourage teachers to shape the children in a way where they can frame the right questions and become independent individuals to a day in future where schools become irrelevant and that is how we are trying to transform the education system. We are waging a battle against rote learning and we have been partially successful and we strive to get the best out of the students.I have always strived to give these children what I did not get as a student and I would like to thank our Chief Minister Sri. K Chandra Shekhar Rao who has given me constant support. My experience in the hostel has shaped my thinking and as the head of the department, I am doing everything I can do so much so that we have now become an ideology and I think this will sustain. Our success of institutionalization is not just putting these students on records but our success lies in educating the parents in what we have done and achieved in the last five years. Every parent today knows about Summer Samurai and eagerly awaits to send their children to attend the summer camps.
11.How has been the government’s response and what different is the Telangana government doing with respect to your initiatives?
The government’s support has been extremely laudable. The dream of Telangana government is to emerge as the Human Resource capital of this country so they want to provide the best possible opportunities to not just marginalized communities but all the communities who would have otherwise become refugees in the job market. The government is striving to bring out the leaders from these communities for instance, there is an initiative called ‘Each One Teach Ten’ where all the students who have passed out from our schools go back to their communities to teach their peers what they have learnt here. Our movement is aimed towards building a knowledge society in its true sense. For instance, each student tries to teach on live television in a programme called ‘earn while you learn’ where these children are paid Rs.1500 per hour.
12.The increase in the number of applicants appearing for Civil Services in the last few years reflects the shift of interest among the people to serve the society, what would be your advice for the future leaders?
It is important to be extremely clear in what you want to do and you must have the strategy and tactics to crack the Civil Services and then achieve what you wanted to. Clarity is the crux of this service otherwise you will be pulled multiple directions. Service comes with sacrifice and one should be ready to take up challenges and this is definitely one of the best opportunities to make India as informed, inclusive, and invincible nation in the world.