Those were the boundaries of aspiration set by the circumstances he was born into. His family, belonging to a Scheduled Caste called Madiga, lived in a cramped one-room dwelling in Hyderabad, where his father worked as a bus conductor and his mother as a domestic help.
But spurred on by his teacher, Nemali gave it a go and was selected to spend 10 months in the US on a youth exchange programme in 2017. Currently, he is a first-year student of political science at Ashoka University, the elite private university based near Delhi. About a week ago, his family moved into their first proper apartment, thanks to his elder brother’s first salary, after graduating from the National Institute of Technology, Agartala, this year.
For the Nemali family, there is little doubt about what changed its fortune: the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS), where both the brothers studied. Stories like the Nemali brothers’ are legion at the state government-run TSWREIS and its sister organisation, the tribal welfare residential educational institutes (TTWREIS), which together run close to 400 schools where over 2 lakh children study. Over the last five years, these residential schools — which provide free education, boarding, food and other facilities to Class V-XII children from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in straitened circumstances — have been churning out a string of success stories.
Their families might be of modest means, but the children, often first-generation learners, have been acing competitive exams, setting records in sports and, at least in two instances, summiting Mount Everest. Last month, the institutes saw a record of sorts with 706 students clearing the intensely competitive Joint Entrance Exam ( JEE) Mains (qualifying rate of less than 2%), for which parents typically spend lakhs of rupees on private coaching. This included students like Thummanapally Niranjan, the son of a farmer who doubles up as a mechanic, who made it to the 99th percentile. In the JEE Advanced exam (qualifying rate of less than 1%), 42 students got regular seats, another 138 have got preparatory seats and all 706 have secured a future that will lift their families out of poverty.
“This is just a humble beginning. I expect close to 100 seats in the NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, a common qualifying exam for medical colleges) exams. Imagine, 100 of the poorest of the poor, going to medical colleges,” says RS Praveen Kumar, an IPS officer who heads TSWREIS and TTWREIS as its secretary, and the person widely credited for leading the remarkable turnaround of the institutes, with what he says has been unstinting support from the state government.
Born Out of Ideals
It was SR Sankaran, another dynamic bureaucrat, who set up the network of residential social welfare schools in undivided Andhra Pradesh in 1984 to provide quality education for free to the most marginalised. Two schools were set up in each district.
But over the years, the institutions, which come under the social welfare and tribal welfare ministries and are governed as grant-in-aid societies, began to suffer from neglect. M Satyanarayana, who joined the social welfare schools in 1990 as a physics teacher and is currently a principal, says that in 1996, when IAS officer DR Garg was secretary, there were some improvements.
“But after his term, there was insufficient recruitment of teachers and funds, and the system suffered,” says Satyanarayana. Nonetheless, some of the branches, like the Centre of Excellence in Gowlidoddi, which provided free IIT coaching, produced the occasional breakout student like Anand Kumar Kampally, now an engineer in the US. Kampally’s is the kind of story that brings a lump to your throat. The son of a daily wage labourer, who lost his mother to cancer when
he was 10, Kampally had to delay joining the residential school in Class XI because he could not scrape together bus fare.
He got admission for computer science engineering in NIT Patna, but could not afford a laptop till his final year, when he secured a grant. It was only once he got recruited by Ericsson that his life changed. The difference, he says, is that back then, stories like his were rare.
“When I was in Class XII, there would be 4–5 such stories. But now you read about hundreds getting admission in good colleges and universities, getting good jobs,” says Kampally, 27, on the phone from Dallas, US,where he now lives. That difference, say Kampally and those associated with the schools, was ushered in by Kumar. A 1995-batch IPS officer, credited with two mass surrenders of Maoists, among other milestones, Kumar took the unusual step in 2012 of requesting then chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy that he be posted as secretary of the social welfare residential schools’ society.
Till then, this had been a post held by IAS officers and not a coveted one at that, with terms often lasting just a few months. The decision was the culmination of a host of factors. Kumar had just returned from a sabbatical at Harvard University where he completed his Masters in Public Administration. A conversation with his mother back in his village on the fringes of the Nallamala forest sparked a train of thought that led to the switch.
“She showed me the poverty that was still around. Many of the men were stone cutters or farm labourers. Many of the girls got married early. She asked whether she should feel proud that her son is an IPS officer or ashamed that despite her son being an IPS officer, her neighbours were still living in poverty. I didn’t have answers,” says Kumar, on an extended video call from his office in Hyderabad, immaculately dressed in a white, full-sleeved shirt, with rimless glasses and a ready smile. Kumar says it was education that helped his own family escape a fate similar to the other villagers.
His maternal grandparents had been bonded labourers in the fields of a Reddy family in Parumanchala village in Kurnool district. As a child, his mother used to work in the fields. One day, two teachers approached his grandfather and told him they would take her to school.
Kumar’s grandfather had three brothers. In the entire family, his mother was the only child who ended up going to school. She went on to become a school teacher and later, a principal. When he used to go with his mother to her village during the summer holidays, Kumar recalls that they could only fetch water before sunrise or after sunset. “I asked my mother why that was so, and she said the villagers won’t allow it during the day. Mind you, by then my mother was already working as a teacher,” he says.
Student Sachin Bethamalla is a silver medallist at the 2016 India International Regatta
He also saw his relatives and neighbours sit on the ground, while the local landlord always sat on an elevated platform. He emphasises that he does not remember these incidents to seek self-pity or get trapped in a victimhood mentality. “I want to use them as reference points to prevent thousands of others from being in the same situation. It is something I’m passionate about.” His father, too, was a teacher. Growing up, Kumar himself enrolled in the social welfare hostels, which preceded the schools. He decided the time to give back to his alma mater and to society was now, not after his retirement.
His appointment was initially met with stiff resistance from the school teachers, who went on strike. “He was from IPS background. We wondered how he would treat us, coming with a revolver,” Ambadapudi Sharada, a biology teacher at the time, remembers with a chuckle. Kumar had to assure them that he was not there to police them. “I went to the hostels and told them, I belong to a Scheduled Caste, both my parents were teachers and I studied in social welfare hostels. I said I wanted to repay my debt to the institute which is responsible for whatever I am today. They reluctantly withdrew their protest,” he says.
To improve body language, students are encouraged to practice talking in front of mirrors in common areas.
The first six months in the new job were spent visiting schools across what was then undivided Andhra. “I covered about 100 schools. I spoke to teachers, students, parents and many of the alumni. What I saw was that students had a lot of aspiration and energy but were looking for opportunities — someone to liberate them from comatose classrooms where they are treated as empty minds,” he says. But solving that was not easy, since it involved changing entrenched systems, mindsets and behaviours. To help him, Kumar assembled a new team, with people like academic coordinator George Varkey, who had spent two decades in private schools and had been a dean of a group of schools in 2013, when they first met.
“A week after he met me at a programme, he called and asked if I would join him. I said yes, excited at the opportunity,” says Varkey, who can speak passionately about the schools for hours. They began by trying out training programmes for teachers. “But we found that the teachers were not able to connect with the students and the training was not percolating down,” he says.
Students are selected to teach others across the state via live TV shows, for which they can win a prize of Rs 1,500 an hour, often more than what their parents earn daily. The money goes into their bank accounts.
Though the schools were nominally English medium, many of the teachers could speak only in Telugu. So the team shifted their focus to empowering students, from introducing basic English guided compositions to a host of extracurricular activities. The society also began partnering with external organisations, to train faculty and improve students’ English communication skills. English, Kumar says, is the language of emancipation. “Yes, mother tongue is important, but English is extremely important for the poorest of the poor, to get into the core of the economy. Otherwise, they will always be on the margins,” says the 53-yearold. No less critical was the focus on extracurricular activities.
“The easiest way to tap into the students’ potential was to take them outdoors, make them feel liberated and help them express themselves — whether it is through cinema, theatre or adventure sports.” Simultaneously, to motivate the teachers, Varkey says steps like a clear pathway to career progression were introduced, whereby teachers were monitored, commended and could be selected for posts like regional coordinator and deputy secretary of the society. Teachers who were doing well would receive personal letters of commendation from Kumar and, once a month, regional coordinators would pick the best teachers in their jurisdiction for a “Lunch with the Secretary”. “Dr Praveen made himself accessible to both students and teachers,” says Varkey. While good efforts were rewarded, Kumar gave short shrift to non-performers. GV Sastry, a retired principal of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools who regularly goes on inspection of the social and tribal welfare schools, has seen this first-hand. “Once, when I was inspecting a class, a teacher was not able to do division in maths. He was suspended on the spot,” says Sastry, who terms Kumar a “dynamic individual” who has overhauled the system. The efforts gradually began bearing fruit. But it was the year 2014 that became the springboard for the institutes, thanks to two major milestones.
That was the year two of the institute’s students — Malavath Poorna and Anand Kumar — both from historically marginalised communities and impoverished backgrounds, achieved the stunning feat of summiting Mount Everest. At 13, Poorna, member of a Scheduled Tribe, became the youngest girl in the world to summit Everest. Kumar became the first Dalit to achieve the feat. The effect was electric. For students of the welfare hostels, it was as if even the highest peak in the world was now within their reach.
Giving Students Wings
Centres of Excellence
Starting with two, today there are 27 Centres of Excellence run by the social welfare society. These give free specialised coaching for students in Class XI and XII to prepare them for competitive exams like JEE and NEET.
Set up with the idea to free the children from inhibitions, these are 87 schools where children have freedom to decide their course of study, take part in school administration and teach themselves under teachers’ broad supervision.
Programme Students are selected to teach others across the state via live TV shows, for which they can win a prize of Rs 1,500 an hour, often more than what their parents earn daily. The money goes into their bank accounts.
Summer camps with a host of activities such as horse riding, filmmaking and music, among others. About 70,000 students attend these camps each year. College-going women are taught to drive cars and ride bikes to empower them.
Praveen Kumar launched the movement to help students become more aspirational. The term Dalit is not used in the schools because of the painful history and experiences associated with it. Instead, the suffix “swaero” is used — “sw” stands for state welfare and “aero” suggests sky is the limit. The movement has 10 commandments which includes “I am not inferior to anyone”
E Plus Activities
To encourage students to improve their English, considered the language of emancipation, they are encouraged to write guided compositions three times a week. Subject complexity increases according to the age. The programme has evolved over the years.
The teachers began taking greater pride in their work, and in the organisation. “In every organisation’s trajectory, there is a watershed moment. This was ours — and I will give all the credit to the two young students,” says Kumar. It was around the same time that Telangana became a new state, with Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao as the chief minister. Impressed by the schools’ performance, Rao nearly tripled the budget for the institutes. “The CM said this is the model we have to invest in for the new state of Telangana, to improve a generation,” says Kumar. He credits the government’s decision to allow him stability of tenure and the fact that he never had to worry about financial resources as the reasons driving the institutes’ success.
“Our budgets are assured since we are covered by the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Special Development Fund, which only three states are entitled to. For instance, my budget in 2016–17 was `1,378 crore,” says Kumar. From 4,000 to 6,000 seats going empty in united Andhra Pradesh, Kumar says they now have 1.5 lakh children applying to write the exam for the 36,000 seats across schools. “The social welfare residential schools are a highly successful model in terms of giving quality education for the students of SC families. The chief minister feels the same and has increased the number of schools and has been providing the required infrastructure in a phased manner,” Koppula Eshwar, Telangana’s minister for Scheduled Castes Development, told ET Magazine.
“The schools are a phenomenal example of how, given good quality of infrastructure and instruction, you can bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes. The hostels were earlier considered poor cousins to others but they said we want to be the best. They invested heavily in infrastructure, teachers, teaching aids and those investments have really paid off,” says R Subrahmanyam, secretary, Union ministry of social justice and empowerment. The schools, he says, were the model for the Centre’s Ekalavya schools for tribal students in higher classes. Kumar, he adds, “has really built it up beautifully. He’s a fantastic person.”
Padma Shri awardee and Hyderabad based social activist Sunitha Krishnan, who says she has observed the children transform over the years into individuals with a clear idea of what they want, says political will is crucial to sustain such reforms. “I would definitely give a lot of credit to the leadership: to the government, the minister and the secretary (Kumar),” says Krishnan. With adequate funds available, infrastructure has been ramped up, more schools and colleges opened (including an armed forces preparatory college for young women), another 25 schools converted to centres of excellence to train students to clear competitive exams, and a host of activities introduced, from horse riding to teaching college girls to drive so that “they don’t have to always be the pillion rider”, says Kumar.
Village Learning Circles
For the students of the social and tribal welfare residential schools, Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow to learning continuity. Coming from impoverished backgrounds, these students could not afford to get smartphones, tablets and laptops needed for virtual classes. “Even if they had a device, connectivity was an issue. Girls were doubly disadvantaged because parents don’t want to give them smartphones,” says Praveen Kumar. To work around this, the institutes came up with two solutions. The first was teachers delivering lectures via the state-run TV network, which Kumar says was reasonably effective. The second was village learning circles, where students taught their juniors. “In every village or basti, we formed groups of 10 students, managed by a senior student or degree student. The senior student would get the inputs from a device or occasional visits from a teacher, and teach the others.” By September, Kumar says there were about 27,000 such village learning circles, where 1.3 lakh students were teaching one another.
Among all the changes he has spearheaded, the one closest to Kumar’s heart is perhaps the Swaero movement, which he pioneered in 2013 and jokingly terms “a startup in identity.” The “sw” stands for state welfare and “aero” for air and sky, indicating limitless possibility. Kumar says it is a chance for the students to break away from the historic trauma of the Dalit identity.
“The oppression of Dalits is always there, in one form or the other, but what I gleaned from my conversations is that the term was also making the children aspire low. Their minds would not explore what they were really capable of. That’s how we started using the word swaero in the schools instead of Dalit.” He preempts a question of how a new term by itself would usher in change. The children, he says, are also taught 10 commandments to recite, starting with “I am not inferior to anyone.” Kumar says, “We thought by making the children recite and understand these commandments, through the power of auto suggestion, the children will start believing it.” While Kumar has added Swaero to his Twitter handle, others across the state have even begun legally changing their name to include the suffix.
“My life has been transformed. There is before-Everest Poorna and after-Everest Poorna,” says Malavath Poorna, who in 2014 became the youngest girl to climb Mount Everest. She was 13. The daughter of Adivasi agricultural labourers, who never went to school, Poorna was picked by the games teacher at her social welfare school to be part of a new rock climbing programme launched by Praveen Kumar after he joined as secretary. She was then shortlisted for mountaineering courses in Darjeeling and finally in May 2014, along with fellow student Anand Kumar, made it to the world’s highest peak. “I wanted to jump with happiness but I was too exhausted!” recalls Poorna, now 19. She has now completed her BA, after spending a year in the US as an exchange student. Having climbed another six peaks, she has now one more goal to achieve — become an IPS officer like her mentor.
Citius, Altius Fortius
While in Class X, Agasara Nandini faced a tough choice. Her school, Kendriya Vidyalaya, made it clear to her that if she intended to continue with athletics, she would have to leave. But Nandini, whose father was working in a tea shop and mother was a house help, knew where her heart lay. So she quit the school. With the help of her coach, Nandini and her father approached Praveen Kumar, who asked her to join the nearest welfare school the very next day. “In the first year after joining the school, I won eight medals. Now I’m the fastest athlete in the junior category,” says Nandini, who bagged a gold medal in the Khelo India Youth Games in long jump. “Praveen sir” has been supportive throughout, whether it be paying for flight tickets to the competition or giving cash prizes after every medal win. “I want to take Praveen sir’s name, Telangana’s name and India’s name to greater heights,” she adds.
If it was Thummanapally Niranjan’s local government school maths teacher who told him about IITs, it was his English teacher who told him about the social welfare hostel he needed to join to get into the elite engineering college. “I wrote the entrance test and got through,” says Niranjan, whose father is a farmer who occasionally takes up mechanical jobs and mother does some tailoring. Their income would not have been enough for Niranjan to enrol for private coaching. The Centre of Excellence provides the same service free. The efforts paid off when Niranjan, after scoring in the 99th percentile in the JEE Mains, secured a seat for himself in IIT. After completing engineering, he is gunning for the civil services. He says: “Initially, I thought of going abroad, earning more and donating it. But in my second year, I changed my decision and decided I want to be a secretary, like Praveen sir.”
Kumar believes marginalised communities need to liberate themselves, with the help of those who have already been emancipated. “Those who are leading comfortable lives must come back to the communities in a big way and pay it back. It has to be a big movement, not solitary cases, so that thousands can be freed from ignorance, poverty and illiteracy. That’s my vision.” He adds that he’s someone who believes in quantum leaps. “I don’t believe in linear progression — it has to be exponential. I want to see Mount Everest climbers in every village,” he says, with a laugh.
Talking about his own experience, Ashoka University student Nemali gives a recent example of why he prefers the term Swaero. “In class, there was a discussion about Dalit cuisine, and how it has been excluded from the mainstream. Every time I heard the word Dalit, I felt marginalised among the 40 students. But when someone hears the word Swaero, we think of people who climbed Everest, who are studying in London. It just makes me feel positive.” After his degree in political science, Nemali says he hopes to become a judge. “I initially wanted to become a doctor but after my stint in the US, I became interested in politics and governance. Now I think if I become a judge, I can do the right thing — do my part for democracy.” Stories like Nemali’s, Poorna’s and hundreds of others seem to be inspiring a generation of the marginalised.
The model is worthy of being replicated across the country. Subrahmanyam says a proposal to this effect has in fact been submitted to the Centre. The biggest testament to what the institutes have achieved is, arguably, the change in public perception. When Kampally, the engineer in Texas, was a student, he remembers that his friends used to tell him, “those schools are only for SCs”. “Now, everyone wants their children to get into these schools. And that is incredible,” he says.