“I never studied social work or sociology and my engineering background had nothing to do with the work I started doing. But later I realised that this ignorance actually helped me, as I had no boundaries to draw, when it came to innovation”. These words might open many eyes, and push many young professionals waiting on the edge, to make their lives meaningful. Gourav too had cut all ropes holding him back, and taken the plunge. Born in Kurai village of a tribal block in Seoni district he went on to do his schooling in Seoni. Just like others, the lure of Engineering took him to Bhopal. While studying Electronics and Communications Engineering, he got involved with a Volunteer group SWANS.
Helping the group in its formative years, he volunteered for education, teaching underprivileged children. His employment with two telecom companies as a Network Test Engineer, took him to remote villages in West Bengal and MP, to set up and test the mobile network there. This gave him a chance to see and observe village life in various parts of the country, and the plight of the education system there. His earlier tryst with volunteering and now the exposure to education in villages, made him believe that any permanent change in development of a place and its people, can be done through a radical change in schooling. The belief had to be tested on the ground. But the ropes of comfort and a growing salary held him back. FINALLY, one fine day he cut the ropes, grabbed his last pay packet and walked out into the unknown. Back in his village home, the challenge of imparting quality education to tribal children, stared blank at his face. Gourav decided to test his belief at the first level of education, the Anganwadis (pre-primary centers). He thought “Why can’t Anganwadis themselves attract children?”.
AGRINI started off as an organisation, transforming Anganwadis into nursery schools, using technology as a tool for teaching. The next week when the children arrived, their eyes sparkled in disbelief. Before them was a colourful house painted with smiling animals and flowers, and with lots of toys and a TV inside. They jumped to joy, when the TV started playing their favourite rhymes with animated cartoons. By evening, every child was singing the rhymes, a feat they could not accomplish even after a month of memorising. “The impact that was observed by these initial interventions in existing education system, motivated me to go ahead and try new experiments” says Gourav. Starting in Feb 2010, Agrini’s mission became ‘to bring education and awareness in rural areas as a tool to strengthen social and economic status of communities’. A three pronged strategy on Shiksha (Education), Swarozgar (Livelihood) and Swaraj (Governance) was designed to achieve the mission: The novice Social Entrepreneur had started learning and speaking the social sector vocabulary. His first experiment NEEV helped 21 Anganwadi centers become child friendly, and using video assisted learning for teaching. Neev laid the foundation for 2134 children directly and 10,000 children indirectly.
Since Govt primary schools were not too forthcoming to experiment, he started a Community School in his village. Agrini Public School caters to the educational needs of 115 children in tribal block Kurai in M.P. During this intervention, he found the adolescent and youth roaming around aimlessly, and ready to move to city as labor. He started knowledge resource centres called Shikshalaya to equip them with Computers skills. Three such centers operational in three districts engage almost 200 youth on daily basis. Inspired by Gourav, some of them got enrolled in Bachelor in Social Work course at IGNOU. This brought them directly into local governance by engaging with panchayats. Currently the youth groups are engaged in strengthening Gram Sabhas, parents-teachers associations, and monitoring MNREGA, by accessing MIS system through mobile phones. Agrini also started two rural enterprises; a) Shellac (natural resin) production and; b) an innovative backyard poultry using indigenous species. These enterprises gave home based livelihood to 150 villagers grouped in 12 Self Help Groups.
With multiple awards at Asia and National level honouring his innovative approaches, Gourav had seen a new side of himself emerging out of the dark shadows of a rat race world. This was a new world, where money was not consumed but distributed, where respect came not from flashing luxury, but by helping many live sustainably, and where people talked of collaboration instead of competition. “I never realised that I could do this too, till I stopped thinking and started doing” says a beaming Gourav Jaiswal, as he receives a phone call for another award.
SHIULI BHATTACHARYA | TOC
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