educate children

Celebrating children: This NGO is on a mission to educate future leaders

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Balasundaram sheds light on the journey of Bal Utsav, the challenges that he faced on his mission to educate children among other thought-provoking topics.

Behind every big step that changed the course of history, it was education that paved the way for new beginnings. From discovering gravity to inventing penicillin; from landing on the moon to constructing the first picture of a Black Hole, it was the tool that empowered people to dream big and conquer new heights.

As the Chinese proverb goes, “if you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” Whatever you want to accomplish, big or small, knowledge and learning can make it possible. But despite the importance of this fundamental right, millions of children across the world remain uneducated due to a lack of resources and funds. In India alone, at least 35 million children aged 6-14 don’t attend school, as per a survey.

Children are the future of tomorrow. But, in the absence of education, there will be no brighter tomorrow. It can threaten to stifle the growth of our society. But not when initiatives like Bal Utsav are trying to educate children and eradicate the darkness of illiteracy through the light of learning. Co-founded in 2009 by Ramesh Balasundaram and his wife, Binu Ramesh Verma, the Bengaluru-based NGO helps children obtain a quality education, study materials, and scholarships. Through their efforts, they are ensuring that these don’t just remain an unaffordable luxury. “Education should never be a question of affordability. The power of education is phenomenal and it can change lives. I’m sure many of us as kids faked a tummy ache or a headache in the hope to miss school. But there are many children who want to go to school but can’t. So, it’s critical to help them with the opportunities we have at our disposal,” says Balasundaram.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Balasundaram sheds light on the journey of Bal Utsav, the challenges that he faced on his mission to educate children among other thought-provoking topics.

Bal Utsav means ‘celebrating children.’ What inspired you to start this initiative?

Any positive change can only happen if we educate children. But right now, a lot of social issues in India are a work in progress. Only in the case of polio, we have worked with a “mission mode.” We still have work to do in spheres of education, healthcare and policy reforms. So, if we wish to make any significant change, we need to address these issues from a problem-solving standpoint with an end date in sight. And we know anything can be solved if we educate children and prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow.

Another reason was how Indian children are generally perceived. A Google search on Indian children shows children with torn clothes. This made us feel uncomfortable. But it also inspired us to adopt a celebratory approach to solve the serious problem of educating children. This is how the idea of Bal Utsav germinated.

Which were some of the biggest challenges in your journey and how did you overcome them?

We initially started by working with out-of-school children, who should be in schools but were not. That was either because they dropped out or were never a part of the system. In 2009, The Right to Education Act came into effect. It was the first effective and comprehensive move towards free and compulsory education for people, especially children. There was, however, a big question in front of us. What class a 10-year-old child should start with if they haven’t gone to school before? And without the fundamental education, will they be able to sustain there? Keeping these intricacies in mind, we began to help children—from urban slums, tribal pockets, children of construction workers—get into government schools and stay there.

In 2014, we collaborated with the government of Karnataka and adopted the school-in-school model. This enabled us to utilise unused classrooms and resources in government schools. It was a big transition for us since we were now working from within the system. We knew if we aspire to change anything, it can be done from government schools because most of the Indian children study there. Most families send their children there because they can’t afford to go anywhere else. So, if we can enhance the quality of education at government schools, not only it will help teachers and children but families as well.

Tell us about the different programmes offered by Bal Utsav.

We launched Sampoorna Shaala, our modern school system, in 2015. It is designed to support over 500 children. It’s an innovative, interactive, and internet-powered facility that not only enhances the quality of education but inspires communities too. We believe inspiring communities should be the role of every school that can separate ‘good-to-have’ with ‘must-have’ facilities. Through our programme, we achieved this by focussing on four significant must-haves.

The first is the infrastructure that includes classrooms, toilets, furniture, electricity, fans et cetera. The second is teachers. In our country, there is a huge shortage of teachers. Thus, it’s important to invest in them to increase their numbers. The third is the availability of scholarships for children which can help them continue with their education. The fourth pillar of Sampoorna Shaala is water, sanitation and hygiene, which we call WASH.

Building our program on these pillars enabled us to attract the attention of many families. We also realised the need for a similar modern school system for rural areas. In 2017, we launched iShaala for schools in rural areas with the strength of 100 children or less.

Schools in urban and rural areas are different from each other in terms of resources and operations. How did you deal with this challenge?  

When it comes to challenges, schools in rural and urban areas are like chalk and cheese. In rural India, the majority of the schools are small in strength and infrastructure. To add more perspective, let’s say an urban school has 500 children with 15 to 17 teachers. Even if one or two teachers don’t attend one day due to sickness or some other reason, the school can still function. But a school in a rural area with 60 students cannot operate if two teachers are absent. And what happens when teachers are unavailable for an entire week? Through iShaala, we make sure that children continue to learn even by themselves in internet-powered classrooms and through self-learning modules.

Earlier you talked about WASH that ensures the availability of water, sanitation, and hygiene for children. How does it help schools in rural areas?

I think the relevance or the correlation between effective toilets and schools is something not many people understand. For example, let’s say a teacher works at a school from eight to five. They spend their entire day at school. If they don’t have access to a toilet, how long will they work there? The situation becomes even worse for women teachers. When we did our survey, we found the conditions were quite bad for schools in the rural areas, with little to no attention paid by anyone.

Second, we found that there was no system for waste disposal. You can imagine how difficult it can be for girls. We wanted to ensure they can comfortably come to the schools all 30 days of a month. We also installed proper infrastructure and vending machines to make sanitary pads accessible. Moreover, we added waste disposal mechanisms as well so they can dispose of the used pads. We also ensured water remains available irrespective of electricity or any other issue.

Since you worked closely with children during the pandemic, can you tell us how it impacted their lives?

To be honest, I think these past two years have been quite difficult for children. Fortunately, our high schools have been reopened. But when the pandemic had started, things were quite difficult. No one knew anything about the virus. Even now, many adults don’t understand the ordeal we all are in. Imagine how difficult it must be for children. I mean how do you explain to a five-year-old why they need to keep washing their hands? Or why can’t they go to school? Children, who are two or three years old–which is when they start their schooling–can’t begin their education. This is a crucial time for them to develop their social skills and start learning, but they can’t. That’s why, I believe, children have been the most vulnerable during this period.

What does the future behold for Bal Utsav?

Right now, we are only working in Karnataka. In the next 10 years, we want to take our programmes to every district of India, where we can support schools or a cluster of schools with around 1,000 children. The vision is to show people and the government that, together, we can change the face of our country’s education system.

  • Ramesh Balasundaram is a senior professional and organisational catalyst with a passion for driving innovation in diverse sectors. He is the former consultant to the Karnataka Knowledge Commission (Government of Karnataka) that works with the Government in policymaking and implementation. Balasundaram is an avid traveller. His other interests include entrepreneurship, languages, art, architecture, photography, reading, music and swimming.

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