By Vani Manocha:
Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.
After completing his schooling, getting into a college was an uphill task for 29-year-old Sandeep Mehto. His family, hailing from Kesla tribal block in Pathrota village, Madhya Pradesh, did not have enough money to support his higher education. But Mehto was determined. He borrowed from a moneylender to get enrolled in the Samrat Ashok Technological Institute in the state and sought an education loan to get into the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in 2009. While he made it to the prestigious institute, Mehto knew that far too many children gave up on their dreams of a higher education either because they did not have the financial means or were not aware of the career choices which could give them a good education without costing a fortune.
The urge to help children pursue their dream uninterrupted led him to start Bharat Calling, which he co-founded in 2009 with John Basumatary, his batchmate from TISS. The venture, started in Hoshangabad district, was registered as a society in 2011, supported by Shri Ramesh Prakash Samajik Sansthan, a non-profit based in Pathrota. Bharat Calling provides counselling to government school students about higher education streams, including courses like forestry, environmental studies, music, dance, sculpture and physical education, and connects them to colleges and universities to facilitate their admission. Once a network is built, it becomes easy for students to enquire about courses, fee and duration of study. “Since I went through a crisis myself, I can relate to the challenges faced by students who neither have Internet connectivity to find out where to apply nor enough money to enroll for higher studies,” Mehto says.
An idea that changed lives
Mehto and Basumatary started Bharat Calling with an initial investment of Rs 30,000 that came partly as a contribution from their professor at TISS and partly from a trust in Mehto’s village. Initially, the initiative had 50 students under its counsel. Today, it connects 12,000 students from about 900 villages to educational institutions across Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring states. In 2011, the initiative was also showcased in the TV reality show Kaun Banega Crorepati as “Ek anokhi misaal”.
As part of their work, six employees of Bharat Calling, who started as volunteers, meet government officers to seek permission to conduct awareness camps in schools during November-December every year. If permitted, they contact the school principal and arrange infrastructure like classrooms and books to hold 45-minute long sensitisation training with students. These sessions, once conducted by the co-founders, are now held by volunteers who are selected through a fellowship programme. Students have to fill forms with their areas of interest for higher studies.
“When I was in class 12, I had no idea what to do next. But the desire to be a teacher was somewhere within me. When Bharat Calling came to our school in Jhunkar village and its volunteers guided us, most of us realised that our dreams could come true,” says Arti Damde, now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in education from the Regional Institute of Education, Bhopal.
Sensitisation is only the first round. In March, when application forms are made available for admission to higher educational institutions, the Bharat Calling team again approaches the students to conduct intensive training camps to prepare them for entrance examination. They also help students fill up application forms. “Since most of us could not afford to make many phone calls, the team kept in touch with us. Had it not been for Bharat Calling, I had lost all hope to study further,” adds Rajkumar Patel Gujjar, a student of B.Sc in Forestry from Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur.
Sunita Wadhwa, principal of a school in Bankheri village, believes that not every student wants to be an engineer or can enroll in reputed institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). The initiative gives tribal students an opportunity to explore unconventional career options and groom themselves to earn a livelihood out of them.
“This network identifies students’ interests and talents and guides them to seek admission in institutes whose fee they can afford,” Wadhwa adds. Today, as many as 200 volunteers run Bharat Calling. The core team comprises six salaried members—four coordinators and two managers, one of whom is Mehto. The volunteers are not paid. Funds for the initiative now come from the Development Bank of Singapore and Caring Friends, an informal group of funders. Besides funds and online crowdfunding to seek donation, Bharat Calling also runs online campaigns asking people to sponsor a child. The management has already started getting scholarships for deserving students.
“Mehto and his team are a source of encouragement to those students who want to study but have no one to guide them,” says Lorry Banjamin, an education activist who once worked with the Ratan Tata Trust.
Worth all the trouble
The journey for Mehto, however, was not a cakewalk. “When I pushed the idea to school authorities, they were not very supportive as the concept focused more on raising awareness about career choices than assured economic benefits,” he says. He also faced societal pressure for not choosing a conventional career path for himself. But he was fortunate to have his family’s support.
Mehto conceived the idea of Bharat Calling while studying at TISS. He conducted a survey to assess the situation of higher education enrollment in Kesla. The survey showed a dropout rate of 82 per cent among class 10 students. It also revealed that those who continued to study further got enrolled in colleges rated ‘B’ by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. This is when Mehto and Basumatary decided to bring about a change. “The goal of Bharat Calling is to ensure that no student is denied the right to higher education due to poor socio-economic conditions,” says Mehto, who wants his cause to reach other states as well.
Bharat Calling is one of the few projects of this kind. Renowned mathematician Anand Kumar’s Super 30 is another initiative where his team selects and trains students from economically backward sections to appear for IIT entrance exams.