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The Fighter Pilot Turned Politician Who’s Standing Up For Education In India

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By Sneha Kalaivanan:

“I used to look at politicians with contempt.”

Shashank Shukla’s career has taken him into the skies as a fighter pilot, into corporate boardrooms as a consultant, and into classrooms as a Teach For India Fellow. Today he’s a politician. “Now I look at politics – as it should be – it’s the most accountable and selfless form of service. It is also the most impactful,” he says.

How does someone navigate a 180-degree career switch and commit to a life in public service?

A Desire To Serve

“The one thing that has remained constant is my desire to serve,” he says. When an injury during mountain training abruptly ended his dream stint with the Air Force at the same time that his single mother was entering retirement, Shashank’s first thought was to get a job. He sat for the CAT, went on to get his MBA from TAPMI (T.A. Pai Management Institute) in Manipal and spent the next seven years climbing the corporate ladder at GE Money, Citibank and Infosys. Although his success brought him the comforts most people aspire to, he was pestered by a “nagging feeling” that he wasn’t quite doing what he was supposed to be.

During this time, he also worked with his wife to build a school on land that was owned by his father-in-law. They felt this would be a way to contribute to the country and believed education was the silver bullet for India’s problems. Shashank was passionate about the school and the impact it could have, but felt like a clueless novice in an antediluvian system. He knew he needed help and decided to dive headfirst into the sector. “I’ve taken crazy risks. Whatever I’ve wanted to do, I’ve done. If you want to do something, then do it! Don’t find safe options,” he says.

Becoming Shashank Bhaiya

Teach For India emerged as the platform that would give him the best opportunity to learn about the educational inequity crisis and how to solve it. His two-year Fellowship began in 2010 at Sunrise English Medium School in Pune. One might conclude that the classroom was this soldier’s crucible: “Sunrise had four small rooms for 600 children. It was run in three shifts and we were packed in like sardines. It had a tin roof, so there was no facility for ceiling fans. This is in Pune – it really burns. By the end of each day, my kurta would be drenched with sweat.”

The Fellowship, beginning with the five weeks of intensive training at the Institute, gave Shashank a foundation of pedagogy, curriculum and classroom management that he could take into any classroom. He credits his time in the Air Force with drilling into him a regimented work ethic – “the most important things for the classroom are probably hard work and discipline. You cannot walk into class and start thinking on your feet. You have to have the tenacity to plan lessons and grade papers even after a long, gruelling day.” And his time in the corporate world kept him focused, but not fixated on performance: “the class culture I drove was all about results.”


But the results and performance were not merely academic. Shashank focused on values and mindsets in addition to skills and curriculum. His students were ranked in the Top 20 of the global Design for Change contest – a first for a Fellow. Four of his students participated in Teach For India’s original Broadway musical, ‘Maya’, and were later awarded scholarships through the national talent program. “It’s nice to see them do well in various spheres like sports and arts. A mindset can be applied to anything – winning is a habit,” he says.

Student Leadership – Marching Towards Progress

When Shashank talks about his students, his excitement and happiness is palpable. His favourite memory is of the day they gifted a computer lab to Sunrise School. After they raised funds and ordered four computers on their own, the class planned a party for the day they were to arrive. The kids were waiting, balloons-in-hand, to invite the principal to their computer lab. “It was a reverse thing!” Shashank remembers enthusiastically. He was thrilled to see children whose parents were barely literate, from circumstances so radically different from his own childhood, make their dreams a reality.

Moments like these ignited a sense of possibility and redefined student leadership in his mind. “I really believe that if you want change, you should invest the children. Student leadership is closely linked with parent leadership and community leadership,” he says. “I told Shaheen (Founder and CEO – Teach For India) that if we want to lobby for change, we should march to the Parliament – 10,000 kids marching would grab eyeballs! Make it a national issue!”

The Power Of The Politician

In June 2010, Shashank was selected by Anu Aga (Rajya Sabha Member) as a member on the National Advisory Council (NAC) working group on education. There he met movers and shakers including members of parliament and Supreme Court commissioner Harsh Mander.

“I could see politicians pass sweeping bills and legislation. That’s when I realised that the real power in a democracy lies with the politician. A district magistrate – after completing his training at age 23 or so – can impact two million kids on day one. Think about what he or she could do!” Shashank sounds just as excited by the prospect of this today as he was when he discovered it.

Around that time, the National Program for the Urban Homeless was beginning to take shape. Harsh Mander had secured court orders for a residential program catering to street children, but needed someone to implement it. He tasked Shashank with conducting a feasibility study to present to the Delhi government for approval. They agreed to implement the program in the city and in the second year of his Fellowship, Shashank moved to Delhi to work in a residential school – Rainbow Home – for juvenile delinquents, abandoned children and drug abusers.

Over the course of three years, he, along with two other Fellows – Saloni Gupta and Nakul Dubey – were able to bring 27 students from zero education to passing class 10 board exams. Shashank proudly shares, “they’re respectable citizens today. They have jobs and their children now have a shot at achieving their dreams.”

The success of Rainbow Home in Delhi led Aman Biradari, an NGO, to expand the National Program for the Urban Homeless to eight states. Within one year, Shashank collaborated with state governments to help open 63 other such homes that have impacted more than 15,000 children. It was then that he decided to become a politician.

Another Dream Pursued

Towards the end of his Fellowship, Shashank wanted to study political science and was accepted to the Harvard Kennedy School, but without financial aid, which meant that he couldn’t go. So, he decided to make his candidacy really exceptional by co-authoring a research paper. After 20 attempts to reach faculty at the Kennedy School about a research paper, most people would give up. Not Shashank. On the 21st try, his plan worked – someone from Harvard responded. And in 2014, he was on his way to Boston to get his Master’s degree on full scholarship.

Shashank refers to his time there as an invaluable experience that has really motivated him. Sitting in class with people from 80 different countries exposed him to incredible diversity of thought. It’s a place where “people do research and you get exposed to new – radical – ideas. I really feel a school of politics is desired to shape the next generation of politicians in India. I want our people to be pragmatic,” he says.

As luck would have it, Shashank met a recruiter for Congress on campus who remembered his participation in the NAC. So he returned to India for a while to support the party through the last election cycle. After Shashank graduated from Harvard, he was appointed to his current role in Uttar Pradesh – a leadership development mission to build a contingent of grassroots leaders among Dalits and scheduled castes. In the medium term, he wants to become a state minister, but his goal is to someday become the country’s Education Minister and transform the lives of India’s 400 million children.


What India Needs

Shashank’s vision is for an India where people are mentally and physically healthy, and are provided adequate training for necessary skills. “It should be a nation of systems that gives them equal opportunity. That’s when nobody will be able to stop my country,” he says. He sees education as a critical part of the solution that’s rarely discussed. “Nobody cares about education. Education doesn’t win elections. For the government, education means infrastructure – building schools. The issues about quality of education, pedagogy, curriculum, and holding people accountable – who is talking about that?”

His voice carries an urgency about the education crisis.

For a politician, Shashank sounds quite optimistic. His drive and sense of possibility have taken him from civilian to serviceman and back, and from private sector professional to education evangelist. He’s redefined what it means to serve.

Shashank now understands what opportunity looks like for people across demographics and what it takes to prepare them to seize it. He wants young people to dive headfirst into their careers. And we need them to. We need them to blaze new trails to solve the chronic problems that have handicapped our country. What India needs is people who dream of a better India and will do whatever it takes to make that dream come true.

Sneha Kalaivanan is Associate, Communications, Teach For India.

Applications to the Teach For India 2017-19 Fellowship program are now open. Please submit your application before October 25.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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