The best way that Vijay can describe his hometown in rural Madhya Pradesh is that the main road is a good three kilometers away – and that the mighty Narmada flows nearby.
Vijay is a final year B.Com student at the Sant Singaji Institute of Science and Management (SSISM) in Sandalpur, a village in the Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. Even if Vijay’s hometown, Bachkal, is destined to remain obscure, and is one of the countless such villages and hamlets in the hinterlands of North India, the college that he attends has definitely put Sandalpur and Dewas on India’s map.
We meet Vijay on his college exposure visit to Bengaluru. It is the first time he’s been to the southern part of India. He doesn’t like the food, and he is unsure if the people speak Hindi, or whether they understand what he is saying.
But the one thing he notices and likes about big cities like Bengaluru or Indore (where he completed his schooling) is that the people are polite. “In my experience, people in cities often prefer to settle things politely,” he says. “Gaon mein cheez pehelwani ko hoti hain (In the villages, things are often more about brute strength).”
Back in his village, Vijay has seen small fights between individuals flare up and turn into long-running feuds between communities. During his volunteering stint with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the grassroots social movement-turned-organisation which works to prevent instances of child and youth abuse, he has come across multiple instances of young people with promising futures blighted by police complaints and court cases. “Anger. It pushes these young people towards poverty and unemployment,” Vijay explains.
Vijay’s education at SSISM and the environment it provides, combined with an exposure to the world outside his village, puts him in an unique position to identify many of the social and economic problems in a region like Dewas. When SSISM was established in 2010 by Pranjal Dubey, the aim was to make way for social and economic transformation in the region.
Over the past seven years, as far as Vijay can see, the transformation the institution has brought about has been remarkable. A majority of the students at SSISM are girls (over 60%, according to the college website) and many of the students come from low-income families and communities.
Regarding some of his classmates and friends, Vijay says, “If you looked at the family circumstances some students come from, and the houses they live in, you would say ‘Is this even a house?’ The institution extends support to such students.” Vijay himself comes from a modest background – his family members are agriculturists who own a small piece of land.
When he was filling the exam forms last year, Vijay found that he did not have money to pay the fees. Unseasonal rains had swelled the Narmada, and it breached its banks and flattened the crops in the fields – first one way, then the other. The family was under dire circumstances. Back in his college, he was contemplating dropping out of the course. “I thought I could drop a year, take up a job to help pay the fees, and then continue my education. My parents told me not to discontinue my studies,” Vijay says.
When his teachers at SSISM found out about the situation, they asked him not to drop a year. “ ‘This is not the time for you to take up a job’ they said. So I asked them what was to be done?” Vijay’s teachers asked him to go ahead and fill the exam forms.
Through the college, he was able to apply for an education loan at Rang De, and was able to continue his studies. For about 10 years now, Rang De has been working with grassroots organisations and institutions across the country, providing low-cost loans to rural entrepreneurs, farmers, women and students. SSISM pays back some of the students’ loans through its donor network, and other students often pay back the loans after they find employment.
It is not just economic support that the students of SSISM are offered. Something as simple as a bus service has made a world of difference to the education of young women in the region. “As far as I am aware, the girls in the villages around the area weren’t even allowed to step outside the house. The bus service allows girls as far as 90 kilometres away to come to the college, and return back home the same day,” Vijay explains.
Many of the girls, armed with a college education, have gone on to land well-paying corporate jobs in various cities. In a sense, their college life prepares the SSISM students for the challenges that lie ahead. “We have regular trips to the IIMs in Indore, Bangalore, and big companies in the big cities. The time and our experience in the college really helps boost our confidence,” Vijay says.
In many cases, the support extended by the college continues even after the students have passed out. The college ensures that students are able to find accommodation and are able to adjust to their jobs and the new environment.
Through the opportunities offered by the college and by his own diligence, Vijay has had an experience of the big stage. A part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) since his days at school, he was a part of the Guard of Honour at the Republic Day Parade in 2015 – “the same one where Barack Obama was the Guest of Honour”, as Vijay mentions proudly. Taking part in the Parade was a matter of immense pride for him, his parents and the college.
Vijay has many plans for the future. He wants to work for a while and gain some experience, and then see a little bit of the world. His time in the Bachpan Bachao Andolan has sparked an interest in social work.
At some point in the future, he would also like to return to his family’s farm and give organic farming a chance. “We are hardly able to sustain ourselves from the yields we currently get. I’ve visited an organic farming centre nearby, and I am really interested in taking that up,” he says.
Even as we wrap up our conversation, Vijay exudes a quiet confidence. With his proactive nature in campus and achievements as an NCC cadet, he inspires respect among his friends and college mates. More than anything, the education he’s received has made all the difference in the world.
Rang De is a not-for-profit is fighting poverty in India by providing one low-cost loan at a time. Vijay is just one of the hundreds of students who have benefitted from low-cost education loans provided on www.rangde.org.