Kuruom vidyalaya: the Power of One in a Billion

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Bal Ram Singh, Ph.D.

Bal Ram Singh, Ph.D.

In Korown, an Uttar Pradesh India farming village where little has changed for hundreds of years, a 21st century school opened its doors for the first time in July to 100 girls and boys in grades 1-4, 6, and 7. Kuruom vidyalaya is the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, and testimony to one man’s spirit and commitment.

Bal Ram Singh, Ph.D., 51, once a child of the village and now a successful biophysical chemist at a U.S. university (University of Massachusetts Dartmouth) and director of its Center for Indic Studies, built the school himself without government assistance. Deeply engaged as a Hindu, a family man, a professor, research scientist, and a U.S. citizen, he is also determined to prove that “one little man” can change the status-quo in India for the better.

India’s population, which is over 1 billion, is second only to China, which it is predicted to pass by 2030. India has 2.4% of the world’s land area, and 15% of the world’s population. Eight percent (8%) of the world’s poor live in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone. UP has a population of 170 million – larger than most countries – and 60 million are poor, according to a 2002 World Bank report. Malnutrition, maternal and child mortality, and disease levels are higher in UP than in other states, while immunization and literacy rates are lower.

“According to the 2001 Population Census, literacy increased from 42% in 1991 to 57% as of February 2001, substantial progress but still well below the all-India average of 65%. Female literacy in particular, at 43%, is also below the all-India average of 54%‰Û_ Uttar Pradesh spends little on elementary education: spending rose from only “1.7% of GSDP in the early 1990s to 1.8% by the end of the decade,” according to The World Bank.

Korown, Singh estimates, has a literacy rate of 30-40%, slightly higher for men than women; and most residents only go through middle school. His late father was educated and a land-owning farmer, but most residents are laborers with yearly incomes of about 2000-3000 rupees or $200-$300 USD.

Painting of the goddess Saraswati

Painting of the goddess Saraswati

Singh‘s own education came about unexpectedly. His family did not encourage his schooling past middle school because they were farmers, and expected he would join the family business. But he enjoyed school, did well, and was encouraged by his teachers to go on to the next level. He did so “almost by rote,” he recalled, eventually earning his doctorate in the U.S. and becoming an academic research scientist with a specialty in the botulinum neurotoxin. Yet there were no educational options past middle school for his younger sister, and the inequity of her prospects first inspired his resolve to build a school.

Singh, who was interviewed in Massachusetts, chose to build this school originally just for girls out of this personal conviction as well as demographic reality. Education confers respect and respectability, he believes, and when only the men in a family are educated, “the respectability of a family goes down.” He also believes women have to receive education in order to become leaders in their families, their communities and in the broader world of work, politics and the world’s myriad problems. “It’s not enough to educate them; we have to educate them well, so they become leaders.”

So, he built this school in northwestern India on his family’s land, which lies near the small city of Sultanpur. He initially planned to help an education group to set up the school, but they wanted to bring in advisors from the city. As he wanted local control they parted ways and he built the whole school himself. His extended 30-member family also helped and still helps, but they don’t interfere; he has stipulated that no member of his family can be paid for service to the school. Singh decries a pattern of nepotism he has observed in other schools in India.

Ultimately, he set up a non-profit 80G corporation, administered by treasurer Prem Prakash Singh (no relation), who also runs BB Tech, the ayurvedic factory he previously set up to employ people in the village. Bal Ram Singh himself earns no income from the school or from Harbal Products, the ayurvedic business.

Prem Prakash Singh was also raised in rural India and holds a Masters in Information Technology (MIT) degree from Aligarh Muslim University. He writes in an email, “Kuruom Jankalyan Sansthan (the school’s official name) is supported through the North South Foundation in collaboration with Dr. Singh, but we expect to become self sufficient within a year using student fees and other donations locally. Kuruom is a place to learn about real life through ‘punchmukhi siksha‘ [Five-fold Educational Programme]. These days very few persons care about poverty / rural education. Dr.Singh is one who has devoted his time as well as his real worth for all these types of works.”

The board of directors staffed the school with fully-qualified teachers and a principal, and welcomed the students who applied for admission and pay a fee to attend the private school. “There are other rural schools that have been built in the last 5 years, but they are very crowded, and not really up to the mark,” Bal Ram Singh said. “There was a lot of excitement and parents waited until the school opened in July rather than send their children elsewhere.” The school year usually begins in May.

Image of the Kuruom Campus

Image of the Kuruom Campus

“Currently the school has both boys and girls, and we plan to have boys and girls until 8th grade at which point high school classes will be only for girls. This is done to get the school going (with enough beginning students) and due to the pressure from parents, particularly those who had boys and girls both in the family. The school was initially planned as a high school but we added K-8 so that students are trained in our way of education from the beginning,” Bal Ram Singh said.

Construction is not yet complete, but one of two planned wings is open, learning is going on, and the Educomp Solutions Limited.com Smart Class rooms are bringing the newest technology via broadband Internet access to children, many of whom have never used a computer before. Singh’s mission and that of the school is to teach leadership as well as a full curriculum with co-curricular traditional and modern Indian arts, sports, music and dance. It has a holistic pedagogy, much like Saraswati’s, “whose four hands represent four aspects of human personality in learning: mind, intellect, alertness and ego.” He says the curriculum is integrated so that subjects are not taught in isolation—computer instruction incorporates math.

Kuroum vidyalaya is not a religious school per se; although the majority of Indians are Hindu, it welcomes students and hires staff that are Muslim and other faiths. It does, however, follow the Hindu practice of dharma, “a righteous way of being.” Singh said, “In India, we worship all living things‰Û_ and we don’t expect to receive anything in return but respect‰Û_ I want students to learn about sustainability, to learn to protect the environment. This is dharma. So, in this respect, the school is religious.”

Singh’s vision for Kuruom vidyalaya is congruent with the UN Millennium Development Goals of 2000 in which world leaders came together and pledged to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty, as well as reach seven other goals set by the United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are designed to relieve the world’s most pressing problems by 2015, and include halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women; and ensuring environmental sustainability. These eight goals represent an unprecedented global partnership, both in size and scope, and have come to symbolize a new age of humanitarianism.

Why Girls’ Education in a Society Thousands of Years Old is Vital

In India the educational status- quo for girls is poor. Singh says the barriers to girls’ education are social and political, not cultural. Women in India have always been worshipped through powerful deities, even if mortal women were socially subservient to men. Modern women are able to hold positions of power if they have wealthy families who support them with education and influence (e.g. PM Indira Gandhi), or if they are able to independently obtain education, which is more available in the cities. Socially, however, most rural Indian parents are conservative: they want to marry their daughters, not send them away to cities for educations in facilities not equipped for their safety or even with girls’ toilets. This is a kind of de-facto discrimination that the Indian government says it is striving to correct.

Map of Uttar Pradesh

Map of Uttar Pradesh

“Growth in access to schooling has been matched by a steady increase in enrolment with the most dramatic upswing since 1990s in girls’ participation levels. From 13.8 million boys and 5.4 million girls enrolled at the primary level in 1950-51, the number rose to 69.7 million boys and 61.1 million girls in 2004-05. At the upper primary level, the enrolment increased from 2.6 million boys and 0.5 million girls to 28.5 million boys and 22.7 million girls,” according to the Ministry of Human Resources Development Department of Education & Literacy (2008).

But Singh sees a more troubling dichotomy. “I think it is a mistake to focus on girls versus boys. It is more important to distinguish between those who are well-to-do and those who are not.”

Rural Reality v. Big City Allure in One of the World’s Fastest Growing Economies

The vast majority of India’s one billion population lives in its 550,000 villages and outlying rural areas, not in its 200 cities, which are densely populated, nonetheless. Agriculture is the basis of the rural economy in Uttar Pradesh, but most employment is in low-wage, intermittent labor for men and boys. That fragile economic safety net doesn’t exist at all for women and girls without male breadwinners, as well as for the ill and disabled, and those perceived to have low social or caste identity, according to The World Bank.

Many move to the city: ‰ÛÏUrban poverty has a distinctly different face than rural poverty. Many of the urban poor included in the consultations were first generation migrants, and the majority felt that migration had improved their economic position. In urban areas, unlike rural villages, employment opportunities – if only scavenging, petty hawking, and begging – are available year round, typically at higher wages than paid in rural areas‰Û_,” The World Bank reports.

Yet India, despite a worldwide recession, has the second fastest growing economy in the world today and an educated middle class increasing its prosperity. A March 2009 editorial in India’s Economic Times titled “Focus on the Rural Economic Base” argues that India has to expand its economic support to its rural population:

“Unlike China, where exports and manufacturing sector have been the main engines of economic growth, India’s growth has been stimulated by the emergence and rise of an educated middle class who have prospered in the services sector. The share of the services sector in GDP has increased to 58% and it is often said that the performance of this sector has become independent of the performance of other sectors of the economy. This argument will be put to the test during the current slowdown…

“Even in the last quarter of 2008, consumer spending and retail sales in China and India did not witness a significant decline. Much of the prosperity in India has been starkly visible in the top 20 cities of India. A look at the earnings structure across India’s top 20 cities reveals that the average graduate earns Rs 1.8 lakh per year compared to just Rs 91,000 in rural areas‰Û_”

However, The Wall Street Journal’s India Edition reports, “India started from a lower economic base but has made greater gains: Its urban-rural income gap has slowly but steadily declined since the early 1990s. Over the past decade, economic growth in rural India has outpaced growth in urban areas by almost 40%. Rural India now accounts for half of the country’s GDP, up from 46% in 1993. Unlike the Chinese, rural Indians do not have to migrate to already crowded urban areas to earn a better living.”

India is complex and many layered.

Bal Ram Singh’s View of India Post Independence from Great Britain on August 15, 1947

“I think India is doing very well in some sense, and very badly in others. In 60 years they have proven that they can live democratically at the local level and certainly at the national level. It is a multicultural society. The people are Muslim, Christian, Hindu and other groups and they all live together. This has been very successful. Economically, India has capitalized on technology: computer technology, nuclear technology, with satellites and so on. Socially, it has not done so well. They have not been able to use India’s experience over a long period of time to develop the rural areas where they could have significant impact on people’s lives through education, through economic development. All this has not happened. There has been a dichotomy between the cities and the rural areas in India. And people have adopted a way of living that is mostly westernized, which is not possible in my opinion‰Û_India hasåÊ not done very well integrating our culture with the modern way of life where they allow people to be educated, to be creative, to be innovative, but to not move to the cities. The movie Slumdog Millionaire shows what can happen when people move from rural areas to the cities without education or the capacity for modern life—they create slums. Those of us who have moved to the West can look back with some objectivity. That is some of my motivation.”