Madhav Chavan- Innovator in Universalizing Education

As per Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to education. Even the Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A in the Constitution of India to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right.

So how did a Chemist by Training bring a change about providing education as a fundamental and essential right for every kid? Meet Mr. Madhav Chavan, a social activist and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and CEO of the educational non-profit, Pratham. Pratham is the largest non-governmental organization (NGO) working to provide quality education to the underprivileged children of India.

He also started the Read India Campaign, which aims to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic to underprivileged children across India. And, was the 2012 recipient of the WISE Prize for Education, which is widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of education and recipient of Leading-Social-Contributor-Award which is the highest degree award in India for exemplary work in the area of operation. He was also the 2011 recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

He was a member of National Advisory Council from 2004 to 2008. He is also a member of the Governing Council of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission (SSA) of the Government of India and has been a member of four half-yearly Joint Review Missions of SSA.

Pratham was an innovative programme started in 1995 in the slums of Mumbai, India and has grown across India. Pratham is an innovative learning organization created to improve the quality of education in India. As one of the largest non-governmental organizations in the country, Pratham focuses on high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system. In the heart it believes that universal education cannot be achieved if the under-privileged do not get the same access and quality of education as every other child in India.

Pratham has been recognized by the Kravis Prize and the Skoll Award for its innovativeness and leadership as a social entrepreneurial organization in the area of education.

But the story of ensuring universal education has a different beginning. Madhav Chavan taught Chemistry at the University of Houston and the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai before getting involved with adult literacy in the National Literacy Mission in the slums of Mumbai in 1989.

He returned to India in 1983. After producing literacy programmes for Doordarshan for a few years, he was invited to work with a UNICEF project to teach in Mumbai’s slums in The Bombay Education Initiative, which was a three-way partnership between government, businesses, and civil society. This led to the inspiration to form Pratham and the first step was to set up pre-school centers in Mumbai that identified young women in slums who were good with kids.

He gave the women simple orientation and some play materials, and asked them to find a community space where the parents would send their children for a couple of hours. They were allowed to charge a small fee and keep the collection as their income. In a short while this began to spread and Mr. Narayan Vaghul, ex-chairman, ICICI, decided to champion the cause which helped them increase the donations tenfold over ten years. In an interview with Business Standard, Mr Chavan shared about Mr. Vaghul, “You create programmes, get the projects cleared by the board and I will find the money.”

The model of a tri-partite partnership was attractive to many people in other cities of India, and Pratham was spontaneously replicated in Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Pune, and so on.

This helped Pratham grow from an innovative service delivery outfit to an innovator in teaching-learning. From pre-schools, we went on to develop in-school remedial learning programmes, bridge programmes to mainstream out-of-school children, and a simple method of teaching children how to learn to read in a short time

Through Pratham, he started the Annual Status of Education Report—an innovation in itself. It was first of its kind survey   to provide reliable estimates of children’s enrolment and basic learning levels for each district and state in India. Since 2005, yearly survey of over 16,000 villages, 320,000 families, and an assessment of about 700,000 children is conducted by mobilizing large numbers of volunteers in far corners of the country.

Madhav Chavan was able to quantify the problem of the poor quality of education for the first time in India—and perhaps the world—where more and more children were enrolled in school, but learning was not improving. Following this, he launched the Read India campaign with the help of the Hewlett Foundation. This campaign helped the take the issue of lack of learning and what can be done about it across India to over 350,000 villages across the country.

There are certain lessons we all can learn from the life of Mr. Madhav Chavan:

  1. What one is trained to do, what one plans to do, and what one actually ends up doing can be radically different
  2. Creating an organization that can work with relatively few resources, and converts challenges (such as lack of space) into opportunities (such as asking the communities to provide spaces).
  3. It takes a village to raise a child. Without involvement between government, businesses, civil societies and the local community themselves it is not to increase outreach.
  4. When they started Annual Status of Education Report, they created an example of setting the clock and delivering results that were current and not take years to do one survey as was the norm.
  5. Social capital is the biggest asset. The trust that people place in you, and your own ability to trust people, is probably the greatest intangible asset. Pratham’s strongest point so far is its ability to mobilize people.
  6. Even during co-vid times Pratham has evolved a Hybrid digital and on-site model of conducting training and education.

As Ms.Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation rightly said, “Madhav Chavan is transforming India’s approach to children’s literacy and education. Chavan’s unwavering insistence on universal education and his work to engage community volunteers in the quest for literacy, has already reached more than 34 million children, offering a proven model for the entire world.”

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