India's Grass-Roots Teachers

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Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Children attend an art class at an NGO-run school for child laborers in northeast India

It's 2 p.m. in Delhi's Nehru Place business district, and the cafe is quickly filling up. Sharply dressed executives are talking on expensive cell phones in faux American accents. Rich housewives are discussing shopping lists before a matinee show, and weary IT students from neighborhood coaching centers are grabbing a bite to eat.

Among them is Vivek Iyer, a 26-year-old dairy technician prepping for his GMAT exam. "If you're talking of business today, India is the place to be," he says, smiling. "But the challenge for the country is to take everyone along." And with that, Iyer picks up his duffel bag and helmet, and sets out on his scooter for Badarpur, a village on the outskirts of New Delhi where he gives free math and science lessons to secondary school students from economically challenged families.

It's common in fashionable urban spots like Nehru Place to hear people airing concerns about the growing distance between India's very rich and very poor. But Iyer is doing something about it. He is one of over 55,000 volunteers from India's five biggest cities who have signed up for Teach India, an initiative backed by the Times of India and the UN Volunteers working to spread literacy, and more importantly, quality education. In the first leg of the program — the biggest of its kind in India and possibly the world — 3,000 volunteers have already started teaching 53,000 children. "I want to take these children beyond just clearing exams," says Iyer. "I want to give them the power to think."

Badarpur village, with its dusty, pungent streets and tumbledown tenements, is far removed from the confident affluence of Nehru Place. Inside a tiny, cluttered room lit by a single tube-light, nine girls are waiting for their bhaiyya, — 'older brother' in Hindi. An all-girl class is rare; parents who are unable to afford education for their children usually shelve daughters' education first. According to UN figures, 42 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 are not in school in India. The national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54%, compared to 75% for boys. In India's northern Hindi-speaking states, girls' literacy rates are particularly low, ranging between 33% and 50%. Far more girls fail to complete their education — or even enroll. "I want to be a VIP when I grow up," says Priya Verma, 11, to a burst of laughter all around. "That is why I want to study from bhaiyya... I know he will help me get good marks."

Her parents might agree. Families across India are losing faith in the nation's public school system. In 1993, just over 10% of primary-school age village children were enrolled in private schools. By 2006, the figure had nearly doubled. A fifth of students between the ages of 6 and 7 cannot recognize letters and read words, according to an annual survey by Pratham, a Mumbai-based NGO that tracks children's literacy across India in order to assess the efficiency of rural and government school education. Though Pratham's 2007 figures show an improvement, the figures are still grim — and don't bode well for a nation, half of whose one billion inhabitants are under 24.

The government knows it's facing a problem. To plug this hole, Delhi has been spending more money to build infrastructure and get children to school, with this year's national budget earmarking $8.2 billion for education — an increase of 20% over last year. Programs like the mid-day meal scheme and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which aims to get all children between 6 and 14 into school, have been successful in getting over 95% children into primary education, but dropout rates remain high. According to a government survey for the 2005-06 academic year, over 70% of 6-10 year-olds were attending primary school, but just over half of 11-17 year-olds made it to higher classes. Increasingly embarrassed by the irony of a third of the country's population being illiterate at a time of 8%-plus growth, the government is also mulling a Right to Education Bill, which would make the right to primary education legally enforceable in a court of law. But child rights activists say the legislation in its present form will only produce a class of semi-literate, semi-educated people and perpetuate social inequity.

This lack of faith in government initiatives runs wide and deep, which partially explains the huge response Teach India has evoked from young professionals like Iyer. Run by the Times of India, one of India's leading English-language dailies, in collaboration with UN Volunteers, the program has already received over 100,000 applications from would-be volunteers and is struggling to accommodate them all. "Such a visionary and large-scale program has only been possible because we've been able to get the media, civil society and corporate sector together," says Adeline Aubry, a former UNV program officer under whom the initiative was launched. India has had a long tradition of volunteerism, she says, "but Teach India gives them a giant common platform for a common cause."

Volunteers began work in and around India's five big cities in August, and six more cities will be covered by the end of this year. The program's real test, however, will lie not in how many volunteers sign up but in how useful and sustainable it proves to be. It works by placing volunteers with existing NGOs, each of which works with different social segments and follows different teaching methods — from adults to school dropouts to children who have never been to school, and using methods as different as tuitions to supplement school learning to teaching through the performing arts. Making the program coherent, evaluating its efficacy and ensuring continuity as volunteers come and go will be a challenge.

In Badarpur, Iyer is helping his class battle integers and geometry. There are moments of hilarity as the English-educated teacher struggles for the right Hindi terms. Next door, Riya Goenka, another Teach India volunteer and a former banker, is leading a class in spoken English to half a dozen teenagers, all of whom want to be retail or beauty-parlor assistants. This is the India in the dawn — whom economic growth has touched just enough to raise aspirations without providing avenues to fulfill those aspirations. "I believe the single most important factor here will be education," says Iyer, "And who knows, Teach India might just start a mini-revolution."