Yes, we can also bring change!

S. Madhusudhana Rao

A report that appeared in the June 20th issue of Times of India has moved me. It’s about two poor students who have secured below-500 ranks in the all-India entrance test for IITs but faced hardships in paying the admission fee. Many might have missed it out. But those who have read the story in black and white and felt the anguish of the siblings opened their hearts and purse strings to help the duo chase their dreams.

The munificent gesture, single or collective, from various sections of society, is magnificent. The response, according to TOI next day, to help the students pursue their engineering education in the country’s most prestigious institutions is unprecedented. The offers range from not just paying their IIT admission fee but financing their entire education to opening bank accounts to help the family of seven members. Billionaires, Bollywood actors and NGOs are among those Good Samaritans.

For those who have come in late, here is the story that made headlines: Nineteen-year-old Brijesh and 18-year-old Raju had secured rank 410 and 167 respectively in what is billed the toughest engineering test in this country. Their triumph would call for celebration had they been born to parents of a privileged class.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

Unfortunately, they belong to the lowest economic rung of society in a state that is known more for its poverty and communal clashes than academic excellence. Their family lives in two small rooms in Rehua Lalgunj of Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh and the sole bread winner, the boys’ father Dharamraj, earns Rs 12,000 a month, according to TOI, working 16 hours a day in Surat, Gujarat, thousands of kilometers away from his village as a daily wage earner.

Brijesh and Raj have proved to be diamonds from the very beginning and their persistence and consistent top-notch performance have earned them laurels and scholarships at school, particularly at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Pratapgarh to prepare for IIT entrance test JEE which proved to be a turning point in the boys’ life as well as in the family’s future.

 The saga of Dharamraj and his sons, widely reported in TOI with several follow-ups, has brought to the fore affluence is not the only criterion to make boys and girls shine in competitive exams. No doubt, the middle and upper middle class children do have an edge over others as far as their socio-economic background is concerned. But, by providing conducive atmosphere and adequate financial support to students, irrespective of their economic background and social status, they can prove their mettle and outsmart the privileged classes.

The recent admissions to professional colleges and institutions of higher learning prove this point. Children of rickshaw-pullers, cobblers, labourers, et al have made news for being the top scorers in all-India exams for services and college admissions. In fact, their parents are so ignorant of the courses, let alone the colleges, the children are going to study that they (parents) have found themselves in a confused state when TV crews approached them.

That means children of the poorest of the poor need not despair because of their backgrounds and aspire for academic growth. It is a positive sign and, of late, it has been on the rise. In a recent India Today TV programme on top colleges in the country, panelists, mostly academics, have pointed out to the rising trend of students from rural background getting admissions to top institutions by scoring over 90-95 per cent in core subjects like science and math.

True, still there is an urban-rural divide in employment opportunities, English language proficiency, street smartness, effective communication skills, personal interaction and the like. But, year after year, these gaps, perceived or real, are narrowing and it is not always correct to say that rural students, however academically brilliant they are, fail in their professional careers.

Obviously, there is a need to improve their soft skills to compete with their counterparts hailing from cosmopolitan cities and big towns. More importantly, these students need exposure and confidence boost. Whether the national skills development programme conceived by the Modi government meet the present market demands have to be seen.

Often, educational disparities – elite schools and English medium – are held responsible for steep socio-economic divisions in the society and the widening income gap. Recent results show these trends have been changing and there has been a perceptible shift in people’s thinking that some fields and areas of operation and work are exclusive domains of urban and upper crust.

This has become possible through a series of development and welfare programmes implemented by various governments at the centre and states from time to time. No particular party needs to take credit and beat its chest for what it had done. It’s an effort worth acknowledging and, if need be, improve upon it. Politicization of attempts to bring the underprivileged classes into mainstream would impede the slow progress being made now.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming response and swift reaction to the report on Dharamraj’s sons is a tribute to the tremendous power of the print and digital media in mobilizing public opinion for a worthy cause.

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