The need in India today is for young people with fresh ideas who could try and transform themselves to cause disproportionate change in the system and stand by it. It was out of this context that in 2008, Gandhi Fellowship emerged as a platform for youth to connect to the grassroots, understand the issues first hand and implement innovative solutions to cause change in the system.
Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership (PFEL), the philanthropic arm of Piramal Group, through its Gandhi Fellowship programme is shaping youth into social change leaders of tomorrow. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’
Started in 2008 by the PFEL, Gandhi Fellowship is a two-year residential programme in transformation leadership for graduates and above under which fellows are assigned to work in different districts and mentored in becoming social change.
“Till now a total of 742 Gandhi Fellows are supported by us and we have a target of supporting 7,000 by 2025 with an aim to impact a million lives,” Piramal Foundation chief executive, Aditya Natraj, told us on our visit to Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan where PFEL has spread its footprint in government schools.
During the two years, Gandhi Fellows go through an intense learning and unlearning experience. Fellows overcome their prejudices, learn the way the organization functions, the way the education system in their geography functions, change their mindsets, manage change and influence others’ mindsets etc. Post fellowship, they join NGOs, CSRs, government initiatives, or start their own entrepreneurial ventures or opt for higher education in alignment to their private dreams.
‘Gandhi Fellows’ during their two-year fellowship support the headmasters and teachers of government schools in rural areas such as these and help them build their capacity, overcome school-related challenges, increase student enrolment, improve the mid-day meal system, and mobilise community participation.
Take for example, Harsen Pani from Odisha. He is currently a Fellow in School Leadership Development Program (SLDP), Jhunjhunu and is running three projects. The Fellow spotted an empty space near the school area where mid-day meals are cooked and came up with the idea of kitchen garden.
Currently, the kitchen garden is functioning successfully in this school, and 200 students have been directly impacted. The students get involved in planting seeds and taking care of the garden. Harsen plans to take the kitchen garden model to five other government schools.
The Gandhi Fellow also started meeting Anganwadi workers in the village. Harsen found that only 3 SHGs (Self Help Groups) were active out of the 17 SHGs. Due to past experiences of fraud, the SHG workers were not getting funds from the bank. Harsen started working with 17 members, and motivated to them come up with a business plan to address this issue. The workers came up with the idea of making foods like pickle and papad for sale. Over the time, the idea of a common business centre in the Gram Panchayat has evolved.
To introduce BALA (Building as Learning Aid), the Gandhi Fellow painted the school walls with different concepts which the students admired. This led to a wall painting competition in which youth from the community were also involved. Not only is the government school looking spanking new, other principals from the local Nawalgarh Block introduced the same concept in their schools.
By working on a social change problem, fellows understand change leadership at the generic level and a system design thinking process that they can apply to any social problem they want to solve. A culture of regular plan-action-reflection-consolidation helps fellows to grow into empathetic leaders.
The cohort is an amalgamation of people from varied educational backgrounds, rural and urban backgrounds, with the right gender balance. Candidates are tested on whether they have the grit, mindset, problem solving capabilities and the motivation to become next nation builders.