Education plays a very important role in shaping the thoughts and behaviour of a society. It is what determines whether society would be progressive or regressive in the near future.
In an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Ms. Monisha Bannerjee, CEO of Anudip Foundation elaborates on these ideas while discussing the role of the organisation in the socio-cultural development of the country.
1. How did you choose to get involved in the social sector?
I have spent all my life in the education sector with a company called The Princeton Review, which is a global educational services organization. I used to head the South Asia region for the business which essentially meant that I was working a lot with students. But the kind of students I would really work with were some of the rather privileged lot, who had opportunities to pursue education from the best of institutions. My job was around getting them to think more deeply about their careers and giving them opportunities to study at even better institutions abroad.
During this tenure, we would see a lot of students in colleges in India, and one of the things that really hit me hard at that point was the fact that there was a significantly large chunk of students whose families invest a lot of money in their education, and they weren’t really seeing the results. This was because the education system was so weak and their own ability to learn was inadequate in a way that despite the degrees, they were unemployable.
So I realized that if I really had to do something meaningful, it would be a lot more worthwhile to work with this cohort. This inspired me to step out of the educational services sector, and moved to the social development sector.
In this space, I had developed some amount of expertise in skilling, education, etc. So I had also set up a skilling vertical while I was working with The Review just to solve this problem and work with cohorts that were not ready with the basic skill set that was needed for meaningful employment. Eventually, I realized that if I really had to work with the large masses in India, it would have to be with a different entity, and I would have to go to organizations that wholeheartedly dedicate 100% of their time to this.
2. What was your inspiration behind choosing education as your area of focus among many other causes that need addressing in society?
If you think about it, any conflict or regressive behaviour/thinking in a society comes from the lack of education. So education is not just a means of gaining employment, it is about moving ahead in life. It is about creating a better society. And that is fundamental today to anything. So if you don’t have an education, you’re going to remain disadvantaged.
Once you acquire an education, it can open up multiple avenues and solve the problems that are large and looming, such as hunger, decent living, etc. Basically, it allows you to have a decent life and meaningful employment, which in turn helps you get access to better healthcare and develop better thinking and these eventually lead to progression in society.
I really believe in the cause. It’s an area of interest for me. I may have worked with different audiences, but education remains very close to what I have been doing and have really done.
3. Pandemic has proven that there are pros and cons to digital learning. What are your thoughts on this?
One of the biggest pros of digital education is that it’s flexible. One can pursue self-learning online at their own time and pace. In the last two years with the pandemic, digital learning has been the pivot around which continuity was built. So wherever things have been broken or stuck is because of the lack of ability, infrastructure, or knowledge around using digital. Irrespective of geography, education is being exchanged between teachers and students. There have been stories post the pandemic that someone in Peru is teaching French to students in India. There is a lot of cross-border education that has emerged.
At Anudip Foundation, we have been able to train students sitting anywhere, be it Jammu and Kashmir or even Bangladesh. So the geography barrier is completely taken away.
Additionally, the cost of digital education is lower because it makes it possible to have more students in the class. This way, a lot of time is saved of both – teachers as well as the students. For teachers, mainly because the same delivered lecture can be used to educate a larger number of students. And for students as well because they can avoid the time they have to take to commute to school or educational institutions. Thus, digital learning is effective and efficient.
I think the world has been pushed to a corner now wherein without digital, the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ gets deepened. The digital divide that exists not just between the urban and the rural, but also between genders and between different pockets, urgently needs convergence.
One of the cons of digital education that we seriously face is that it’s a new form of education. The students are more used to that personal touch or personal experience of having the teachers available to them whenever they require, for physical interaction. Nothing can replace that. There is also the aspect of superior engagement in a physical class. On the other hand, digital can be monotonous. The most affected because of this are the children, as it has been a really hard time for them to sitting in front of a screen and learning is so much more than just sitting and listening to someone.
Another con is that we faced the most is access to internet and access to a device. So the people we work with come from a very underserved communities, who do not have access to a laptop. At best, they would have a phone, and it’s probably a shared resource. And then there’s the cost of the Internet and accessibility of it. We have had instances in villages of Assam where the Internet is so poor that are our staff members have had to locate spots in the middle of paddy fields where they would get network.
So when you don’t have a strong internet facility and basic infrastructure, it breaks the education and changes the experience all together.
There is adequate direction in the education policy now, as the ministries are considering ways in which digital infrastructure can be built at all levels. Because the way forward is clearly going to be in line with digital. It is important that there are no catastrophes when it comes to digital. With rising number of calamities because of climate change such as the floods and cyclones, it is important to build for continuity and digital is the way. In addition to this, it is also imperative to ensure that digital devices can be accessed by all.
4. What are some of the key areas of focus of Anudip Foundation?
Anudeep is 15 years old. We started off with the intent of bridging the digital divide. We wanted to give equitable access to some of the remotest communities and students from difficult geographies, of digital skills to enable them to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
Over a period of time, we chose to focus more on livelihoods. This basically includes both – job as well as entrepreneurship. Over the last few years, we’ve trained over 4.5 lakh young students in various programs, whether it’s just basic digital skills or more severe-oriented courses.
We run a bouquet of courses, but we focus on digital skills, at the fore. We are very sector-agnostic about where the students get placed so they could get placed across sectors. So it’s not just the IT, telecom, and e-commerce, but also a unique sector like healthcare, which now has a lot of potential with digital.
A lot of our courses are customized in partnership with employers, because the whole objective is to ensure employability, and that the digital skills are market aligned and relevant. We work with our employer partners to create these courses so that we bring the right courses to our students enabling them to develop the right skill set so that they are able to get interviews and employment.
Therefore, our focus is on using digital skills to transform different aspects of life, and believe that one of the most fundamental ways in which a life can be transformed in a way that it is permanent and sustainable, is if we can find people meaningful employment. On average, we’ve seen over a 250% increase in family income after the students take our courses and get employed.
We also provide the same program for people with different abilities. The program is called ‘SAVE’ which is Specially-Abled Vocational Education. We work with people who have physical disabilities and also come from very poor families. These people are deprived of education. They are written off in many ways and are made to believe that they are to stay dependent on someone throughout their life. This program focuses on breaking some of these beliefs and giving them the confidence to lead an independent life.
The third program that we run is for victims of human trafficking. It is called the BEST program which stands for Building Entrepreneurs to Stop Trafficking. It is one of the most gratifying projects for us because here we’ve been working with young girls, as young as 14-year-olds at the time. These are the girls who’ve been trafficked. We started the program in Murshidabad, where the trafficking of girls is highly prevalent.
Our job is to work with girls that are rescued to rehabilitate them and give them a different alternative in life. They find that the ability to independently lead their lives can only happen if you have an income. Therefore, this program is around livelihood and ensuring that all of them are able to become economically independent, and have the skills to do that. This is a long-term program because these girls are so young and they come with such poor educational backgrounds that we have to do a whole range of experiments before we are able to equip them with appropriate skills. The program is a huge success because, at the moment, we have some of these girls working on projects pertaining to AI and various other technical fields.
We have over 200 girls that we’re training. Many of them have found employment with companies such as IBM, Amazon, etc.
The other new initiative that we have in the last two years is the Deep Tech Academy, which focuses on very high-end IT skills such as coding, Java, clouds, AI, cyber security, data analytics. We are working on those programs with the intention of creating industrial sources. We’re working in partnership with companies like Accenture and TCS to be able to run those programs so that students find employment that is meaningful and aspirational which allows them to grow in their careers and transform their lives.
Another thing that we have realised is that English is still such an important skill. It’s not just the language but it’s really how one communicates. And that’s one of the biggest gaps that we’ve noticed. Therefore we launched a new initiative i.e. Ace Academy, which is the Academy for communication and English. The intent of the program is to build communicative skills or English proficiency in different ways.
5. Children are often subjected to gender stereotyping from a very young age. How can this be addressed?
As parents, we have to be mindful that we do not treat the boys in the family differently from girls. It is often seen that girls get lower priority for education, or even if the parents see themselves as more progressive, there are subtle biases that exist, for example, who serves the meals, helps the mother with household, etc. These biases need to be broken. This kind of behaviour change can be brought about through the education system as well as external campaigns.
6. Women are not really expected to have a scientific curiosity. Do you think this contributes to their lack of participation or awareness about developments in STEM fields?
About 72% of the men in India own a smartphone as opposed to 56% of their female counterparts. In terms of access to the internet, about 18% of women are connected to the world wide web. Now in today’s world, most of the information is acquired online. So when there’s such a deep divide that exists, even access to information, how can you expect them to develop a scientific curiosity.
When women have a smartphone it is considered as a privilege because they are using the smartphone for entertainment purposes. The part where they are getting access to information is overlooked. But when men used a smartphone it is considered a necessity as they might be doing something important with it. Everything stems from the deep-rooted bias that exists in society, and if you can break that bias, you will find that everything changes.
In order to break that, we need not just women, but we need men to come forward. And build a society where men and women together realized, and re-define the roles that they have.
7. The pandemic has caused a major dent in the economy of the world. What role can NGOs play in aiding the recovery of the economy?
I believe that the pandemic was survived on many occassions because of the contribution of civil society organisations. There were a lot of initiatives from the companies, but the sense of the needs that existed, healthcare, food, accommodation, etc. was all identified and worked upon by these organisations.
The government was actively working to defeat the virus by building efficient teams, framing effective policies, etc. but reaching those schemes, to the last mile were the civil society organisations.