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Mahatma Gandhi once said, you are the change that you wish to see in the world. This year I began to understand what it really means,” writes 17-year-old Mallika Raghavan, a freshman studying political science at Bates College, Maine. Raghavan spent time at an evening class with child laborers who attend Pratham Banashankari center in Bangalore to master the written word. She was struck by the motivation of these children who were determined to change their life with education, even if that meant more work after an already grueling day.

Ashwin Acharya, an 11-year-old, sixth grader at St. Luke’s School, New York City, spent time at the Pratham Velachery, Chennai center. Here Pratham conducts after-school classes to support government school curriculum in slum areas where the parents cannot help the children with any academic guidance at home. Acharya sang Tamil songs together with the children. He was amused by one song about a child who had no money but wanted a laddu, so he flattered the seller about his beard and mustache, and the laddu seller gave him free laddus. Acharya was sure that no grocer in the United States would oblige him with any such goodies no matter how much he flattered him or her. They also worked on art projects with paper, crayons, markers, and stickers that he and his sister had brought from New York. They helped the children decorate their books, draw portraits of each other, and make paper frogs.

More recently, Sameera Ali of the Palos Verdes High School, Los Angeles, coordinated a cultural dance show with the Indian-Pakistani Students Cultural Organization and performed before an audience of 500 parents. The students donated the proceeds of the ticket sales to Pratham.

Pratham is a quiet revolution that UNICEF initiated in 1993 with the help of community leaders, industrialists, and non-profit organizations to eradicate illiteracy in Dharavi, Mumbai. Pratham Mumbai was born with the support of stalwarts like Sharad Kale, S.P. Godrej, S.S. Nadkarni, Madhav Chavan, and Farida Lambay, among many other known figures. At the outset Pratham was set up to provide universal education for preschoolers. In the following years Pratham has encompassed a wider agenda by adding bridge classes for dropouts, outreach classes for child laborers, balsakhi or mentorship support classes for children in school, and the Nirmaya Health Program, which provides basic health education, micronutrients, and treatment in major cities.

Pratham’s goal is to have “every child in school and learning well.” Bold and daring as that attempt might be, it has believers who have dedicated their financial resources and spare time to make this dream a reality. One such person is Pratham Chairman Vijay Goradia of Houston. In 1999, Goradia saw the potential of Pratham’s model to bring underprivileged children from slums like Dharavi into the education network. At a very low annual program cost and almost no overheads, Pratham has impacted over 2.5 million children in 30 cities in 12 Indian states. Impressed by what Pratham was achieving in India, Goradia returned to Houston and challenged the local community to raise $125,000, which he would match dollar-for-dollar. He promised to match the amount every year for 10 years. The Houstonians took the challenge and raised that sum with little effort. From Houston this revolution has spread with active chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, Tri-State New York, North Carolina, Atlanta, Seattle, and Washington D.C with long-time donors in many more cities.

Sudesh Arora, an IIT Mumbai and Carnegie Mellon graduate and the founder, president, and CEO of Natel Engineering Inc., visited a Los Angeles gala and was so impressed with Pratham’s universal, low-cost, research-based approach that he pledged a similar challenge grant of $100,000 for the local Indian community to match. Om Singla from Dallas, Aruna Goradia, Roop Jain, Ramesh Yadava, are all volunteers keen to spread Pratham’s message to those who those who can make a difference in the lives of over 50 million illiterate children.

Pratham has broadly divided its operations into two modes. First, the direct delivery programs like the preschools where volunteers and teachers teach children based on the needs of that community. Second, the block catalytic programs through government partnerships where Pratham is able to use the already-existing government infrastructure and reduce the delivery costs to a mere 20 cents per child per year. Here Pratham trains government teachers to use more child-centric, outcome-oriented, teaching and learning methods and processes through the in-house developed “Read India” technique. This has three stages—“Learning to Read,” which is an eight-10 week activity class that teaches children to read using the Barakhadi Chart; “Reading to Learn (R2L),” where out-of-school children are enrolled in classes as a priority. These classes have two phases: the first phase, R2L1, strengthens reading, comprehension of school and other texts, and writing on one’s own; the next phase, R2L2, attempts to ensure that the children complete the basic curricular framework for third grade as prescribed by the National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT). Libraries have been set up by Pratham to provide additional reading material to children to generate curiosity of the written word and inculcate a healthy reading habit. State governments of Maharashtra, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, seeing the potential of this model have invited Pratham to train the government schoolteachers in the Read India techniques. The Bihar government plans to hire 40,000 para-teachers who will take these techniques to the thousands of young children in far-flung villages of Bihar, who may have otherwise been sent away to toil at zari sweatshops in Mumbai.

Pratham’s efforts are supported by three large entities—Pratham USA, Pratham Europe, and Pratham India. In the United States, multinational corporations like Citibank, Dell Foundation, Northwestern Mutual, Wells Fargo, New York Life, and Johnson & Johnson, with either business interests in India or marketing interests in the high net-worth Indians in the United States, have donated generously for Pratham’s cause. American India Foundation has supported Pratham for the past three years with over $1 million in grants. A large part of the donor base also comprises of over 4,000 smaller individual donors who support a community year-after-year for only $600 per year. Such ownership helps them to see how their support has changed a community and its children. Another important constituent of Pratham USA are students who volunteer for events and are vociferous ambassadors for Pratham.

Pratham also employs many new and innovative ways of delivering its message to Indian Americans who want to not just maintain contacts with relatives in India but also give back to the motherland. Alumni groups from prestigious educational institutions have invited Pratham to deliver its message in a formal setting. Members of professional organizations like the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), American Association of the Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), and Indian Medical Association have supported Pratham through their in-house foundations. To encourage more involvement from families and children Pratham holds events like the Readathon, where parents sponsor young children to read pages in a book for a certain amount and then donate this amount to Pratham.

Many Indian-American parents, who have benefited immensely from the high educational standards in India, yearn to give their children a slice of Indian life. In addition to taking them to dance and music classes they want to make them compassionate and caring individuals who learn to value their blessings by seeing those who don’t have the same privileges. For Indian-American youth visiting India, Pratham facilitates a wide network of projects ranging from working with 3-year-old preschoolers to 13-year-old dropouts or child laborers across many cities.

Mallika Raghavan, Ashwin Acharya, and Sameera Ali are three such Indian-American youngsters whose parents encouraged them to get involved with Pratham. Like many others born and raised in the United States, they are amazed that almost half of India’s population is unable to read and write. Raghavan had not realized the magnitude of this statistic until she actually met multitudes of children in Pratham projects who cannot read and write but nurse within them a desire to one day become doctors, engineers, teachers, or even politicians.

From this year Pratham has also started scheduling group internship tours to India for high school and college students. This has attracted the interest of both Indian and non-Indian students. The internships last anywhere from two to six weeks and provide a taste of different Pratham programs across India, in addition to a cultural orientation tour of historically significant places.

Though the methods are many, and overseas Indians have the means to aid these programs, Pratham’s work is far from done. Some constraints are logistical, and others financial. If every family in the United States were to adopt one community for $600 per year, achieving Pratham’s mission of “every child in school and learning well” will be but a cakewalk. Others with smaller means can help support smaller programs. It is only when we Indian Americans, the second most affluent ethnic community in the United States, will rise with a combined consciousness that half of India’s children are being left behind due to lack of education and widespread poverty, will Pratham’s work succeed. Failing that, our children will only inherit the legacy of “India—a Third World country.”


Priya Ahuja is an IIM Calcutta graduate with an additional degree in communication from University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Pratham is a cause dear to her heart.