The movie Poorna is based on the true life of Malavath Poorna, the youngest girl to climb Mt Everest. IPS officer RS Praveen Kumar who inspired her, talks about how quality education can empower marginalised students
RS Praveen Kumar, a 1995 batch IPS officer, is also the secretary of Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS) – a state-owned educational institution which runs residential schools for scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and underprivileged children. In a telephonic conversation with Shivani Chaturvedi, Kumar talks about how quality education can empower the marginalised students and end discrimination.
The recently released movie Poorna is based on the true life story of Malavath Poorna, a tribal girl who became the youngest girl to climb Mt Everest. Actor Rahul Bose plays the role of police officer [Praveen Kumar], who inspires Poorna – who did her schooling from TSWREIS-run residential school.
What inspired you to take up the role of the secretary of TSWREIS, alongside your busy schedule as an IPS officer?
My mother’s journey; she was a child labourer until liberated and provided with education. She [later] became a teacher and my father too worked as a teacher. My mother taught me the transformative role of education in breaking the shackles of poverty and escaping from the trap of social isolation. But for education, my parents would have remained bonded labourers like my grandparents. I understood the importance of education at a young age from my mother.
I am a product of social welfare hostels. As an empowered person, I voluntarily chose to become the secretary of TSWREIS. I see my job as creating an opportunity for children to realise their full potential.
Your initiative on residential schools for the underprivileged has led to a radical change in the functioning of these state-run schools. Can you share the journey of this transformation?
There is a world of difference in the functioning of schools now. Earlier, the students were shy and their confidence level was abysmally low. Teaching methods were mundane and accountability on the part of the teachers and administrators was not up to satisfactory levels. Students were not much exposed to activities beyond the boundaries of classroom. But now, every student is enlightened and is getting exposed to a new world of opportunities hitherto unheard of in the history of the education sector in India. Several programmes like ‘Swaeroes ten commandments’ and summer samurai camps were introduced to pull the children out of a sense of despondency and inferiority complex.
A number of capacity-building programmes for teachers and principals were organised to train them on the 21st century pedagogical practices and leadership skills to make teaching and learning more interactive and student-centred. Technology is employed to monitor and track the implementation of programmes and activities in real time. A number of unique programmes like super students lecture series, green gurus, teaching assistants and English-plus clubs have brought a remarkable change in the functioning of the schools. Today, the TSWREIS is the cynosure of national and international academic institutions. The confidence level of students has reached sky-high and they have imbibed the spirit of ‘I can do’ in the face of abject poverty and adversity.
What prompted you take these initiatives and what are their main objectives?
Poverty should not hold back anyone from achieving their dreams. The marginalised communities in India were deprived of opportunities for centuries for various historical reasons. I am on a mission to fill that gap. I deeply believe that the children from the marginalised communities are as bright as other children, but they are left behind due to ignorance and neglect. The children may be poor, but they are never poor in energy, enthusiasm and determination. I have been primarily providing a number of platforms to the children to discover their inner potential and surge ahead. The main objective of my initiative is to rewrite our history and tell our communities that they can do everything under the sky. We have initiated several measures like Swaeroes Network and Bheem Deeksha to make the community realise that they are not inferior to anyone and that they have the power to transform their lives.
Mine is not a 9-5 job, but one that can bring about social and educational revolution and transformation. My strong belief is that education is the only permanent measure to overcome poverty.
Taking inspiration from Dr BR Ambedkar, we have launched a payback movement called Swaeroes Network. Today all the students of social welfare schools are proud to have the suffix Swaero to their names and usage of word dalit is not encouraged in Swaeroes guild. With the help of Swaeroes Network, Ambedkar Vignan Mandirs (libraries) in rural villages were established as part of the social upliftment programme. Today, Swaeroes is not just an idea but an ideology.
What is the focus area of activities in these residential schools?
The primary focus is redefining the identity by attacking stereotypes. The Society [TSWREIS] recognises that employability skills should be imparted at the school/college level to prepare the young generation. With technological and innovative skills playing a greater role in the future job prospects, the Society introduced robotics, student information kiosks, android tablets and life skills studios to take learning beyond the textbook. The Society has been organising a slew of summer camps every year hitherto unheard of in the annals of the education sector in India. This summer as many as 30,000 students are engaged in summer camps.
Boys and girls studying in Society schools hail from rural areas where there is little access to English language. Keeping this in mind, the Society has come to tailor an effective remedy called English-plus and writing-plus clubs and Karadipath programme to lay early foundation for students in English.
The Society has commitment towards career advancement of its students and takes special care in providing free coaching for various competitive exams like IIT JEE, medicine, CLAT, NTSE, CA-CPT, civil services and NDA. Our vision is that change should start from the school itself and it should always be a bottom-to-top approach.
SR Sankaran super student lecture series, green gurus and teaching assistants are the unique experiments introduced. These ‘earn while you learn’ programmes have attracted attention of many experts in the field of education. The society organises science fairs, youth parliament, spell bee, elocution, debates, games and sports competitions at various levels to provide platform to the students to showcase their talents in various fields. Free career counselling services are provided to guide the students in the right career path and healthcare services are provided round-the-clock. Our chief minister, K Chandrashekar Rao, gave us a free hand in this transformation mission.
How do children, parents and society at large respond to the initiative?
They welcomed us with open arms. We have tried to pull out poor children from the toxic ecosystem where they are not considered an asset but as an economic liability, more so in case of girls. Keeping this in mind, we have been earnestly making efforts to provide a safe and secure environment to such children by creating opportunities and exposing them to role models so that they know what path they can take in their lives. Programmes like ‘quest’ and ‘impact’ conducted regularly to bring school principals, teachers, parents and community to a common platform to evolve programmes that would transcend individual interests and allow the schools to focus on providing quality education.
There is not even an iota of doubt that school principals and teachers can make or break an educational institution. The students are under constant supervision of dedicated and committed staff. We won the confidence of students, parents and community; hence the question of resistance from them does not arise. Today, roughly 1,10,000 students are competing for admission for our 20,000 seats in 5th class every year. And please do not forget that we are a government school!
Can you share with us some success stories of children and how they are empowered now?
The journeys of 13-year-old Malavath Poorna, the youngest girl to scale Mt Everest, and her fellow climber 17-year-old Anand Kumar; 11-year-old Sachin (silver medalist in international sailing championship); Paulson (national under-17 cricket team member); Sundar Raj (silver and bronze medalist in international yoga championships); Pravalika, Sushma, Anand, Sri Vidya and Chandra Kanth (CCIP, USA fellows); Laya (Arena FIDE Masters title holder in chess); Vamsi, Mallesh, Vishwanath and Sachin (students of the prestigious Indian Navy school); Sidhartha and Vijay (young budding scientist award winners); Sushma (skydiver); Sumalatha, Siddartha and Saikumar (Kenneddy-Lugar Youth Exchange Fellows, USA).
The students are exposed to various curricular and extracurricular activities. For instance, horse riding, water sports, filmmaking, classical singing, rock climbing and stock market are now a reality for the marginalised children. These programmes have transformed the lives of the children and inspired them to achieve the impossible. Exposure, opportunity and attitude take people out of poverty and inferiority complex. The children have dreams, let us give wings to those dreams.
How did the movie ‘Poorna’ happen?
Malavath Poorna, a 13-year-old tribal student from Nizamabad district in Telangana, created history on May 25, 2014 by becoming the youngest girl in the world to scale Mt Everest. The monumental and awe-inspiring adventure of Poorna remains engraved in golden letters in the annals of the world’s mountaineering history.
The movie is about her remarkable journey, ecosystem in which she was brought up, how she escaped from the shackles of deprivation and early child marriage and her exemplary courage in conquering the world’s highest mountain peak. The film sends out a strong message that girls, particularly those from the marginalised community, can achieve anything even in the face of abject poverty and adversity.
I strongly believe in the role model approach. There is a dire need to expose the students from the marginalised communities to the role models from their own community so as to inspire them to think big and aim high in life. Today, undoubtedly, Poorna has become a role model for millions of deprived children.
Bollywood stumbled upon our story in their effort to make an inspirational biopic and we thank Prashant Pandey [writer] and Rahul Bose [director and actor] for this.
What are the future plans of Telangana government on residential education?
Telangana perhaps is the only state that has been investing heavily in residential education in recent times. Our chief minister has sanctioned 521 residential institutions in the last two-and-a-half years. Our government deeply believes that providing quality education is the best way of undoing the historical injustice done to the marginalised. We are trying to consolidate and be consistent in our performance. We have always been 15 percent ahead of state averages in our results.
Have other states approached you regarding this education model?
States like Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya, Maharashtra and Bihar have shown interest in our model of execution. n
(The interview appears in the June 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)