Interview: Investment banker talks about a unique project that is making school students stakeholders in national progress
Geetanjali Minhas | January 20, 2020 | Mumbai
Investment banker, venture capitalist and stock-market expert Vallabh Bhansali is the co-founder and chairman of Enam Group, a pioneering equity research company in the country. He is a promoter of spiritual and cultural traditions and also an expert on development economics, behavioural science and communication. He has been a part of policy-making and has served on various advisory committees of the Government of India. In an interaction with Geetanjali Minhas of Governance Now at his south Mumbai office, he speaks about Desh Apnayen Sahyog Foundation [https://www.deshapnayen.org/] – his initiative that aims to instil a sense of active citizenship among students through citizen education, volunteering and neighbourhood action. Edited excerpts from the interview:
The Desh Apnayen initiative “aims to foster love for the nation amongst the youth by reigniting a sense of pride and patriotism in them”. How did this idea come up?
Most people, I find, are not cognizant of what is happening around them and very few wake up and take a call as to what is happening around. But if you are serious about your future and progress, you will want to identify every bottleneck and do a due diligence on it. We must begin with fertile minds where seeds of positivity flourish. With ‘Desh Apnayen’, which is organically weaved into the curriculum from grades 5 to 9, we are empowering our young people in the hope that they will serve us. Here I de-emphasize words like love for the country and patriotism, and look at the idea as pure pragmatism, survival instinct or even as pure progress. Our Constitution is designed in this manner and structured with checks and balances.
It is our romanticism of the definition of democracy as ‘Of the people, by the people, for the people’ that we grew up with and the fact that we the people gave ourselves a constitution and that we go to vote once in five years. When things don’t work the way we want we start blaming and it lulls us into a complacency, diffidence and resignation. We accept things as they are with helplessness. Then, once a while, we get good leaders and bureaucrats and we seem to progress which will be endorsed by some encouraging report coming from the west. But we refuse to take ownership of our country and conveniently feel that the country is owned by politicians, bureaucrats, media, etc, etc. We have become so indifferent to the happenings around us that no matter what happens we don’t care.
“Aao hum sab desh apnayen, chalta hai ko door bhagayen, bhavishya bachayen bhagya banayen, Aao hum sab desh apnayen” these lines from our pledge in Hindi mean that if you want to secure your future, you better pay attention to what is happening. I am now doing a survey to find out how many people are achieving or have achieved their potential and how many could achieve their potential with slightly more efforts as there are always low-hanging fruits too. I am asking this question to 10-year-olds to 80-year-olds. And the answers are so consistent. Two percent to 25 percent of those surveyed said they achieved their potential and about 70-95 percent said that they could do a lot better with slightly more effort. This actually means that there lies a huge potential for all of us to do a lot better if we make a little more effort and that is ‘Desh Apnayen’. It is a movement to partner with your country, become alert, informed and active. It is a strategized, analyzed, business-like and pragmatic movement. We are encouraging and working at empowering individuals by first having self-love which is followed by love for the nation and for all of us put together. Instead, there are loud noises on changing the system, going to the courts or doing some big agitation.
The initiative also emphasizes “accountability, inclusiveness and unity” to build “a fairer, safer, participative and cohesive society”. Can you tell us in detail how does the programme inculcate these values?
It has become a part of our personality to find problems and only talk about them, whereas it also our job to find solutions. When we orient students to think of solutions they develop a sense of bonding, become cohesive and learn to collaborate. This thinking is absent in our school curriculums at present. While one student may feel responsible to keep his environment, school or street clean, the other may not think so and both do not have a commonality. But if both think in a similar manner and want to keep their school and street clean, they will come close and think of solutions. The programme keeps the students engaged and helps behaviour modification and value inculcation. It gives them an experience to understand different levels of our government, how we operate as a nation and how lethargy and complacency can do more harm than good for the country. Students learn to embrace a new consciousness.
The programme enables children to become mature citizens, articulate well in thought and action. Once this approach is ingrained in students, it not only develops their own personality but also slowly starts to bring change [in their attitude] towards their own country. Constantly a theme is built around their thinking that the nation is not outside them. It is only practical that people will not agree to take up a cause until there is some element of selfishness in it. People will more readily keep their street clean than be worried about the Citizenship Act.
Students receive some aspects of ‘citizenship education’ as part of their regular curriculum. How does the ‘Desh Apnayen’ initiative complement it?
The programme is pragmatic and free of cost to schools. Content is designed for in-classroom learning and can be seamlessly aligned with [the curriculum of] the Maharashtra State Board, CBSE, ICSE and IGCSE boards. The civics topics content developed by ‘Desh Apnayen’ is mapped to the curriculum organically and supplemented with the Civics subject topic-wise and grade-wise with the board that the school follows. Students take up challenges and come out with possibilities and solutions around them.
How is the response so far?
The programme is bringing a huge attitudinal shift in our own people implementing it who say they now feel that they have to collectively get involved in coming out with solutions. The students are already highly preoccupied and have their own excitements, dreams and distractions. Within that and with two-three years of consistent exposure to ‘Desh Apnayen’, their engagement and readiness to an issue also begins to change.
As an example, to explain our constitution, we take our children to the local police station or the municipality or a court and they see how these institutions work. One of our schools in Sikar, Rajasthan took their children to a magistrate’s court to know how a court functions. The magistrate was very intrigued and wanted to know why such an activity was being conducted. He was so impressed that he admitted his own son in that school.
We will now aim to scale up the programme at the community level in future. We believe it is the longest programme with students as they are the future citizens. We also identify that school is the only entity that has all it takes to inculcate change as it has proximity to students. It has continuity, authority, and capability. What is missing is motivation and sometimes special abilities. With ‘Desh Apnayen’, we provide motivation and capability and with our supplementary material they can do wonders and build a great India.
Can you explain how ‘Desh Apnayen’ is different from similar programmes being run by or in schools?
The programme is different from other institutions in the sense that there are some institutions who work with schools in creating better civic sense. Some are rights-obsessed and teaching their students to demand their rights. We, instead, are working on creating awareness about both rights and duties. It is an unwritten law of nature that if you do not perform your duties you will not get your rights for long. We also insist that the school adopt the programme and take its ownership; otherwise it becomes an orphan. We only supplement their efforts and are rather happy with the slow rollout because before ‘Desh Apnayen’ it has to be ‘School Apnayen’. With the programme we aim to provide much more opportunity to students orienting them to what is necessary in the future. Along with students and teachers, hopefully parents too will be oriented towards ‘Desh Apnayen’. These children exposed to a new orientation will be evolved citizens and hopefully also influence their parents.
We are slowly growing. We will now scale up the programme to class 10. Along with ‘Desh Apnayen’ programme we have also created a Citizenship Club for all school students and a short period activity called Actizen Contest.
The Desh Apnayen Citizenship Club provides life-learning opportunities for our youth to influence and benefit their development as committed Indian citizens. It develops their leadership skills, emphatic thinking and teaches them the principles and importance of democracy. Children become compassionate and responsible citizens and embrace diversity. The Citizenship Club is a journey of 15-20 years and it gives young people exposure to civics and citizenship ideas making them aware about global and social issues. The Club is an experiential Civics laboratory for students of class 5 to class 9 with a thematic annual planner and four types of activities per month. These activities include classroom and research based activities, school level events, community engagement where children also participate in panel discussions and become guest speakers. It has now become a school activity and is growing.
The ongoing countrywide Actizen Contest is an opportunity for students to challenge the status quo and build a nation that they feel proud of. The contest has been aligned with various education boards and UN Sustainable Development Goals where students from grade 7 to grade 9 can participate digitally from home or school in the 45-minute contest and get participation certificates, school trophies and scholarships. Students will also feature in short films made on the top three ideas.
Is the programme being run in colleges?
As yet we are not doing it in colleges, but some college students may soon start interning with us.
What is the total cost of the programme?
We would not like to speak about it, but is all self-funded.
Is it part of CSR?
It is not. We have been doing it since much before CSR came in.
What is the reach of programme so far? How many schools have tied up with you so far?
We are present in 11 states. About 900 schools pan India have partnered with us so far. We are aiming to reach around 2,000 schools. Some are proactive; others are not as much. The Actizen contest is going on in many places and the number should grow significantly after the contest. In Mumbai, the schools range from the most elite including The Cathedral and John Cannon School, JB Petit High School for Girls, Campion School among others to international schools and ‘ordinary’ schools.
What kind of moral values do you see in young business people today?
I find young businessmen very conscious of values as compared to the older people. India did not become free in 1947 but only after the economy opened up in 1991. Until economic rights come, political rights don’t mean much. For example, as compared to those around the time of Independence, virtually everyone who made big money after the economy opened up is doing charity. The sense of gratitude and giving back to society is way higher. It is natural. For the older generation money was so difficult that they grabbed it anyhow. The morals in younger business people are getting better. As a society, what is happening is a different matter.
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