Watching dissatisfied youth leave their city jobs to return to their remote village, Priya Nadkarni and Digvijay Singh realised that vocational training is like a band-aid on a deep wound. So, they decided to tackle the root cause of this heartbreaking scenario. And succeeded!
In a career spanning seven years, Priya Nadkarni has worn many hats.
After completing her BA, she worked as a business journalist for a year. Her interest in finance and marketing led her to pursue an MBA degree from ISB, following which she became an investment banking analyst with Unitus Capital in Bengaluru.
Field visits were an essential part of her work with Unitus, and as she came across various social issues, she realised that she wanted to work towards addressing them.
So, in 2012, she decided to quit banking and joined Pradan, (Professional Assistance for Development Action) an organisation that works in coordination with the government to introduce various programmes to train women and youth in Madhya Pradesh.
For two years, she worked to design programmes for the employability of tribal youth in Mandla. Even though Pradan was helping the youth secure well-paying job in cities, Priya noticed that a majority of these youngsters were returning to their villages after a few months.
“The training was very efficient for those who wanted to live in the cities, but for the rest, it wasn’t very sustainable,” she tells The Better India.
“It was like putting a band-aid on a deep wound and employability training, I found, was inadequate. Digvijay (Singh), who was my colleague at Pradan at the time, also reflected my thoughts and so, we thought of starting a venture of our own. We wanted to tackle the more basic issues through this venture.”
Digvijay, who has an MBA in Rural Development from XIM, Bhubaneswar, started his career working in the fields of agriculture, women empowerment, and youth employability, and had joined Pradan with the vision of helping uplift tribal communities in some of the most remote areas of Central India.
In 2014, Digvijay and Priya quit their jobs and visited schools like Vikasna in Bangalore and also conducted summer camps in Mandla before finally deciding on starting the Riverside Natural School.
A venture to help tribal youth find joy in education:
“However, we do not work in the Naxal-affected part of the district. For us, it has been extremely safe, and we have been welcomed in people’s houses in the last ten years,” says Priya.
Although most of the tribal population of the district believes in the power of education, their belief remains unrealised thanks to the less-than-sufficient primary and secondary education facilities.
And so, Priya and Digvijay decided to start a school that would benefit the young children of tribal communities. With 90 children and 6 teachers, they began in a rented building in the first year. Today, they employ about 17 teachers—half of whom are from Mandla.
The teachers and children at the school are exposed to India’s spiritual traditions, particularly the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. “We believe that this is important to ensure they imbibe the values of excellence, devotion, and sacrifice, and move forward in life,” says Priya.
Over a period of time, they realised that the children would do well in the areas of hands-on science, applied technologies, including robotics, because they have a great sense of application, and can build basic agricultural and fishing tools and solve simple problems that they encounter on a daily basis.
These skills can be honed to train children to use technology to solve major problems in the region and thus create entrepreneurs and jobs.
Similarly, sports was another area that these tribal children are not first-generation learners for, as they are for academics. In a short period of time, the children did well, even representing Madhya Pradesh in the under-14 category. You can read the detailed story about it here.
They hired Chandra Shekhar, an electronics and communication engineer and Kailash Raj Bhatia, who had played basketball and football at multiple levels in Nepal, to steer these programs. In the future, they may explore other areas like agriculture, healthcare or the arts.
A school with 200 students
Since the couple had started small, they had to focus solely on the most vulnerable, most deprived of the students. So, the team—Priya and Digvijay along with Chandra Shekhar, Satyajit Sen and Kailash—went from village to village, speaking to families to select children for the school
The team had by then recognised that malnutrition was a big issue in the region. Indeed, Mandla has the highest number of women in the reproductive age group that are anaemic— thus, their children are anaemic as well.
Recognising this, they started the hostel in 2018, providing full care, food and accommodation to 41 children.
Yet another facility that has helped the students stay in school in how the organisation encourages them to pursue their passion.
Till Class 5, the students follow formal education. By this time, the teachers can identify students’ innate talents. In the following years, the students, along with basic schooling, also pursue sports and applied technology, fields which as the founders say, give them “immediate awards” and reinforce them to continue with their education.
“The end goal is to get them a job that they are happy with. For example, if a student is extremely passionate about football, s/he should not be stuck in a desk job that has nothing to do with the sport once she passes out of school. Instead, she should be equipped to pursue a career related to football. Only then will the students be happy and able to earn a decent living for a long time,” Priya explains.
The project has been funded by many individual donors who have gone out of their way to trust their work.
With proper guidance and training, not only will the students at Riverside be able to start earning, but will also develop entrepreneurial skills that aid the issues of the communities. The goal, after all, is not to have the results on their plate in the short-term but secure a sustainable living in the years to come.
If you are interested in making a donation, please send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your bank account details, PAN and complete address to process the receipt. All donations to Mrida are 50% exempt under 80G of IT Act.
Name of account: Mrida Education and Welfare Society
Bank’s name: Central Bank of India
Account number: 3732264642
IFSC Code: CBIN0281549
Branch: Mohgaon, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh
Contribute Rs 2800 per month per child to aid their nutrition and care
Contribute Rs 2700 per child per month for their education
Contribute Rs. 1500 per child per month towards their daily meals
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)