Recently, 28-year-old Raju Jijabai Aatmaram Kendre made headlines for winning the UK’s Chevening Scholarship in June this year. This is one of the most prestigious scholarships offered to international students and young changemakers looking to pursue higher studies in the country.
Raju, who received a scholarship worth Rs 45 lakh to cover all his expenses, arguably became one of the few, if not the first, students coming from a Marathi-medium school and a nomadic tribe in the heart of Maharashtra to receive this scholarship. Today, he runs the Eklavya Movement, an organisation that aims to bring mainstream education to the grassroots through the right guidance. In the last four years since its inception, Eklavya has helped over 125 underprivileged students pursue higher education and prestigious fellowships. Some have gone on to start their own enterprises.
Raju’s organisation is the result of the hardships he saw throughout his life. Hailing from a village named Pimpri Khandare in Vidarbha’s Buldhana district in Maharashtra, his parents, belonging to the Warkari community, are farmers who studied till Class 4. They were forced to drop out of school due to financial constraints.
“In our tribe, child marriage is quite commonplace. My mother wanted to study but couldn’t due to those traditions. But my parents ensured that my brother and I had access to education. After my brother was married, they even helped my sister-in-law complete her graduation. My brother and I are the first-generation graduates in our family,” Raju tells The Better India.
A burning desire to drive change
Growing up, Raju pursued his education with an aim to do something that would help him serve society. First, he thought about pursuing medicine, but later changed his mind to integrate himself into civic administration. “There are millions in India like my parents. I wanted to do something for them,” he notes.
After he completed Class 12, Raju went to Pune to prepare for competitive exams. However, a lack of awareness, mentorship and financial support led to him to fail. So he took admission in an open university and left Pune. While he had been preparing for the competitive exams, he had visited the Melghat region in Amravati, where he saw how an NGO named Maitri organise an event called ‘Dhadak Mohim’ every year during the monsoon, which aims to reduce child mortality and malnutrition in the region. Raju joined the movement as a volunteer and formed a network of thousands of volunteers across Maharashtra.
His experience with this NGO, alongside the struggles he faced to pursue his own education, left Raju with a burning desire to engage in social work. He tried briefly to find a stable source of income, including a job at a call centre, but says his heart was never into it. He left it behind and spent two years working with various organisations to work towards grassroot changes. As he met more volunteers from all over the country, he was told about the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
Raju pursued his post graduation in Social Work & Rural Development at TISS Tuljapur, where he worked for the education of children across various villages. “My experience with TISS and working in Melghat left me with a better understanding of how much untapped potential there is in tribal communities. Whether it’s sports or education, there’s a lot to unfurl at the grassroots, but the people belonging to these communities don’t have the right platform,” he explains.
“The memories of my brother having to cycle for 12 kilometres just to get to school, my parents struggling to make ends meet, and the experiences I encountered during my years of social work led me to start Eklavya Movement,” Raju says.
Eklavya provides mentorship, training and guidance to first-generation learners from underprivileged communities with non-English medium backgrounds to pursue higher education. Raju notes, “An understanding of rural development will come from lived experiences. Living in urban cities will give you limited knowledge on that front. So our idea is to shape leaders at the grassroots who are trying to bring change. Higher education needs diversity,” he says.
Mentoring grassroot leadership
In Yavatmal’s Galwah village, Gopal Gofane completed his primary education in his native village and relocated to Amravati to pursue his junior college. However, since he came from a Marathi-medium school, he faced a massive language barrier. “I was mentally stressed and my academic performance was affected. My parents insisted I leave my education and join a local hardware store to earn money,” he says.
At 18, Gopal was travelling 15 kilometres a day between his home and the store. On his way, he would spot young kids holding bags and books heading to and from college. He wanted to be one of them. In search of guidance, he met Eklavya’s team. He participated in a few scholarships and overcame his fears surrounding communication. Today, Gopal has gained admission in the Gandhi Research Foundation for a one-year course.
Raju says, “We just want to provide them with the right support and direction so that they can realise their own dreams. Traditional universities lack a critical approach. Kids are not encouraged to even ask questions. In fact, sometimes they don’t even know what questions to ask. So we want to cover these gaps.”
“When you look at big organisations that have a worldwide reach working for marginalised sections, who are leading these? These organisations deserve leaders that come from the communities they’re working for. Farmer suicides are rampant in Vidarbha, while people are writing a report about it in Delhi. You need a farmer’s kid on your committee who can help you grasp the real picture, right?” he explains. “And it’s not just the development sector. Law, media, arts or culture — all sectors require grassroots leadership.”
Speaking about the challenges Raju faces while running Eklavya, he says, “Financial support is the biggest challenge. One Raju Kendre by himself won’t be able to bring enough change. We run a small centre that has influenced 100-200 kids, but we need to expand. I think we need to start at least four-five centres in the next five years or so, but we need financial support for that. People often call me to start these centres across various parts of Maharashtra, but unless I have the funds, that will be hard for me to do. We need a permanent centre where students can come and stay and have adequate time and resources at their disposal. We also need adequate human resources and infrastructure.”
Another problem is convincing the students to pursue higher education in the first place. “There’s a lot of hesitation in these children because of cultural or language barriers and financial constraints. They don’t think they can move outside their villages or districts to go to bigger cities. There’s a sense of inferiority because they find it hard to articulate their thoughts,” Raju explains. “We just tell them, ‘You study hard and leave the rest to us. We will take care of you’.”
Raju says that he too finds himself in such precarious spots sometimes. “I find it hard to articulate my own thoughts in English. I gave an interview for a university around three years ago and I cried when I came out, because I was unable to speak to the panel,” he notes.
Speaking about his scholarship, Raju says it took him a long time to get here. “I approached many organisations, trusts and universities for help. But the amount they offered was not enough to cover my expenditure for going abroad. My father once even considered selling our farm but we knew even that wouldn’t be enough. I have cried and felt disheartened several times,” he recalls. “Many big platforms and schemes across India rejected me because my degree was in a vernacular language from an open university.”
He adds, “Our system lacks the awareness that scholarships such as Chevening need to reach students in the remotest corners of the country.”
Raju says this scholarship will also be the base on which he builds his dream of empowering several first-generation students like him. Meanwhile, Eklavya is working on building a more robust team so that by 2030, they have covered all parts of Maharashtra through their centres. “We want to work with 1,000 children across the region. Till now, we have focussed on post graduation but now we will work with undergraduates as well,” he says.
“This scholarship is not for me alone — I am dedicating it to millions of first-generation learners,” Raju says.
Edited by Yoshita Rao