On July 10, 2009, Bishwajit Banerjee stood outside the new VidyaGyan school in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh (UP), some 60 kilometers from New Delhi. “I was extremely nervous,” he recalls. Shain Khan, who also stood outside the school on that day, remembers feeling the same emotion. “I cried. I missed my mother. I decided to run away.”

Both had reason to be anxious. Forty-four-year-old principal Banerjee and 11-year-old student Khan were taking part in a new experiment in education.

“VidyaGyan is a radical concept that aims to … transform meritorious rural children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, providing them free, world-class education, allowing them to transcend the disadvantages they face,” says T.S.R. Subramanian, who is spearheading the project. A former cabinet secretary to the Union Government and chief secretary in UP, Subramanian says VidyaGyan is an idea whose time has come. “There are [Mahendra Singh] Dhonis everywhere,” he says. (Dhoni is India’s cricket captain; he comes from the backwater state Jharkhand.) “Children in rural areas have great potential; they will flower if given the chance.”

VidyaGyan is an initiative of the Shiv Nadar Foundation — set up by Shiv Nadar, founder of the U.S.$5 billion technology group HCL. The first school has just opened, taking in 200 students from the fifth grade who scored the highest on the UP state board examinations. From the sixth grade onwards, they will study at VidyaGyan, a residential institute where all expenses are paid. The students are from economically challenged backgrounds, and VidyaGyan aims to mold them into leaders.

“The quality of primary and secondary education in this country is abysmal,” Subramanian says. “We have a few world-class institutes — the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), for instance — in higher education. But there is no equivalent in the primary education space, except for a few private schools in urban areas.”

Subramanian notes that community involvement in education is central to the project’s mission. “First, education is too important to be left to the government. It must be a community effort. And corporates must be involved in this as part of the community. Second, we must bridge the urban-rural divide. We are unfortunately developing an urban society that is rich and a rural society that is poor. Third, this is a public-private program. We think this is the way to make progress in this area.” Subramanian praises the UP government’s role in this initiative: Among other things, it is responsible for the selection of the children.

Bridging the Divide

The project has been percolating for quite some time. “When I retired from the government eight years ago, I started the Indian Education Foundation to provide technology for rural schools,” he says. “But we couldn’t raise resources. There was a recession and we failed to find funds, even in the U.S. I was on the board of HCL. We were talking about a university — which is [opening] up in June-July next year in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon — and the VidyaGyan proposal came up naturally.”

The Shiv Nadar Foundation’s mission is to create a more equitable, meritocracy-based society and empower individuals to bridge the socio-economic divide. The foundation aims to achieve this primarily by setting up outstanding educational institutions that provide meritorious students from all walks of life the opportunity to receive a world-class education. VidyaGyan is part of a growing number of the foundation’s projects, including the SSN College of Engineering, the SSN School of Management & Computer Applications and the SSN School of Advanced Software Engineering. (“SSN” stands for Shiv Nadar’s late father Shri Sivasubramaniya Nadar.) Adding to this are initiatives like the VamaSundari Trust, which has already distributed US$6 million in scholarships.

“We have always believed in building institutions of excellence … to last,” says Nadar. “The school will not only provide these very deserving kids a global education; it will also build leadership and character. These children have risen above exceptionally challenging circumstances to top their districts. Twenty years hence, these kids will not just fill a job vacancy. They will go out and change the world.”

“VidyaGyan [is] personally a very challenging and exciting project for me,” says Roshni Nadar, Nadar’s daughter who is a trustee of the Shiv Nadar Foundation and executive director and CEO of HCL. “The first school is off the ground and the next — possibly at Varanasi — will come up soon. After that, there is the Shiv Nadar University, which will be modeled after top-notch U.S. universities…. [VidyaGyan] is financed entirely by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, which has set aside substantial funds needed for a project of such quality and impact.”

As for the funding required, Subramanian says, “The land cost US$3 million,” he says. “The infrastructure costs another US$7 million.” Not all the money has been spent as some facilities have yet to be built. “Our running costs are US$1,600 per child per year. It will be less — US$1,200 to US$1,400 — when we achieve economies of scale.” This is just the beginning, he adds. “In two years, we will have four or five schools.” The final plan is for a network of more than 50 schools.

Raising Eyebrows

The infrastructure costs have been raising some eyebrows in a country where rural schools often lack a blackboard and even a roof. But VidyaGyan is not cutting corners. The first school at Bulandshahr is spread over 20 acres — 14 for the school itself and six for housing. The total facility area is 250,000 square feet. There will be 30 classrooms (10 are operational now), a hostel for 700 students, a language lab (“To teach our children to communicate in English is a major challenge,” says principal Banerjee), a computer lab, a math lab, a library, an amphitheatre seating 800, an auditorium, an athletic track, a football field, a skating rink and indoor sports facilities. An eight-acre sports complex will be built next to the school campus. This will include a cricket ground and other outdoor sports facilities. “All this may be commonplace in urban schools,” says Banerjee. “But for most of our students, this is very new.”

Banerjee offers a report on students’ progress so far. “Shain was not the only one with problems,” he says. “She adjusted and is happy now. [One] boy from Badauin district just could not settle down and his parents took him back home. After a few days, he came back on his own… In the first month, we often got calls from anxious parents. Some of them visited the school. Now, all that has stopped. They have seen our facilities and what we provide.”

Banerjee explains that the children — 126 boys and 74 girls — are housed in separate hostels with round-the-clock security. “We had asked the children to come with only two sets of clothes and the school is taking care of all their other needs — books, stationery, uniforms, sports outfits, other clothes and items of daily use,” he says.

But what will happen during the holidays when they return home? Will there be adjustment problems? “We don’t know,” Subramanian says. “But we realize the problem….”

There is another adjustment issue, though it will not come up for some time. What will happen when the students finish and start college? Higher education is expensive, and having a child at VidyaGyan is not going to change the economic status of his or her family. Subramanian says they will continue to mentor the children through their first year in college. And money problems are easier to solve than the tougher task of providing education, he adds.

VidyaGyan may have ambitious roll-out plans, but it has no intentions of spreading beyond UP. “We looked at UP and Tamil Nadu (TN),” says Subramanian. “Both [Nadar and I] were born in TN. But the need in UP was greater. At the moment, we are only in UP. We will take stock later; we don’t want to bite off too much.”

According to executive coach Gopal Shrikanth, the strategy makes sense. “VidyaGyan’s decision to focus all their energies on transforming a single backward state such as UP, rather than spreading themselves thin across the country, is unique. This model should hopefully be an inspiration to other companies to ‘adopt’ other backward states.”

‘Islands of Excellence’

How has the establishment and the academic world responded to VidyaGyan? “I think it is a very good idea,” says Dipankar Gupta, a recently retired professor from the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. “In fact, I had a thought along these lines but could not pursue it. If these schools are able to produce outstanding students who can get to Wharton, IIT, LSE [London School of Economics], IAS [Indian Administrative Services] and so on, that would be fantastic. In other words, the training should be world class, from science and language to deportment and confidence building.”

According to Gupta, the impact would be cumulative. “If Nadar is able to produce top-class students from poor homes then, over a period of time, they will form a critical mass. This can be used to pressure the state to deliver quality education. I think the best thing that NGOs and philanthropists can do is to shame the state into delivering and not become alternate nodes of power and influence.”

Is there a danger that a school like VidyaGyan could become elitist, producing misfits in their social milieu? “By and large, this is a noble cause that is for the good of Indian society,” says Shrikanth. “However, similar social reengineering initiatives have mostly resulted only in the immediate families of such students benefiting, socially and economically. Beyond acting as an inspiration to their communities, the majority of such beneficiaries do not seem to devote their careers to working in or for their communities. Some beneficiaries do, however, go on to bestow endowments to community schools and hospitals, at a later stage in their lives.”

That, itself, could be an adequate return, says Gupta. “The advantage of an elite brigade of professionals from poor homes is a very strong and persuasive demonstration of humanity and the democratic spirit. Meritocracy is the bedrock of true democracy. The school must produce children better than our best schools. They should know better math and English; they should be great swimmers and orators; they should have confidence oozing out of their pores. This will give those who are elitist by birth a kick in their pants.”

In response to concerns over elitism, Subramanian asks: “Are the IITs and IIMs elitist?”

Dileep Ranjekar, chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, wonders whether VidyaGyan is really a solution. “Research tells us that only a negligible percentage of [these initiatives] deliver education that is envisaged by the National Policy for Education. A private school does not necessarily symbolize higher quality of education for children unless it is managed and run on certain accepted principles.” Moreover, he notes, even if the school is good, the model may not be replicable “because of the high cost of establishing such facilities and the management bandwidth involved. These schools continue to remain as ‘islands of excellence’ — assuming they are managed well — rather than proving to be role models for the larger universe of schools.

“Our experience indicates that the best practices in one school are not transferred to other schools,” Ranjekar adds. “In addition to such efforts, we need all influential people to exert pressure on the government to deliver high-quality education to all children in the country. Otherwise such schools can only add to the already existing inequity.”

S. Ramesh Kumar, professor of marketing at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, feels that credit must be given where it is due. “At a time when … there is a strong emphasis on corporate social responsibility, it is nice to see a reputed organization heralding a laudable social objective In India. Given the commitment reflected in the very concept, such an attempt will work and perhaps inspire other firms as well. With technology making rapid strides, such initiatives will certainly create a level playing field in a country where around 50% of the population is below 25 years of age.”

The success of the concept will depend on the kind of education imparted at VidyaGyan. “A sense of idealism that they will cherish throughout their lives has to be deeply rooted in these students during their tenure at the school,” says Shrikanth.

“Skeptics are bound to raise a number of questions,” he adds. “Are the plans for 70-plus schools realistic [in] the current economic climate? Would it have been more prudent to plan for just one central school, given the typical academic challenges of recruiting and retaining qualified faculty? Is the planned infrastructure a sub-optimal utilization of limited resources? Is this model sustainable, given that the source of funding will depend on a single company year after year?”

While remaining confident, Subramanian is humble about the final deliverables. “We are not saying that we are an example,” he says. “But we propose to do our bit to show the way.”