Like so many Indian parents, mine wholeheartedly believed in education. As a child my mother always told me that, as an immigrant in a strange country, it wasn’t enough that I was as good as my white counterparts. “You have to finish the race ten yards ahead to be equal,” she would say. It became her mantra, one that manifested in a sacrifice that began with them leaving the Punjab 40 years ago.

It seems more than ironic that I am now traveling back to India to study its education system. The schools I am scheduled to visit are around Ferozepur, where my father’s entire family was educated. Fate seems to want me to be home.

My uncle drives me through a series of agricultural towns and villages. It’s 4pm but already the Punjabi winter is making its presence well known. We have been driving for almost an hour but have only managed to travel about 25 kilometers outside of Ferozepur. Yet there are fewer and fewer signs of life; a man carries milk urns on a motorbike, green fields stretch off into the dusky distance. There are tractors everywhere, more buffalo than people. The deeper into rural India you go, the further back in time you seem to pass. Nothing can be more instructive of India’s past than the perniciousness of the Caste system, a system that governs and dictates the lives of every person I pass.

However, the hold the Caste system has on India is changing. As economic prosperity arrived on the sub-continent as the free market functioned and the protective trade walls fell, the iniquity of caste became less and less acceptable. Where once a high-caste Brahmin would be born into grandeur in the feudality of pre-modern India, nowadays things are beginning to change: a Brahmin is no longer a shoe-in to become Chief Executive of a software company.

The lower castes, the untouchables, rebranded themselves Dalits, the oppressed. According to a study by the International Dalit Solidarity Network five years ago, in more than half the classrooms across India Dalit children are forced to sit at the back of class and eat apart from their classmates. They are also bullied, assaulted and humiliated by both staff and pupils. Not surprising then that almost 73 percent of Dalit kids drop out of secondary education. Believe it or not, this is an improvement! At least Dalit kids are allowed to go to school. The caste system is very slowly becoming a thing of the past, and the past is exactly where it belongs.

Thirty years ago India had 157 engineering colleges. In 2007 that number increased almost 1000 percent to 1522. There are close to 350 universities, or institutes of equivalent standing and the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh Kohli, has announced a further expansion plan for more technical schools and institutes of national importance. Not only is the educational revolution taking place within the borders of India, it is being exported too. Five years ago India overtook China as the country that provides America with the most international technology students, with about a quarter of a million heading Stateside. To the wider world it seems every Indian under the sun is a graduate, post-graduate, or MBA.

At times it is difficult to focus on anything other than the gargantuan population mass that is modern India, but, as an eight-year-old in a village in the Punjab said, “India is changing.”

We approach a hamlet, Wageh Wala. (I am aware that the use of the word “hamlet” conjures glorious images of Constable landscapes; this is a very different beauty) I’ve been told that lessons take place beside a new Gurdwara, which is in the process of being built.

I see a gaggle of people in front of the building site. As we drive up I reflect on the reason I find myself in the deepest, darkest, most rural area of the Punjab I have ever visited. In late 2010 I had done some work with the Hemraj Goyal Foundation. The Goyal family introduced me to an Indian charity called Ekal Vidalaya, which means a single teacher school. It’s a simple statement to understand but, as I was to learn, with life-changing applications. Knowing the importance of education in India, and in the Punjab in particular, I was fascinated to understand how this system could work.

The concept originated in 1989, the vision of a nuclear scientist, Dr. Rakesh Popli and his wife, based on the philosophy of Swami Vivekanada who suggested that “if a boy cannot go to school, the school must go to the boy.” (I assume the Swami meant the same for girls.) Ekal Vidalaya trains a young woman or man from a tribal village to become a teacher, and that teacher then takes control of the education of the 8- to 14-year-olds in their village. Because the work is voluntary, teaching takes place in the evening. The success of this system is that since it doesn’t parachute in teachers from cities and towns elsewhere citizens invest time and energy in their own villages. No doubt the teacher will have grown up with the parents and families of those they teach. It is community in operation.

The education is not purely academic. The holistic approach encompasses health education, village development studies, and empowerment. They are taught about waste and recycling, the dangers of the caste system, and equality and fairness. As Gandhiji said, “The real Independence will come when the smallest village becomes enlightened and developed.”

The female teacher stands in front of the motley assembly of students, of all ages. There are about a dozen kids; they sit cross-legged on the cold concrete outside the Gurdwara. It takes me a moment to work out the glaring incongruity of the kids I’m seeing; I don’t think I have ever before witnessed such a wide age range of children all being taught simultaneously. The youngest looks no more than 6 years old; the oldest is around 14. These are village kids, the poorest of the poor. Their clothes tell that story, yet their faces tell another. They are happy. They are not compelled to be here. They chose to attend. Some of their hands bear witness to a day’s work in the keth (on the land).

As I pull up a chair, I can see the excitement: they have a visitor from Velat (the West). It’s the only moment I witness the children break from engaging with their teacher. Although class was meant to have started 20 minutes ago, they have been waiting for me. Class formally begins. The teacher leads the kids in prayer. Cross-legged, the pupils join their index finger and thumb in a loop, resting their hands on their knees. They offer three Om Shantis, sending blessings out into the cold evening air. Then the children say hello to their teacher: a nameste in Hindi, followed by the Sikh greeting of Sat Sri Akal. Finally a Salaam starts the class. Simple though it sounds, there is a beauty about watching children opening their minds and accepting difference without question.

The teacher instructs the kids to open their exercise books and pencil cases that lay on the brick playground in front of them. I ask when they will move inside to the classroom, assuming they are braving the cold evening merely to greet me. With a smile I am told that the playground is their classroom. There is no building. In the winter they wear coats; the summer, they seek the shade of a tree. Education means something quite different in rural India. Clearly.

I notice a young boy in the front, no more than 8. I ask him if he likes coming to school. “Hun-ji,” he says. A respectful yes.

“Why?” I probe. He looks around his peers and then at his teacher, who encourages his response.

“Didi is very nice,” he tells me. Didi is how a Punjabi refers to an older sister. It takes me a moment to realize that he is referring to his teacher. “And Didi says if we learn and do well we can look after our parents when they get older. India is changing…”

I couldn’t help but smile at his final comment. Even an 8-year-old child in rural Punjab is aware of the momentous change occurring across the sub-continent.

Didi asks which child would like to recite a poem for me. Hands shoot up, and she selects one of the girls. I don’t know quite what to expect, hoping the poem will be in Punjabi rather than Hindi; I might have a chance to understand it then.

“I’m a parrot, I’m a parrot, I have all the colors…”

My uncle, who is watching on, is genuinely impressed that village kids this young can speak English. For a man that has spent sixty odd years in Ferozepur, he has never heard such a thing. These children can write, read, and do simple arithmetic. I’m not suggesting that all will go on to complete a full education, go to law school, and become High Court judges; but undoubtedly they have an improved lot in life. They are beginning to invest in education; time will tell the returns such an investment will make. More importantly, they seem very happy to be here, even as the gloom of evening descends.

Wageh Wala is but the tip of an ever-increasing iceberg. This past April 120 new schools opened in Ferozepur’s district, taking the total number of students to 10,216. No doubt there are numerous charitable campaigns to bring education to the rural children of India. Ekal Vidayala is just one, but it is so much more than simply teaching. It’s as much about the education of the entire village as the children. As India’s urbanization continues, a reflection of the productivity of the nation, rural communities will feel themselves philosophically as well as geographically peripheral. Initiatives like Ekal Vidayala, whilst not serving to rid India of all its ills, is and will continue to make a real difference to the lives of children and adults in these rural communities. While there may be a grudging acceptance that deruralization will force more and more of the next generation into the cities, it is imperative for these children to be educated: those that leave need to be equipped for competitive city life; those that stay will have an opportunity to improve the lot of village life.

Talk in the abstract about revolutionizing teaching, creating equality amongst the poor and changing communities and societies is one thing. Ultimately the work of charities like Ekal Vidayala is about families and individuals. At times it is difficult to focus on anything other than the gargantuan population mass that is modern India, but, as an eight-year-old in a village in the Punjab said, “India is changing.”

Photograph by Ekal Vidyalaya Movement.

Hardeep Singh Kohli

Hardeep Singh Kohli is a British writer and radio and television presenter.

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