Dr Madhav Chavan & Dr Rukmini Banerji: Pioneers in Literacy & Learning in India


53 mins
Sep 26, 2023


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In this episode, we hear from pioneers in literacy and learning in India: Dr Madhav Chavan and Dr Rukmini Banerji of the Pratham Education Foundation.

Pratham is one of India’s best-known non-governmental organizations and was established in 1995 by Madhav Chavan and Farida Lambe. Since then the organisation has strived to improve literacy amongst India’s children with the mission ‘Every Child in School Learning Well’. Pratham conducts the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) Survey, a nationwide household survey on the state of education in rural India capturing vital information on child enrolment and learning outcomes.

Dr Madhav Chavan grew up in a commune in Maharashtra and went on to study chemistry at the Institute of Science in Mumbai and completed his PhD from Ohio State University. After a brief stint as a professor in America, he returned to India in 1983 and began working with Doordarshan where he produced programmes on literacy. He then worked with UNICEF and the National Literacy Mission in the informal settlements of Mumbai. All of these experiences in literacy led him to co-found Pratham in 1995.

Dr Rukmini Banerji grew up in Bihar and was a stellar student and sportswoman. She studied at St Stephen’s College and later at Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Dr Banerji joined Pratham on returning to India in 1996 and has worked extensively in designing and supporting large-scale partnerships with various state governments to improve learning outcomes in children. She has been the organization’s CEO since 2015.

This is the first episode in a two-part series. Madhav Chavan and Rukmini Banerji are in conversation with author and philanthropist, Rohini Nilekani. In this episode, we will hear about the history of Pratham, the early influences on their lives and educations, and the power of volunteerism, and of primary education as a societal mission that has to be solved at scale.

This conversation was recorded at the Bangalore International Centre in Bangalore.





Welcome to Grassroots Nation, a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, a show in which we dive deep into the life, work and guiding philosophies of some of our country’s greatest leaders of social change.

In this episode, we hear from pioneers in literacy and learning in India: Dr Madhav Chavan and Dr Rukmini Banerji, from the organization Pratham. 

Pratham Education Foundation is perhaps one of India’s best known non governmental organizations. Established in 1995 by Madhav Chavan and Farida Lambe, Pratham has pioneered work on improving literacy amongst India’s children. Pratham’s mission is Every Child in School Learning Well. Pratham also conducts the annual ASER survey, or the Annual State of Education Report, a nationwide household survey on the state of education in rural India by capturing vital information in child enrolment and learning outcomes. 

Dr Madhav Chavan was born into a political family, and grew up on a commune in Maharashtra. His early influences included Lal Nishan, the Leninist party established by his father, Yashwanth Chavan. Madhav Chavan went on to study chemistry at the Institute of Science in Mumbai and completed his PhD from Ohio State University. After a brief stint as a professor in America, he returned to India in 1983 and began working with Doordarshan where he produced programmes on literacy. He then worked with UNICEF, and the National Literacy Mission in the informal settlements of Mumbai. All of these experiences in literacy led him to co-found Pratham in 1995. 

Dr Rukmini Banerji is the CEO of the Pratham Education Foundation. Growing up in a prolific family in Bihar, Rukmini Banerji was a stellar student and sportswoman who studied in premier institutions that included St Stephens College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar and the University of Chicago where she earned her PhD. It was in Chicago that Dr Banerji found herself volunteering and teaching in the city during a vibrant and inspiring time of social leadership. Dr Banerji returned to India in 1996, and joined Pratham. She has worked extensively in designing and supporting large scale partnerships with various state governments to improve learning outcomes in children. For nine years, Rukmini Banerji led research and assessment at Pratham, which incubated the ASER report. Since 2015, she has been the organization’s CEO. 

This is the first episode in a two part series. Madhav Chavan and Rukmini Banerji are in conversation with philanthropist, Rohini Nilekani.  We learn about the history of Pratham, from the early influences of each of their lives and educations, and the power of volunteerism, and of primary education as a societal mission that has to be solved at scale.

This conversation was recorded at the Bangalore International Centre in Bangalore. 


Hello, welcome, namaste, Madhav Chavan and Rukmini Banerji. Its an honour and a pleasure to have you on this podcast. Thank you for joining us. 


Thank you for inviting us.


Good to be here. 


Actually, before we get to the great Pratham story, let’s delve a bit into both your early influences. Madhav, let’s start with you, I mean, tell us a bit about your background. It was a very political family and for the first two decades of real life you were very involved in your father’s trade union movements, the Marxist movements… . Tell us a bit about that.


Well, I grew up in what was referred to as a commune. My father was a founding member of – which became a smallish party in Maharashtra called Lal Nishan Party. He was a member of the Communist Party in the late 30s of the last century. At the age of 17-18, he became a Minister, a Candidate of the party. And then he went through ups and downs politically, as the communist movement went through ups and downs. But in those days, and I suppose even now, the Left Party people didn’t have money, didn’t have money so, more than an ideological commitment to staying together, it was more a necessity and economic necessity where there was one kitchen and several people eating. So that’s the kind of environment that I grew up in. 

My house I describe where I grew up, was a house at night, and an office during the day. So people were staying in the house and funny story, one story that people tell, is when the food inspector came to check the ration cards he saw weird things like the Head of the family is Kamal Fatak. And members of the family are Mr. Dalal, Mr Akram Azmi, Mr Dutta Deshmukh, Madhav Chauhan. So they say what kind of a family is this? 

So it was a family. And I saw many things happen in the height of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which was a big upheaval in Maharashtra. I used to get taken to protest marches and so on, and a sea of people, slogans and so on. So, I had seen it from early days. What I did know then was these were all stalwarts of Maharashtra politics walking in and out of the house, meetings and things going on.

So protests, words like “revolution”, “justice”, “social justice” were not new to me, except they didn’t mean anything at that time, but it was like part of your life.

And as I grew up in the mid 60s, Maharashtra was again changing. Big thing that happened when I was in high school was the formation of Shiv Sena, and the retreat of the Left Movement because of the Shiv Sena politics and so on. 

By the time I finished my high school, Shiv Sena was very strong and Communist Party was declining. My father’s work in the trade unions, I had seen it on a rise, in the textile mills, in the industrial belt of Mahara- Mumbai. And then I saw it go down. This was the time when my father felt that I should be joining politics, dynasty-like. Of course, he wasn’t fighting elections. And I got drawn into what was kind of a fledgling, starting, students’ movement. So that was the early part. 

Then one early introduction to what people called constructive politics as opposed to destructive politics was when there was a big famine in Maharashtra in 73-74, part 75. And that’s when we did two things as student leaders – we appealed to students to participate in famine relief, but at the same time also started talking about famine eradication. So I participated in those things, but by 75 I felt that I was, politics was not something I was going to do.


Did the emergency have any impact on you?


I was repainting slogans on roads and I was doing things. In fact, at that time I was interestingly, my assignment was to edit a magazine called ‘Our Neighbour China’.

So we were translating articles about China and Agricultural Revolution in the Chinese countryside. I was also translating, me and few friends of mine translated Chairman Mao Zedong’s works, philosophical works and so on, and political work, New Democracy and so on.

And these were funnily, they were submitted to the Indian Census in Mumbai and they passed them, because they didn’t see anything subversive in that… or apparently not. And we will publishing those kinds of things.

Didn’t affect, because again all sorts of variations and political stands of different political groups in response to the Emergency. So it did affect, but not much. I wouldn’t say it affected me personally, much.

So in 75, I went back to college, did my masters in Organic Chemistry, at the Institute of Science in Mumbai. After that 77, not in 75, but 77 again, I was looking for work. I’m an unemployed young man, so I was selling Ramon bonus stamps, the loyalty program, I sold all kinds of things. But then I have to do something more than that. And my uncle told me, “Why don’t you try for United States?” Which had not occurred to me. At that time, if I may, there was a lady, – you may have heard of her – Gail Omvedt. So Gail was a participant in the Lal Nishan movement. She had worked on creation, formation of the Women’s Liberation Groups in Maharashtra, and she was in and out of the commune.

So my father asked her, “What do you think about Madhav going to the US?” He was worried that I’d get into drugs and stuff. I don’t know whether he was really worried, maybe my mother pushed him to say something…

So Gail told him, “Do you trust your son?” And he said, “Yeah.” “So then don’t worry. If he was going to get into drugs, he would get into drugs here, he will get into drugs there. But if you trust him then… .” 

So his worry was not so much drugs as getting into all kinds of capitalist habits. And then in a very unusual sounding move, a man who had grown up in the Communist Commune, decided to apply for a visa to the United States in the heart of imperialism, to go study. And that is where life started changing dramatically – after 75.


So what influenced you most in the education system of the United States?


It’s not so much the system. My thesis adviser, and the professors around, the interaction with professors. So my professor who was my thesis guide, if you will, or I was a part of his research group, I remember a very critical point in my thesis, I felt that we had made an assumption and we were going by the assumption for a couple of decades and my experiments were saying that that assumption was not true. And I was really scared to go to him and tell him that this is what it means.

My colleague said, “Don’t worry.” You know, like a true Indian boy even after three-four years in the United States, I wasn’t sure that I should go and tell the boss that you know what there is some mistake here. But when he saw the data and all that, he said, “Madhav, you saved our lives.” And those were his exact words. 

Now for somebody to say that, or even when I started working in the research group, he handed me the keys of the laboratory and said go ahead and start. I said, “Start what?” I mean here I had barely changed spark plugs on the cars, and there they have given me a lab and, you know, a whole machine system that you need to work on this. I said, “I don’t know how to use it.” He said, “Use manuals.”

And so the whole idea of trusting equipment which was hundreds of thousands of dollars at that time, to somebody complete novice who you don’t even know, I learned a big lesson in trusting people.


So what is young Madhav thinking at that time about his future?


One thing was, my father, my political family, if you will, were not thinking that he is going to come back and do any major political things or anything. So it was not, it was not a given that I was going to come back. Although I felt that I should go back. And I never felt, seriously never felt comfortable living in the US. 

By this time I got married as well, and from what I recall, my wife and I both wanted to come back. And interestingly, this was the time when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister and they appealed. 

Sam Pitroda was a major influence. I didn’t know Sam at that time, but the the idea was they wanted to appeal to Indians overseas to come back and so there was a program called Returning Scientist Scheme. 

If you were a scientist and you want to come back, then you can become a Scientific Pool Officer for a princely sum of ₹3000 a month, and I thought that wasn’t a bad beginning. In the previous job I had, I was earning ₹1500. Now, double the salary. That was not the point, the salary was not the point. I need an excuse to come back. And this was good. 

And I said well let me, I had done a postdoctoral fellowship in the US and I wanted to come back. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind at that time or even now, thinking back, I just did want to come back. The question is why? Did I want to do anything major here? No, I just wanted to come back and become a good researcher teacher in India.


Rukmini, take us on the same journey. Again, strong family influences, you too went to America like Madhav, did to do your PhD. Long Journey, Rhode Scholar, Oxford, all that. So, but tell us about your early influences.


So my family from both sides is from Patna. So my father’s family lived in Boring Road and my mother’s family lived in Sabzibagh.

So the Sabzibagh people thought those Boring Road people were very modern and upstarts, they had arrived in Patna and were trying to establish themselves. And the Subzibagh people had lived in the same house since like 1817. When they must have come up the Ganga, somebody, one of the ancestors, penniless Brahmin from some Bengal village, but probably with a little bit of education. And then if we trace back, it looks like this person made money quickly.

So there is a lot of family debate about, for example, my grandmother who was quite a personality, trying to create some Zamindari background to this. The truth was, there was an opium business, very big at that time in Bihar, and he was probably a lowly accountant in that business, but made money, because the house in which the family lived grew quite a bit, quite rapidly. And that’s the same house that, you know, we saw as kids.

So there, you know these are the two kinds of different families and I would say that two grandmothers – the Subzibagh grandmother had never been to school and she was- she had two daughters, my mother and my maasi. In that family, for example, women never went out, you covered your hair and you know there were huge joint families to be fed which all the wives of the sons did and so on. But she was convinced that her daughters would go to school at least.

And fought a big battle and got her daughters to go to school. I think my mother was probably 12. So they never went to primary school, they went straight into, sort of, middle school. And luckily for her, my mother and aunt were stellar students. So the minute they got to school they started winning gold medals and what not, which also set a very unreasonable standard for everybody who came after. That also made my grandmother extremely intolerant about anybody who came third in their class or got 56% in their marks, like, “What is this,” you know, so that’s one side. 

And on the other side, my other grandmother – that family had been a migrant family. My grandfather on that side, grew up in Orissa, moved, you know, it was then the Bengal presidency, so they moved. He was a professor and my grandmother on that side also ran a big family. But two things about her – one is she was offered a Congress ticket in the first elections and she said to the Congress party in Bihar, “I’m too busy to get into all this.” Because she set up, for example, the first abandoned women’s shelter in Patna, you know, lot of social activity of that type. 

And also at age 45 learned to ride a cycle, which caused a lot of waves in the city. One small story, I think – my grandfather, my nana was a criminal lawyer. They were actually a whole family of lawyers, began to be called lawyers more recently, before they were called pleaders and something on the other. But one of the conscious decisions taken after the opium accountant was that they would not work for the British.

So nobody ever had employment, they all and they were very proud of that. Whereas on my fathers family they were all employed people, salaried people. So this was a difference. 

So my criminal lawyer grandfather in the 60s, I mean even today probably, criminal lawyers can do quite well in certain parts of the country. And at the time, one of my grandfather’s clients, probably a lucrative client, was a “businessman” in inverted commas. But it was well known that he was a dacoit. And so in order to protect whatever was my grandfather’s share of the property, apparently some eight-ten men were placed in the house for some extended period of time and according to my grandmother she had to feed them and they ate huge amounts and they had nothing to do. So they sat on the terrace, and put tel and did maalish, did kusrat and apparently the other thing that was they played with me. So apparently a lot of things in my personality have come from this very early experience.

And we know that this was true because years afterwards there were weapons in the house. You know bhalla and chhurras and things like that which those guys left behind, saying that, “Ab humne kar diya aapki rakhwali, ab aage aap hi apna rakhwali karo”. So grandmother in her 80s lived alone in this gigantic big house, and if somebody told her, “Aren’t you worried?” She said, “No, no, mere takiya ke niche chhurras hai, so if somebody comes to attack me…”. She was in a walker, it took her 15 minutes to go to the bathroom but she was completely confident that if she was attacked, she would murder that person with her chhurra.


Well, I’m glad that was not put to the test. And then your parents?


My father’s name is Sujit Mukherjee and my mother is Meenakshi. And then he stayed in Patna worked in Patna for a few years and then came to Puna University, where my mother taught in Fergusson College and did her PhD in Pune University. And her work – both my parents actually – academic work apparently is very well regarded. My mother wrote one of the first kind of critical analysis of Indians writing in English. So she is still seen as a, you know, kind of a pioneer in that. 

My father’s PhD was on the reception of Rabindranath Tagore in America. And so he had an interest in, I mean he also was in English professor, but he did a lot of work on translations and how two cultures can, you know, understand each other through their literary writings. 


Talk about your educational journey a bit and then, again, what made you come back?


So I went to a, you know, so called Convent school only because it was very difficult to get admission anywhere else. And this particular Convent school had a big headquarters in Patna. So you could call Mother Somebody-or-Other and say ki mere bachche ko admission dila do. So that’s how I went to the school. 

I always liked sports. And college, the big thing was, the college I went to, we were the third cohort of women. So there was suddenly from a very girls school with very limited, kind of very, not a very fancy school-


This is St. Stephens?


Yeah, went to St. Stephens where at least sports was a big platform and a lot of encouragement for any women who wanted to play any sports which I did with full… I played.

And so going to Oxford was actually an extension of this, because the Rhodes scholarship looks for so-called “all rounders”. As long as your, you know, academics sort of okay… .

When I applied for the Rhodes scholarship, my extracurriculars, I played tennis and swimming at the university level. And academics was, you know, okay. But once I arrived in Oxford, then there was a whole other set of extracurricular opportunities that opened up. 

So this this is all kind of a, you know, I think, the fact that there’s lots of other things to do than study was ingrained in us quite early.


Any moment you can think of that ties back to where we are today? Any moment at Oxford or Chicago?


I thought the education systems both in… . I mean in India we were, when I left, I did a year of MA. We had 250 people in our class, you know, you could have chaiwallas come in and out and nobody noticed. So going from that to Oxford where you had one-on-one tutorials with famous professors was like a… it was very difficult. 

Oxford I had a good scholarship, its you know, it was, you were clearly elite. But in America when you went to Graduate School you had to work to support yourself, you had to do four, whatever tough courses, and I think there was it was a much more competitive environment. 

And I feel that I was very lucky in the University of Chicago. I had very good advisors, very different, but very good. And how in that competitive environment, people could still pay you personal attention and draw out from you things that you know you, that you didn’t know you had.


And what did you study there? You moved beyond economics?


Yeah, I didn’t want to do economics. I wanted to- I actually didn’t want to go to Graduate School. But I went because my then-husband, you know, had gone there and, you know, it sort of made sense to go. I deferred admission for a whole year, and I worked as a volunteer in our local YWCA, which was the YWCA Child Care Center. 

Actually I was very fresh in America and it was the closest to my house where I could volunteer in the winter, so I didn’t have to walk more than two blocks – that’s why I picked it. But I learned a lot about America from that experience. This was completely a different America from what I had seen in movies and other things. The mothers of the children we took care of were sometimes 16 years old, their grandmothers- I was at the time 23-24.

You sometimes had grandmothers who were not that much older, no fathers in the picture, all kinds of things. And very soon I became their longest running staff member and it was almost very difficult to… . They couldn’t pay me because you know, whatever your visa, but I got a real flavour of early childhood, family, community and whatnot from that one experience. And then actually when I went to Graduate School, I went to the University of Chicago. 

And at the time, the Hyde Park…. Harold Washington was the mayor, Carol Moseley Brown was the senator – she was the first black woman senator. A couple of years later her kids and my kids went to the same day-care in Hyde Park. Down the street was Brotherhood of Islam. Then Jessie Jackson’s Operation Push. So it was a very vibrant political environment. 

So three things I think around that time locally in Chicago, influenced me a lot. One was that we obviously as Indian living in America couldn’t vote, but I could vote in my local school elections. So they had a real democratisation of local school governance and we were, you know, part of that. You could vote, your local school was a very important local platform on which people fought.

The second was I always felt my PhD was very quantitative and I used data from India, but India was very far away. I didn’t have money to go back and forth, I had small children, blah blah. So I volunteered in a school further South.

Again, you know, a couple of blocks so you could walk easily, which was my first exposure to what inner-city Schools are like. And I was a volunteer there for four years. I always went at lunchtime three times a week. And all these thing- that school did not know how to use a volunteer. And when they heard what my education was, they were like, “What are we going to have to do?” And over a period of time I was the seventh grade language composition teacher actually, writing teacher, and that was I think a very formative experience because it made me think what similar kids would be like in India.

And the third was that, to earn money as a graduate student, the University of Chicago’s education school was coming up with a new math curriculum. It’s called UCSMP. It’s still used a lot in the US. University of Chicago School Math Project. So how that math curriculum was developed, how much hands-on work had to happen? You had fleets of graduate students trying out every single thing in local schools. 

So these local experiences of how, you know, how education is organised, how it is governed, what goes into the content… . I mean now I piece it together but I think these were… . And also I think as neighbourhoods, what a school meant in a neighbourhood. How community- like we had a park in our neighbourhood. The park was actually constructed by, you know, whatever, Janseva in a way. And these were things which seem to happen very naturally. Somebody is sick three streets down, somebody calls you and says, “Can you deliver dinner to their house on such and such a day?” So the power of sort of community, organised community and not through a church or, not through a kith or kin. 

And it was a very mixed neighbourhood, but there was a very strong Black culture which was permeating some of this, while you have an ivory tower of the university there.

But I, constantly I had this thing about this volunteering was a bit of saying I need to feel I’m part of some ground level thing. Probably if I had stayed on in the US I would have been part of some of that, but I grew up in a large family on both sides where lots of family members played a big role in my growing up. And I certainly wanted my children to have that. 

So I was very keen to come back and I was a bit worried that I didn’t know why I really wanted to come back other than comfort of family or of, you know, things that I know. And when the chance to come back happened, which was because my then-husband was a, he was in the corporate sector and they were opening up, we came back to Bombay, which was like a totally foreign country to me. In Bombay, I knew less about Bombay then I knew about, you know, New York probably. And so there, how do you start connecting? I- not that anybody send it to me, but I felt a little bit of a gun to my head, especially from my husband saying, “You really wanted to come back to India, now what?” So it was fortuitous that I have found Pratham quickly and got involved because otherwise I would have been just dagging on wondering what is that I’m doing here.


So how did you discover Pratham and how did you decide to join it?


So when I came to Bombay, what I really wanted to do was to be part of the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s research department. Influenced by Chicago, which had 100 people in the research division within their public schools.

I went to meet whoever it was. There was one person, she was totally freaked out. She said, “Aap Dilli chale jao, Dilli mein aise foreign ke log aake karte hein.” At that time I had heard about Pratham from somewhere, I had seen one newsletter. So I wrote a letter to YB Chavan Center, which presumably they got, because then Madhav met me based on whatever the letter I had written.


Remember the date?


Sometime in August of 96. And he said, “Okay, so come to this meeting tomorrow in…” somewhere, “I will meet you in Dadar TT.”

So that’s how I joined and I was very sceptical because I didn’t know what all this was. My goal was how do you work with the school system. And I always say that I went to that meeting and then I went to more meetings and then I did some work, so I was never hired which means I can also never be fired.


Simple. Why did you not hire her?


We had no money, we couldn’t afford her – PhD from University of Chicago.


But you can’t refuse someone like that, with those credentials right? 


I just invited her and said start.




Here, Madhav Chavan speaks about the events that led up to the formation of Pratham. 


So that really brings us now to Pratham, one of the largest and most well known, and I would dare say, even one of the most loved NGOs in the whole world. How does it happen at all, Madhav?


So I came back in 86, and I had no intentions of doing any of this. So happened that in 1988 there was a university teacher strike, when I was a faculty… I don’t know what I was… a Reader in Chemistry at the University of Mumbai.

And then suddenly, as soon as I joined, almost within a few months, the whole country, university teachers, college teachers were on strike. And strike was in my blood, so I said, “We have to go.”

And the institution went on strike. It stayed on strike for 16 days, one day at a time, one day at a time. And so there was a lot of, what shall we say, conflict there, about, “We got this guy because he was a good chemist and all that and now he is indulging in all these anti-social activities.”

So at that time when the strike prolonged and eventually it went on for some 50 days or something, which was ridiculous. I mean, I understood what the strike was far, but to go on for such a long time on what? The strike was struck well.

We continued to remain on strike because a couple of demands of the university teachers were not made. Most of it was done, but what was the demand that was not made? The government wanted university teachers to sign a Muster when they came to work and university teachers said we are too good for that, we won’t do such a thing and whether RAs are to be paid, something like that. 

So at that time I wrote a letter to Rajiv Gandhi, saying that, two things – one is that this is ridiculous and there are better things to do in education then for both government and university teachers to keep on fighting about trivial things, important as they may be. That’s one thing. 

And the second I pointed out, this was 1988, I pointed out that – and this was an influence of the Lal Nishan party on me – saying that the political winds are blowing very differently. VP Singh was already up there. And this whole thing, the middle classes of India going against you will not be good for your politics. Basically something like that. And the letter was delivered to the Prime Minister, then Prime Minister.

Then Rajiv Gandhi read the letter and put some remarks on it and passed it onto the Secretary of Education saying… whatever, I never got to see the remarks.

Anil Bordia was the secretary of education – an interesting man with a vision, with a good background and so on. And when I met Anil Bordia, I knew he was looking for that and he didn’t get it. So he wrote me saying, “Why don’t you… if you are in Delhi, come meet me.” And I said, “I don’t ever come to Delhi.” So he wrote me an invitation letter saying, “We will give you a ticket to travel to Delhi,” air ticket that too. Nobody had given me an air ticket before that. So I went to meet him and some things happened. So two-a year or so it went on back and forth ki kya karna chahte ho, vagera

So by this time Sam Pitroda and Rajiv Gandhi had already launched the Nine Missions, Technology Missions – which included the Oil Mission, the Water Mission and and and Literacy Mission among them. So he- I didn’t know any of this. So Mr. Bordia asked me, “So what are you doing about literacy? All this is fine, politics and all that.” So I said, “What literacy?”

So he said, “What do you mean? You talk about revolution, social justice, print pamphlets, put up posters, and you are not bothered that 65% of the people for whom you do this can’t even read it?” Now I was also looking for some things to do, a direction to my life, intellectually speaking, other than chemistry. And that night, literally that night, was the pivot and I said, “Okay, I will do something.” He said, “What will you do?” I said, “I have many friends in different social movements – writing movement, food movement, women’s movement, science movement,” lots of movements at that time.

And so I said, “Fundamental to their work is literacy. If people are not literate, none of these things will work. So why don’t I bring them together and you address them? And let us see what they will do and we can create a committee of resource organisations.” That is CORO, which is the CORO organisation that is now growing. So I set that up at that time. 

And so that’s how my first involvement in social sector literacy education began, 89. And then I took off, because on the one hand I was doing- I was trying to do chemistry, I got a proposal in, was approved, and got stuck in bureaucratic delays. So I was teaching, but there was no research going on. 

And the literacy thing that happened – going into slums of Mumbai. I had been to slums of Mumbai before in my previous avatars, but not quite this way. Going into people’s homes and talking to women and saying you need to learn to read and so on. And they used to ask me, “What’s in it for us? Why should we learn?” And I thought this was a no brainer, why is this woman asking me, “Why should I learn to read?”

Actually their question was what is in it for you, why are you doing this?

And the usual thing was – bus card number dikhega, ye karenge wo karega, but that was not enough, that was not enough.But at that time, the main thing that happened, and I felt that when I was talking to them on the level. Look, I said there is no this was the literacy mission. We are not going to pay anybody, no payment, you want to do this-. 

And this was the message that transformed, again as a part of the literacy mission, that their governments can’t make people literate, people have to make themselves literate. Padhna likhna seekho, mehnat karne walon and all that.

And that was the message that I believed in, and when I was talking to young people in the slums, they could see that I meant it. There is no money in it. What they were used to was people coming and saying, “I’ll give you this, I’ll give you that.” I said, “There is nothing in it. It’s your mothers, your sisters, you want to teach them? Be my guest.”

And I felt that this kind of a relationship and again this is where the trust factor comes in. That I trust you to do the right thing, and a lot of people from that time have stayed with me all my life as workers in education, literacy and so on, and they have gone on to do other things. You can see that influence of what I did in the late 80’s, early 90s and so on. I learned important lessons then which have again stayed with me.

So for example, I got into radio programs. I had never done anything on radio programs but Medha Kulkarni of All India Radio, she found that I was doing something in literacy and she called me once and she said, “Will you write a script for a radio program on literacy? Have you ever written a script?” I said, “I’ve never written a script.” “So why don’t you try?” So I wrote it and they produced a program, and then that led to a longer cooperation. And she became a volunteer for the literacy mission.

In fact, she got a number of slum-dwelling young people who had not graduated, who are not even high-school-pass to work as program assistants in All India Radio. And the director of All India Radio at that time gave a concession saying that, “These people need not be educated.” There was some requirement that you have to be a graduate to become a program assistant… .


Might be important to remind younger listeners that at that time there was no television, there were no mobile phones, there was no internet. And radio was an extraordinarily powerful media communications device both for people who talk to each other, and for the government to talk to the citizens.


While this was going on, I met Vijaya Joglekar Ghumare, who was an Assistant Station Director at television in Mumbai. Her husband had come for some program. He said, “Why don’t you talk to my wife and you can do something… public service message.”

And she again said the same thing, “Can you write a script? We can do a series.” And for the next one and a half years, we did a fortnightly or weekly program on adult literacy. And that was, in those days since you are reminding listeners what was the days like – so they used to be socially relevant programs in the afternoon, and Chitrahar and all that in the evening. And then what, prime time news. So our program was actually between Marathi prime time and the Hindi prime time news.

This was Doordarshan and across India, no other television station produced literacy shows. And this is recorded in some Government of India… . But nobody did that because nobody went in and created volunteers out of people. And that happened later on. 

Everywhere, everywhere people became- key people became volunteers. They did it themselves and my language always was “Do it yourself. You have been a victim of that, do it for yourself. Do it because you want to do it, not because I am saying so.” And people move and do things on their own.


So there is a very clear power of the intent, and there is a very clear sense that the agency is yours to pick up.


Absolutely. So that’s how my first foray into literacy education started. And then again, 1991, the economic crisis in India, there were other things that happened in Mumbai. As far as I was concerned, the literacy movement went downhill after that, 91. To the extent that there was the economic crisis, how it hits is, the tapes of the Akshardhara program that we had produced in All India Radio- on the television Doordarshan, Mumbai, they were reused and so none are available today.


Yeah, they used to record on top of the- because they didn’t have enough funds to get new ones….


Anyway, so that went downhill. And again, I was wondering now, what am I going to do? And at that time again, 1991 in Thailand, there was an International Conference on Literacy and Primary Education.

And the UNICEF team came back, in Mumbai and Delhi also, and they started thinking about how to give a big boost to primary education. And the line was, “Primary education is the best investment a country can make.” And then there were those studies from Asian Development Bank and so on, saying that national GDP is related to the number of years of education and so on.

So that’s how it’s… . So the UNICEF people started talking about a societal mission that is required for primary education. They say… . And then we started creating it afterwards saying, “Education is too important to be left to the government alone.” And that was the sense that the UNICEF people were, they were talking about. And this is when I got into the discussion sort of peripherally. My colleague Farida Lambe, she was a professor of social work.

So Farida Lambe who was a faculty of social work at the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. she was already- we had started working together on the literacy campaign. And so she shared the frustration with whatever was going on, but she was in the discussions with UNICEF on this primary education thing. So she wanted me to get involved. But these discussions were going nowhere. Nearly for a year and a half, there were discussions and workshops. 

And fundamental problem there was a- there was a problem and the problem then, as it was seen, was children are not going to school or they are dropping out of school. And the question was how do you solve this problem, can you solve it? And the UNICEF people are talking about making a model out of Mumbai. Because there were all sorts of complications and all sorts of resources in Mumbai and we should try and do it here.

So eventually it came down to Mr. Sharat Gayi, who recently passed away who was the municipal commissioner of Mumbai at that time. He called a meeting, or UNICEF sort of pushed him to call a meeting in his office, and this was discussed. And it was decided that they would be an organisation for this, for this primary education, which would have trustees from different walks of life – government servants, bureaucrats, socially minded individuals, business people, activists, or whatever. 

And then it had to be called something, so I did the leg-work for that organisation, which like I had done for the literacy campaign. So the organisation was created and they said, “What do you call it?” I said, “Pratham.”


And what is this year?


This is 94. December 1994. And so, it was called Pratham Mumbai Education Initiative. Pratham was born. And that’s where now, from there on, again everything that I had learnt in my, you know if you go to social entrepreneurs, the theory of social entrepreneurs, then there is a sigmoidal curve – there is a take off stage where you learn a lot, then you go up vertically sharp, and then plateau out. So I had learnt many things in my literacy campaign, like the lessons that I was talking about.

And so no, scale was not a problem because we were talking about the National Literacy Mission making India literate in 10 years. 


So naturally you are not talking about teaching 100 people, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. 


So if you wanted to do something for education again, the goal in Pratham was to bring all children into school in Mumbai… . Mumbai? No big deal.

But for all other NGOs, the NGOs that were working and had not been touched by this National Mission and for people in general, scale was a scary thing. And the argument was Gandhiji said, “Small is beautiful.” And that argument was thrown at me every now and then, “Why are you doing this? This is the government’s work, why are you doing this?” From different angles. “Education is the government’s work, why are you doing it? Why are you bailing out the government?” Arey bailing out kahe toh

So, all sorts of thoughts started emerging out of that. So the scale was already decided, when we created Pratham, the scale for Mumbai was created, we were not thinking of anything outside of Mumbai, as you know. And it started moving.


Now it’s very important to just recap some of these things because today, even today civil society really grapples with these things. One is – this idea was seeded by an international agency in some sense, and it was aligned to what was already happening, but this idea was born in scale, because even the National Literacy Mission was already born at scale. And this in some sense was an imagination of scale, because it was responding at the scale of the problem. And then it is the state government or the municipal government, the 3rd year government, that actually picks up the cudgels on this and puts together this multi-sectoral team to do it. And then of course something else happens. 


There is a very important thing to remember – NGOs don’t work on scale, okay? NGOs don’t work with governments. So they are supposed to be on their own. We create a model and the government has to take up the model and do whatever they want to do.

One is today if you are going to think of a scale and many organisations say, you know, “Okay you are a social entrepreneur, think scale.” But to think on that kind of a scale, what we had was a team of people who represented Mumbai.

There is a government representative so we are trying to get the buy in- not that it was successful, but the design was that it’s not an individual’s dream – this is not Madhav Chavan’s dream to do anything – no, this is the societal dream. It has to be seen as such, it has to be sold as such. That is the first part. 

The second part is and this is something that a lot of people miss, including ourselves – that 94 when this was done, December 94, was a very interesting time, political turmoil all over (A). And economic liberalisation. And industrialists, business people, everybody was very conscious of where we were going to go or wanted to go. And when you talked about primary education and the need for primary education, which happened in a, you know, half a decade later, but all the leadership, industrial, business leadership was conscious that education is important. And I used to say in those days that earlier education was a matter of social justice, now it was not only social justice, it was also about economic development. 


No but you’re right to again call that out. Pratham’s movement takes off just when liberalisation is taking off and the education of the future workforce, the skilling, the capacity building, the foundational… . Suddenly, bazaar – the market – was interested in participating because they could see what’s going to happen to the economy. And of course the Sarkar had a mandate anyway, which it had perhaps neglected since independence and had now come face to face with the importance of having to catch up and do it. So something was aligning in 1994, yeah?


I mean there are many things. The interesting thing is how things seem to happen in ones and twos. In 97-98, I think 97, all of a sudden out of the blue, you know, we think NGOs and the civil societies are really great. But sometimes not sometimes, very often, something happens within the government, there’s one person in that government who actually sends out a spark.

The Rajya Sabha Secretariat came up with an amendment bill to the Constitution. So this 83rd Amendment bill, bill for the amendment of the Constitution to make education a fundamental right… free and compulsory but fundamental right, amending the Constitution to make it free and compulsory, came out of nowhere

So we sort of picked that up and said, “Let’s support the Rajya Sabha Secretariat’” and I dare think, I mean you can have the resources to research it, but Pratham was the first one to start an email campaign in support of a government proposal.

So we started an email campaign and the server which was downloading all the email – we had to download emails because otherwise it would overflow – the server was based in North Carolina. Cousin, a friend or whoever was handling that and he was having sleepless nights because the server would overflow. 

And overflow with what, 44,000 or 50,000 emails at night or something like that. And we were struck because we always said, “Support the government in this move and it will be a dramatic change in the constitution,” etcetera, etcetera. And I remember getting emails coming out of Stockholm and Tokyo and Delhi and Chennai and all that. And we printed all those things, heaps of printed emails, because you know, how do you- there is no WhatsApp, there is no forwards. So that was given to the Rajya Sabha Secretariat and there were people who were impressed that this was actually something that a voluntary organisation did.

So, it was not as though we were doing everything. There were many people. And my radio program experience, my television experience, said that there were these people in the government who were conscious of wanting to do something and that led to many… . So you cannot take credit for everything. You are a part of the change and as things change, you are nudging it along – sometimes it hits you back, sometimes you succeed. 



Stay tuned for our next episode and second part of this conversation between Dr Madhav Chavan, Dr Rukmini Banerji and Rohini Nilekani. 

Grassroots Nation is a podcast from Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. For more information go to rohini nilekani philanthropies dot org or join the conversation on social media at RNP underscore foundation. 

Thank you for listening to Grassroots Nation.



Additional Reading:
Land, caste, class and gender – Gail Omvedt’s writings were united in their vision of utopia by V Geetha
The Teachers’ Strike and After: Emerging Trends and Issues by Amrik Singh (1988)
TV serial Akshardhara becomes tool for social change by M. Rahman
83rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution
UNESCO’s World Declaration on Education for All, Thailand, 1990

Archival Audio:
ADULT EDUCATION PROGRAMME by National Literacy Mission Authority GOI OFFICIAL CC BY 3.0