Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Academics of Another Kind

Samarth Bharat Abhiyan is a unique initiative that combines the force of higher education with rural development. Dibyajyoti Sarma gets the details

It’s been a longstanding argument against the higher education in India, particularly the arts stream, that it does not have any practical purpose, expect for churning out degree holders. The argument leads to other pertinent questions. Is education the same as having a degree? Don’t students have any responsibility towards the community and society where they belong? Doesn’t an institute of higher education have any responsibility towards the society (especially in rural areas) apart from imparting knowledge?
Talk to Dr Kailas N Bavale and you will get answers to some of these questions, if not all, and you will see a ray of hope for the future - yes, a higher education institute has what it takes to change the face of society. Dr Bavale, principal, Arts, Commerce and Science College, Narayangaon, is also the regional coordinator for the Junnar region of Samarth Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). It is the SBA he is all excited about, and is ready to argue that it’s not just a plan; it’s a possibility and it’s happening.
Samarth Bharat Abhiyan is an initiative by the University of Pune under which all the colleges affiliated to the university as well as university departments will adopt a village in the state of Maharashtra and work for its development, of course, voluntarily, with no strings attached. In one sense, the idea of the entire programme is to give back to society what it needs the most.
The programme, which was formally inaugurated last Saturday, is the brainchild of University of Pune vice chancellor Dr Narendra Jadhav, and is promoted as an extension of president Abdul Kalam’s vision of taking social development to rural Indian through youth power. According to Jadhav, all the 433 colleges affiliated to the university in the areas of Pune, Nashik and Ahmednagar districts will take part in the programme which will include earn-and-learn schemes for the students, scholarships for girl students and elaborate rural development programmes.
But the University’s concern for rural development is not a new idea. The colleges also run an NSS programme where every year volunteers from a college visit a village for a ten-day camp and offer 120 hours for the development of the village.
Dr Bavale agrees that it’s a good initiative, but points out that it’s only an annual feature. SBA, comparatively, is a continuous process. The idea is to link education with rural development so that colleges can contribute towards social development. “Those days are over when an higher education institute would be considered an isolated entity. The role of a college no longer ends with just running the course. The college also has a responsibility towards society and it’s time they took it seriously,” he observes.
The concept is simple and straightforward. A college will adopt a village within the vicinity and work for its development. “The university has 433 colleges,” says Dr Bavale, “and if each college adopts at least one village, at least 433 villages will see a difference.”
But is the programme mandatory for all the colleges? “No,” informs Dr Bavale, “the programme is not compulsory, but based on voluntary participation. Colleges are supposed to act like NGOs. The idea that you can make a difference should come from within, not from outside.” That the SBA is already making a difference can be checked from ground realities. “Our aim is always to involve all the faculties when we approach any college. For example, if there is a power problem in a village, the physics department of the college may come forward and provide a solution. And when it comes to issues related to farming, the agriculture department can help,” Dr Bavale informs.
However, the primary question that looms large is that of funding. Where does the money come from? Will the University offer grants? No. But then money is not really an issue for Dr Bavale. “Both the Central and state government have various schemes of rural development. But due to lack of knowledge, the money offered by the government never reaches the needy. Here the college steps forward as a voluntary helper - gathering information, working with the bureaucracy and making sure that the money allocated for rural development reaches actual users. A villager may not know that an amount of, say, Rs 10 lakhs is set aside for a village each year. But we have the information. However, merely knowing does not help. We must work towards ensuring that this amount benefits the right people,” he states.
In this sense, the college works as a mediator or a counsellor for the villages, thereby showing the right direction. The onus is on the village as well to cooperate. For example, in Narayangaon Dr Bavale and his college did some workshops for the villages regarding the empowerment of women, farmers and youth, as well as establishing self-help groups. The community development centre in Narayangaon has been in operation since December 2006.
For Dr Bavale, SBA is not something beyond the scope of any educational institute. He explains that the goal of an institute is three-fold: teaching, research and extension. SBA falls into the third category, where the fruit of knowledge is taken to the downtrodden. It has a 12-point agenda for rural development, ranging from women empowerment to water and land management.
Commenting on the response it has generated so far, Dr Bavale says that 90% of the colleges have already embraced the idea. “Over the next 2-3 years, we will suit the fruits of our efforts,” he says. And finally, is there a guideline provided by the University about how the SBA has to function? No. Development is a generic term. What is important for one village may not be so crucial for the other. “The village in question itself will give us a clue as to how we should go about it,” Dr Bavale states.

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