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Education and Community in Northern India
Monthly Feature, November, 2017.
An interview with Jayant Hardikar
Education and Community in Northern India
Monthly Feature, November, 2017.
An interview with Jayant Hardikar

Image For the month of November, 2017, the 2100 Project is featuring an interview with Jayant Hardikar, founder of the Himalayan Education Foundation (HEF), an organization that supports education and community building in a rural region in the Himalayas of northern India.

What first inspired you to get involved with supporting education in northern India?

Image In part, it was an accident of circumstance during a trip I took to northern India. I was travelling alone, and the experience of solo travel definitely made me much more aware and receptive to what I was experiencing. While in the remote village of Chaukori, I happened upon a school, the Himalaya Inter College (HIC). I was amazed at how much the small school had been able to accomplish with such meager resources in a poor and remote village. Image The rich hand-written academic notebooks of the students told a story that was much deeper than just the beautiful handwriting they were written in. The visit had a strong impact on me, and I was especially inspired by the ability and dedication of the siblings running the school - Devbala Bisht and Prakash Karki. Months after my return home to the U.S., the larger picture of my experience started to take shape which led to a decision to start a non-profit organization to support the school.

I know that the mission of HEF has grown since the early days when HEF’s focus was to support infrastructure for the Himalaya Inter College (HIC) and helping to support tuition for poor students. What is HEF’s mission today?

Well, HEF’s overall mission itself continues to be “To strengthen communities through education”. What has grown is really where we focus. We still support academic education in schools through 120 scholarships and the Outdoor Education program. Over the years, we've learned a lot about challenges in other aspects of life in these villages. Now we also have a program to analyze the nutrition and improve the diet of the students and their families. The school dairy has grown to over 15 cows, and we produce more than enough milk for the boarding students. We've also helped launch Himalayan Naari, a women’s cooperative focused on empowerment, economic independence, and building community. We constructed a building for the group right on the HIC campus and we help them sell their knitted goods in the U.S. Recently, the group has formally registered as a business organization. With training in computer and business skills as well as leadership, the ultimate goal is for Himalayan Naari to become a self-sustaining business, independent from HEF. There are many other activities that we support, such as a local annual bird festival in Munsiyari to increase awareness and expertise of the rich natural resources in the region, and we also support two other small fledgling schools, the seedlings school and the jungli school.

What are some of the tangible and intangible outcomes resulting from your support of these various activities?

You know, that's a good question, and it really relates to our evolving thoughts on how to measure success. One way to measure success is by keeping track of the number of students, especially girls, graduating from high school and statistics about their path to college and beyond. Certainly, there are numerous success stories of graduates who are in college, such as a girl doing her bachelor's degree in biotechnology at one of the top biotech universities in all of India and another who has finished her journalism degree and is an intern at The Times of India.

These are clear examples of success. But I also love the less tangible successes. Stories that perhaps go deeper than just statistics. One graduate of HIC defied the deep social constraints and traditions to, not only find and marry someone she loved, but also to go on to enter a Master's degree program in Biology while living on her own in the dorms at a university several hours away from the village where she was raised. For the conservative culture of rural India, this move is an indication of a huge step in the social and familial acceptance of a woman’s right to choice and independence! 65% of the scholarships we provide are designed to be given to girls. Prakash, the school’s Administrator, tells me that the number of village parents who come to the school asking them to educate their daughters has gone up tremendously since the community realized that the school provides financial assistance to girls.

A college student studying finance because of his parent’s wish has found a way to continue creating art, an interest that sparked when he was inspired by artist volunteers when he was at HIC. Another HIC student first started learning guitar from a high school student visiting from the Dublin School in the U.S., and as a result has developed a passion for electric guitar and American blues music and posts videos of his guitar playing online.

And I'm really pleased with the early success of Himalayan Naari, the group I mentioned when talking about the various activities HEF supports. The income that the ladies now bring into the household through their weaving and knitting work indeed raises their stature in the family and society. Image They value having their own community space in the building where they come together to knit their products. Most of the women are parents of children at the school, but the women are from a variety of villages in the region and didn't know each other before getting involved with the cooperative. Besides gaining income, they're building a supportive community with their own space to interact freely, learn from each other and even help each other with friendly advice and counselling. One of the women laughing told me just how nice it was for them to get away from their husbands for a few hours to come to the Himalayan Naari Center! Somehow I feel that there is something deeper about the feeling of empowerment in that statement than simply just a joke.

I'm sure that along with your successes come worries and concerns about what might not be working as well as you would like. Do you have any worries about the outcomes resulting from your efforts?

Roughly 20% of our students are quite talented, and will clearly be successful in future academic or professional careers, and I don't worry too much about their future. We need to focus on the needs of the other 80%. After all, despite parents' wishes, the fact remains that most of the students will not become doctors or engineers! We are planning to add vocational training options to the school curriculum, but it needs to be well thought out to suit the situation, social acceptance and local needs, and that only comes with deeper knowledge of the community and patience.

Regardless of what HEF does, northern India is changing as rural areas continue to modernize. Are you worried that modernization, though improving life in many ways, comes at a cost?

That's a really tough question. Is development a good thing or a bad thing? Can it ever be all good or all bad? In a discussion about this, my father once asked me – to fight mosquitoes, is simply swatting at mosquitoes good enough for rural villagers? Or, is mosquito netting better? Or, should they use a repellant that can be applied so that people can be inside or outside and don't need to worry about getting bit? Or should they install air conditioning and make buildings air tight for everyone so that mosquitos can't get in? What about the negatives that come with the benefits of each successive layer of development? Where does one draw the line? Who decides? And, who decides for whom? No simple answers here. You know, there is a really sobering article about the reductive seduction of solving other people's problems that expands upon some of these complexities that I highly recommend.

I know that the Dublin School in New Hampshire periodically sends student groups to visit HIC during their spring break. What's your current thinking about doing the reverse - students from HIC visiting the Dublin School or other schools in the United States?

This is something I've thought a lot about, and, the issue is complicated. I have concerns about bringing students from HIC to study in the US both for longer term as well as for, say, a short, specific two-month summer program. With limited resources, we could afford to bring over only one or two students out of a thousand for a 1-2 year high school program. Although a fantastic opportunity for those students, the fact that we would not give this opportunity to many other students does not sit well with us. Perhaps it is better to use those resources towards the “80% problem” I described above.

Regarding a short-term program, I worry if we would be doing more harm to the child by exposing him or her to a fantastic world that they could never ever have imagined for just two months and then send them back to the rural and remote environment that is their home. Perhaps my fears are unfounded, but I am not sure we are currently qualified to make such a risky and life-changing decision for someone’s life. I would like to learn from the experience of others in such a program.

What advice do you have for someone who would like to get involved with the type of work that HEF does, or perhaps more ambitiously, would like to start a similar project in a different part of the world?

First of all, if you decide to volunteer or start an organization, do it only because your heart is in it. Don’t do it because it feels like an adventure. Spend time and live in the community that you care about to learn everything you can about every aspect of the people, their lives, their challenges, their strengths, their culture, their points of view, the reasons behind their perspectives or their hesitations, the government policies and every other nuance. India (or for that matter whatever country you want to work in) is rich with incredible brain power, connections and resources of all kinds. Leverage that to the fullest and you will be able to make a much deeper impact. Be humble, admit your ignorance and be that curious outsider who is there to learn. Don’t assume you have a solution for any problem. It is better to assume that those who face the problem have thought much more deeply about solving it than you have. Someone once said that the solution for almost any problem in a community already exists in the community, it just hasn’t surfaced yet!

Image Jayant is the Founder and President of the Himalayan Education Foundation and lives in Peterborough, NH. He believes that the key to success lies in taking time to understand other human beings, direct experience, building trusting relationships and listening to others for creative ideas.