(July 19, 2022) A couple of days before Raju Kendre and I were scheduled to speak, I learned that he had been recognised by LinkedIn as one of the ‘Top Voices’ in the social impact category – another addition to an already long list of accolades. He logs in for the interview from London, where he’s currently at the tail end of his master’s degree from SOAS University, as a Chevening Scholar. He arrives a few minutes late, full of apologies, he had just wrapped up a meeting with his funders. “Funding makes the world go round,” he declares, nodding in acknowledgement of his most recent recognition. “I have had to come here to prove myself and I feel I’m doing so, by being a Chevening Scholar, a Forbes 30 Under 30 or one of LinkedIn’s top voices” he tells Global Indian – and there is an unmistakable trace of righteous indignation in his voice.
Back home in Maharashtra, the state he calls home, development opportunities were few and difficult to access without the right kind of privilege and backing. Now, as far as he is concerned, the recognition that comes his way is not merely a matter of personal satisfaction, he intends to leverage every experience and achievement to boost the marginalised communities with whom he works back home. “This is the validation I must get to show, in my own country, what my work is worth. And I wish to use it to leverage the work I am doing in India,” Raju says. “Here (in the UK), I have discovered new scope for leadership, for growth. Then again, having lived abroad, I realised that there is in fact recognition for good work, no matter who you are or where you come from. These are principles I hope to take back with me and apply in my country, to make a lasting change.”
The founder of Eklavya, Raju, who graduated from TISS, has dedicated himself to giving India’s marginalised youth a chance to prove themselves on the global stage, to bring them access to the top fellowships and universities the world has to offer. His is a journey of struggle, of fighting doubly hard just to reach the baseline in terms of education and opportunity. He asks, at the start of the conversation, if he can speak in Hindi from time to time, although he proceeds to hold forth fluently in English. His question is not without reason – without access to the ‘right’ schools and the opportunities so many of us take for granted, Raju’s rise has been marred by rejection and failure that had little to do with talent or merit. I ask if things are different in London. “Yes,” he says at once. “Here, you are judged by the work that you do.”
As his more privileged peers thrived, going off to study at Ivy League universities and winning prestigious scholarships, Raju travelled 400 km from Pune just to go to college. As did his brother, who would cycle 12 km a day to get to class every morning. It’s a struggle he hopes to ease for thousands of other marginalised young people like himself. He intends to return to India after his master’s degree, to continue working at the grassroots level in remote areas.
When hardship is the only birthright
Born in the politically tumultuous Vidharbha region of Maharashtra, into a nomadic tribe community, Raju is the first in his family to receive a full-fledged formal education. As is the norm within nomadic tribe communities, his parents married young. Very young. “My mother was around seven years old and my father was around nine when they got married,” he says. His mother was a good student and keen to learn but dropped out of school in third grade, to move to her husband’s village. “They wanted me to get an education,” Raju recalls. They were well-intentioned but didn’t know how to go about it. Weighed down by archaic community beliefs, a lack of support within the community and without, Raju, a bright student himself, had to make do with the minimum. “Until the seventh standard, I went to the local Zilla Parishad School and didn’t learn any English.”
Finally, after having studied in vernacular schools until the age of 15, Raju shifted to an English-medium school. It was not the transformation for which he had hoped. “Not knowing English as well as the others gave me an inferiority complex and i was extremely shy. I didn’t have the courage to stand up in class and ask the teacher a question.” Despite the setbacks, he was a good student and hoped to be an IAS officer.
When Raju turned 18, he travelled all the way to Pune. “In my area, if we want to study, that’s the only way,” he says. He decided to study humanities, in preparation for the UPSC exam. “I had 70 percent in 12th grade but didn’t get into Ferguson College because I missed the admission dates. I was so disappointed.” He did stay on in Pune but daily life was filled with hardships. “I didn’t know how to make friends, I didn’t have anyone in the city to stand by me. There were social, economic and linguistic barriers and it was such a lonely time. It wasn’t the place for me.”
The call to adventure
Raju’s parents couldn’t afford to fund his education either and he set off, feeling defeated by the world, to spend the next two years travelling. He went to the northeastern parts of Maharashtra, where he lived in nature, doing distance education and working with the local tribal communities. He spent a month as a volunteer with Melghat Mitra, a group that came together in 1997 to save tribal children from dying of malnutrition. “It was my incubation period,” he says.
The time he spent in Melghat left its mark on him and he returned the next chance he got. “There was no road connectivity, no electricity, education or healthcare. There was also a high maternal mortality rate,” Raju explains. “I started to understand what life was like in these areas.” He stayed on there to work with the tribal communities, helping people get access to access electricity and road access through government schemes like MGNREGA. Seeing his passion for social work, volunteers recommended he go to TISS. He applied and got in. Back in Pune, he found it easier to fit in but couldn’t shake off a growing sense of unrest. “Life was so different from Melghat, I wanted to go back to do more work.”
It was during this time that the seed for Eklavya was first planted. As a visiting faculty at Savitri Jotirao College of Social work in Yavatmal, where he interacted with dozens of first generation learners, he began his pilot project with seven students, taking in 35 for the second batch. “We organise residential workshops and other workshops in every corner of Maharashtra to spread the word about what we do.”
The movement is named Eklavya after “his favourite mythological character,” who willingly offered his right thumb as Guru Dakshina to Drona, so the latter could fulfil his promise of making Arjuna the greatest archer in the world. The boy did so, readily. “One boy is low born and has great potential but lacks the opportunity, the platform, the socio-economic cultural capital to succeed. The son of the king can easily get success and leverage,” Raju says.
The Eklavya movement
Manta Madadvi was born into the Kolam tribe, a designated scheduled tribe who live mainly in the Yavatmal, Chandrapur and Nanded districts of Maharashtra, in little hamlets called pod and speak the Kolami language, a Dravidian dialect. Although she managed to finish her undergraduate degree, Manta would, otherwise, have had to accept her fate – an early marriage and the inevitable fading away into domestic duties, poverty and obscurity. “She now works for SBI and Youth for India and I hope she will be a Chevening Scholar too, like me,” Raju says.
For nearly a decade now, starting in 2014, Raju has worked with people like Manta, providing, through Eklavya, a support system that gives marginalised communities access to top-tier education and modern amenities. They provide mentorship and training to young people, first-generation learners, like Raju himself. They help them get into reputed colleges and universities and have enabled hundreds of students get into premier institutes across the country. Their mentors and core team comprises people who have applied and gained admission to various prestigious institutions like TISS, IIT and the IIMs.
The word is spread through workshops and mentorship programmes, which are usually held by experts from across the board, including entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, civil servants and social workers. In 2017, Raju worked with the Government of Maharashtra as a Chief Minister’s Fellow, and as a visiting faculty member at Savitri Jotirao College. At the latter, he interacted with large numbers of first-generation learners. Knowledge, access and one’s ability to speak English can make or break a student’s chances. This is the divide they hope to bridge.
The expansion plan
When he arrived in London, Raju understood the importance of an international experience, especially through education. “We held a workshop with 70 participants from 15 states and started a one-year programme to help students get into universities around the world,” he says. They also conduct weekly sessions to train students in the application process, including writing a statement of purpose, getting letters of recommendation and all the other trimmings that are essential to getting admission abroad. “Mentors belong to specific fields and work with two mentees each,” he says.
Over 700 students have gone to prestigious universities across India and he wants to see them shine as Chevening Scholars, to see them as recipients of prestigious fellowships. “There is an ongoing argument around reservations and whether or not they are necessary,” says Raju. He is a firm proponent of the reservations system, a believer in affirmative action. “I want marginalised youth to have those opportunities too, to create tomorrow’s leaders, the future voices for equality. Education is how we change the world.”