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Lokvani Talks To Ram Nehra

Ranjani Saigal

Coordinator of the New England chapter of Ekal Vidyalaya, Ram Nehra was born and brought up in Nairobi, Kenya. After completing his High School in Kenya, he moved to India and got his degree in Pharmacy from the Mumbai University Institute of Chemical Technology (formerly known as UDCTE). He left Kenya due to the uncertain status of Indians in independent Kenya. Nehra’s quest for a new home brought him to the United  States. After spending a few years in Iowa, he moved to Rhode Island and worked as a CVS pharmacist for over thirty years. He was also running three successful small businesses. 


All through his life in Kenya and the United States he always had the desire to help the underserved population in India. His association with Ekal Vidyalaya has helped him fulfill his dream. This movement hopes to eradicate illiteracy from rural and tribal India by 2011. Over 15,330 teachers, 3,500 voluntary workers, 20 field organizations (scattered in 22 Indian states), and 8 support agencies are part of this movement. With this tremendous human force, the Ekal Vidyalaya movement strives to create a network of non-formal schools that will educate and empower children in rural and tribal India.

Apart from its goal of achieving the national standards of “Minimum Level of Learning” (MLL) for its students, Ekal Vidyalaya also seeks to empower the village community for its own self-development. Ekal Vidyalaya solicits complete involvement of the local community and aims at making the school self-reliant in a period of five to seven years.


Under Nehra’s leadership the New England chapter of Ekal Vidyalaya has been able to gather enough funds to support nearly 270 schools which provide education for nearly 10,000 children.


Ram Nehra and his wife Nishi have three children and six grandchildren.


You were born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. What is like growing up in Africa ?


We had a very comfortable life in Kenya. It is a beautiful country.  My father came to Kenya seeking employment. He was a railway station master. In his job he received a six month vacation every three years and he was given full fare to take his family to India. We used that vacation to visit India. In the old days there were no airplanes and we used the sea route to reach India.


There were many Indians in Kenya and we grew up speaking Punjabi and Hindi at home. My family like many other immigrant families had a great love for India and they inculcated that love for India in me.  Indian culture was always very important to me.  


After graduating from high school I went to India for higher studies. That made the bond even stronger. So even though I spent my childhood years in Kenya and my adult life in the United States there is a very special place for India in my heart.


What made you leave the Kenya you loved and move to the United States?  Did you have any family or connections?


Kenya got independence in 1961. The plight of many Indians in other independent African countries worried many of us and we felt it would be best if we left Kenya. It was a difficult decision to leave Kenya. 


I had heard a lot about the United States and decided to seek my fortunes here. I had no family or connections. I decided to come to San Francisco since I learnt that there was no snow in California. When I landed here I sought accommodation at a YMCA. As luck would have it my first job offer was a posting in Davenport, Iowa. So my plans for living in a “no-snow” place did not materialize.  Later I moved to Rhode Island and have lived here since 1972.


How did your association with Ekal Vidyalaya begin? 


On a visit to India, I had the unique opportunity of visiting an Ekal Vidyalaya in a village near Faridabad. I was impressed with work done at the school. The children were so happy. The Acharya (teacher) and the volunteers were treating the children not as students but as their own children. The whole village was involved in this school. To our utter surprise when we were leaving the “Mukhiya” or the chief of the village gave my wife, Nishi “Shagun” or money. He said “I cannot let my daughter go empty handed”.  I was so impressed to see that the school was not an impersonal organization but rather a space that was a home to the villagers. It was delightful to see a movement that works within the cultural milieu of a community while providing education.  I decided then to make it my life’s mission to help this organization.


What is the objective of this movement?


Ekal's main objective is to provide value-based primary education to tribal and other underprivileged communities in rural India.  Ekal Vidyalaya's educational program is designed around self-empowerment. The tribal community is given the opportunity to make a difference in their own future; Ekal strives to promote pride in the local culture and heritage, while giving the tribal community the tools to educate their children in their traditions. Ekal involves community members in all aspects of the education process from setting up the school, selecting the teacher, to adapting the school schedule and curriculum. The outcome of such a process is increased confidence and self-reliance as a community. Through this process, Ekal aims to make each school self-sufficient within 5 to 7 years - a development attributed to the pride in supporting the needs of its children on a long-term basis.


The four goals of Ekal Vidyalaya are primary education, village organization, social reform, and social harmony. While literacy remains the central focus, Ekal envisions the non-formal education process as a holistic approach to developing the villages while retaining each tribe's individuality.


Why do you feel so passionate about this movement?


In the 21st century development in India is moving at a very fast pace. Long years ago Shri Aurobindo had predicted that 2011 is going to be India’s year and it seems like that predication will come true. Unfortunately we still have a large population that does not have access to education. Unless we empower these groups progress in India will be meaningless. 


Ekal Vidayalaya is very unique solution that makes effective use of resources to bring development to a village. For the cost of just a $1 a day, the cost of a cup of coffee we can run an entire school in a village. 


Why are the costs so low?


Rather than invest in expensive infrastructure, Ekal Vidyalaya uses funds to hire and train competent teachers.  It is the teacher rather than the building that is the foundation of a good education. We select people from within the community to become teachers.

We have a strong and dedicated set of volunteers who work selflessly and contribute to the movement.


What are the major achievements of this movement?


The movement is currently providing education to 457,016 students through 16,322 schools.  We hope by 2011 to have a 100,000 schools that will provide education to over 36 million children. With our holistic approach of development for villages we hope to have transformed 100, 000 villages by 2011. That is a significant achievement.


Our greatest satisfaction comes when we see a child who is with their parent at a market and is able to read the signs, understand the pricing schemes and explain it to their parent.

Functional literacy is a great empowering force.


Our public health initiatives have been very effective. We have sustainable development initiatives that have helped increase the household income in many villages by over 250%.


Do you provide other services beside education?


Our focus is primary education.  Over the years we found that many preventable health issues often keep children from attending school. This prompted us to bring public health education to the children and that has significantly improved attendance. We have extended that service to the entire village. This has impacted the health of the villagers, particularly women.


Satsang, educational lectures and other evening activities give the villagers an opportunity to make productive use of their spare time. This has reduced violence and alcohol related problems. Often a school serves many villages and the evening gatherings attracts people form all regions. Villages that sometimes were warring with each other now come together and work together. Sustainable development is an important part of our service.


How can people join the movement?


Please visit the website at http://www.ekal.org. For $365 people can sponsor a school for a whole year. That is only $1 a day – the price of a cup of coffee.


If sponsors visit India they can visit the school that they support. All the operations are completely transparent. They can choose a school in any part of India.


Any special message to our readers?


Vidya Dan or the gift of knowledge is the greatest gift. 

One School; One Dollar a Day – the price of a cup of coffee; One Village is transformed.
Support the Ekalvidyalaya Movement. Tell your friends about it


Thank you for your time


Thank you


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