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Pratham Gala: Celebration And Rededication

Jayendu Patel

One decade and seven years ago, a band of concerned Indians led by Dr. Madhav Chavan brought forth a new NGO dedicated to the proposition that universal literacy can be realized affordably and measurably at a scale suitable to the vast geography of India. This NGO,  Pratham for “early” or “first”, reaches three million children in its flagship program “Read India.”

In Cambridge at the Marriott hotel on October 1, the auspicious eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, we gathered for Pratham-Boston’s annual gala that updates on Pratham’s progress, raises awareness and funds, as well as celebrates progress. The evening buzz began over cocktails and tasty appetizers amid the growing gathering of colorful saris and salwars, jackets and kurtas. Organizers and staff, featured speakers and performers, circulated among the well-wishers and supporters. A silent auction, raising proceeds for Pratham, showcased worthy paintings, fashions, vacations, dinners, autographed books and more. Then the cocktail hall’s lights blinked thrice, signaling commencement of the evening program in the main hall.

Vikas Taneja, President of Pratham’s Boston chapter, warmly welcomed the 250+ gathering.  Then it was on to toe-tapping and hand-clapping to the singing by the effervescent and lovely Vasuda Sharma. And what a dhamaka was sparked by the young popstar in India. Like pied piper, she circled among the tables and soon young and old swayed to their feet and followed her to the dance area. Bollywood clubs would be proud to host the energy and the joy with which folks rocked to the full-throated singing by Ms. Sharma. The dancing subsided only as plates with tempting Indian dishes filled the dinner tables.

After dinner, as dessert of gulab-jamun began arriving with choice of tea and coffee, it was time for presentations with amusing personal introductions by Dr. Shubro Sen, local entrepreneur, Pratham enthusiast, and so much more. Dr. Rukmini Banerji, representing Pratham India, shared insightful stories that ranged from her early associations with Pratham to her current leadership of
Pratham’s ASER initiative (-- ASER is an acronym that also means impact in Hindi). ASER is Pratham’s annual survey of the reading and arithmetic attainment of children in the ages of 6-14 years. ASER gathers insights on the scope of the literacy problem and on progress in resolving it. Conducted annually since 2005 with reports released in January, it assesses nearly one million children in 16,000+ villages in 500+ rural districts in India. More than 32,000 volunteers from non-profits, colleges, youth and women groups participate in this effort. Dr. Banerji returned later to regale the audience with putting-flesh-on-statistics anecdotes. These related to the serendipitous but major feature of Pratham that is the education and certification provided to its thousands of young rural volunteers, and which spans character development, networking, English learning and computer literacy.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT. Dr. Banerjee and his research associates play a long-running role in assessing the detailed impacts of the many Pratham initiatives and experiments to advance reading and numeracy. Such assessments guide Pratham in refining its activity for maximum effectiveness. Dr. Banerjee shared several lessons from his engagement with Pratham. One lesson was about the criticality of correctly framing goals – thus, Pratham knows to focus on literacy attainment and not schooling nor teaching nor reach. Another lesson dealt with learning to live with the elephant in the room rather than wishing it away – Pratham knows to work with the Central and State governments in India, even though these elephants may not always be helpful and sometimes are even a hindrance. A third lesson recognized the importance of getting to know the dimensions of the problem in depth, which is what the ASER initiative addresses.

Yogi Patel, Pratham’s USA Ambassador based in Dallas, inspired the evening’s pledges with a personal testimonial on how education has lifted him from the depths of poverty. Born to illiterate parents in Gujarat and having lost his mother in early childhood, he broke out of poverty thanks to his father’s drive to educate the children and to the resources provided by generous neighbors and community trusts. Yogi Patel cannot forget what education did for him and his family – after attaining professional and entrepreneurial success, he has dedicated himself full-time to help Pratham in its mission. His heartfelt and vivid appeal for generous support, complete with music on his flute, resonated deeply and effectively.

Coming full circle, the evening closed with lively music and dance by Boston Bhangra. Walking from the gala into the pleasant October night, the educated and privileged are moved to commit whatever is necessary in the months and years ahead so that the Pratham volunteers on the front lines can continue the unfinished work that they have so nobly advanced: literacy for every child in every district, village and hamlet.

(For more pictures of the Boston Gala, see the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/PRATHAM-BOSTON/378810839320. For more information on Pratham, please visit www.PrathamUSA.org or www.pratham.org)

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Children served by Pratham. (Photo by Nikita Singhal, college-student volunteer)

Well-wishers admiring fashions in the silent auction.

Dancing with Ms. Sharma

Dr. Banerji, leader of ASER, shares her experiences of Pratham at the gala

Slide from Yogi Patel’s inspiring presentation on his personal journey – “from illiterate father’s thumbprint to educated engineer’s signature”

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