Interview with Virat Shah, The Founder

At 7:30 am, a bike stops in Narol neighborhood slum in Ahmedabad, a metro city in west India. A few slum kids squeeze themselves in the morning cold and eagerly wait for this bike as well as the biker, Virat Shah. The news of his arrival is relayed and 20+ kids assemble quickly. A ‘red’ carpet is rolled out on a nearby footpath for their walk into the new world….and the Sarvodaya 1st center class begins! No blackboard. No benches. No posters. Nothing of a typical school infrastructure. The biker now turns into a teacher and slum kids as students. The teacher scans the ‘classroom’ for attendance. Bad luck for some kids, who show up late…these fellows have to go back home. The teacher is disciplinarian and demands punctuality. The pedestrians neither distract the teacher nor the kids. Regular onlookers wave their hands with smile, to show their moral support for this footpath school. Some with deeper interest bring biscuits, notebooks etc. and chat with teacher & students for the progress & support occasionally. No wonder the Sarvodaya center is famous in the area. Unaware passers-by have a reason to believe that they are missing something!

Kids take out their proud possessions – a slate, a ‘desi hisab’ book, chalk sticks, a notebook, eraser,…. Teacher starts with “1-10, Aa-Ba-Ka and A-Z” classes. Some kids are intelligent, some kids are slow learner and some kids are new. Different age group kids learn at different speed. Oh…one of the kids is unable to concentrate. Teacher probes her. This girl was hit by a wooden piece in her forehead as their parents quarreled last night and exchanged whatever was handy. The biker now turns into a doctor. Takes out his primary health kit – cleans the wound with Dettol, applies ointment and bandage. The girl confirms she now feels better and can concentrate on the class. Everyone writes on the slate or notebook with the help of teacher ...not realizing this is the beginning of writing his or her destiny. A recess after sometime. Everyone takes out a water bottle to wash hands. Kids pray to and thank the almighty for Hope, Food and today’s Class. Lunchboxes are distributed and soon they are emptied! Each student washes his/ her lunchbox. No bell ringing. The class is declared over. And now it is time to have some recreational activity – story telling, singing songs and rhymes, playing outdoor games like kho-kho, langadi, volley ball or fun games like lemon spoon, frog jump.

To go home, kids run fast on the footpath with today’s accomplishment. As the footpath ends, joyous kids jump shouting in chorus…this is a jump into the world of awareness and dignity! A jump no less than what we have seen on a convocation day at Ivy League colleges. Some of the waiting parents give their kids a hug and smile indicates they-did-something-right-for-their-kids. Kids will move on with daily work – some will go hunting for waste. Some will do babysitting for young sister/ brother. Some will clean dishes at a tea stall. Some will accompany parents at a nearby construction site….And the biker moves on to enlighten little lives at another Sarvodaya center…

Dictionary - foot•path (noun). Meaning - A narrow path for people to walk along. I am sure Oxford/ Cambridge will reject a meaning that ‘a path where people can walk along and school can be run’.

When there is a will, there is a school on the way!

Virat is tall, thin and has high stamina. Soft spoken. His actions indicate he has clarity of purpose in life. He lives with parents, wife and kids in Vatva and Narol area. His wife Trupti is an M.E. (Polymer Tech) and is an entrepreneur. She supports Virat in pursuing his dreams. Daughters Aparna, 11 years and Parita, 8 years like what their daddy does and join occasionally in the work. Jagannathbhai (father) worked in a textile mill and Sheelaben (mother) a housewife. They worked hard for imparting good education to children – 2 sisters and Virat. However tough times started as father’s textile mill closed down in 1980s. Virat was good at academics and his cousin brother recommended his father to admit him in ‘The New High school’, Manek Chawk. Virat scored well till SSC without any coaching or guide. Considering the financial issues at home, Virat always aspired to study and work. So in SSC vacation, he would go to one of the washing powder-manufacturing companies rather than resort to unethical means of earning. He wanted to be doctor and serve the people. But he had no idea, neither there was any one in family to guide. Despite having admission in Medicine, his selection of stream was driven by what others did and financial constraints. He opted for B.E.-Instrumentation branch at L. D. College of Engineering.

Let us meet to find out more about Virat Shah and his journey in life so far.

 

Virat:

  • 4:30 am – An alarm clock wakes me up
  • 4:30 am to 5:30 am – go for jogging in the neighborhood
  • 5.30 to 7:00 am – complete daily chore of activities and prepare kids for the school
  • 7:00 am – go out to drop the kids to their school
  • 7:15 am - go for collecting Sarvodaya lunch boxes from a local caterer
  • 7:30 am to 9:00 am – conduct Sarvodaya 1st center class
  • 9:00 am to 10:30 am - Sarvodaya 2nd center class
  • 10:30 am to 12:00 pm - Sarvodaya 3rd center class
  • 12:30 pm – pick up the kids from school and return home
  • 2:00 pm to 5 pm - Communicate with Sarvodaya group members via email, FB, calls. Meet people for support, planning activities like yoga workshop/educational tour, arranging resources for new center, stationary, volunteers, admission activities etc. 5 pm onwards - spend time on myself, kids and family

Virat: Reading is my hobby. Gandhiji’s literature has deep impact on me. I am currently reading ‘The Bible’. Teaching has been my passion all the time. In 12th, I would help my classmates. After 12th, I started paid coaching the students of 10th and 12th. Later wherever I worked, I started free-of-cost after duty hours coaching for the kids of helpers, fitters, sweepers etc. In 1995, I started computer classes in an Amraivadi school with an aim to provide low cost computer education. Later that spread to 3 schools.

Virat: First few jobs made me think hard as to what I was doing vis-à-vis what I learned at B.E. With a friend’s help, I got a chance as an apprentice engineer at Dhranghadhra Chemicals (DCW) in 1992. I moved to Cibatul, Valsad in 1994 where I met Trupti in one of the orientation sessions. In 1995 end, I moved to Reliance Industries (RIL), Hazira, Surat. I was given a long service award at RIL for 10 years’ service. I felt if I did not leave RIL in near future, I would end up retiring from RIL. I was clear that I would work till 40 years. Money was never a priority as I realized money would lie idle in bank after a limit. I wanted to have adequate savings to support family for the rest of the life so I gave myself another 5 years. I tried out some international options and moved to Sabic, Yanbu, near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2006. Social life in Saudi Arabia was peaceful & comfortable but tough with issues of transport, communication and language. I later moved to my last job at Dodsal, Dubai and worked till 2010. I enjoyed Instrumentation field and was recognized in various assignments for the contributions I made in plant modernization and maintenance. At RIL, I was given an independent charge of Terminal and tank farm phase 2. In the exit interview at Dodsal, I was asked what I would do after leaving. I answered that this was my last economic activity and I would help people in the education area.

Virat: When I used to see the kids begging on the bus stop or cross-roads, it never prompted me to offer them money. Rather I always used to ask them whether they were going to school or not. Since then I had in mind that I should do something for them instead of just asking question. Teaching was my passion and I was worried about the quality of education in the wake of commercialization. So I decided to give quality education to the underprivileged and economically backward kids. After returning from Dubai, I met a principal of a nearby school and offered help of coaching the kids at my residence. The principal was reluctant and showed various beaurocratic issues. So things did not materialize for 2 years after returning from Dubai.

One day while dropping my kids at a school in Isanpur, I saw a few kids loitering around. I asked their parents if they would send kids for the classes and the parents readily agreed. I realized that the need-gap is wider in imparting basic education vis-à-vis quality education. The incremental life changing experience would be far higher in imparting basic education than in improving quality of education for existing students. So I decided to focus on the basic education thereafter. Current syllables are based on my judgment, practical hints received and my love for education. My focus is to impart basics of reading and writing - 95% kids need this. These parents wanted to get their kids education but not willing to send to a different place. Changing them was not a good idea. So I changed my model. Rather than kids going to school, I have school class going to their area. This improved attendance. I changed time from 10 am to 9 am to 7.30 am as I understood kids leave for work thereafter. Their families have no money, no clothes, no soap...they live by day, not sure what will they get to eat tomorrow and where will they be. Kids would not think twice in leaving the classes, if they get to know there is a free food-served nearby. To be successful, I realised I need to address these points. I approached nearby ‘Annakshetra’ which delivers free food to all who come. I hoped ‘Annkshetra’ food and kids need fit in perfectly, but ‘Annakshetra’ trust declined to serve food outside. Later a donor came forward and we started providing lunchbox, this is still one of the most important attractions. Now going to start offering a water bottle. Started with a slate, added a notebook. Added 2nd center and then 3rd center so far in this model.

Virat: I was prepared for dealing with labourers, under privileged, socially backward people. Neither we nor they change. Our viewpoint to living is different than that of theirs. But I accepted that this as a normal situation. Absenteeism is one key issue. Initially some parents withdrew their kids, which disheartened me. Then I remembered my goal and kept on moving. On the other hand, some parents momentarily said no but later started sending their kids. Some parents now aspire to educate their kids in a good school. Monsoon and winter make it difficult to conduct classes on footpath. I am working to get temporary sheds to conduct classes and got some support. Cleanliness of slum kids is another challenge as their parents don’t care and without that kids can’t concentrate. So I added hygiene kit containing a bathing soap, 2 washing soap, a toothpaste, a toothbrush and hair oil. Parents have regular fight at home and kids get hurt. I have a good free support from a pediatric expert so I consulted him and a nurse. They taught me how to do dressing. I could not do the best job but it was better than nothing. Soon I became a famous doctor and it fulfilled me long-cherished dream of becoming doctor! As I solved such issues it exhibited commitment to parents and kids. I need volunteers – no one wants come forward as unpaid volunteer. Everyone is involved in one’s life, has a reason for doing/ not joining and his/her priorities in life. I want to employ part time paid volunteer@Rs.1500-2000 per month. This requires financial support and expansion to more centers. I need to try but I feel this is must for scalability of Sarvodaya. Financial support is another area. We don’t wait for sponsor and keep going with individual donors. When there is a gap and no donor found, I step in with a personal contribution…having started, I don’t want to stop this. Whenever there is a challenge and I decided to do something, I always have got the help!

Virat: I knew it would be difficult, but I had not thought about the scope. No point in not pursuing it just because the task is daunting. Gandhiji’s thought inspired me a lot - till the last person in society is uplifted and get education, there is no growth for the society. We will continue to have evils in society as we see them today. We need ‘Sarva Uday’. I am sure parents of these 60-75 kids have realized the value of formal education by now. But when these 60-75 kids grow up and have their kids, they will definitely send their kids for formal education from the beginning. I am satisfied to realize that this one generation of 60-75 kids is positively impacted and those many families will evolve to better living. This is true Sarvodaya. Having made a beginning, the activities are picking up now –enrollment is increasing. I thought about creating Ashram where we can do this activity in more organsied way. One person came forward recently and offered land in Narol area. Whenever there is a need, I always have got the help. The god has always helped me. So I look forward to doing this irrespective of scale and size.

Virat: I have not thought about medium and long term targets and approach in detail. However in short term, I had a target to start 10 centers by April’15 period and in May, we have 6 centers operational. Learning will drive the future actions. Involvement will be different for administrative, infrastructure, education points for 3 v/s 10 centers. I estimate at least 100,000 such kids in Ahmedabad. There is no record in government register for such kids. Government has enacted ‘Right to education’ but such parents don’t know it. Many schools misguide, as they don’t want to work more. We would need 4,000-5,000 centers to serve Ahmedabad and covering them in next 2-3 years should be a big achievement.

Virat: To run a center of 25 kids for 5 days a week, regular expenses of Rs.11,000-11,500/ month are involved:

  • Volunteer reward - Rs.1500-2000.
  • Snacks - Rs.5000 @Rs.10/ kid.
  • Stationery - Rs.2000@Rs.80/kid.
  • Hygiene kit - Rs.2500@Rs.100/kid.
  • To support 10 centers, estimated annual expenditure is Rs.14-15 Lacs. Running 10 centers steadily will consume 1-1.5 years in current model. We need to reinvent as activities pick up.

Virat: I have thought of 2 options - NGO and Trust. I could not get time to work on consultation. But for me now it is a priority for me. As of now, I am inclined to a Trust model. To register as a Trust, we need 7 members and I am exploring with a few like-minded individuals for the same.

Virat: No. However it is good to highlight that a few years back, I was fascinated by AAP (Aam Aadmi Party). I was attracted to Kejriwal thinking of making India free from corruption. But after some time, I realised this is a politics and not a social service. Their drivers were different. They have the same issues as other parties. Later I disassociated myself from AAP.

Virat: Anyone desirous of supporting needs faith and trust in Sarvodaya. I myself have not donated in temples nor given to beggar with a fear that the money would be mismanaged. Genuineness and Trust are always big issues. Please come to our centers on any day and be a part of the class for a day. Share what you see and feel with your friends and family. I try to address this by uploading pictures on FB. I want to make a website so one can offer support for the same. Once there is trust and comfort, I feel everyone and anyone can support. Everyone’s has something as a god gift. Be it singing, music, yoga, medical expertise, story telling, teaching, ….your different skills can help in creating and maintaining the kids’ interest and bringing a novelty to Sarvodaya. Your moral support is always a big booster to me. The least one can do is share this article – Sarvodaya reached this stage from sheer Word-of-mouth. With Facebook & Twitter, this can scale up to many different people in the world. When you talk about Sarvodaya in your circle, they will listen to you. I am still a stranger to them. I have practical challenges of being one-man army. Besides I am clear that this is a social service and not business, so I don’t follow-up hard for any support. So far funding has been scattered from individual sponsors. Individual item based sponsorship is another support e.g. notebook donor, eraser donor, water bottle donor. The support will be driven by your creativity and willingness. I have faith in the God in keeping this initiative running.

I like to share a shloka that provokes a thought of supporting from whatever one has and our reservoir never gets emptied:
ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते पूर्णश्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥ ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Meaning: Om, That is Full, This also is Full, From Fullness comes that Fullness, Taking Fullness from Fullness, Fullness Indeed Remains. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

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