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Traverse the road to justice hand in hand

Aug 10, 2010

Marking the International day for Indigenous People on August 9, Vivek Mansukhani, Director, Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP), discusses how the initiative in its unique way has empowered people from far-flung areas to become capable leaders for social justice.

vivek pic.jpegOWSA: As the director of the IFP, could you throw some light on how IFP initiated its work in India? What were its principle objectives?

Vivek Mansukhani: The International Fellowship Programme funded by Ford Foundation began as a ten year pilot project in India in 2001. The project aimed to do something different from the other scholarship programmes across the world. So it targets candidates who lack access to higher education because of certain discriminations, disadvantages and other challenges in their lives - due to which they have been deprived of higher education. They may have the potential, the intelligence but don’t have access to higher education facilities.

So, unlike other scholarships that focus more on academic results and extra curricular activities and are really looking for the brightest and the best, this programme is for those who do not know of avenues of higher education. The programme was designed with this novel concept and it spread out to 22 countries - Latin America, Asia, Africa and Russia. India is one of these 22 countries.

While designing programme for India, we also decided that we would target those candidates whom the Indian constitution identifies as “people who are facing challenges” - people belonging to historically marginalised groups like SCs, STs and backward classes.

We also looked at women who either had no access to education or who gave up education because of early marriage but want to return to education. Other target groups include minorities and the differently-abled along with others who have faced any sort of socio-economic depriviation.

The programme has benefited 330 candidates - those who have been through a very difficult life journey but are still very positive and through their work, reflect the commitment to make their region a better place.

Further, the fellowship programme doesn’t compartmentalise candidates into different “quotas”. We emphasised on the quality of the pool and tried to ensure a balance between male and female selections.

We select candidates and train them ex-ante for a year by improving their language and computer skills and helping them to go to universities of their choice. This pre-academic training or programme helps each person to improve upon their academic skills.

Also, there are people who are in their 20s and 30s and even 40s and have not had formal education fro many years. Moreover, we monitor them all while they study. Our quest is to empower them to become good academics and social justice leaders. They can transform their personalities through academic knowledge and international exposure. We also help them to become capable leaders who can come back and sow seeds of social justice in their native places.

IFP is an expensive undertaking. All candidates are placed in good universities across the globe and all expenditure is borne by the Ford Foundation. Thus, we have tried to make a difference with the way the programme has been designed.

It is not a closed programme and we give equal opportunities to shine and be heard. We have learned through experience that the model really works. We acknowledge the fact that the government cannot work in vacuum. Its schemes have to be supported with endeavours like this.

OWSA: You spoke about social justice through empowering people who can further make a difference in the society. How far has the programme been successful? What are its achievements?

VM: One main achievement has been that all the people, 280 of them, who have benefited from the programme have been placed at all the good universities across the world. So, picking the candidates from across the marginalised communities, training them, bringing them up to the level that they gained acceptance from centres of higher education across the globe was the biggest achievement in the first place.

Secondly, they have come back to India and still haven’t deviated from working towards social justice. Whether they have joined good NGOs or have started their own NGOs or are working on human rights or engaged in activism - they have been working for the deprived sections of the society. Deepak Yogi who founded his NGO called Women Empowerment Centre in Chitwari, Rajasthan and Rama Devi Alra - the state chief (West Bengal) of Catholic Relief Services, are among those who have made a mark. So, the work in their individual as well as organizational capacities are focused on development.

Their work is affecting a lot of rural and disadvantaged and unorganized people. Thus, the vision behind selecting them has been fulfilled and 90% of the candidates have returned to India and are very actively engaged in ways to deliver social justice.

The candidates have established an Alumni Association which not only helps them in getting a better job but also work in synchronization with one another to bring about social justice.

The model of empowerment through education works well and we hope that this initiative is continued, whether through us or through other foundations. So, we are now struggling with to decide the future -  how do you spread this model. Hand-holding is very important, particularly because the candidates have faced a challenging life earlier and need that extra attention to rise and shine.

OWSA: What has been the profile of the students who have been selected for the programme?
VM: The candidates who have been selected for the programme, 330 of them, have a history of hardships in obtaining higher education. However, they are interested in good education and are willing to leave an impact on the larger section of society. 95% of the candidates selected have been born and brought up in their indigenous states, completed their education and have been working there or in a neighbouring state. Besides, there are a few who have got funding under SC/ST quota and have been able to go to good institutes and then have returned to their native places.

OWSA: The highest proportion of STs is found in the north-eastern states of Mizoram. Why have northeast and southern India been excluded from the ambit of the programme?

VM: It was a very challenging programme which started on an all-India basis  but later, was pruned to include 10 states in total - Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or Uttarakhand.

The reason behind the inclusion of these states was -

a.    These were the states which had higher concentration of the people whom we planned to target - the ones from the less privileged backgrounds

b.    People in these regions have struggled to reach out for higher education in the absence of a good educational infrastructure

North-east India was excluded because the region was in a troubled state. Besides, we are a team of just four members. So, we decided to focus on only very important areas in the beginning.

Besides the problems and the fact that a lot of disadvantaged groups stay in the north-east, one argument against the inclusion of the region is that the education levels are high and a lot of north-eastern people are already migrating to other metropolitan cities of India. What if the programme supports the north-eastern people, and they don’t come back to their native places and settle down in any of the metropolitan cities? So, there was risk involved.

South India also has big pockets of disadvantaged groups in the state of Andhra Pradesh among others. But the pool of applications received in the previous years shows that people of those states held multiple degrees. Access to literacy isn’t such a problem in South India. Kerala has almost 100% literacy – not only the primary education levels, but also higher degrees like graduation and post-graduation. A large number of institutions for higher education already exist.

So, it was felt that we could exclude south India for sometime and focus on central India which certainly deserves larger attention. However, if there is further funding, we do not rule out the possibility that north–east will be included in its purview

OWSA: Today, August 9 is observed as the International day for indigenous people. On this occasion, do you have a message for the people?

VM: The programme certainly believes that indigenous people who are rooted in their communities, need to be able to celebrate their diversity.  They should be able to understand the different movements of indigenous communities across the world - be it Africa, or other developing nations - and be able to bring those best practices back to the local situations in India .

The fellowship programme has supported the indigenous people. They have gone out to study indigenous studies, anthroplogy, cultural studies, livelihoods of the poor etc. and have come back and are making a mark in their respective fields.

OWSA: Besides being the Director of IFP, you are also an eminent theatre person. How do you establish a connect between the two roles?

VM: I was associated both with the British Council and scholarships. My core job has always been in the education sector- fellowships, exchange programmes etc. The basic connect is that I am a people’s person. Working with fellowship or students, young or old. Similarly, theatre involves a lot of interaction with people. My passion is to be associated with people; we work together as a team towards a common goal. Both of these professions bring people together from diverse backgrounds celebrating the talent that every one of us brings to the table.

Human beings are so full of contradictions - people who are not-so-good do bring out their talent, given a different set of circumstances. So, my journey of interacting with the people is probably the connect between the two roles that I don.

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