Raju Kendre: Chevening scholar from Nomadic tribal farmer roots

Raju Kendre is an inspiration to all of us. A first-generation learner from a nomadic tribal farming community, Mr. Kendre is a graduate from TISS and the founder of the path-breaking Eklavya movement. Recently, he also won the Chevening Scholarship that provides a fully-funded education in the UK, apart from unique leadership opportunities. Hamsadhwani Alagarsamy from CEDE talks to Mr. Kendre about his life, struggles, achievements and the larger issue of education for students from marginalised communities.

Hamsadhwani: First of all, hearty congratulations on winning the Chevening Scholarship! Please tell us how you feel right now.

I am definitely feeling good, but I also feel a sense of responsibility. When I was in my first year at TISS, I applied for a Student Exchange program. I was rejected in the very first round because my English was not good enough. So, in the past year, sending applications to 20-25 universities for a master’s degree was quite a struggle. Further, mailed hundreds of trusts, organizations, and universities that could possibly help fund my education. I got 18 offers from the universities I applied to. I could not accept those offers because I cannot really afford an education abroad without a scholarship. I needed a 100% scholarship. In fact, this is a precondition for most of the youth from marginalized communities who wish to study abroad.

I come from a nomadic tribe in rural Vidarbha, a place that is infamous for farmer distress and suicides. My parents are farmers. Our fields are barren lands, so if we go to a bank for a loan, we won’t get a loan of even one lakh rupees in consideration of our land. We don’t have any guarantee to provide for an education loan. The majority of the youth from marginalized and tribal communities face this issue.

Under these circumstances, being awarded the Chevening scholarship was a massive thing for me. Not only does it provide a full scholarship, it is also a leadership program. It will help me be a part of a global network. I am utterly delighted to have this wonderful opportunity. However, at the same time, I also feel a responsibility to continue my work with Eklavya. Our 9 years of engagement with tribal and rural grassroots communities must be taken to another level with more hard work.

H: What has your journey in education been like?

R: My parents had the opportunity to enter primary school, but they were unable to complete primary schooling due to various reasons. Child marriage was a customary practice in nomadic tribes and so they got married at a very young age. My mother wanted to continue her education beyond the primary level, but she was unable to do so after marriage. My father is unable to read Marathi words clearly, and is unable to even render his signature. However, they were always passionate about and dedicated to ensuring that their children have access to a good standard of education. Thanks to them, my brother and I are college graduates. They have further helped and encouraged my sister-in-law to pursue her higher education and she now has a degree in B.Com.

My journey in education started from a government school in my village where I studied till my 7th class. After that, I went to another government school which was on a district level, where I completed my 10th and 12th class. In that school, I faced many barriers in the form of language, culture and other socioeconomic factors. When I went to study at the Pune University, I could not find a place to stay. The university was 400 km away from my village. Financial issues in terms of accommodation and travel, act as further barriers for students from rural and tribal areas. For most of us, reputed universities tend to be extremely far from our homes. So there were a lot of struggles every step of the way. These barriers acted as the seed for a severe inferiority complex in me, that I still have to this day. I then shifted to Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University. Here I could give my exams in vernacular languages as my whole education till then was in my vernacular language.

I then went to study at TISS. A defining experience in my life was when I went to Melghat in 2012 to work with the grassroots communities there for two years. This experience was crucial to my learning in the development sector because the things that I couldn’t theoretically study at TISS, I could practically experience while working with the Korku community. They are a brilliant community. I have seen first-hand how good they are at sports. I can imagine the other talents they possess. Therefore, we need to build accessible platforms on the grassroots levels for marginalised communities to showcase their talents. Ironically, when it comes to the development sector, all the people working in top, key positions are people from elite, privileged backgrounds. So, in my opinion, organizations such as the World Bank, Oxfam, UNDP, UNICEF, etc., need to focus on hiring people from the grassroots. Their responsibility should be to find leaders from the grassroots. In fact, this should happen in each and every sector.

My most valued learning always took place outside the classroom. I have learned so much from the community. I have lived at social welfare and community hostels. I have also lived with the Korku community. These and other experiences have really helped me grow. My peers used to make fun of me and thought less of the form of learning that I valued. But these are my experiences and they are valuable.

H: You have dedicated your award of the Chevening Scholarship to all first-generation learners. Would you like to talk about the unique struggles faced by first generation-learners?

R: People like Babasaheb, Savtri Phule, Jyotirao Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Karmveer Bhaurao Patil, Dr. Panjabrao Deshmukh and other such social reformers have always placed emphasis on education. They understood that education was crucial to any social movement for the upliftment of the marginalised. Education is extremely necessary for the emancipation of individuals in society. Marginalised communities are not inclined toward education mainly because we have been historically kept away from it and thus lack access. Further, because oppressed-caste people from nomadic tribes and other farming communities own some amount of land, we don’t place the requisite amount of importance on education. Thus, students from caste-marginalised communities form the majority of the first-generation learners. We need more idols like Babasaheb who can push marginalised communities to seek out education and prioritise it. Babasaheb had said, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” So I’d like to emphasise on the need to focus especially on good quality higher education for girls.

Access for students of a community to a good standard of education would have a great impact on the respective community and the society at large. One thing about the upper-caste members of the society is that even though they may not have an abundance of agriculture resources, they ensure to hold all the positions of authority in all the knowledge sectors. We need our people from the marginalized communities to be professors in IITs and IIMs, to be leaders in journalism, media, arts, culture, business, to be flourishing lawyers and judges at the Supreme Court of India. This can only be conquered by education and to enable that education, idols at grassroots levels are important.

H: Please tell us about the Eklavya movement.

R: Eklavya is a support system that provides mentorship, training, and guidance to first-generation learners from underprivileged communities with a non-English medium background to pursue education from premier Higher Education Institutions (HEI) and enable grassroots leadership in the development sector. In the last 3 years, our intervention has helped 125+ students to get into premier institutes of higher education and prestigious fellowships. Using higher education as a tool, we aim to enable development leadership from grassroots. We are on a mission to build 1000 grassroots development leaders by 2030.

My brother used to cycle 10-12 km daily to his college. That’s how he completed his graduation. The journey in education that we had talked about earlier is not mine alone or my brother’s. This is a journey of thousands and lakhs of students from marginalized communities, tribal areas and rural areas across India. I didn’t want future generations of students from marginalised communities to continue to struggle on this journey. So we wanted to create a platform where marginalised students could receive better mentorship and socioeconomic support. Based on this idea, we started Eklavya, around four years ago.

Our core team comprises people who have had the practical experience of applying and succeeding at various prestigious opportunities. We have over 100 mentors who have graduated from TISS, APU, IITs, IIMs or other such reputed universities. More than 125 students from our first three batches, who were first-generation learners, are now studying in these nationally reputed universities. We have graduates working in the agriculture sector, the legal sector, the policy sector - they are all working to give back to society. We need such leadership on a bigger level. We need a structural, decentralised program in various areas.

When I went to TISS in 2014, we started a program in my village. It was a mentorship program for 10th and 12th standard students. We did not declare results of tests here. We instead encouraged them to learn and follow a direction of knowledge in specific sectors. We invited entrepreneurs, social workers, doctors, civil servants etc., to host these programs. We expanded that program to neighboring villages, provided books and guided thousands of students. We conducted various book collection drives in Pune, Mumbai and other such metropolitan cities.

In 2017 we started the first batch of the academy. Then, I was working for the Chief Minister Fellowship with the Government of Maharashtra. During this time, I was a Visiting Faculty at Savitri Jotirao College of Social Work at Yavatmal. In this college, 90% of the students were first-generation learners. The number of students that was selected there through Eklavya was more than the students from TISS, APU and other such institutions in the last 25 years. Our students always used to go to Nagpur and Wardha for their further education. We encouraged them to go to TISS, APU, GRF and other such institutions. We taught them not to fear English, to frame answers with a critical approach, among other practical skills such as acing group discussions. This really helped their confidence.

In the last year we have started an online mentorship system, through which we guide students from marginalized communities, tribal areas, and rural areas across India. We conducted a rigorous program for 200 students to aid their master’s studies, and I am very confident that more than 100 students are going to enter nationally reputed institutions. Additionally, we mentored 100 students who were preparing for their undergraduate studies. We are working for their admission process, mentorship, accommodation, and scholarships.

We work even beyond the admission stage - we try to help our students in their professional lives. We are currently designing a few blended courses like summer/winter programs at Eklavya to help in the capacity-building of students. We have not had any external funding for the last four years. Our organisation is entirely running on our dedication and lived experiences. I am trying to mobilize this initiative and ensure I have funding of around 15-20 lakhs and more staff who share a similar practical experience, before leaving for the U.K. We are planning to decentralize our current center and cover the tribal areas all over Maharashtra. We then plan to enter the tribal and rural areas of central India.

The members of the core team are not able to work at Eklavya on a full-time basis and need to do engage in other jobs as well, in order to economically support the movement as well as themselves. We are very glad that we have such incredibly supportive friends and family around us.

In short, through Eklavya, we are working to spread awareness to first-generation learners about their opportunities. We are working towards making higher education more inclusive and diversified.

H: As you have seen, social media is filled with fundraisers for the funding of the higher education of Bahujan students. This means that despite being selected for prestigious opportunities, marginalised students are struggling to fund them. Would you like to talk about this?

R: I have many friends from TISS and other places who have posted these fundraisers. The massive number of fundraisers is sad, but not surprising. The criteria of scholarship by the government are very arbitrary. At the same time, we see several prestigious scholarships being given to students who really do not need such funding. I believe that these scholarships, at least the financial aspect, should be need-based and must be given after considering the socio-economic background of students.

Sahu Maharaj, a hundred years ago, understood his responsibility as a person in power to make education accessible to the marginalised youth. His primary focus was on education. It was him who helped Babasaheb in his scholarly pursuits. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the State and Central governments to make education accessible to the youth from marginalised communities.

"Every year, the State government and Union government need to provide a minimum of 300 and 1000 scholarships respectively, for students from marginalised communities to study abroad."

Every year, the State government and Union government need to provide a minimum of 300 and 1000 scholarships respectively, for students from marginalised communities to study abroad. This way, India will have not just one Suraj Yengde or one Raju Kendre, but thousands and lakhs of scholars from marginalised communities. It is not fair that I had to spend over a year struggling to get a scholarship, that I had to send hundreds of emails. Why was my passion, dedication and work not recognized by my government, especially when I am directly contributing to society and helping the government?

H: Would you like to talk about initiatives like Eklavya that are led by people from marginalized communities?

R: In the legal sector, CEDE is working very brilliantly and we at Eklavya really respect the organization. The big law universities such as NLUs charge Rs. 3500-4000 just to sit for the entrance exams. How do they expect people from marginalized communities to apply for that exam when their monthly salary is just Rs. 3000-4000? How do they expect diversity? They are clearly excluding students from the marginalized communities and generating leadership solely within a certain elite class. This is the same in journalism and other sectors as well. Therefore, opportunities that benefit the grassroots should be led by the leaders from the grassroots because they know exactly what is needed and have the lived experience and passion to sustain it.

I really respect CEDE as an organization. It is very inspiring for first-generation lawyers. It's delightful to see fellow brothers and sisters from our community leading such initiatives. I think we should work in collaboration so that we can complement each other’s work. I have learned from tribal communities that it is always best to join hands, work in collaboration and build on each other’s strengths and help alleviate each other’s weaknesses. We should not pull down anyone who is making progress in their respective field. All of us who share a similar ideology, vision, mission and approach, should come together and work in unity. CEDE is working for representation in the legal sector. We at Eklavya are working for diversity in the development sector. Working together will be of great impact as we will all contribute to each other’s vision.

H: Lastly, what would your advice be to students from marginalized communities, tribal areas and rural areas who wish to apply for the Chevening Scholarship?

R: There are many student exchange programs provided by many countries that we should research and apply to. There are many programs that people are not aware of, and it is the responsibility of CEDE and Eklavya to spread awareness regarding such programs. The resources should be shared in vernacular languages.

As for Chevening, they mainly seek leadership qualities in the applicants. Actively being or having been in the position of a leader increases one’s chances of being selected. They also look for striking networking skills. In my opinion, leadership qualities are naturally present in the students from marginalized communities. We just need to be able to identify this. Contesting elections is leadership, organizing a protest is leadership and the ability to mobilize people for that protest indicates good networking skills. So, there is a lot of potential present in the people from marginalized communities and areas, regardless of whether it is an urban or rural setting. What we need is to enhance and articulate these skills and provide proper direction to them.

H: Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us. Is there anything further you’d like to mention?

R: You don’t need to thank me. We’re in this together. Can we end with that passage from the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”?

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.