Hyderabad: He was among the six IAS officials who were held captive by naxalites at Pathakota near Gurtedu in East Godavari district, on December 27, 1987. “Thirty years later, I was there again, in the same village, and this time to open a school,” says Mr V.M. Manohar Prasad with a smile.
In between, Mr Prasad has made a path-breaking effort to set up schools in tribal areas after the locals got involved and bringing in a host of services.
Mr Prasad, a 1987 batch officer, took voluntary retirement almost two decades later, on January 1, 2006. He was first with the AP Civil Service and entered the IAS later.
“Once I got out of government, my wife Rama Devi and I have been concentrating on the community, particularly in the tribal pockets of Telangana state and AP.”
The Prasads had a long association with a small village in Adilabad district called Marlawai, in Jainoor mandal. “We went back to the little place and started discussing the possibility and scope for a community-governed school,” he said.
“We discuss what is not right with government schools. When it comes to taking the initiative and making an effort, we see very little happening,” he said.
But he found in the tribal women great allies. “The individual does not matter when it comes to development. When we started discussing the possibilities and scope for community-governed schools, tribal mothers proved to be different. With a little support and guidance these mothers of erstwhile Utnoor mandal have done wonderful things, not only in understanding the dynamics of what happens in a school but also to understand why the child is not assisted properly to learn,” he said.
Mr Prasad raised their awareness to a point where they realised that the malady was not with the child but the person who was teaching them.
“The child comes eagerly to school to learn but it is like promising a hungry child good, delicious food but serving nothing on the plate,” Mr Prasad said.
He said the system could not understand that these children were not dropouts but were “driven outs”. Explaining why children leave school, Mr Prasad said, “Nothing happens to his mind and he is forced to go through the monotony, forcing the child to seek out an escape. The parents realise that it is better to have the child back with them where he could help them at home and do some useful work.”
Mr Prasad says they started having discussions with the locals.
“One day a mother went to her hut and brought two of her children to the group where we were discussing education. She asked the children to write their names in the mud in Telugu. They were in fourth and fifth class and she started crying. ‘You think we do not want our children to be in the school. We also want them to benefit and prosper like anyone else from the strength of education,’ she said,” Mr Prasad recalled.
“Tell us what you would do if you were in our position? Do you want them to waste more time in the school and continue just for the midday meal,” she asked the group. That is when the collective organisation for creating their own schools started,” Mr Prasad said.
The tribals started contributing to the effort on their own in kind or in cash. It was finally agreed to take in kind. The villagers had just started growing soyabean on four acres in 1990, and the seeds were brought from Madhya Pradesh, from MP Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s constituency. Now it is close to 30,000 acres.
The women calculated how much it would cost per child and how much they had to pay the teacher. That is how the ‘Mava nate, mava shale (Our Village, Our School)’ started in 2006.
“This was for pre-primary schools since the government system did not have them,” he said.
The women identified their own teacher, and the Prasads thought of training her. He went to Vidyaranya School and took the permission of the grand old lady, the late Shanta Rameshwar Rao, and sat like an observer in classes for almost 12 weeks.
“I went to a few other schools including Rishi Valley and learnt a lot on the internet. I tried to put things together. The more challenging task was to contextualise it, to their own environment and their own cultural aspects of growing and learning together, their songs, etc. Slowly we made a timetable,” Mr Prasad said. They found a friend in Mr P.D.K. Rao in Vizianagaram who was running a school.
He said people opened their own schools as they were enthused by the idea. “We wanted the experience of the child in the school to be enjoyable and to have a delightful time.”
The schools were started wherever the mothers wanted them. The questions arose of what was the responsibility of the women when they set up the schools. “It is all discussed by them, so the collective spirit was rekindled.”
After 53 such schools were set up, Mr Prasad’s friend, Mr Vijaykumar, from the government-run Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), a regular visitor, proposed the idea that SERP would also like to contribute and that they would like to widen the canvas along with the women from self-help groups.
“In 2008, we started collaborating with SERP, by which time there were 58 schools were functioning with soya beans as payment,” Mr Prasad said.
They thought of a structure where the Mandal Mahila Samakhya was a partner along with Centre for Developing Research (CRD), which Mr Prasad represented. SERP would fund it as per budgeted plan directly to the Mandal Samakhya and through this to the village organisations to run the schools. CDR would identify suitable persons within the committee and help select and train them and monitor the outcomes.
SERP had a large spread across the state and things started happening at forums where education was being discussed. People from different places were eager to visit and understand, Mr Prasad said. “This showed how the deprived parts of society understand the importance of education but are unable to do anything about it.”
This reflected in the fact that between 2008 and 2012 in the Telangana region, that in 1,153 villages in the tribal and Dalit areas, including those in remote regions, close to 16,500 children were attending schools.
“We were also among the first to mobilise women groups way back in 1990 in Jainoor mandal. And it is after that SHGs became strong,” Mr Prasad said.
Mr Prasad also ensured that bogus attendance marking was removed, and that it was linked to the midday meal scheme.
However, the TRS government in its first term clipped the wings of SERP and all its programmes were put in cold storage from 2015. Funding to the mandal samakhyas was stopped without understanding the implications.
“In fact there was a lot of criticism against me personally by vested interests in 2010 and I think I have a few paper cuttings somewhere. And here I thought education was totally non-controversial.”
He said the mothers responded. “About 6,000 to 8,000 of them came together of their own volition and questioned the newspapers. The Governor chose to come during that time and spent some time with us and added salt to their wounds. Education as such is neglected but so much of vested interest gets embedded in it.”
He said the midday meal was a sham where students would get yellow water instead of dal. “The whole concept behind the midday meal scheme was to protect the rights of a child and give him or her a nutritive meal of 600 calories everyday. But that is not how it worked,” Mr Prasad said.
He said he and Mr K.R. Venugopal, CDR chairperson, went to meet Narsing Rao and pleaded with him, but nothing moved. We urged them not to make it a part of the system because that would be the end of it like the Aanganwadi system. We wanted them to make a budgetary allocation.
Once bitter, twice shy, he decided to move to East Godavari as part of a similar initiative. There are now 54 such schools.
“These schools are donor supported and there is no support from the government. We are able to pay a little bit more to the teachers. Here it is known as ‘Ma Ooru, Ma Badi (My Village, My School)’, Mr Prasad said.
The effort has been linked with plantation work, NREGS. preventive health, mother and child health care. “At Bodlanka, we are setting up a centre for excellence, where there are 1,820 women farmers from over 42 villages,” he said.
Mr Prasad and his group have identified four areas of influence:
Land | per se, for sustainable incomes, for higher yields, land use, not just for agriculture, plants for better yields.
Education | Hopefully in a larger canvas like the government.
Livelihoods | creating opportunities with the resources available. Like food processing.
Retired bureaucrat V.M. Manohar Prasad says the government offers a lot of opportunities up to a certain level, but then it gets monotonous.
“Your sense of contribution to the larger purpose of life gets diminished day by day. Your very existence is called to question, within you if nothing else. So when you are not able to answer it satisfactorily, minds like mine then seek an alternative, to rekindle the purpose of life,” said Mr Prasad who has helped set up a string of schools in tribal areas.
“As a human being, with intelligence, you seek some purpose and at the end of the journey there should also be the reward of satisfaction, the satisfaction of doing something good and the purpose of existence is largely in serving for the well-being of others, not only for yourself,” Mr Prasad said.
The bureaucrat has a set of rules and regulations while delivering each one of them. As long as the bureaucracy looks at the set of rules, as a pundit would look at Gita, as the servant of the people, there is no pressure, only maybe some inconvenience. But as long as you remain the humble servant of the people, as expected by the Constitution, there is no problem at all. Except maybe keeping your bags ready, Mr Prasad said.
The former bureaucrat is a supporter of tenural security of officers in their posts. “Why should he be shifted before 1,000 days? A minimum of three years should be the norm and must brought in as a statute. How is it that you are forced to pay a penalty because you want to do your job better,” he asks.
“Like any other constitutional posts you think that these posts of delivery systems to the public are less important that would only accentuate the malady. The entire system exists in the name of the public and we should not tamper with the public interest,” Mr Prasad said.
Speaking on how bureaucrats can be manipulated, he gives two instances. “Finally it all comes down to the individual frame of mind and how strong is the character to uphold what you consider is right,” he said.
The first one was when he was the Srikalulam collector, and the late K. Yerramnaidu, Union minister for rural affairs, “a very decent human being” as Mr Prasad callls him, was the local MP.
“It was the responsibility of the collector to give posting to the tahsildar, but a call came and it was from the wife of the minister. It was left for me to undo things. I did not take the call and met the minister after a few days,” he said.
“I told him that he should use me well but for a public cause or he could get rid of me from my position, but he should not expect me to work differently. I told him not to make such requests especially when the calls came from the wife of the minister. After a few moments he said he was sorry and promised me that it would not happen again,” Mr Prasad said.
More than the politician, it is the civil servant who whets the appetite of the politician for doing things in a manner that are not acceptable.
The second instance involved Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. “I was made secretary in the rain shadow area. It was a brand new department, the idea being to create rain. I told them that I did not know anything about cloud seeding, but soon I put up a team of experts. There was this one guy who seemed to know everything and would interfere a lot till I had to declare the man as persona non grata and sent the order to the Chief Minister.”
“There was a review meeting and this fellow was also sitting there. I told the CM that I had sent him a note regarding this gentleman. So either he should leave or he should give permission for me to leave. YSR asked me to ignore him but I insisted and then I decided that it was pointless to continue. In three days, I submitted my resignation.”
“I am enjoying what I am doing and it is serving a purpose and at the end of the effort there is the collective spirit. I am a catalyst, an enabler,” Mr Prasad said....