Hyderabad: In his previous avatar as a man in uniform, R.S. Praveen Kumar will be remembered as one of the cops who brought the Maoists for talks with the Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy government. The talks failed but it led to the weakening of the movement in Andhra Pradesh in various ways.
That Dr Kumar wanted to do something for the underprivileged was quite clear even when he was in uniform, focusing on ending child marriages or helping the poor.
A pivotal movement came in his life when he returned from a year’s study leave at Harvard University in 2011 and requested the government to place him in charge of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, then known as the APSWREIS.
Dr Kumar is the secretary of social welfare schools and is the guiding force, opening endless doors for students from underprivileged sections and leading them to a limitless sense of being. They are given confidence to deal with life.
“I am deeply entrenched here but I will have to go back to the police as it is my mother department. I will have to reacclimatize. Not that I have forgotten the basics but I have put my heart and soul into this work for the past seven years. It will hurt me when I leave from here,” Dr Kumar says. The schools are normally overseen by IAS officers. Dr Kumar, who belongs to the 1995 IPS batch, is the first police officer looking after it after 20 years.
When he took over as secretary, this department was dreary and there seemed to be no life. Schools lacked facilities and teachers were not motivated enough. Dr Kumar changed all that within six months. The success story is continuing.
A few students have really stood out like stars. Dr Kumar says he wants to give confidence to all students. Apart from the visible difficulties, like socio-economic issues, it is the lack of role models within the community which makes parents dither when sending their children, especially daughters, to schools. Parents are unaware that success can be achieved because those who are worthy of being emulated do not stay in the villages, Dr Kumar said.
Among his wards are Malavath Poorna, a 13-year-old who became the youngest girl to scale the Everest, Anand Kumar the first Dalit to scale the world’s tallest mountain. Under Dr Kumar’s leadership, sons and daughters of ordinary workers including daily wage earners and others got admission into premier institutions.
In the last five years, 48 students secured IIT seats, 133 joined NITs, 81 entered MBBS courses. Another 62 got entry into Azim Premji University, 12 in Delhi University, 31 in various Central universities, four in the Indian Navy School, and 11 in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Swaeros, a movement founded by Dr Kumar, is based on the ideologies of Jyothirao Phule and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, consists of those from the disadvantaged sections but made it big.
Dr Kumar feels that the Dalit community has been stereotyped. “The umbrella of oppression has to be removed to see the true potential of the person,” he says. This is one of the reasons SWAEROES and its 10 commandments hold such a position in all their lives.
“That’s why we started the movement and chalked out its commandments. Today, we have two lakh to three lakh members, including some who have changed the names on their birth certificate and Aadhaar card to include Swaeros as part of their identity,” says Dr Kumar.
The 10 commandments are:
I am not inferior to anyone.
I shall be the leader wherever I am.
I shall do what I love and be different.
I shall always think big and aim high.
I shall be honest, hardworking and punctual.
I shall never blame others for my failures.
I shall neither beg nor cheat.
I shall repay what I borrow.
I shall never fear the unknown.
I shall never give up.
The transformation of these schools has impacted over two lakh children, while producing heroes like Malavath Poorna and Anand, en route.
“Swaeros is an aspirational identity and we expect all the students to adopt it. Their families should also own it. We live in a competitive and fast-paced world. Some students gain iconic status. We would like to keep such students in front of the community and tell people that a little investment in health, diet and education goes a long way. We are doing this in a very scientific way,” Dr Kumar said.
He says his time at Harvard gave him an impetus to act. “What a trip like this does is it exposes you to people from different walks of life who have taken courageous decisions after finding their calling and after leaving their jobs, businesses and hitting the ground, rolling up their sleeves and listening to their hearts. No matter how big the obstacles are, they carry on. They do something they deeply believe in. People are doing great things with the available resources,” he says.
Dr Kumar says “I am not a status quoist and always believed in experimentation, whether it is in the intense conflict zone, whether it is the frontline or behind the lines or whether it is understanding the operation theatre of the conflict. I always believe in going beyond what is visible and sit across the table and talk to people to understand why they are doing what they are doing. In my quest for truth I went to the homes of Maoists and spoke to the parents, tried to understand their pain and anxiety. I spoke to former Maoists... Similarly, I knew that what matters most to the most under privileged is quality education and a forum to build their confidence to face the world.”
It was not easy to draw children to school. The mindsets of parents and the children had to undergo a sea change. Then came the infrastructure and the teaching staff. Within two years, he had transformed the once-dingy schools into institutes of excellence. Now, poor Dalit parents flock to admit their wards here, especially girls.
“It is admission time now and they are all waiting outside to meet me,” he says. It is a huge compliment to him that the parents come willingly to admit their girls.
Among the changes Dr Kumar brought in was making English the medium of education. Apart from bringing the students into the mainstream early, it busted a stereotype.
Dr Kumar says English is the language of emancipation. “Our children are scared of those who speak English and soon begin to feel like slaves. Now the parents too encourage us because they want their children to reach high enough to become what they perceive as the “elite”.
The summer camps at the schools also acted as game changers, because students could learn a skill, show interest in another subject. “We started with 3,000 students and two or three activities, and now have 30,000 students participating in 29 activities,” Dr Kumar says.
Dr Kumar hopes that his students will take that quantum leap and be accepted by society. Previous generations of Dalits merely stood on the fringes, not being part of any movement. Dr Kumar does not want the current generation to lose the chance.
He says the caste system cannot be done away with easily and hence, it is necessary to boost confidence of the youngsters so that they enter this world with their heads held high. “We teach them to become indispensable wherever they are,” he says.
“Our aim is to make students self-confident and ensure all-round character development rather than get 100 per cent marks,” Dr Kumar says.
Dr Kumar had two idols he could look upon — his parents, both teachers who pushed their three children to study and think beyond. This was in spite of the resistance from the landlord in the village.
Dr Kumar stayed in a social welfare hostel till he was in Class 8. He is grateful for that and wants to return to the society what he received. “Whatever I am today is because of all that.”
His mother was an agricultural labourer at a young age. Two teachers transformed her life. Today, she’s a teacher, mother of an IPS officer, an associate professor and a doctor.
Dr Kumar thought that the story of a bonded labourer becoming a teacher and the mother of an IPS officer should be replicated in every household. His stint at Harvard University helped him as he met a number of inspiring people.
The TSWREIS runs 268 residential educational institutions, which provide free food, education and shelter to thousands of children every year. Funded and operated by the Telangana state government, it caters to students from Class 5 to the undergraduate level. Three-fourths of the seats are reserved for children from the SC community and another six per cent for students from the ST communities.