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Schools of hope

Kapil Bajaj     May 27, 2008

In slideshow: Success stories of JNV alumni
On an unremarkable day in 1990 in Barheta village of Bihar’s Darbhanga district, Nirmal Prakash, an 11-year-old boy, asks his father for Rs 2. Prakash wants to buy an application form for admission to Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, one of the 560 residential schools funded and run by the Central government in rural areas of as many districts of India. What Nirmal gets from his poor, farmer father with four children is an angry rebuke.

Students at the picturesque JNV at Theog, near Shimla
JNV at Theog, near Shimla
But as luck would have it, there’s a Good Samaritan in Barheta. Sanjeev Dev, a teacher in a local school, is confident that Prakash is a bright kid, and not just buys him the application form, but also helps him prepare for the admission test for JNVs, which admit selected students into the 6th standard and then provide them free boarding, lodging and education through the 12th standard. True to Dev’s instincts, Prakash does exceedingly well, right from the admission test through his schooling in JNV-Darbhanga, and beyond.

In 1998, he cracks the Joint Entrance Exam of the IITs (IIT-JEE) in his first attempt; he later goes on to become the Country Manager (India) of Muehlbauer, a German RFID and biometric solutions provider with operations in over a dozen countries.

 JNVs at a glance

Number of operating JNVs: 560

Additional number of JNVs sanctioned: 16

Total number of pupils: About 2 lakh

Total number of school staff: 1,600 (excluding administrative staff of about 400)

States/UTs where JNVs are located: 34 (all except Tamil Nadu)

Number of regional offices across India: 8

Average area of land on which a JNV is located: 30 acres

Number of pupils in a full-capacity JNV: 560

What is not charged: Boarding, education, food, uniforms and many items of everyday use.*

Facilities: Sports, computer labs with internet, excursions, ‘migration scheme’, fine arts, music and dance training, etc.

Medium of instruction: English (from class 9)

Annual spend per school: Rs 1.5 crore

Total spend allocated for 2008-09: Rs 904 crore

*About four years ago, JNVs began charging Rs 200 a month from general category male students, i.e., excluding all pupils from reserved categories and girls. The funds collected are ploughed back into academic and non-academic activities

In May 2008, Prakash, 29, is visiting his home state of Bihar as Joint Managing Director of Smarftech, a Nashik-headquartered technology provider and a member of a consortium that has recently won a Rs 280-crore contract to provide smart cards to the beneficiaries of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in the state. “JNV made me what I am today,” Nirmal tells this writer from Patna.

Arjun Singh, Vice President (GTS), Citibank (Pictured here with his wife Rachita in Jersey City)
Arjun Singh
Thousands of miles away from Patna, in New Jersey (US), there is an equally grateful alumnus of JNV: Arjun Singh, who hails from Amarpur village in Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh. “I was 6th of the 7 siblings. My father earned no more than Rs 800 a month in daily wages, ferrying grain and people on his mule-cart. At JNV, we got everything free—from shoe polish to books and stationery,” recalls Singh, 29, whose seven years at JNV Meerut launched him into a life and career that he’d never imagined. Having done his B.E. (Mechanical Engineering) and Master of Management Studies from BITS-Pilani, he currently works as Vice President, GTS (Global Transaction Services) Technology, Citibank, in Jersey City.

The JNV impact

Nirmal Prakash, Joint MD, Smarftech
Nirmal Prakash
The examples of Nirmal Prakash and Arjun Singh are just two of the thousands of incredible tales of socio-economic mobility that JNVs have scripted in Indian villages. Underinvestment in education and maladministration have made sure that most of the 75 crore people who reside in villages never receive modern, quality education and, hence, a chance to become a member of the educated society that enjoys the bountiful fruits of the modern, urban economy.

For schools located in India’s rural hinterland and serving children from largely-disadvantaged backgrounds, JNVs seem to be doing very well, even surpassing their more privileged urban counterparts.

Click here to enlarge
Since 2005, in terms of performance (pass percentage) in the 10th standard exam conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education, JNV students have been beating their counterparts not just in other government schools (including Kendriya Vidyalayas) but also the private schools (See JNVs: The underdogs). “In the 12th standard CBSE exams too, JNVs have been beating government schools (except Kendriya Vidyalayas) as well as private institutions,” says M.S. Khanna, Joint Commissioner, Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS), the Central government agency that manages the JNVs.

The ratios of first divisions (60 per cent marks or more) achieved by JNV pupils in exams for 10th and 12th standards have been above 77 and 72 per cent, respectively. A survey conducted in 2007 found the ‘annual income of father’ of 74 per cent of the JNV pupils to be less than Rs 48,000, highlighting the economically disadvantaged backgrounds of the children attending these schools.An idea that clicked

Started in 1986 on a pilot basis, JNVs have currently grown to 560 schools, located in all the states and Union Territories of the country except Tamil Nadu which has so far refused to accept the scheme for political reasons. “More JNVs are being opened every year,” says Khanna of NVS. The Navodaya scheme aims to set up in each district of India one residential school as a model school providing quality education—with English as a subject language and medium of instruction— and modern infrastructure to rural children (for whom 75 per cent of seats are reserved).

 Going Places*

JNV pupils are making their mark in the most desirable part of India’s job market, be it the private sector or the public sector.

  • Students who did a BE/BTech: 7,367
  • Students who did an MBBS: 2,751
  • Students who did a management course: 1,070
  • Students who did NDA/CDS courses: 345
  • Students who got through IAS/state Civil Services exam: 280

The data above is based on information received voluntarily from JNV pupils by Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti. It relates to the years from 1993 to 2006 and does not represent all the students who passed out of JNVs; it’s only indicative data

Boyapati Rajani, Project Manager, Goldstone Tech
Boyapati Rajani
This year, NVS registered over 15 lakh children, who’ve passed the 5th standard for the JNV Selection Test which is conducted by the CBSE in as many as 21 languages (including those representing linguistic minorities like Bodo and Mizo); about 37,000 would be selected. Khanna expects 18 lakh children to try their luck next year. The admission test is combined with all reservations applicable to Central government institutions (e.g. 15 per cent for SCs and 33 per cent for girls), making JNVs less attractive for students from more privileged backgrounds.

“Our admission test is so designed as to ensure that rural children are able to compete without any disadvantage,” says Khanna of NVS, which also ensures that only children of a district get admission in the JNV located in that district.

The success that the JNVs have had in targeting the needier students is perhaps one of the reasons for their impressive acceptance among the states and the rural population. States, which have to provide 30 acres of land free of cost for the JNV campus, have been “very enthusiastic” in getting all their districts to acquire a Navodaya, says Khanna. And for people in India’s villages, most of whom are inured to teacher absenteeism, abysmal infrastructure, and myriad other problems in school education, JNVs stand for well funded and managed institutions that will enable their children to compete with the city kids.

“In the desert hamlet in Rajasthan I was born in, access to a school is a blessing enough. JNVs, on the other hand, promise people quality education for free. For them (the rural folks), JNVs are as good as the Doon Schools of India, if not better,” says Rajendra Meena, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer currently posted in the Directorate General of Central Excise Intelligence, and a JNV alumnus.

“The wide acceptance of JNVs also reflects the desperate demand for quality, English-medium education in rural India. Most state government schools don’t care about competence in English or the overall quality of education,” says Boyapati Rajani, an alumnus of JNV-Krishna district, who’s currently working as Project Manager for Goldstone Technologies, a Hyderabad-based software firm, after a seven-year stint as Flight Lieutenant in Indian Air Force.

At JNV-Shimla, located in a remote mountainous region, this writer finds a well-equipped computer lab (32 desktops, a projector, internet connections through VSAT, and pupils being taught C++), labs for sciences and maths, a language resource room, a library, a smart classroom (with a projector and an LCD screen), apart from well-furnished hostels, classrooms, a mess, staff quarters, and playgrounds, etc.

Providing More About 20,000 employees of NVS (comprising 1600 teaching and other school staff and the remainder administrative staff) manage about 2 lakh students, spread across remote locations all over India, trying to meet the schools’ academic, social and national objectives. The schools not only have a threelanguage formula (Hindi, English and the main language of the region), making Hindispeaking pupils learn a non-Hindi language and vice versa, but also a ‘migration scheme’, where selected kids from one linguistic region go to study for a year in another. (For example, the JNVs in Goa and Himachal Pradesh exchange their students.) “The migration scheme and the requirement for teachers to teach outside their home state make for a rare cross-cultural experience for JNV boys and girls,” says Khanna.

 The raw material

JNV students come from distinctly disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their counterparts in other government and private school systems.

  • Students whose fathers’ annual incomes are Rs 48,000 or less: 74%

  • Students from rural areas: 77%

  • Students from SC/ST families: 39%

  • Students whose fathers have studied only up to middle school: 40%

  • Students whose mothers are Illiterate: 40%

  • Students whose fathers are farmers or labourers: 44%
Ashwath Kumar K., 25, a program analyst at Sirius Embedded Software, a Bangalore-based firm, and an alumnus of JNV-Mandya (Karnataka), says his school gave him at no cost a healthy mix of academics, extra-curricular activities and cross-cultural environment, which he would not have found in any other school.

Rajendra Meena, IRS Officer, Central Excise
Rajendra Meena
Arjun Singh (of JNV-Meerut and Citibank) says his school’s casteand-class-neutral atmosphere rescued and liberated him from the oppressive caste-based society that will not allow millions like him to advance in life. “As a model of school system, JNVs have been extremely successful in meeting their academic and social objectives. There is better accountability. State governments need to replicate this model,” says Madhav Chavan, Director, Programmes, Pratham, a Mumbai-headquartered NGO engaged in educating poor children.

The JNV administration also seems to have things going right for it. Four years ago, NVS implemented a ‘counselling-based’ method of transferring faculty, wherein all teachers gather at a place and decide among themselves where they would like to work within the JNV system.

That dramatically cut the attrition rate among teachers who had been frustrated by long tenures away from their home-states. “Now many private companies want our advice on how we did it,” smiles Khanna of NVS. Of late, the administration of JNVs has been becoming increasingly decentralised, allowing schools more freedom in managing themselves, says P.K. Sharma, Principal, JNV-Shimla.


However, JNVs have had their share of problems, especially with regard to administration and faculty. The remote rural locations of the schools make it difficult for them to retain faculty and sometimes even students, particularly those who want extra coaching for competitive exams.

JNV pupils going places
JNV pupils going places
The teachers have also complained of being underpaid for the long hours they put in as resident faculty. “JNVs have also failed to meet their original objective of turning themselves into a resource organisation for state government schools. They have become islands in a sea of mediocrity, not communicating with other schools,” says Chavan.

Agrees Arvind Sardana, an educationist at Eklavya, an NGO that helps government schools improve the quality of education: “A lot of underprivileged children are getting social mobility because of JNVs. But building just one JNV in a district has meant that only a handful get to receive better educational facilities. What will happen to the majority of children?” Some people also talk of the cash crunch that they believe JNVs face. Sharma of JNV-Shimla complains of rising food prices and stagnant allocation for rations.

(According to rates revised in April 2007, a pupil gets Rs 675 per month for food in a normal JNV and Rs 850 in a school located in a remote, inhospitable location.) Despite the problems, JNVs continue to throw up heart-warming stories of socio-economic advancement in a country where millions of people live hopelessly in watertight compartments of castes, religion, gender, and economic status. Says Ramesh Bathija, Director of Training at Dakshana Foundation, a Kotabased non-profit organisation that selects and coaches JNV pupils for IIT-JEE: “JNVs are a goldmine of talent.

It’s about time urban India became familiar with what they are.” Without doubt, it’s also time other government school systems borrowed a leaf out of the JNVs.

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