Feature story

Scholarly bent

Providing marginalised rural youth with a college education at premier institutions in India and overseas is the objective of the Karta Initiative

 Tejal Nikam, all of 20, is something of a trailblazer. Currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in literature and cultural studies at FLAME University in Pune, she is the first woman from her village — Wada in Maharashtra’s Palghar district — to venture out for a college education. Graduation and a career await for Ms Nikam, and that’s much different from the prospects of many of her former schoolmates, for whom formal learning will likely end when they complete class XII.

Despite having talent and drive, countless rural students in India are unable to pursue a university education. The reasons are many: low-resource households, lack of awareness about academic and career pathways, the ‘digital divide’ plaguing rural areas, and a poor grasp of English. Ms Nikam was able to overcome these barriers thanks to the Karta Initiative, a Tata Trusts-supported programme that has secured her a scholarship.

“Karta has transformed my life,” says Ms Nikam, who is currently interning with an NGO in West Bengal. “I’m determined to prove myself worthy of their backing,” she adds.

Karta was incubated in 2017 by the Trusts to enable youth from marginalised rural communities to access high-quality university education. The programme is a collaboration with the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs), the nationwide chain of central government-run schools for students from underprivileged backgrounds, and also involves schools run by partner NGOs.

To date, Karta has supported and mentored nearly 600 students from more than 30 JNVs in Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh. This number is set to rise to about 1,800 by the end of 2023. Of the 600 students mentored, 55 students are ‘Karta scholars’ who have attended, or are at present attending, universities in India and abroad.

Karta means doer, a person who takes action, and it aptly describes the vision behind the programme. “Many of these students possess exceptional talent and zeal, but they lack the means to transition to universities,” says Aparna Choudhary, chief executive of the Karta Initiative. “We are building bridges to facilitate this transition.”

Noting the feedback from teachers and parents, the Karta team has piloted a project with class IX and class X students (this will be launched in all the schools in the programme), in addition to the already existing XI and XII class interventions. Karta also reaches students as young as 12. “That’s when youngsters start contemplating their place in the world and their aspirations for the future,” says Ms Choudhary.

Multiple issues came to the fore: the overwhelming constraints the students faced, pressure from their families to start earning money, the absence of mentors and helpful networks to guide them, and soft skills gaps. Surprisingly, Karta had its task cut out in attracting students to the programme. What helped was its multifaceted approach and the resources it had to support students.

Partnerships heft

Abig factor in the Karta Initiative’s success has been its ability to bring on board globally renowned institutions of higher learning. The Initiative’s distinguished list of academic partners includes the University of Oxford, University College London, Edinburgh University, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, as well as leading Indian institutions such as Ashoka University, FLAME University, Krea University, Plaksha University, Ahmedabad University and Azim Premji University.

Some of the international partners have visited India to understand how Karta works, says Aparna Choudhary, the Initiative’s chief executive. “We maintain deep and lasting engagements with the universities that collaborate with us,” she adds.

Karta’s academic partnerships have created a strong scaffolding of support for its scholars. For instance, the Canada-based Queens University is helping visiting scholars get their visas extended and even assisting them with job interviews. In order to build more such mutually beneficial collaborations, Karta plans to expand its collaborative canvas over the next couple of years.

Mentoring support

A key component in Karta is its ‘targeted access programme’, where project officers work directly with partner JNVs to hold workshops and provide mentoring to enrolled students. “We help students map their skills and interests to available courses and we provide guidance on university admissions processes,” says Jyotsna, manager, programme design at the Trusts (she goes by the single name). The scholars then receive intensive coaching, with the focus on critical thinking skills, analysis and comprehension.

To reach a wider target, Karta has developed a digital platform called Karta Connect. The platform offers valuable tools and resources to foster decision-making and skill-building in students. The Karta Connect app was preloaded on the 70,000-plus tablets distributed by the central government to JNV students in 2022.

Additionally, Karta offers an ‘advanced digital literacy’ programme, a self-paced online course that equips students in organising and analysing information to help them make more informed decisions about their future.

Then there’s the ‘Karta catalyst scholarships’ — offered in partnership with Indian and international universities — which gives students the support they need to thrive at the college level. Full funding for tuition and living expenses, personal and professional development, internship placements and one-on-one mentoring are just some ways students are lent a hand.

Take the example of Vikas Kumar, an 18-year-old Karta scholar who hails from the underserved Musahar community in Bihar. Mr Kumar is currently studying political science at Ahmedabad University while also interning with the Tata Trusts in Rajasthan. Mr Kumar says that enrolling for the Karta programme has opened up avenues that he didn’t know existed.

“Back home, we live on the outskirts of our village and don’t interact with people from the higher castes,” he says. “Here I’m in the same classroom as upper caste boys and those from wealthy families. Sadly, many of my former classmates who chose not to enrol with Karta may have to take up daily-wage labour to survive.”

Besides preparing youngsters, from the academic standpoint, to get into university, Karta’s programme officers meet teachers and other officials on campus, even going so far as to ensure that students are well settled in their rooms. The project team prioritises the social and emotional well-being of its scholars, bringing them up to speed with societal issues they may not have been exposed to previously.

“We were made aware of feminism, body shaming, the LGBTQ+ movement, the importance of consent and other things we had never heard of,” says Ms Nikam, adding that this has helped students become aware of, and form a view on, the issues of these times. Academicians from various fields, career counsellors and others visit to share their expertise and answer queries ranging from job opportunities to the state of the world.

Good mental space

Karta scholars have at least one weekly call with their allotted mentor and a senior scholar, as well as group calls with batchmates in different universities. Ms Choudhary explains why these weekly calls are necessary for the youngsters, who have largely grown up in deprived communities. “Overnight they are thrust into a big-city environment where everything — from clothes and food habits to accents and social niceties — comes as a culture shock,” she explains. “The weekly calls help us know on a continuous basis whether the students are in a good mental space.”

Karta scholar Shekhar Kumar, currently studying at Azim Premji University, with children at his ancestral village Bhagwatipur (in Bihar's Patna district), where he teaches during visits back home

Ms Nikam says that these calls help her navigate awkward scenarios. Earlier, when her university classmates would eat out, visit pubs or go to multiplexes, she would cite her workload to excuse herself. “Now I frankly tell them that I’m broke and don’t want to go,” she says with admirable self-assurance.

Karta mentors provide guidance throughout the educational journey of the scholars. Mr Kumar, who wants to return to his village and mentor other youngsters, says that such support has been invaluable. “It’s a blessing to be able to discuss options with someone educated, someone who has your welfare in mind,” he says.

In addition to the mentoring they receive, each scholar also undertakes an annual internship that gives them early exposure to different sectors. This broadens their perspective and boosts their confidence as they travel and learn about the world around them.

A novel initiative like Karta cannot be without its challenges. The first is to persuade school students to enrol in the programme. After that the challenge is to keep them engaged and committed. Karta’s small full-time team relies on a large network of volunteers, including JNV schoolteachers, who stay back in school for an extra hour or two daily to help students brush up on academics, learn to communicate better in English, do problem-solving, and have discussions on social and political trends (getting the teachers to put in extra hours voluntarily is not always easy).

Another issue is that sometimes parents are not willing to let their children leave the village. “Mobility is an issue, not just for girls but also for boys,” adds Ms Choudhary. “It’s practically unheard of for daughters to go away, all alone, to study somewhere far away. We have to visit the families and community leaders to persuade them that their child will be safe and looked after.”

Despite the challenges, the Karta Initiative has gone from strength to strength over the past six years and is now looking to spread its impact wider. The team is in talks with the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs to work with the government’s Eklavya Model Residential Schools. These schools, started in 1997, cater to students from scheduled tribes residing in remote areas.

The Karta scholars will, in time, become part of the network and extend the initiative’s reach. Shashank Malik, the programme and partnerships lead at Karta, hopes that as the initial batches of scholars visit their villages after graduation, the number of enrolments will rise. “When students see someone from their own village returning with a university degree and a job, it makes a significant impact,” he says.

Karta has benefitted tremendously from word-of-mouth publicity. Following the programme’s success, various state educational departments have requested the Karta team to help their students. “That’s because they have seen how our students have progressed after just two years of being with Karta,” says Ms Jyotsna. “Our qualitative skill building is pretty intensive. The ability to comprehend languages and handle situations, interpret data and work in teams are all skills that are needed today, not in the future.”

Karta’s long-range goal is to reach 3,000 youngsters in the next five years and to support 200 fully-funded scholars. Its vision is for the scholars to become changemakers and leaders who represent and speak for their communities and villages. After all, Ms Choudhary reasons, who better than these students to articulate grassroots problems and to propose and develop solutions for the betterment of their people?