For decades India has proudly worn the crown of the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’. It has an extensive and well-planned network for local-level governance across education, healthcare, and even politics. However, citizens aren’t informed or empowered enough to participate, demand their rights, and bring about change.
In 2014, a team of eight Teach for India (TFI) alumni resolved to change that. They believed that for any institution to deliver on its outcomes, good governance was a must.
Sahil Babbar, along with his TFI batch mates Ishpreet Singh, Sidharth Chopra, Garima Sharma, Narendra Shandilya, Sanjay Sharma, Saket Sinha and Rishabh Bansal identified numerous gaps in the school governance system that directly affected the learning space of students. Their journey to bring about systemic change in education started by setting up Samarthya – an NGO that empowers community members to be governance and accountability partners for local level schools.
They have designed a 3-pronged intervention, namely:
- Capacity Building Sessions: Monthly informative and engaging sessions with parents.
- On-ground Support: Monthly visits to the community to build strong relationships and be accessible.
- Grievance Redressal: Build capacity in parents to engage with the mechanisms of grievance redressal as provided by the Government.
Know your Rights
Team Samarthya joined local SMCs to understand their workings better. They knew that SMCs held immense potential as it brought local stakeholders – parents, teachers, local authority representatives, social workers working in the field of education – on a local platform to resolve local issues.
They learnt that parent members, who comprise 75% of the committee were not leveraging the power of the SMC enough as they were not aware of its role and responsibilities. Important issues such as the lack of electricity in the school or girls safety just outside the school were not being discussed and acted upon. The barrier to voice concerns/participate in school governance is further fueled by parent members feeling indebted to the institution for providing free education and taking care of their children while they worked to earn.
Samarthya designed capacity building sessions for parents that introduced them to the role, functions, responsibilities, and powers of an SMC. They understood how the Right to Education (RTE) Act could help their child. These trainings empowered them to voice their concerns and take the necessary action.
Thus, Samarthya helped change the narrative from an entitlement-based approach to rights-based approach for parents who believed that they had no rights and were indebted towards the school.
Government Collaboration for Scale
Samarthya is slowly yet steadily building its footprint in the country. They have partnered with the Haryana Government to conduct capacity-building sessions for parents from 15 schools in Sonipat district. These sessions are conducted during the SMC meetings itself.
In Delhi, Samarthya conducts the sessions in a community set up outside the school. They have parents from 12 schools participating in these sessions. In Punjab, Samarthya is part of a larger collective. They are developing strategies to increase community-level engagement for schools.
“If you truly want to scale, you need to collaborate with the Government since it is the biggest implementation agency,” states Sahil Babbar
He shares with us an example of how resourceful working with the Government can be. In Sonipat, Samarthya’s operations are partially managed by four ‘Saksham Yuvas’. A postgraduate individual who has not found employment elsewhere is employed by the Haryana Government as a ‘Saksham Yuva’ to do non-profit work or work on any other Government project. Currently, Sahil has been able to run their programs in Haryana effectively & smoothly with the help of Saksham Yuvas. This has largely decreased Samarthya’s effort in searching for employees and worrying about payrolls.
Empowering Citizens for a Good Democracy
Sahil asserts that inclusion and representation of all stakeholders are basic factors of good governance. Governance platforms can function well only if the people have the agency to speak. For Samarthya, this means that their work won’t stop at just SMCs. They are striving to work with other existing community institutions.
They have started working with Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and similar federations to empower people. They partnered with Srijan, a rural development organization and successfully completed their first 3-part training session with SHGs in 2 districts of Madhya Pradesh. The women leaders learnt how to identify and raise issues at a local level. Sahil envisions empowering the citizenry for local panchayats, healthcare and even the implementation of the MGNREGA.
Challenges on the Path to Good Governance
Samarthya’s much- needed intervention isn’t without its own set of challenges.
Samarthya has faced immense resistance from school authorities and certain bureaucrats while working on their SMC project. Authority figures who wish to skirt responsibility or do not want increased accountability, pose a hurdle. Yet, Sahil and his team march ahead and focus on schools that do wish to build a better future.
Samarthya is fighting a long battle focused on changing mindsets and bringing about systemic change. It takes time to foster a culture of shared ownership, especially in a country that is deep-rooted in power hierarchies. Hierarchies that are based on factors such as gender, caste, religion, etc. It takes time for the people to start believing that their neighbourhood public school belongs as much to them (the locals) as it does to the principal, teachers and other government officials. The impact of Samarthya’s work will have lasting effects on our democracy. The importance of such a model can often be overlooked by CSR and funding institutes that are focussed on supporting projects that yield immediate short-term impact.
But these challenges won’t stop Sahil and his team. As he affirms, “I strongly believe in democracy and our Constitution, and the avenues it has given our citizens to engage with.”