Shanti Bhavan’s children: from abject poverty to business elite

This story was reported by the entire Journalism Without Walls team. It was written by Diana Lopez.

“Don’t force them to get married,” Abraham George, founder of Shanti Bhavan Residential School, told the parents of the Class of 2015.

George was addressing about 20 parents in a private meeting that took place minutes after the graduation ceremony ended.

Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project is a residential school that George founded in 1997. George, a businessman born in Kerala, India’s southwesternmost state, spent his youth in the Indian Army, then moved to New York. He obtained an M.B.A in economics, an M.S. in finance and a Ph.D. in international finance and banking from the Stern School of Business at New York University, where he teaches as an adjunct faculty member.

After spending over 25 years in the international finance and technology sectors, he sold his companies to dedicate himself to his nonprofit work in South India.

The school, located on the border between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, houses approximately 200 students from India’s most disadvantaged group, the Dalits, or “untouchables,” from villages and city slums. Their families earn less than $1 per day.

They are among India’s “millions of undernourished, under-educated and under-employed poor,” and without intervention, the children are “destined to a future of abuse, social segregation and discrimination,” the school’s website says.

Despite laws banning traditional, Jim Crow-like restrictions on Dalits–separate eating facilities, separate wells, separate temples, limited occupational choices–a well-documented bigotry toward Dalits remains part of Indian life.

From the age of 3½ – 4 until they finish 12th grade, Shanti Bhavan’s students live for all but a few weeks of the year at the school. When they graduate, they attend some of India’s top universities in Bangalore, and nearly all then work at major industrial and financial multinational companies.

Piles of books in a classroom at Shanti Bhavan. (Photo: Alicia Bermudez)

Piles of books in a classroom at Shanti Bhavan. (Photo: Alicia Bermudez)

“They have the potential to have very good jobs and very good salaries,” George told the parents as he warned them against interfering with their children’s continued progress. He promised that the graduates’ success in applying what the school calls “globally shared values” “will completely change your family’s status in society.”

Shanti Bhavan’s method, however, creates a wide gap between the students and the families and culture of their births.

“I’m much more connected to all my classmates here and everything than [to] my family and my siblings,” said 20-year-old Shashishektar Rajannah, or “Shashi,” a 2013 graduate from Shanti Bhavan who attended this year’s graduation.  “Now that I live at home, because I’m in college, I’m slowly starting to get to know everybody.”

This approach has critics. “This is a good way to cut a person’s roots,” said Issac Arul Selva, a self-taught Bangalore journalist and researcher and a Dalit who grew up in poverty. “Studying in a school and college is not knowledge. It’s information. Your knowledge comes from your parents. It’s in your roots.”

The school accepts 12 girls and 12 boys per year. Only one member per family receives admission.

“There is no test to get into Shanti Bhavan, just a screening for basic learning,” said Narmala Dhanpal, an administrator there for 15 years. The recruitment team includes a social worker, a clinical psychologist, a pediatrician and the school principal who evaluate the candidates for learning disabilities and physical fitness.

After all, these kids need to be able to learn and follow procedures. “They’re being groomed, so to speak, to go into business and business colleges, economics degrees and such,” said Eric Marin, a Chilean who teaches music at the school.

And the students are meeting the expectations. Rajannah is studying business at Christ University. Vijayalakshmi Vivegan, a student graduating this year, will attend St. Joseph’s College of Commerce. Shanti Bhavan chooses the graduates’ colleges and pays for their university educations.

Ajit George, operations director at Shanti Bhavan Children's Project, is the son of its founder. (Photo: Alicia Bermudez)

Ajit George, operations director at Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, is the son of its founder. (Photo: Alicia Bermudez)

“We fund everything for 17 years,” said Ajit George, son of the founder and the school’s director of operations. “In fact, we are the only nonprofit institution in the world that has ever done something like this. We are a revolutionary model.”

After completing their bachelor’s degrees, he continued, Shanti Bhavan alumni receive job offers from Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, Hewlett Packard, Wipro and other multinational corporations.

Graduation at Shanti Bhavan is a four-day celebration, starting on Thursday with soccer matches, dancing and performances and ending on Sunday with the ceremony.

The graduation took place in a classroom building with a large, central assembly area. (Photo: Kelly Zeegers)

The graduation took place in a classroom building with a large, central assembly area. (Photo: Kelly Zegers)

This year’s ceremony began at 11:15 a.m. when the audience’s attention was directed to a decorated stage with a banner that read “Follow your Dreams, Reach for the Stars.” A ninth-grade student stood on a step to reach the microphone stand and introduce herself as the host.

Every student was present, from first-graders sitting cross-legged in front of the stage to the graduating 12th graders sitting two by two in folding chairs alongside the audience. Twenty-one alumni who had received their university degrees sat on the other side of the hall, having returned to celebrate their accomplishments.

Volunteers from around the world, guests, parents and Shanti Bhavan staff sat in the audience, listening to touching, personal speeches.

Nandagopal Chandragam, the valedictorian and a self-proclaimed “shy man of few words,” individually addressed each of his classmates and the professors, volunteers and staff. He spoke of “the hallmark of life at Shanti Bhavan: being pushed to become your best self.”

“Our education is our voice, and we all have a responsibility to stand up for the rights of the voiceless,” he said. “Children of Shanti Bhavan, we have been given an incredible opportunity that has changed the course of our lives and our families. We can change the world.”

Two parent representatives spoke, one in Telegu and the other in Tamil. George, accompanied by Narindra Bachlaus, the keynote speaker and CEO of Exxon Mobil India, handed out the diplomas. The ceremony ended with songs.

At Shanti Bhavan, students live in dormitories, sleeping in rooms that hold up to 12 beds each, with “aunties,” as Indians typically address older, much-loved women, watching over them.  The older students help with the younger ones, giving them baths, brushing their hair and acting as surrogate brothers and sisters.

Shanti Bhavan handles all its students’ expenses, from food and school materials to haircuts and clothes, at a cost of about $4 per child per day. For the ceremony, it provided fine sarees and dress clothes for all the graduates. According to its published financial statements, Shanti Bhavan’s budget for the 2014-15 school year was $428,386.

Support for Shanti Bhavan initially came from the George Foundation. During the global economic downturn of 2008 and 2009, the foundation’s portfolio took a hit, and the school could not afford to enroll new classes. Since Ajit George took over its fundraising in 2008, the school has formed partnerships with the Verizon Foundation, the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce and other international organizations.

The students and alumni are, to a person, polite, gracious and accomplished, well-prepared to take up residence in the elite world for which they have been groomed, a long, long way from the poverty in which they were born.

“These kids are amazing,” Ajit George said during the luncheon that followed the ceremony as the graduates and older students mingled with the guests, chatting, bringing them food and drinks. You only have to talk to them for about five minutes to go, ‘That’s pretty incredible.’”

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