A lone Agastya van turns onto a narrow, winding road, navigating the meandering dirt paths of Kuppam town. In the far distance, the high-pitched voices of school children can be heard, crisp and clear in the silent night air. Following their voices, the van reaches the centre of the village where it finds a nondescript house furnished with a small lamp hanging from the ceiling and a dusty old blackboard.
Anyone would be surprised at such a scene – anyone but Jayashree that is. Jayashree, a final year MSc student, is an instructor at Agastya’s Operation Vasantha Program and spends two hours every evening volunteering at her village community centre at C.P. Kunta. There, she teaches young students Mathematics, Science and other academic subjects in fluent Telegu. Jayashree, however, is but one of the 47 Agastya instructors who willingly spend their evenings to educate and inspire weaker students and school dropouts from their villages.
These students, many of whom are first generation learners, had dropped out of school for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, some were “encouraged” to do so to work and contribute to the family’s income. Secondly, younger siblings often have to give up their studies if their older siblings were already pursuing higher education. This is because many families could not afford the hefty economic burden of putting all their children through school. Now, with Operation Vasantha, these students attend remedial lessons at night after completing their day work in the field, allowing them to continue learning and eventually join in regular classes in school. In fact, in one of the villages that Operation Vasantha has been sowing seeds in, 13 out of the 15 dropouts have since been mainstreamed back to school.
Harish is a case in point. Stopping school to rear cattle when his parents passed away, Harish had always wanted to return to school but was held back by his grandfather, who did not see the value of spending on education. However, chancing upon an Operation Vasantha class one evening, Harish conveyed his intentions to the instructor who then visited his home and persuaded his grandfather to allow him to return to school. Today, Harish not only attends school and evening remedial lessons regularly, he is also an active member of the Young Instructor Leader (YIL) Program which allows him to pick up valuable life skills.
So how was Operation Vasantha conceived? The idea sparked off in April 2009 during a visit to Peddaparthikunta village by Agastya Chairman Ramji Raghavan. There, he ran into a female student, Vasantha, whom he found was teaching other students in her village on her own accord. This incident made him realise the power of community centres – centres that could be the epicentre of all self-initiated community development activities. He envisioned these centres as platforms for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, whereby more-privileged community members would take it upon themselves to coach the less privileged. And thus, Operation Vasantha was born with Agastya staff setting up centres in their own villages and adopting the slogan “for the community, by the community”.
This motto is strongly echoed by Jayashree and her fellow instructors at Operation Vasantha. Born and bred in C.P Kunta itself, the key reason for Jayashree’s commitment and zeal towards Operation Vasantha has been her desire to give back to her village – the village that has shaped who and what she is today. To this end, Jayashree, building on her travelling experience, often teaches beyond the textbook, explaining to her students about city life and exposing them to the world beyond the borders of Kuppam. In fact, after her graduation, Jayashree hopes to become a politician so that she can bring about revolutionary changes to her village. In particular, she wants to implement a compulsory education policy so that the village children will be able to find better jobs and earn more money for their families in the future. Having volunteered for two years, Jayashree credits Operation Vasantha for giving her the opportunity to interact with her village community where, through interactions with children and their parents, she has developed a firm understanding of the many grassroots issues plaguing the community. Besides, monthly meetings with other instructors at the main Agastya campus allows for teacher training and sharing of personal insights. Through these gatherings, problems are resolved and connections between surrounding communities become even more intertwined together.
Instructor Jayashree and Operation Vasantha in-charge Jayamma
With an increasing number of youths like Jayashree who are giving back to the community and involving themselves with village issues, Agastya is confident that Operation Vasantha will undoubtedly fulfil one of the objectives of motivating more youths to shed their passivity, take responsibility for their communities and become catalysts for social change.
Leaving the house, the headlights of the Agastya van stab through the deep darkness of the village night and onto the pavements. Village kids playing by the roadside, realizing that it is the Agastya van, immediately stop and stand to wave and greet the passer-bys. “Goodbye Jayamma mdm!”, they all exclaim in unison. Jayamma, the lady in-charge of Operation Vasantha, smiles and bids them farewell.
“This is the impact of Agastya. At villages where Operation Vasantha has been set up, kids are no longer apprehensive but instead are excited to speak to strangers.”
It is indeed heartening to know that in the dead of the night and at various community centres around Kuppam, a grassroots revolution is slowly but surely happening.