"I have a lot of vivid memories from my childhood. It was tough, even though my parents were teachers. I saw electricity in my house only in Class 8," says Dr Praveen Kumar, as he sits in a plush office in Hyderabad's Masab Tank area.
Hard to miss in the office is a large portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar behind Praveen’s desk.
"People who belonged to marginalised communities, particularly SCs and STs, were not treated too well. Even today, my ancestral home is the last house in the village, and my 75-year-old mother still stays in the village. My father was a very good Mathematics teacher, and wanted to teach all the SC/ST children there, despite resistance from the landlord," he narrates.
Years later, Praveen is carrying forward his father’s dream at a scale the latter could not have imagined. Praveen, who went from being a doctor to an IPS officer to a state Secretary, is currently in charge of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS).
The TSWREIS runs 268 residential educational institutions, which provide free food, education and shelter to thousands of underprivileged children every year. Funded and operated by the Telangana government, it caters to students from class 5 to the undergraduate level.
75% of the seats are reserved for SCs, while another 6% is reserved for STs.
A few years ago, the TSWREIS (then APSWREIS) was in shambles, and Praveen has been credited as the man who turned it all around.
Under Praveen's leadership, the TSWREIS has managed to ensure that several hundred underprivileged and Tribal students are selected for top institutes across the country including the IITs and the NITs. While many mentored by the body have climbed Mount Everest, this year two students from vanishing tribes cleared the IIT- JEE exam.
A product of the social welfare institution himself, Praveen was also one of the founders of the SWAEROES movement. The ‘SW’ in SWAROES stands for social welfare, while the AROES refers to the sky, suggesting that the sky is the limit.
Based on the ideologies of Jyothi Rao Phule and Dr. B R Ambedkar, the movement consists of alumni of the Society, who seek to empower and emancipate those who come from similar backgrounds, with the help of ten commandments.
Some excerpts from Dr Praveen Kumar's interview to TNM:
What made you voluntarily take charge of TSWREIS?
There were a few reasons. I have always looked at the poorest of the poor, who don't have proper guidance. During 22 years of my police service, I saw a lot of poor people go astray, as they had no proper direction.
As time passed, the burden of doing something was unbearable, and this led to me to take a study leave in 2011, and go to Harvard University. Once I returned, I petitioned the DGP and the Chief Minister, and told them that I would like to take charge here.
I'm not here as a police officer. I came here to pay back, because this department has been responsible for what I am today.
What were some of the initial obstacles you faced?
When I took over, there was a lack of facilities, teachers didn't have motivation, classrooms were comatose, and children were treated like slaves. There was no innovation, and parents were never treated as stake holders.
For the first six months, I was on the ground. I was sitting, eating and sleeping with the students, to understand their perspective. Then I was talking to the teachers and the parents to deduce where the system went wrong.
For every change, there will be resistance, but things eventually smoothed out.
How difficult is to convince people about education and what holds them back?
Besides socio-economic difficulties, the main thing is a lack of role models. Parents are not aware of the possibilities of success. People who are worthy of being emulated, are not staying in the villages. They've gone to urban areas. Particularly on girls, parents lose hope very fast, as they are seen as a burden.
There is a movie based on your life, after you managed to spot 13-year-old Malavath Poorna and encouraged her to become the youngest girl to summit Mount Everest. Tell us about it.
Dreaming is very important for the marginalised, and many children that I met in 2012, had big dreams. We didn't want to put a glass ceiling on the dreams, and explained that these were stereotypes imposed upon them. They had to be their own messiahs.
We convinced the parents with great difficulty, and zeroed down on two people from 110 students, after they managed to finish a rock climbing course, and climb a mountain in Darjeeling and Ladakh.
It was a long journey. In Nepal, I called Poorna's parents, and told them that if something goes wrong, the body will not come back. They responded saying that she was not their daughter, but my daughter, and society's daughter.
I even asked Poorna if she would like to come back, but she insisted on hoisting the Indian flag and Ambedkar's photo on the summit. They wanted to prove that nothing was beyond their reach.
This year, almost 100 students from such backgrounds, including two from vanishing tribes have been selected to IITs and NITs. How does that feel?
For the children, it’s a great liberation. This year, four children who belong to primitive tribal groups facing extinction have also qualified for JEE advanced. They came from the poorest background, and they worked so hard and were dogged in their determination. However, our best is yet to come.
Another thing that made a great difference, was our summer camps. Earlier, when children would go back home, they would get married off, or drop out. With summer camps, we have been able to stop that. We started with 3,000 students and 2 or 3 activities, and now have 30,000 students participating in 29 activities.
You have emphasised that all institutions under the TSWREIS focus on English. Why?
English is a language of emancipation. The poor are scared of those who speak English. They feel like slaves. We wanted to bust that stereotype. The parents feel like they have been excluded from the language for 2,000 years, and want their children to occupy that space, which has only been the domain of the ‘elite’.
We host something called E-plus clubs, where we close all the doors and windows of a class and let the children speak English with each other, in darkness. It frees them of all their inhibitions.
What motivates you to do what you do?
The first thing is my past. The second is the future. The marginalised in this country missed all the revolutions in this country. During the agrarian revolution, they remained on the fringes as coolies. The industrial revolution saw them remain as factory workers. In the digital revolution, they were either security guards or janitors.
The future will be a revolution involving automation and robots, which will displace many people. In such a situation, what will happen to the marginalised? This is what gives me sleepless nights.
What we hope, is a quantum leap, from nowhere, to everywhere. That is what we're trying to do for the children. No matter your background, you must not kill your dreams.
How do you see caste in today's society, and how do you teach the children to deal with it?
Caste exists. It is extremely difficult to annihilate caste as Babasaheb Ambedkar envisioned. Caste is very prominent and conspicuous in rural areas, while its expression is very sophisticated in urban areas. It takes different forms, and only the person who faces it, will understand it.
We don't want our children to enter the world with a sense of inferiority. We want to tell them that they may have had a history of oppression, but they must enter into the world with confidence in themselves.
Caste is going to attack you. You can't escape it. It is a given impediment. We train them to cross the barrier of caste, and dissuade them from using the word Dalit. We teach them to become indispensable wherever they are.
How did the SWAEROES movement and its 10 commandments come around?
We have been so recklessly and negatively stereotyped. Dalit is not a word I have discovered. It has been imposed on me. I have no problem with people who use it to come together under one identity, but the collateral damage it causes is that it doesn't help one to discover their true potential.
The word 'Dalit' doesn't give a solution and only acknowledges your oppression. Your identity must be a reflection of your aspirations, and not a reminder of your painful past. Your identity defines your destiny.
That's why we started the movement and its commandments. Today, we have 2 to 3 lakh members, including some, who have changed the name on their birth certificate and Aadhar card to include SWAROES as part of their identity.
What about your future plans?
I'm just a member of the SWAROES movement right now, and the beauty of it, is that it does not require a leader. It is self-sustaining. People are sick of identity issues, false sympathies and negative stereotyping. Swaroes is all for self-liberation.
As far as the Society is concerned, I'm not attached to the position. It will go on. The CM insists that every mandal should have a residential school, which is great. We have plans to pump in around Rs 15,000 crore into the system by 2019, which is a huge investment. I'm also sure that the quality of the education will remain, as we have made the parents stakeholders.