In 2000, when Bansi Bhuvaa was just a year old, her father, a soldier serving in Siachen, was killed in action; shortly after that, her mother passed away too, succumbing to a combination of grief and poor treatment for a cerebral haemorrhage. Little Bansi was brought up by her grandparents in Jetput, in Gujarat’s Rajkot district.
Her grandparents weren’t well-off or well educated, but they let nothing stand in the way of her education, and she in turn did her best to excel at her studies; she was good enough to get admission in a Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (a set of government-run residential and co-educational schools for talented children in rural areas). There, her cumulative grade point percentage (CGPA) in Class X was a perfect 10, and in Class XII, she scored 91%. Now 18, she is preparing for next year’s National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET, for aspirants to medical schools). She wants to be a neurosurgeon, and one of the factors that drives her is a question that has stayed in her mind: could her mother have survived had she received proper medical care?
Her best pal, Athira M.S, 18, is from Palode village in Kerala’s Trivandrum district, and comes from a similar humble background. Her father is a manual labourer, and her mother was once a maid. “For better prospects for me and my sister, she took a job in Kuwait in 2008; the separation was heartbreaking for us, and she too was unable to bear the pain and returned home after a year,” says Athira. She is now a seamstress. Her parents also have dreams for her, which she shares: they hope she will become a doctor, and she wants to be a paediatrician, because she loves children. She’s kept her part of the deal so far, getting into a JNV, where she discovered an aptitude for Math, and her Class X CGPA was 9 and she got 80% in her Class XII exams.
Veerendra Kumar, 18, from Jhansi, lost his father, a manual labourer, in an accident in 2008. A good student, he too manged to clear the test to get into a JNV, and he hasn’t looked back: his CGPA was 9.6 in Class X and he got 84% in Class XII. He has a passion for programming in C++, and wants to be a computer engineer.
And there is Ganesh Mridha, 18 from Angul district in Odisha, also the son of a labourer, who found his life changing when he got into a JNV: “I discovered I had an interest in human physiology and came to love biology.” His CGPA was 7.6 in Class X and he got 80% in Class XII. His aim now is to be a doctor.
His friend Sundar Singh, 17, is from the industrial township of Faridabad, Haryana. His prospects seemed bleak after his father’s small business in industrial wares went bust, leaving the family, including his four siblings, in dire economic straits. But Sundar is bucking the odds too, with focus and hard-work. With a CGPA of 9.4 in class 10 and 90.6% in class 12, he is preparing for the NEET next year.
A home for talent
The five teenagers are among 245 students who live and study at the Dakshana Foundation campus in Kadus village, Khed taluka, near Pune. They, in turn are among 1,085 students across India being coached by the foundation. Set up in 2007 by California-based Indian American investor Mohnish Pabrai and his wife Harina Kapoor, Dakshana’s method is to tie up with JNVs across the country (it currently has seven such relationships in place, with five state governments) and coach selected students over a two-year period, free of cost, to prepare for the NEET and the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE, which aspirants to elite engineering colleges must pass).
Mr. Pabrai’s philosophy, he says, is “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him and his family for a lifetime. Dakshana does not believe in giving fish. We believe in teaching fishing. We’ve been very successful with our ‘creating great fishermen’ escapades.”
The Pune campus, set up in 2014, rests amidst lush greenery flanked by several small hills (the land once housed a resort and spa). But the idyllic environment is not the only thing that differentiates it from the foundation’s other centres. Here, after the students pass their Class XII exams, they get a speeded-up one-year coaching period.
“The foundation spends around ₹1.75 lakh per student and offers them free lodging and boarding,” says Sharmila Pai, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Dakshana. “The study regimen is naturally more demanding since they have barely ten months to ready themselves for the crucial exams.”
The discipline is strict, and the schedule rigorous. For six days a week, there are six-hour days — four hours of classes, and after lunch, two hours of problem-solving, then a comprehensive Sunday test in all subjects.
Unlike kids their age elsewhere, the students surrender their mobile phones at the start of the term. “They are given two hours each Sunday to speak to their loved ones,” says Ram Sharma, a retired army colonel who serves as Dakshana’s Chief Executive Officer. “But their degree of self-motivation is generally very high as the stakes are much higher for these students. What we essentially do is help give them the vital push.”
Most of the students, though, willingly sacrifice sleep to study more, so much so that Mr. Sharma says that the centre has instituted compulsory physical training, yoga and games to help the students de-stress.
Topping the charts
The results have been striking. In the first year, 2015–16, 77 of the 78 scholars prepared for JEE, 77 cleared the Mains (qualifying them for the NITs) and 61 the JEE Advanced, which got them into IITs. In the second year, there were 70 students attempting the JEE, of which all cleared the Mains, and 69 the Advanced. And of the 70 NEET aspirants, every one passed, and eight cracked the even tougher AIIMS entrance exam.
For the students, this feels natural. As Sundar puts it, “We already feel nearer to our ultimate goal when we clear the Dakshana entrance test.” He says that being out in clean air, away from the noise and distractions of the city, makes this far better than coaching centres like Kota.
Athira echoes the sentiment: “The faculty and the surroundings are really conducive for study.” Ganesh says, “It is here in Dakshana that I feel my potential is being harnessed effectively.”
Dakshana has ambitious plans. “Our current infrastructure capacity allows for 300 scholars,” Ms. Pai says. “Plans are afoot to construct a hostel for 200 additional scholars at an approximate cost of ₹6 crore.” She says that she hopes more state governments show interest in its methods. “The more the number of our tie-ups with the JNVs, the more students can avail of our free coaching facilities and the more we increase developmental opportunities in a knowledge-oriented economy.” The longer-term goal is to induct 2020 students by 2020.
Founders: Mohnish Pabrai & Harina Kapoor
Founded: 2005 (commenced operations in 2007)
Source of funds: Donations