Your life’s goal can go from unseen to obvious in a flash when you realise that something important is missing — and you know how to fill the gap. That’s what happened to Raju Kendre, 30, who established the Eklavya India Foundation. His parents, from the nomadic Vanjari community in Maharashtra’s Pimpri Khandare village, were forced to abandon school when they married as children, aged seven and nine. “If your mother had studied, she would definitely have become something,” a teacher once told Kendre. His parents ensured Kendre had a lifetime’s supply of education so he could do just that.
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Since 2017, Eklavya has worked with first-generation learners from historically marginalised Dalit, Adivasi, and nomadic tribes to help them access world-class higher education, driving them to break the poverty cycle. Underlying all this is the daunting fight for greater representation at colleges in India and abroad. Six years, 1,200 success stories, and 80 participating academic institutions later, even as Eklavya’s students get offer letters from Oxford and Cambridge, there’s no resting on laurels.
“It’s a fight to write our own stories,” says Kendre, adding that the under-representation problem goes beyond education — to the media, the legal fraternity, academia and the development sector. “We must occupy decision-making and policy-making spaces.” Even today, micro communities such as the Pardhis aren’t represented in higher education at all, he adds.
A leaf out of Tukaram
Kendre’s journey has been full of detours that, in hindsight, proved useful. His confidence and childhood dream of joining the civil services grew as he worked his way through a district residential school and towards a better life. “Education was always a tool to get ahead,” he says. Living closely with students from all castes and religions for five years during this time was “an early lesson in sensitisation”. Thanks to his family, he had already been exposed to the social critique of 17th century saint Tukaram.
In 2011, aged 18, he boarded a bus from Buldhana district on the western border of Vidarbha, the agrarian distress hotspot of Maharashtra, for a 400 km journey to Pune, the education capital of the State. Modern College, where he had secured admission, was a daunting place. Cultural alienation. Check. Lack of mentors. Check. Financial struggles. Check. There were other barriers too. Unlike most people in Pune, he spoke Varhadi, a non-standard dialect of Marathi, and thus found it more difficult to get a job to help meet costs. “It hit me that lakhs of marginalised students across India must struggle like this.”
He dropped out and signed up for a distance learning degree. He also found a job with a non-profit located on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh that worked on people’s movements and eradicating child mortality. That’s when he realised how far ahead he was in the journey. “Not a single person was a graduate. They had not even completed their education. There were 40 villages with no proper access road. Electricity came there only in 2015,” says Kendre. He wondered why he was dreaming of being an IAS officer with an air-conditioned office when there was more important work to be done.
He signed up for a Master’s at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Tuljapur, a campus established with the goal of contributing to the equitable development of the rural community and, soon after, took a gap year to fight village council elections. Though he lost, he built a team of like-minded allies and realised he had to work on structural change.
During his post-graduation, he fielded calls from many aspiring students. In 2017, he became a teacher at Savitri Jyotirao Social Work College in Yavatmal, some 250 km from his hometown, and founded Eklavya. This is where he lives and where the organisation continues to be based.
Bootcamps and lived experiences
In the first two years, nearly 50 students signed up. Half of them cleared the entrance exams of leading universities in the first attempt and, soon, 80% were enrolled in colleges. Eklavya’s residential training programmes and bootcamps offer a mix of logic, reasoning, debating, English language, immersive watching of documentaries and TED talks. The sessions help students link their lived experiences to critical consciousness theory and anti-caste philosophy. “In six years, 70% of our students have easily gotten out,” says Kendre.
In 2020, when he applied for a Master’s degree abroad, he got offers from 19 universities. Again, like in Modern College, he was faced with seemingly insurmountable hurdles. The London School of Economics and Oxford University rejected his degree because they couldn’t understand the grade transcript. From kindergarten to post-graduation, he had spent about ₹1 lakh on education. Now where would he find the lakhs required for a degree abroad? This time he was better equipped to handle such questions and got a Chevening Scholarship for an M.Sc in development studies at SOAS, University of London.
“I felt I needed to be stronger academically. I felt my institution-building dream needed global exposure and the networking boost that would come with a degree at a good university abroad,” he says.
Kendre says the representation of marginalised communities is negligible in the leading global scholarships such as Rhodes, Erasmus Mundus and Commonwealth. But the work to change this has already begun. Training for the second batch of Eklavya’s Global Scholar programme — 150 students this year — is underway. Most of the mentors were students in the first batch. The programme was launched from Ambedkar House in London, exactly 100 years after the original global scholar Babasaheb Ambedkar came to the city to study at the London School of Economics.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.