Azim Premji, currently ranked as India’s second wealthiest billionaire, certainly is a man of his word.
In May 2001, he pledged to the Georgia-Indo American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta his company Wipro LLC’s support for its Atlanta office. Today that office has served as a model for the company’s offices elsewhere in the U.S.. It also has hired hundreds of employees, launched many of the company’s marketing campaigns and developed ties with universities across the Southeast.
In February 2013 he was the first Indian citizen to sign The Giving Pledge, his counterparts Bill and Medinda Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s campaign to encourage the world’s richest people to donate at least half of their wealth to charity.
A few days later, he announced in a public letter that he was donating $2.3 billion to his Azim Premji Foundation “with the aim of working in collaboration with the government to improve the public schooling system.”
In his 2013 letter he said that the foundation would work “on capacity development of teachers and other people in the public education system and also on other related academic and managerial issues.”
Last month, he went even further, announcing that he would be giving $7.5 billion to the foundation reportedly bringing his total donation to $21 billion.
In turn, the foundation said it would launch a new university in northern India.
The foundation already had set up the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, India, where Wipro’s headquarters is located, to develop professionals in education and related human development fields. Under the new grant, this facility will have more than 400 faculty members and expand its services to 5,000 students.
It also is to expand its support for the 150 other non-profits serving under-privileged and marginalized Indians by tripling its grants to them.
India’s school system is huge with some 1.5 million schools and seven million working in the education system serving more than 260 million students. India’s government has sought to have a school within walking distance of each student’s home. And it has been successful in promoting enrollment in the students’ early years. According to government reports, 94.8 percent of eligible students are signed up from grades one to eight and 77 percent for grades one to 12.
But the statistics also reveal that a quarter of the students drop out by grade five and almost half leave by grade eight due primarily to poor quality education and untrained, unqualified teachers.
Therefore, instead of opening new schools for the country’s burgeoning population, the foundation has announced that it would train thousands of “education experts” to raise educational standards throughout the country.
“The biggest problem ailing Indian education is the lack of quality people,” Mr. Premji has reportedly said emphasizing that by uplifting the educational standards around the country the schools already in existence would create a “fairer” society.
Anurag Behar, chief sustainability officer at Wipro Lid., CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation and vice chancellor of Azim Premji University, has said:
“We didn’t want to go into establishing islands of excellence. We could have said, ‘Let’s establish 100 great schools where we would take underprivileged children’, but 100 great schools would be just that — 100 great schools. Now 100, 200 or 2,000 is a meaningless number when you talk of 1.4 million schools.”
By seeking to create a “fairer” society, Mr. Premji is acutely aware that India’s economy needs to create 10 million new jobs annually until 2030 to keep up with the growth of its working-age population. If these jobs aren’t created, India’s social problems are apt to be exacerbated as religious Hindu extremism and anti-Muslim resentment intensify and economic distinctions develop even further.
With these social problems fomenting under the country’s surface, the foundation has encouraged teachers to tap into songs of devotional poet-saints who have been an integral part of Indian religious life for centuries.
Students are exposed to the beliefs of the 15th century mystic Kabir who inspired poetry and music currently aimed at diffusing the tensions among India’s many different ethnic and religious communities.
Live music concerts, interactions with folk singers, film screenings and discussions and workshops dealing with the themes of cultural diversity and ecology are part of their curriculum, especially in the early years.
While these curriculums reach back in time in search of relevant solutions to contemporary problems, they may benefit from modern technologies that enable the students to create their own publications and capture their creative work. They also open the possibilities of creating new collaborations through research projects, teacher exchanges and subsidized online courses by universities in the United States and elsewhere.
Such ambitions wouldn’t be foreign to Mr. Premji who built his father’s vegetable oil company into a $25 billion global outsourcing giant which is transforming the way many multinationals do business.
Aware of the close and long-term relationship between Jagdesh Sheth, the Charles H. Kellstadt professor of marketing at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University, and Mr. Premji, Global Atlanta asked Dr. Sheth for his opinion concerning Mr. Premji’s decision to honor the Giving Pledge. His responses follow:
Global Atlanta: Do you agree with Mr. Premji’s determination not to start new schools to support the educational needs of India’s rural populations but to concentrate on improving the preparations of teachers and curricula?
Dr. Sheth: Azim Premji is on the right track for two reasons First, there is a critical shortage of administrative leaders in the public schools. There is also critical shortage of teachers for rural India. Azim Premji University is organized to develop the capacity at a national level and the expectation is that the graduates will go back to their community and serve the rural and the poor population.
This is similar to what is true in the U.S. both in education and healthcare especially in the South where there is such a great divide between metro and rural population in education and health care.
Second, Azim Premji tried first to support large scale changes by partnering with the existing government (public ) schools with millions of children. He found that the weakest link was critical shortage of teacher talent as good administrators.
He also felt that the skill set of corporate managers can transform education better thru development of the next generation of teachers and administrators especially for the rural community. Therefore , his leadership team comes from those managers who have value-based leadership.
Anurag Behar who is the president of Azim Premji University is a follower of Gandhi, for example. He also has been a backer of the Kabir Project.
Global Atlanta: The Kabir Project has been inspired by the 15th century mystic who stood for certain values that are being exposed today to students in some of the early grades. The Kabir project supports the work of artist and educator Vishakha Chanchani to develop illustrated books which draw inspiration from the poetry of the mystic Kabir. It also encourages teachers to bring mystic poetry and music into the classroom and provide greater exposure to concerts and film screenings.
In your view what are these values and how will they affect the students.
Dr. Sheth: Despite the controversy about Kabir, his legacy remains strong. This is similar to many artists ( for example Dali) as well as many western and eastern writers and poets. The Sufi tradition is very popular in India and it is perceived as a stand alone philosophy of life and relationships. Kabir is worshipped by both Hindu and Muslim populations. The message is that all faiths are welcome and each has something to contribute to human development.
I believe Azim Premji University (APU) is more experimental and looks at more wholistic approach to education and human development. I am told that similar to Asoka University in the North, APU is keen to develop it’s own curriculum rather than follow the British system. It seems that there is resurgence to rediscover Indian philosophy and wisdom and even rituals with western knowledge. It is similar to fusion between medicine and meditation,
Global Atlanta: A great example is the book “One Tree One Parrot,” which is based on a Kabir song that tells the story of a brave parrot, who puts out a forest fire. An illustrated book was inspired by the song which includes a picture scroll and dance drama created by the students at a school in Bengaluru that has been published and can be viewed on the internet. Will such practices provide a good foundation for these students in the future?
Dr. Sheth: I really don’t know. India is a country of all types of experiments and trials. It seems less regimented than western system and allows grass roots approach especially in Education and health care .
Global Atlanta: At the same time, Mr. Premji is encouraging India’s girls to prepare themselves for the future by developing computer skills. One of the great challenges is for these girls to stay in school. Drop out rates are a challenge for both boys and girls. Do you think that today’s technologies can help these students, especially those in the rural areas, and will India be able to create enough jobs to serve the needs of its growing population?
Dr. Sheth: Computer skill is more strategic philanthropy. It is comparable to what Bill Gates and Microsoft’s vision of having a computer in every hand and on every desk. I think digital literacy is the future especially among the disadvantaged population and for the girls from more traditional families.
Global Atlanta: Do you think that there are parallels in Mr. Premji’s approach as a means of addressing marginalized communities in the U.S.
Dr. Sheth: There are many parallels between India and the United States especially in primary and secondary education. In the US, we have faith based schools, Junior Achievement engagement with middle school children, and charter schools. Both nations love to experiment, both believe in innovation and out of the box thinking. The common mission is to make ordinary people extraordinary. This is especially true for children and adults with disabilities.
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