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Girl Power

The Bharti Foundation’s educational programmes aimed at India’s poorest people could dramatically improve their lives, and change attitudes towards women.

If there is one thing that a philanthropist wants, it’s bang for their buck. One way to increase the chances that your money does real good is to address a problem where the possibility of success is great, and it’ll be clear what success looks like.

Take, for example, literacy rates among the underprivileged in India – and especially among girls. Female literacy there is appallingly low. Nationwide, just two-thirds of women can read and write, a number that falls to just half in the north-west state of Rajasthan.

It’s often said that the low educational standards reached by girls in the country amplify the view that some have of women as less valuable than men – something which in turn is said to fuel the shockingly high rape rates, the prevalence of child marriages in some regions and the number of girls that are aborted: in Rajasthan there are only 883 girls aged under six for every 1,000 boys.

India was ranked 105th out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in 2012, and a Trust Law survey last year found India to be the worst G20 country in which to be a woman.

Education, then, is a big problem. And so when the Mittal family, the founders of the Bharti conglomerate that is best known for owning the Airtel mobile phone company, set up a charitable foundation in 2000, they knew that they wanted to work in education. At first they took a broad-spectrum approach, looking at both grassroots schooling and higher education.

They gave $5 million (€3.7 million) to the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to fund technology education and PhDs, and a further $1 million to a centre for telecom research. This focus remains, and in 2012 the Bharti Institute of Public Policy opened at the Indian School of Business.

But the work the family is most proud of is its flagship Satya Bharti School Programme, whose motto is: “To help underprivileged children and young people of our country realise their potential.” It operates in states with what it calls a “discouraging male-female ratio” and tries to encourage higher rates of attendance at school for girls. Some of the solutions are simple: to have a separate toilet for girls, for example, and to have one female teacher in each shift.

There are also “special sensitisation campaigns” to “encourage parents to send their daughters to school”. The programme involves 38,000 children in 255 villages across six provinces. Forty-eight percent of students enrolled at Satya Bharti Schools are girls.

It is clearly something close to the heart of Rakesh Mittal (pictured, right), who has worked at the family business his whole career. “Today we are spending about $9 million a year,” he says, sitting in his office in Delhi. But he aims to spend more. Over the next three to five years, he reckons, more schools will be added until they reach the target of 100,000 children in Bharti schools. “And we would be spending almost double the amount we are spending today,” he says.

Half of the money comes from interest from the initial two billion rupees (€27.3 million) that the family pumped into the foundation when it was set up in 2000, and the rest from partners including Google, JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank.

Mittal clearly believes that philanthropy is his duty. “Work is our passion so clearly that takes most of our time,” he says. But “these are two sides of the same coin”, he adds. “I believe that, as far as the philanthropic initiatives are concerned, this is something that needs to be done by every citizen of the country in any which way, whether it is a monetary contribution or personal time. You could go mentor a few people.”

He points out that in a country where 55% of the population is under 25 years of age, education is vital. “I very strongly believe that unless we really focus on education, right from the primary level through to high school and secondary, we will be missing out on the opportunities of educating these children, of providing them with vocational training and the skill-set to make them employable, and more importantly to be part of the economic growth of India in the near future.”

As Mittal sees it, the Bharti Foundation is built from the same DNA as the family’s conglomerate. Bharti Enterprises was founded in 1976 by Mittal’s brother Sunil Bharti Mittal – the family is not related to the steel Mittals – and began by making crankshafts for local bicycle-makers in the brothers’ native Punjab.

The business soon moved to Delhi, and in 1984 started manufacturing push-button phones. In the early 1990s Bharti won a mobile phone operating license and cashed in on the mobile boom. Soon the Airtel mobile phone brand was born. It is now the world’s third biggest, with around 200 million customer in 20 countries, many in Africa. The conglomerate has also teamed up with western brands such as insurer Axa and supermarket Walmart in India.

“The Bharti group of companies have always believed in contributing to society through the CSR initiatives,” says Mittal, but in 2000 it was decided that this should be formalised into a foundation. “We felt that we needed to have a very focused agenda and focused intervention in making a very positive and big-bang impact in an area where we can go and make a difference,” he says. “This really comes from the spirit of Bharti Enterprises – which is to make a difference in whatever we do.”

At first they worked as a rather conventional foundation. As well as the higher education projects, it had “the clear vision of helping the underprivileged children and young people of India to realise their potential” and they were involved in numerous initiatives.

“A majority of them were through NGOs or societies and foundations that came and sought help from us for the projects they were involved in. That included primary education, until one day we realised that this is not something that was the aim of setting up Bharti Foundation – of just writing cheques to NGOs and not having a visibility of what was happening thereafter. So we decided to focus on education and more importantly education in rural India (boys in a Satya Bharti  school). And that is where the children either don’t go to school or if they do go to school, they don’t end up getting educated.”

This set the tone for a radical change in policy, and in 2006 the first Satya Bharti schools were set up. “Once we started this journey, we felt that this was something that we need to manage, run, control and monitor. And going through NGOs does bring about that challenge of non-transparency,” says Mittal. 

That’s not to say the Bharti Foundation is not a team player. It works with third-party agencies or companies to help with teacher-training and student-learning assessment, and it also still works with NGOs to develop curriculums at the schools – but this is definitely a collaboration, with the foundation taking an active role in guiding the project, not just bankrolling other people’s ideas.

The foundation now employs 140 staff, who support 1,400 teachers at 255 schools. The first Bharti schools were primaries, up to year five (when children are about nine or 10 years old), and there are now 188 of these. In addition there are also 62 elementary schools, up to year 8, and there are five secondary schools, to year 12, although 20 more secondaries are in the pipeline. “This is to make sure that all the children who are going through the Satya Bharti programme go through a holistic school education programme,” Mittal says. Forty-nine of the schools are in Rajasthan.

It’s there that the foundation has entered into an innovative and intriguing private-public partnership with the government. Mittal has also become a member of the Punjab Educational Development Board and works closely with the provincial government, which leased the foundation land for a “nominal amount”, where a school has been built. Half the money for the construction and 70% of the operational expenditure comes from the government, while Mittal has brought in the rest.

“This has been, in my mind, a pioneering initiative where the public and private are getting together on a platform to bring quality education to children in villages,” he says. “The government is very happy, and the village community is very happy because they can see that today their children are not only getting quality education, but are also productively integrated and engaged into a value system, into community development and ecological issues.”

The foundation is currently in talks with the government of other states about a similar scheme, to provide teacher training. (In an example of joined-up thinking, Airtel has a scheme where young managers go and help train teachers in English
and maths.)

So what do the children learn? Vocational training is a big part of the curriculum. “I believe if every child – he or she – can have a skill, when they leave school they become employable,” Mittal says. “Many of these children may not want to go in for higher education but they should at least start earning a decent living and that can only come when they are skilled for a job.”

Interestingly, the Indian government has now started talking about having vocational training as part of the school curriculum.

So jobs matter. But so do values. “I see the children at Satya Bharti schools (pictured, right) more as change agents,” says Mittal. “They are going back to their homes and telling their family members that they need to brush their teeth twice a day, bathe every day, that the kitchen is not clean and clothes are dirty. That is basically how children go and engage with the communities they live in, acting as a catalyst to bring about change.”

And a big part of this is involving girls. “I think there is a lot of commitment from the parents when the female child is educated in ensuring that a lot of social issues in the communities they live in are also taken care of,” he says.

In other words, if a girl is educated, she is less likely to be sold off as a child-bride, and more likely to be seen as a valuable member of society. And that can cause true change. “I believe that if you teach a girl, the future generations get educated,” Mittal says. That’s what you call impact. 

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