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Lounge Heroes | GK Swamy: This educator changed children’s lives in Uttarakhand villages

This retired economist established the Purkal Youth Development Society Dehradun to make English-medium education accessible to children from local villages

G.K. Swamy, 84.
G.K. Swamy, 84.

In 1997, economist G.K. Swamy shifted from Mumbai to the village of Purkal, 20km from Dehradun, in the Himalayan foothills. He moved there with his wife on retirement, seeking a more relaxed pace, and volunteered with the John Martyn Memorial School, started in Bhagwantpur in 1985 in memory of a former headmaster of Doon School.

That is when he started noticing the problems dogging children from the less well-to-do sections of society. For while the institution would impart education till class V, mostly in Hindi, to students from the villages nearby, the children would have to go to schools in the city if they wished to study further. They didn’t have access to as many opportunities as their well-off peers. The girls would be married early and alcoholism was rampant among boys.

And if they did make it to a good school, these children of mostly daily-wage workers would find it hard to fit in. “The kids from John Martyn began to be sent to English-medium schools in Dehradun on scholarship but would find it difficult to cope. So, I started taking after-school classes in 1999 in English and maths to ease the transition," says Swamy. Today, that small beginning has transformed lives, making way for a full-fledged English-medium school with 560 students and 75-80 teachers.

Initially, the classes, which would start at 3pm, were held in cattle sheds, garages and houses under construction. “I was the first student of this class—registration No.1," says 32-year-old Ashwani Sharma, who was joined by four others. “Mrs Swamy would serve us healthy snacks." At the time, the area around Bhagwantpur and Purkal didn’t have many good schools. “The area was home to casual labour and carpenters who couldn’t afford to send their kids to the city. But then things changed when Swamy Sir started his classes," says Sharma, who is part of a 42-member joint family.

Every year, a new group would join the existing ones for the free after-school programme—even those who had to travel to city schools. Swamy would devise unique lessons, allowing them the freedom to leave if they didn’t enjoy them. By the third year, he had 90 students. Families were encouraging once they saw how confident the children were becoming. Swamy also began to raise money for bus fare, uniforms and shoes for the children in city schools.

“My aspirations grew too," he laughs. “I began to take them to the Forest Research Institute and various other institutions in the area. Then, every year I would take them to Delhi, Amritsar or any other city for 10 days and talk about Mughal architecture and colonial history." Gradually, he began thinking of starting a school. In 2003, he started a primary school, adding classes VI-IX soon after, with his savings and donations. In 2003, he registered the Purkal Youth Development Society Dehradun (PYDS) and established a fully-equipped school.

Getting government approval, however, was an uphill task. The authorities even questioned the need for an English-medium school. “Bhasha schools inculcate pride in the mother tongue for sure. But English is required as well to get access to jobs in the global market," says Swamy. Finally, he got permissions; Central Board of Secondary Education approval came in 2008. The pre-primary section, however, remains his primary concern, with the focus on enhancing sensorial and motor skills. “The teacher student ratio is 1:3. We take them to ice-cream factories and more. Children should enjoy their education," says Swamy.

Today, the alumni of PYDS is spread far and wide. A recent media report mentioned Jyoti Mamgain, the daughter of an employee in PYDS’ Stree Shakti division—a self-employment wing for women—who has won a scholarship for a four-year university programme in the US, while some others are now Kennedy-Lugar fellows and Brown University scholars.

Some, like Sharma, have returned to Purkal. “After my graduation, I moved to Delhi for six years, where I worked with a travel company. Now that I am back in Purkal, I am working in the school’s resource team," he says. Yet another former student, now involved with the school, is 32-year-old Meena Khatri, who is pursuing a master’s in public administration from The Indira Gandhi National Open University. “When I spend time with the children in the school, mujhe lagta hai ki main apna bachpan phir se jee rahi hoon (I feel I am reliving my childhood). Swamy Sir is like a parent to me," she says.

One of nine siblings, she was extremely weak as a child, wracked with bouts of tuberculosis and jaundice. “Swamy Sir helped not just with my education but also with my medical bills. If he hadn’t been there, I would have been a daily-wage worker somewhere," says Khatri.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for Swamy. To meet the rising costs of running a school—up from 4-5 lakh in 2003 to 6.2 crore last year—his team and he have been raising funds through charity, with individuals as well as companies coming forward to help.

Swamy, now 84, has decided to take a back seat. He formally retired from the PYDS eight months ago. “Anoop Seth, a financial services professional and a long-time donor and volunteer, will now be actively running the school. He has taken voluntary retirement and will be moving from Gurugram (Haryana) to Purkal shortly," says Swamy.

But his second retirement isn’t stopping him from thinking of new education models. A big proponent of progressive learning, or student-driven learning, Swamy believes trusts and foundations such as the Krishnamurti Foundation Schools, rather than the government or private sector, should initiate quality education models. “I am thinking about new schools. They need not be expensive but accessible to all," he says.

As he looks back, he wonders what he would have done if it hadn’t been for the school. “The energy and enthusiasm that I witnessed there has kept me alive," says Swamy. “It gave my life meaning. My wife has always been by my side as a great support. I still want to be useful to the world. Let’s see how that goes."

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