New Delhi — Close to a highway that connects the Indian capital to the neighboring northern Haryana state lies a small school where the world's largest brand has helped produce an amazing transformation.
Coca-Cola India — along with celebrities, other businesses and a television network — improved the once-dilapidated government middle school in Jhundpur Village and turned it into a model educational institution.
Today, more than 600 boys and girls attend classes, eat nutritious lunches and play games like “I Spy” behind towering neem and mahogany trees. Beyond the campus are mustard plant fields where egrets happily pluck honey-filled buds.
High Dropout Rates and Cows in the Courtyard Replaced by High Attendance
Not long ago, however, the school was a bare-bones structure with only 370 students and two interim teachers. Power failures were frequent and children were forced to attend class in the dark. Teachers often failed to show up, and English, a prerequisite for most white-collar jobs in India, was rarely taught. Local villagers would often herd their cattle to graze within the school compound.
Today the lights are on, and children — not livestock — populate the campus. Almost a dozen teachers offer instruction, conducting classes five days a week. Metal drawing boards replace earlier ones made of cement. A new library funded by the United Kingdom-based Pearson Foundation houses more than 1,000 books — including novels and a few Spider-Man comic books. The students learn academic subjects as well as environmental ones, such as the intricacies of rainwater harvesting. The local elected-body, the Panchayat, lent a hand by laying the pathway making it easier for students to walk to class.
Basic Sanitation Boosts Participation
The transformation of the school in Jhundpur Village also included addressing a very basic concern — improved sanitation. There is no sanitation access for girls at almost fifty percent of schools in India. The girls are expected to take turns with the boys using single — often non-functional — toilets. Where there are no facilities, children use nearby fields — a situation that can be acutely distressing for some girls. In fact, many young women drop out of school to avoid the embarrassment of having to use the restroom in such challenging situations.
Fortunately, the sanitation issue has improved at many of these schools with funding from Support My School, a program led by Coca-Cola India. The initiative provides educational institutions, like the one in Jhundpur Village, with separate bathrooms and toilets for girls. "Now they are happy. They have their privacy, they have their education," says Satish Solanki, a district-level officer. Using the sanitation improvements as a starting point, Solanki now wants the school to expand and is working to get more funds for additional classes.
"Coca-Cola India is a godsend to us. Actually, it has done the job of the state government," says Yugdatta Arya, 46, who has served as the school's principal for the past five years. "Once, I wondered how to keep the cattle out. Today, I wonder how to manage an ever-increasing number of students."
How the Initiative Works
The program, the Coca-Cola-NDTV Support My School Campaign, works closely with large Indian companies and multinational corporations. For as little as $10,000, Support My School sets up water filters, teaches rainwater harvesting methods, plants trees, installs playground equipment, and educates children on how to live healthier lives. The partners in the campaign bring in other important resources to schools like the one in Jhundpur Village. In addition to the libraries provided by the Pearson Foundation, for example, Tata Teleservices installs computer centers.
The program has drawn accolades from many, including India’s minister of education, Kapil Sibal.
"There should be more like [Coca-Cola]," the minister said, in reference to the company’s efforts to implement these changes in more than 100 schools throughout India.
The campaign has been motivating to young adults as well. Harkunwar Singh, who took time off from college to teach computer basics to children in this school said, "if we don't do it, who will? I think youngsters across India should reach out and offer a hand and merge the divide."
Coca-Cola India's efforts are creating necessary change in a country where nearly half of the population, or more than 600 million people, have low literacy levels. Nearly 70 percent of the 187 million students in grades one through eight attend government schools that lack proper education and supplementary facilities like libraries, midday meals, playgrounds and toilets for girls. The cumulative impact of the lack of basic necessities exacerbates the social issues that plague children in rural India. It is estimated that nearly 1 in 3 children drop out by 5th grade and 1 in 2 by 8th grade.
"Who's going to help that little child with quality education and homework, and hold his hand? The failure to educate the poor threatens to derail India's economic miracle," says Atul Singh, President of Coca-Cola India and Southwest Asia, who personally pushed the program and picked up Rs 60 million — about $1 million USD — in help from some top Indian and multinational organizations, foundations and concerned citizens.
One of those important supporters, and the ambassador for the campaign is Sachin Tendulkar, the world's most venerated cricketer and now a member of parliament (MP), who routinely visits various schools across India as a Coca-Cola goodwill ambassador and Support My School spokesperson. "His presence has had a superlative effect," adds Singh.
The Need to Educate More Students
The schools that have been helped so far by the program can be viewed as templates for success. Experts believe programs like these help curb the broad socioeconomic gap that exists between the haves and have-nots in India. They hope Support My School will make things easier for poor children — many of whom speak only regional languages — to integrate into schools where classes are taught in English.
"In India, education is one of India's most pressing challenges. Such programs will help schools where education is in severe disarray," says Bunker Roy, a renowned Indian social expert who worked for more than three decades on similar projects in the country's northwestern desert state of Rajasthan.
Many agree with Roy.
"Efforts like these are a perfect blend of business and social inclusiveness. If more companies like Coca-Cola come forward, the country's troubled education sector will get a big boost, and the government will be able to effectively implement the Right to Education Act,” says Bibek Debroy, a noted Indian economist.
The Right to Education Act, passed into law by the government in April 2010, states that every child between the ages of six to fourteen has the constitutional right to schooling. Under the Act, Indian states qualify for more than $2 billion to hire teachers, improve curriculums and offer free lunches. Unfortunately resources remain a major constraint and the Act's effectiveness remains uncertain.
Indian policymakers who want government schools to raise the bar but find the litany of needs too much for the state to provide are trying to learn from Coca-Cola India's resourcefulness — and they aren’t the only ones who are inspired.
"Now that I have the facilities, I want to attend school every day and become a doctor," says Mariyana, an eighth grade student whose childhood hero is Bollywood hunk Salman Khan. But ask her about her role model, and she will tell you it is Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs. Mariyana wants to attend medical school and then return to serve her village as a doctor.
Standing nearby, Komal, also in eighth grader, says she wants to be a badminton player like Saina Nehwal, India's top shuttler who recently picked up a bronze at the London Olympic Games. Komal says that in the past she was tasked with making cakes out of cow dung to fuel the home fire. But now that she is focusing on her education, she says, “I enter the kitchen only to eat. My life has changed."
Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior Indian journalist. He lives in Delhi with his wife, daughter and three dogs.