Ramji Raghavan was living it up, realising the Great American Dream in the 80s and 90s. A product of the London Business School, Ramji had at one point sat in an office overlooking the Hudson river in New York, enjoyed fancy perks in a foreign bank, was revelling in a rapidly rising career, the works…. but life was eluding him. “I was not a free man” Ramji sighs. A product of Rishi Valley school like his father K.V. Raghavan, the erstwhile Managing Director of the ICI Group company, Chairman of Engineers India Limited and President of EID Parry Limited, his early influences were J. Krishnamurti’s philosophy on education which revolved around learning through the senses, joy and creativity. In 1979, Ramji and his father landed in Delhi airport and coincidentally J.Krishnamurti was there too. Ramji met him briefly and told Krishnamurti of the lack of joy that he was experiencing in his job and life, to which Krishnamurti responded “ Get off before you have your nose completely in it ” and walked away. Ramji says “There was something magical in that statement and when I saw him going, I said to myself - here goes a free man! Look at me, I hate my job, I hate my life but am enchained by it”. Ramji had grown up on stories of J.Krishnamurti’s compassion and his ability to feel pain in fellow beings. Little Ramji was beginning to absorb these virtues at a very young age though these remained mostly buried somewhere deep down, only to be unearthed many years down the line.
Years went by and the words of wisdom remained deeply ensconced in Ramji’s sub-conscious mind. He also spent a lot of time with his London-based friend Gopi Warrier who Ramji says is a spiritually evolved man. “Gopi told me that I lived in a closed world where I would never find happiness. He asked me get in touch with reality”. Gopi’s words too resonated in Ramji’s head and propelled him to make the 180 degree move to abandon his career and embrace change by following his soul calling.
Ramji came back to India with a firm resolve to start something along the lines of Rishi Valley School which focussed on learning, rather than teaching. Sometime in the late 90s, when he was with Codel, London, Ramji came to India and had discussions with his father on his dreams and desires. The father and son duo had engaging talks with Ramji’s maternal uncle Dr. P.K. Iyengar, former Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, who encouraged them to start something on their own rather than joining another institution. Together they drafted the vision of Agastya Foundation. Late S.Balasundaram, ex-Principal of Rishi Valley School, was amongst the initial founder members of Agastya.
The Journey of Agastya.
Agastya Foundation is the world’s largest hands-on mobile science education program for economically disadvantaged children and rural teachers which aims to spark curiosity and nurture creativity through hands-on experiential learning. They have pioneered innovative teaching-learning methods and their teaching methods include Mobile Van Science Labs, Lab-on-a-Bike, Lab-in-a-Box and Young Instructor Leaders (children-teach-children). They started with a donated vehicle and went on to raise Rs. 50 crores from billionaire and philanthropist Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. Ramji says "His contribution paved the way for Agastya’s growth and penetration in rural India”.
Agastya started with the aim of harnessing India’s oft-neglected rural education sector by tapping into the greatest resource- rural kids. Ramji felt though basic education was to an extent provided for, the limitless abilities of this rich resource was largely untapped, unexplored, under-utilised and not provided enough opportunities. As a school student, when he would come home (at the time his family lived in Bihar as his father was posted there) during his vacations Ramji would accompany his father in his trips to the villages of Bihar when he went there to build wells and help with development projects. Ramji saw the hardships and lack of opportunities first hand. This impacted him greatly and the seeds of Agastya probably were sown in the mind that time, only to germinate years later.
Ramji came to India in the late 90s and used the science experiments from the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education and 2 teachers to further train teachers in not just science experiments but also in the philosophy and the vision of Agastya which was to spark the scientific temper, encourage thinking and questioning on the whys and hows and ultimately aid learning. Ramji says “Unless the vision trickles down, it is impossible to a have the desired effect. We invested in training and transforming teachers and approached Chandrababu Naidu, the then Chief Minister of A.P, who first wanted us to work with the government teachers and schools and prove our mettle. After he saw the results and the impact our programs had, he immediately sanctioned 172 acres in Kuppam district of A.P. This was a big boost for us. An ecologist wanted to work on the then barren land which we happily agreed; we could not pay him and he worked gratis and transformed it into a green space. We started working with the rural teachers and set up our first centre in Kuppam and started engaging children of that area in our mobile science vans”. The Kuppam centre is now home to science centers, a Discovery Center, an Astronomy Center with the world’s largest suspended planetary system, Robotics Center, Art Lab, Media Arts Lab and an open-air Ecology Lab.
Agastya Foundation is built on the ancient Indian wisdom of holistic education and advocates shiksha (education), encapsulating samskara (values) towards an enriched sansara (universe). Their mobile labs are a fun and creative way of learning. The three key principles revolve around Ah, Aha and Haha. Ramji explains “The Ah happens when your curiosity is stirred, the Aha when you figure out the how and why, and the Ha ha when you are having fun learning; we aim to to spark curiosity, nurture creativity and instill confidence”. Ramji elaborates "Agastya is not just an institution, it is a movement. Our science labs are designed to foster creativity and innovation. Our aim is not to create scientists but to set young minds thinking. Talking about the impact the programs have had, he narrates an incident of a young student called Shravani whose parents were planning to sell their cow to raise funds for her college education. Shravani dissuaded them from doing so and encouraged her mother to take a temporary job to fund her education. The cow later gave birth to two calves and the money they got from selling milk covered more than half the engineering college expenses. Ramji says ” This is what we want to do, create thinkers, strategists and ignite young minds through innovative learning. Shravani is now the chief strategist of her family”.
Agastya encourages peer to peer teaching and realised the power of this method many years ago when Ramji visited one of the villages and ran into a student named Vasantha who was teaching other students on her own accord. This incident made him realise that community centres could be the epicentre of self-initiated community development activities. Operation Vasantha was thus born with Agastya staff setting up centres in their own villages and adopting the slogan “for the community, by the community”.
Under their Youth Instructor Leader(YIL) program, Agastya also trains students to become leaders and aims to transform them from being passive to active learners, followers to leaders and fearful to confident. Selected YILs also have the chance to interact with scientists and other inspirational leaders through events organized by Agastya. Stories abound on the transformation of their students and are testimony to the fact that Agastya Foundation has succeeded in their aim of raising rural productivity and playing a role in nurturing future leaders, innovators and technologists for an economically prosperous and sustainable rural India. But as Ramji says “ There is lots more to be done and there are many more children to be reached out to”.
Agastya has positively impacted over 8 million children and 2,50,000 teachers in 16 states in India and is poised to expand to more states. The model is scalable and replicable anywhere in the world. They currently have 145 Mobile Science Vans which take science education to the village doorstep, 45 Science Centers for disadvantaged children, 260 Night Village Schools, 55 Lab-on-Bikes and 108 Lab in Boxes.
Agastya won the Google Impact Award in 2013 for their motorbike science lab and is featured amongst the top 100 global innovators by the Rockfeller Foundation. Former President Dr. Abdul Kalam was so impressed with their work that he donated part of his S.R.Jindal prize money to Agastya.Their “Young Instructor Leaders” program has won the prestigious National Science Awards seven years in a row. They have also been recognised by Clinton Global Initiative for their commitment to action. Ramji was elected Senior Fellow by Ashoka : Innovations for the Public. Ashoka is one of the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide and is a platform for people dedicated to changing the world.
Ramji Raghavan is an accomplished speaker and has spoken at various fora including the Harvard India Conference, Global Educators Leaders Program, Helsinki, National College of School Leadership, UK, OECD Paris and Singapore, TEDX, the INK Conference in association with TED, The Indian Institute of Science, MIT Media Lab, Education World Forum, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Rotary, Indian Institute of Management, ISRO, CII, to name a handful.
Ramji Raghavan has miles to go before he sleeps and his vision of transforming education and reaching out to millions more. He says “ We would like individuals, governments and institutions to support our vision of transforming education and fostering holistic education. Impacting young minds directly impact our future”.
Reflecting on the fancy life which he left behind, Ramji says “ I have absolutely no regrets and am content with where life is taking me”. Ramji Raghavan is finally a free man.
Images Courtesy : Agastya Foundation.