When a 14-year-old tribal boy from a remote village in Odisha can say confidently, seated in a conference room before a visiting journalist, “Ma’am, my name is Jayanto Mahji, I am from Kalahandi district, my society is low class, there is no post office, hospital, market in my village and my father is a labourer,” you simply have to sit up and take note.
His English is not perfect, but the resolve in his eye as he tells me that he wants to master the language and become a doctor one day, tells you he will get there.
Jayanto, the recipient of a scholarship programme in spoken English from the US government, has already visited four cities in the US, and is one of the 22,500 tribal children from the remotest corners of Odisha, who are beneficiaries of residential care and quality education at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneswar.
The story of how KISS was founded by a chemistry teacher Achyuta Samanta in 1992–93 is inspiring enough. But what is mind-blowing for me is to watch hundreds of tribal children queuing up quietly and methodically, their shining steel plates in hand, for lunch in the large dining hall, which can seat 10,000 children at a time. Their seniors are ready with bucketfuls of food, prepared in a mechanised kitchen, to feed
It is a Sunday, and chicken should have been served, but as the supplier couldn’t handle the big quantity required, “we are giving them rice and dalma (a nutritious local favourite — dhal with vegetables). Chicken will be served on Tuesday,” says Rajiv Singh, an executive working here. Somebody else says fish is also served weekly.
Gently shaking his head, Samanta, the soft-spoken founder of this amazing institution that provides residential care and “education from KG to PG, and even Ph.D,” says, “It’s not possible to procure enough fish to serve 22,500 children. But yes, once a week we add fish to the curry to make it more nutritious.”
While education is the backbone of KISS, and will make these children’s future, the importance of wholesome meals to children who come from the poorest of poor families in the State cannot be overstated.
Everyday ₹3.5 lakh is spent on food, and 90 quintals (9,000 kg) of rice, 2,500 kg of vegetables and 2,400 kg of dhal (lentils) are needed. Sweets are reserved for special occasions. “We get apples from Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal and oranges from Maharashtra for the children,” says Samanta. Needless to add, they come by truckloads!
Heart warming stories of success are not difficult to find here. But the most inspiring one is that of Samanta himself. His father died in a rail accident when he was 4, and his mother was left with seven children — the youngest a one-month-old girl — with no savings at all, to raise them.
“We were so poor that we didn’t get a single square meal a day; she didn’t even have a second saree to change into after bath, and walked the 300 metres from the river to our home, wearing the same wet saree,” recalls the son. He adds with pride: “She struggled, did all kinds of menial jobs but gave all of us the highest education.”
His was a Masters in Chemistry; he passed out in 1987 from a college in Bhubaneswar and took up a lecturer’s job in a private college. The inner urge and passion to do something for poor children bore fruit in 1992–93, when with just Rs 5,000, he started two institutions — KISS and KIIT (Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology) from two rented buildings in the city.
KIIT, then an ITI (Industrial Training Institute), has now grown into a prestigious deemed University that offers quality education to 25,000 students. “From day one, I knew that for KISS to grow, KIIT had to grow too,” he says. You name the course and KIIT has it — from MBBS, BDS and nursing to engineering, arts and science courses. The fees are comparable to private colleges and the profits are ploughed back to fund part of KISS expenses.
“You ask me about quality? The market decides the quality. Yesterday was the first day of our campus recruitment and four companies — Infosys, Wipro, Accenture and Cognizant — have given single offers to 1,500 of our students. If you take multiple offers, these were 2,500,” says Samanta, with quiet pride.
The package beginning at around ₹3 lakh, goes upto ₹16 lakh for the top performers. Google goes up to ₹20 lakh and this year, five students have been shortlisted.
Over 95 percent of KIIT students come from outside Odisha, and also from 20 different countries. “We have one of two from even the US, UK, Australia and Canada, the remaining are from Gulf and SAARC and other countries. Afghanistan wanted to send 300 but we couldn’t take so many; but we have 50 from there, including girls.”
Along with KIIT, KISS has spread its wings too, and that is the more inspiring story. Five percent of seats in KIIT — which gets 2.2 lakh applications every year for 3,000 seats, are reserved for KISS students. But how he runs KISS, without any government help or aid, is another story.
“We’ve developed a very good financial model to raise the ₹75–80 crore required to run KISS,” smiles Samanta, over a leisurely chat.
To begin with, the staff is kept at minimal, just around 800. Senior children are involved in serving food, cleaning vessels, stitching their own uniforms. The smart model Samanta has developed involves life-skills too; the soap, detergents and phenyl used at KISS is produced by the children, as are the pickles they consume. I even come across a senior cutting a junior’s hair, with four other kids waiting patiently for their turn for the haircut!
Understandably there is a scramble to get into KISS, which gets 50,000 applications each year, many forwarded by ministers, MPs, MLAs, bureaucrats and NGOs. “We also send a team to the hinterland to select the poorest of the poor; finally about 2,500 are selected, and 55 percent of these are girls, as we place great emphasis on girls’ education,” says Samanta.
The dropout rate is near-nil and the emphasis on quality is such “that 95 percent of KISS students clear their high school in the first division.”
Coming to hard finance required to house, feed and educate 22,500 children, while ₹30 crore comes from the KIIT treasury, another ₹20–25 crore comes from the three percent salary the 10,000-odd staff donate to KISS. “Then the 500 people who do business with KISS have to give five percent of their profits; that brings in ₹4 crore. About 200 elite parents of KIIT students in medical and engineering courses donate from ₹25,000 to a couple of lakhs. Add to that ₹5 crore, another ₹10–12 crore that come from donations, and then there is funding of particular projects by agencies such as UNICEF and others.”
As he explains the finance, I realise what a tough and smart negotiator the 48-year-old, who owns nothing and lives in a simple rented house must be! “There are 10 plastic chairs in my house and not much else,” he chuckles, waving his simple Nokia phone, adding, “This cost ₹4,000 or so, and is recent; till now I had an old phone costing ₹1,100! All I possess is passion to do something for the poor children of India.”
And that he has in plenty, along with resilience and fortitude. Or else he wouldn’t have survived the earlier days when the “hand loans” he took from family and friends at 24–36 per cent interest to run both KISS and KIIT climbed to a frightening ₹15 lakh by 1995.
A door opens
“I had no means to repay my loans. Things got so out of hand, and the pressure on me was so much that I had to go into hiding and even contemplated suicide,” he recalls. But then suddenly the tide turned and a door opened in the form of a regional manager of the Punjab National Bank who was convinced enough by his work and sincerity to lend him ₹25 lakh. “I immediately returned ₹10 lakh and used the remaining ₹15 lakh to expand both the institutions.”
And never looked back, going by the 20-odd campuses he runs now over 80 acres in Bhubaneswar! Today his bank loans — with seven large banks —
run up to ₹500 crore.
Small wonder then that the KISS founder has been showered with 16 honorary doctorates from international universities; the latest being from the Tehran University in mid-September. And his visitors include 18 Nobel laureates!
But Samanta is not planning to rest on his laurels. “Whatever I have achieved is with the grace and blessings of God. Finance is one part, but often people do not realise the huge risks involved in running an organisation where thousands of young boys and girls are living and studying.”
He has no plans to rest till he has set up replicas of KISS to benefit the poorest of poor children in each district of Odisha, and every State of India. “When that happens 2,00,000 children will get enrolled each year in India, and when batch after batch of these educated children pass out and get employment, just imagine what it will do to the livelihoods of our poorer sections and the general economy of India,” he smiles.
As Samanta walks out with me to be photographed with his children, he is swarmed by bright, smiling, happy faces. Children walking towards the dining hall for their lunch quickly surround him; he chats with them and they respond … not only with their lips, but also their eyes … and hearts!
Two years ago, when Ganeswar Mimika, a tribal student from KISS, got an interview call from not one, but two IIMs — Lucknow and Kozhikode — he was understandably nervous. “Along with other students who get calls from such prestigious institutions he was put in a training session. After the first class, not confident of his spoken communication skills, he said he didn’t want to go for the interview,” says KIIT Dean Kumar Mohanty, who is a Rotarian.
But the boy was persuaded to pick up every day one story from a newspaper and discuss it in English. Like most tribal children who are extremely focused and disciplined, Ganeswar set about this task with sincerity. “Forget the professors, he would come even to my office and tell whoever was sitting outside: “Please listen to me speak on this subject.”
He sailed through the interview and the group discussion and is today a II-year student in IIM Kozhikode.
Crash courses are held for bank probationary officer posts and recently nine students got these jobs. Many KISS students get coveted government jobs both on merit and reservations and these include the posts of health inspectors, food inspectors, etc. But the most heartening part of this story is that many of the students who pass out go back to their villages to work with their communities. “Some become teachers and all of them say we’d like to give something back to our society,” adds Mohanty.
Chak De India
A chat with a group of tribal students from KISS on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Bhubaneswar has a surprising revelation; most of the kids are international champions, mostly in rugby. And that too the girls; they have visited UK, China, and other countries for international competitions, and won India honours.
Bhagyalakshmi Barik, who came here in 2007 from Cuttack district of Odisha and whose father works as a security guard in a private company is pursuing an MCA at the coveted KIIT University. Unlike other students who come from all over India and 20 other countries, the entire course and stay are totally free for her. This is because she has made the jump to KIIT from KISS, where she had come in 2007.
“I am an international rugby player and had participated in the Asian Games in China in 2010. I was the only girl from Odisha in the Indian team,” she says proudly.
As for her future, she will continue to play rugby but is interested in getting a government job “as it promises security.”
Samjukta Munda, who came here in 2005, and is now pursuing BA in Anthropology is also a rugby player; “I’ve played in China, Malaysia, Singapore.” Jemamani Nayak who comes from an interior village bordering Jharkhand, proudly tells me how she represented India in Manchester and “we won!”
Unfortunately Sumitra Banara, who also plays the game, couldn’t make it as her birth certificate was not ready in time.
All of them have of course seen Chak De India, “not once, but several times, because we get a lot of inspiration from it to play as a team and win matches,” adds Samjukta.
While Revathi Singh is a kabbadi player, the star in their midst is Ranjit Nayak, who came to KISS in 2009 as an 11 year old boy. He has trained in archery and won a silver medal for India at the Asian Grand Prix Tournament in Taiwan. He is now training to compete in the London Olympics in 2016, and KISS founder Achyuta Samanta is confident that he will get India a medal in archery.
How does he manage the training? “Oh, we’ve invested ₹10 lakh in buying equipment and instruments to train him; we have a special coach, who is paid double the salary of a government coach,” says Samantha.
As other students tell me they are interested in archery too, my puzzled look gets this explanation. “Their ancestors hunted animals with bows and arrows, so archery is in their blood!”