Kolkata: Thirteen-year-old Sahanara Mali had been going to a government school in Uttar Angadberia village of West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, 45km from Kolkata, until her father died a few years ago after prolonged illness.
Because her mother, who has since been working as a domestic help in a nearby town, couldn’t afford her education, she had to drop out of school immediately. “It’s been many years since,” recalls Mali. “I would watch the children I used to play with go to school. Initially, some of them would stop by on their way to school to check if I was coming along. After a point it didn’t embarrass me to say ‘no’.”
She had almost abandoned all hope of ever going to school again when in February last year, Bandhan Financial Services Pvt. Ltd—a Kolkata-based microfinance institution— launched a free school in her village for underprivileged children up to the age of 14 years, who couldn’t ever go to school or had to drop out because their parents couldn’t afford to educate them.
Bandhan is one of the biggest microfinance lenders in India, which, over the past seven years, has lent around Rs2,650 crore to some 1.7 million people, mostly women, in 11 states. It currently has close to Rs800 crore of outstanding loans.
Mali says that she had been dreaming of becoming a doctor since her father’s death. “I am chasing my dream again,” says the teenager, who was among the first few to join the Bandhan school in Uttar Angadberia.
Chasing dreams: Children attend a non-formal school run by Bandhan Financial Services, a Kolkata-based microfinance institution, at Uttar Angadberia village in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
For almost a year-and-a-half, Bandhan has been running 60 such schools in six districts of West Bengal—Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Cooch Behar, Nadia, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas. Each district has 10 schools, and each school has around 33 students. Bandhan teaches around 2,000 students in all, and 60% of them are girls.
The initiative helped Bandhan build strong ties with locals, which, in turn, helped it expand its microfinance business and also overcome resistance from local moneylenders.
The mothers of at least 1,000 students of its schools have borrowed from Bandhan, according to Samar Banerjee, assistant manager of its education programme. “Most of them borrowed after they put their children in our schools,” he says.
Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which is arguably the world’s most celebrated microfinance lender, runs similar schools. They offer non-formal education to slum children in Dhaka’s Mirpur area, where the bank is headquartered. Grameen Bank, which was founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, also offers merit-based scholarship to thousands of underprivileged students.
Almost all the schools run by Bandhan are located in areas where there is no government school. The classes are held in humble rented spaces, which cost Rs200-300 a month, and the teachers are drawn from the local pool of educated young.
The cost per student is around Rs1,000 a year, and Bandhan spends around Rs35,000 a year on each school, according to its chairman and managing director Chandra Shekhar Ghosh.
“While thanking me for teaching her how to manage her finances, a borrower had asked me if we could teach her daughter, too, to do something on her own,” says Ghosh. “It got me thinking, and from those thoughts emerged the idea of launching schools.”
Bandhan’s education programme follows West Bengal government’s curriculum for classes I-IV, but four years’ curriculum is being taught in three years. So there is no summer, autumn or winter break at Bandhan’s schools. Students attend school all year round for 3 hours a day—8.30-11.30am. “The aim is to put these students back in government schools in class V, for which we have already initiated discussion with local schools,” says Ghosh.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that state government-run schools would admit these students at the end of their three-year training at Bandhan’s schools, and it would be a huge disappointment for students such as Mali if they aren’t allowed to return to mainstream education two years later.
“Initially, people weren’t convinced about our intentions. So our field workers had to bend over backward to convince parents to send their children to our schools, but now things have changed—parents take a lot of interest in their children’s education and rarely would you see a child not turning up unless he or she is unwell,” says Banerjee.
The initiative has been so successful that Bandhan is looking to launch 100 more schools in the current fiscal, and according to Ghosh, it has already started conducting a survey to identify areas in West Bengal where dropouts are high.