Home >Companies >Madhav Chavan | Empowering India through education

Mumbai: Madhav Chavan, the founder of educational non-profit Pratham, has a singular mission: he wants every Indian to learn to read.

While leading a college teachers’ strike in 1988, the chemistry graduate met a bureaucrat who asked him to give more than lip service to a cause. Nearly a decade later, Chavan has become a beacon of hope in a country where half the children cannot read or write properly. Within the last decade, Pratham has reached one million children and aims to reach 60 million more in the next three years.

Under the Pratham model, a motley group of different trusts in 21 states draw literate local volunteers and paid workers in slums and villages to teach illiterate children within their own communities. Pratham attacks the fundamental problem of access to educational opportunity among India’s poor by providing basic salaries and reading materials to teachers. The classrooms could be anywhere: under shady trees, amid rubble heaps of pavement, homes of migrant workers in cities, and sometimes, just in front of a blackboard propped in the narrow alleys of Mumbai’s slums.

The three Rs: Madhav Chavan aims to provide basic education to 60 million children in the next three years.

Well-read himself, he cites the Chinese philosopher: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when the work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We ?did ?it ouselves.’"

Nearly 200,000 people volunteer and work with Pratham in 262,000 villages; they are paid as per their skill level and expertise. “There are professionals who take a sabbatical to come and work with us, other professional investment bankers and consultants, who leave their jobs to work with us, and retired military professionals. They oversee administration, analyse data, define strategy and train others. Others are college students, young graduates and homemakers, who want to accept a challenge, basically anyone who has a skill set and would like to help empower others with it."

Chavan describes his childhood in an idyllic socialist home, with little money, lots of books, ideas and poetry. His father, Yashwant Chavan, was the founder of the Lenin-inspired Lal Nishan Party, a party rooted in trade union activism. During Chavan’s teens, he fought for causes and issues.

In a sense, activism never left him, leading him into education. In 1988, while leading a strike of college teachers, Chavan wrote to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. “Something I had written in that letter caught his eye and I was invited to meet his educational secretary, Anil Bordia." Bordia was heading the National Literacy Mission, which aimed at imparting functional literacy to 80 million Indians.

“During the meeting, Bordia asked me why was I talking about social change without participating in it. I remember him asking me what was the point of printing pamphlets if people it was meant for could not read it. It got me thinking."

And it changed his life. He became an “educationist".

After producing literacy programmes for Doordarshan for a few years, Chavan was invited to work with a Unicef project to teach in Mumbai’s slums. However, Unicef did not back the project financially. The non-profit needed money to begin, but corporate houses would not fund the programme without a complete plan. A year went by and Pratham was founded as a way to drum up funding and fix the problem. “We went to some people I knew and found a friend in ICICI Bank. Narayanan Vagul headed the bank at that time and I don’t know why, but he believed in the idea. He offered financial support and also brought his friends like the Ambanis and Birlas on board," Chavan recalls. Suddenly, the project became possible.

Since then, “we have not looked back". Ujwal Thakar, chief executive of Pratham India, has worked closely with Chavan for five years. “He truly believes big problems have simple solutions," Thakar says.

For Chavan, the idea of a balwadi, or a preschool, is of a room and getting to work. “I believe in people. I let people go wherever they want, no questions asked. I trust them to do the right thing and the amazing thing is that when you trust people, they don’t let you down. Plus, it gets the job done," he says.

Speed and scale are factors that?drive?Chavan, says?Thakar. A certain “go-go" spirit has driven Pratham’s growth over the last five years from a small organization with a budget of a few crores to a giant non-profit with a Rs60 crore budget; from impacting one million to six million children. International donors now contribute about 80% of Pratham’s budget and the programme has expanded from one slum in Mumbai to more than 100 districts, 21 states and six countries.

This year, Chavan launched his next campaign: the Read India Campaign, which aims to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic to 60 million children in 600 districts by 2009. While his fast-paced projects are sometimes criticized as they are harder to monitor quality, Chavan says he would switch course if someone has a better way to do it. “We need a solution now. We need to implement it now. Alternatives have to be scaleable and fast."

The campaign, which will cost Rs120 crore, has received an endowment of $9.1 million (Rs35.76 crore today) from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation in the US. Pratham’s promoters in the UK have raised £2 million (Rs16.38 crore today) from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. The Netherlands-based Oxfam Novib has pledged €1.2 million (Rs6.84 crore today) a year for this project. “We are all set for this year’s expenses on the project," says Ashok Gaitonde, chief financial officer of Pratham India, who has worked with the organization?for?the?last?five?years.

Chavan returned to India in 1983 after his post-doctorate at Ohio University. “It just was what I wanted to do," he explains. “In the US, there’s a set of problems and in India there is another set. It just depends on which set of problems you are ready to deal with."

But whatever he thought he was coming back home to, Pratham was unexpected—not that he really stops to think about it too much. “I have met some incredible people, discovered great friends, travelled so much and had a lovely time. This is good," he says, laughing off any implication that what he’s done is extraordinary. “I don’t have much time to reflect because there is so much more to do."

Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to

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