From abolishing caste system to encouraging students to take education seriously, here’s how social worker Surya Prakash Rai’s efforts are improving the attitude and conditions in Bihar villages.
Surya Prakash Rai’s passion and willingness for sound education and rural empowerment has helped Prayog grow by leaps and bounds. Even today, he continues to find inspiration in the shining eyes of the children he interacts with.
In conversation with Surya Prakash Rai:
Why did you think of starting Prayog?
I completed my M. Phil in Planning and Development from IIT Bombay and I worked with various national and international NGOs on the side. I always wanted to give back to my own community but I didn’t know how to. That was until I met Mr. Manish Bhagwat in 2013 through an organisation we were working with. I grew up in the Gopalganj district of Bihar. Mr. Bhagwat had no roots in Bihar, but he worked tirelessly to cure people suffering from Tuberculosis. Seeing the zeal that he worked with, his team and the way they groomed the youth, I was inspired to work towards bettering rural education in Bihar villages.
How did Prayog come into being?
Prayog is a social initiative which I started with my co-founder, Abhishek Sharma. Social entrepreneurship is something we were both inclined towards. At Prayog, we work with government schools where we aim to establish and activate school libraries. Until 2007, I worked in the development sector, travelling all over the country. In 2009, I shifted to Bihar to establish Prayog.
What were the first few months like?
We began working with children in Bihar villages. Initially, in order to set this programme into motion, we interacted with 15 children between the ages of 10-15 years. We asked them about the challenges they faced and the changes they would like to bring in their schools. We were overwhelmed with their united response requesting libraries in their schools. Though the government schools had libraries, many books were not accessible or many schools did not have a staff that would help students make maximum use of the libraries. We started a community library which ran for 2 years. It was a great success!
What kind of atmosphere are the children exposed to?
We wish to make learning and interacting an enriching experience. Several people from different walks of life have come and interacted with the children. We take the children to different places where they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to go. We took them on their first train ride. Once, we also made them stay in a wooden house in a tiger reserve in West Bengal. We also took them to the district collector so that they could understand administrative responsibilities. We try to engage them in as many activities as possible.
What are the major challenges you face at Prayog?
Social entrepreneurship is no cakewalk. We come across challenges every day. One of the problems that we came across was the inability of the girls to travel too far. Parents were reluctant to send their girl children if they couldn’t be home before dark. We didn’t want the education of the girl child to suffer for such a petty reason.
Also, fundraising is always a persistent problem with NGOs. We were no different.
How do you overcome these challenges?
Instead of focusing on getting permission for the girl children to travel far, we decided to spread out our libraries and establish them in strategic locations so that girls could attend the sessions easily.
The issue of fundraising, on the other hand, was always easily overcome by us. Every time we have been low on funds and reached out for help, we have never been refused.
What inspires you to keep going day after day?
My inspiration is the children. The way their eyes light up when we introduce something new to them cannot be put into words. The potential that they have which may go untapped if we don’t intervene, motivates me every day. Their enthusiasm and energy is contagious!
What has been the proudest moment of your career at Prayog?
In Bihar, it is a custom to touch the feet of elders when you meet them. We constantly educate our students about the loopholes in the caste system and that caste consciousness is a societal construct. One day, one of our Brahmin students touched the feet of a Dalit youth upon meeting him. When other students saw this, they also touched the feet of the youth as a mark of respect.
We have worked actively towards addressing several challenges like untouchability, caste discrimination, gender inequality, lack of awareness, and an absence of direction and purpose in the youth of the villages of Northern Bihar. Our main aim as social workers is to eliminate these kind of evils from the society. I am very proud of what we have achieved.
How far do you think you’ve come since Prayog was first established?
I think we have come very far. We started with merely 5 members from one village and have grown to a 500-member strong community spread across 12 villages! At the district level, people are recognising our work and applauding it. The government is trying to replicate our working model in their own schools. They are willing to adopt our efforts even if they don’t fund us. When we established Prayog, we weren’t aware that social entrepreneurship could be this rewarding.
How do you and your co-founder, Abhishek, deal with failures?
Failures are a part and parcel of everyone’s life and the lives of social workers is no exception. However, we have always been calm and positive when we hit a roadblock or failed at something. Initially, we found it extremely difficult to interact with children between the ages of 6-10. This was because we did not have experience in educational psychology or philosophy. However, we got a chance to better our knowledge about children at Wipro’s Sustainability Seeding Fellowship Programme. The programme identifies NGOs and helps them. We got in the second round and learnt various techniques for imparting education.
Which incident has stayed with you from your journey with Prayog?
My son developed speech abilities late. Once when I was conducting a session with the children in Gopalganj, my wife was repeatedly calling me. My phone was on silent. However, the students alerted me that my phone was ringing. After 6-7 missed calls, I picked up the phone and told my wife to call me later as I was in a session. Before I could cut the call, she said, just listen! On the other end, my son was saying ‘Papa, papa, papa.’ It was a beautiful moment for me. That day, it felt like my professional life and my personal life became one.
A quote which inspires you?
Mahatma Gandhi has always been a huge source of inspiration for me.
“Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”
What advice would you like to give our young readers?
I would advise them to be socially aware. If you wish to start a social initiative, do it. Do not dwell on the outcomes. If you are passionate and willing, you’ll be able to conquer everything.
What are your success habits?
I think in order to be successful, punctuality is very important. Time matters a lot.
Another habit is to value what you have today as you may not have it tomorrow. Live in the present.
What is next for you and your team?
We wish to reach out to more children. Hence, next year we will tie up with 35 government schools and impact almost 10,000 children. We have a 10-year programme. In the next 2 years, we wish to introduce ‘School Improvement Programme’. Through this, our aim is to introduce students to soft skills that are not taught in the schools. This will improve the quality of rural education.
Found this article interesting? Click here to know the story of the man who’s responsible for creating the world’s largest public library!