The Leadership Review Team

Influencing Without Authority – Shobha Murthy Way

The Leadership Review Team


Driving through the sprawling high-rises of the satellite city of Navi Mumbai, as we approached the Turbhe slums, the density of heavy industrial and construction vehicles in the traffic increased enough for us to notice them. It was a quiet, yet strong indicator of where most residents of these slums gather their monthly wages from. As we moved into one of the narrow lanes, we noticed that the road magically expanded to accommodate a truck adorned with the Hindu holy symbol of Om on its windshield, and a man with a skull-cap behind the wheels – two things that do not fall in the realm of unusual in most Mumbai slums. With very few experience points of Mumbai slums in our kitty, we were busy trying to absorb what we saw when the driver pointed to a board which read ‘Aarambh’, the Hindi word for beginning. We had reached our destination.

Aarambh is a living testimony of what just one ordinary person can achieve. Shobha Murthy, a former cost accountant, founded Aarambh back in 1997. And since then, has helped make tens of thousands of lives better. She successfully got the much maligned government machinery on her side by focusing on solutions instead of the problems associated with the government schools. She bested socio-religious prejudices to bring the gift of education to the children of marginalised families by persevering and creating examples of success. She introduced illiterate women to financial independence and solved complex problems of poor infrastructure with rather simple solutions.

In a conversation with her, we unraveled a functional template for influencing large number of people without any authority.

Focus on Solutions Alone

Working with the Government

Back in 1997, with the railway line being laid out, all the wholesale markets shifting from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai, and the construction boom being already there, the satellite city was attracting thousands of migrants every day. Children from these families were seen as a source of income – with many being forced to work 10 to 12 hours a day. Expectedly, there were over 12,000 children living in the Navi Mumbai migrant community who were deprived of an education. The migrant settlements were also plagued by problems like child marriage, women and child abuse, and alcoholism; not to mention high infant and maternal mortality rate. In this backdrop and with no previous experience of social development work, Shobha Murthy set out to help the migrant community.

She succeeded where most do-gooders fail – taking the first step right. She did not have large funds or the backing of big businesses that could help her create an infrastructure on her own. But does one really need to create infrastructure from the scratch when the infrastructure for government schools already exists all over the country? Why reinvent the wheel? With this in mind, she tied up with government schools that usually have low attendance rates and worked to improve enrolment. Knowing the importance of skill development, she also convinced these schools to include an hour of training in the curriculum which equipped the student with a skill to fall back upon. This includes training in screen printing, manufacturing paper products, crafts and computer skills, among others.

Improving the Mid-Day Meal

Explaining how she managed to get government officials on her side, she smiles and says, “I never made it about how they were doing it wrong and how I would come in to set it right. I never made it a me against them fight. If I saw something that was not working, I did not talk about what was wrong but just focused on how it could be improved.” Let us take a more recent example, after Aarambh ventured into rural areas, to explore it better. A lot has been written about the problems with government’s mid-day meal scheme and the lack of nutritional value in the meals served under it is a near established fact. Shobha Murthy did not complain, nor did she ask why the quality of the meal was not good. She did not demand better food. She just asked for reserving patches of land in Zila Parishad schools, supported by Aarambh, to cultivate vegetables which are then served in the mid-day meal scheme. The students get involved in the cultivation process, which helps elevate the quality of the meals, and promotes health and regular attendance.

Perseverance and Patience Personified

Bringing the Children to Schools

These communities were conservative, and most families looked at education as a waste of time and resources. Shobha Murthy tells us, “I used to go from door to door asking the parents to enroll their children. Some rejected the idea of getting the children out of work and in the schools outright, while others agreed in word only to go back in deed. I also had to brave socio-religious norms which prohibited women from being educated”. She recalls a time when she was trying to convince a family to send their children to school, and her efforts were mistaken to be that of religious conversion. But, despite that, she kept on going back to them, day after day. She accepted their skepticism with grace, she treated their ‘padh ke kya karega’ (what will the child do with education) quip as a serious question, and answered it with utmost sincerity.

Keeping Them There

If getting the students to the schools was tricky, retaining them was a herculean task. The children who were allowed education would rarely pass their classes, and then drop out. The reason for that was simple – those children did not have good role models within their communities. They did not see enough examples of cousins and neighbours succeeding with education. Understanding this, she responded in the short term by creating structured programs and interactive projects to keep the families and children interested in the education process. In the long term, she started by creating examples of success out of her students. She tells us the story of visually-challenged Shekhar Manjulkar who is now sort of a hero for children in his community. Shekhar was denied education for nine years as his parents, who are construction labourers, could not afford the fees for a special school. “We put him in a regular school alongside other children. After completing class 5, he was promoted to Class 10 where he scored an impressive 82% in the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) Examinations,” she says, beaming with pride. Shekhar is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai, where he was given a scholarship and free hostel facilities. And there are many more heroes like him who are pursuing higher education, get employed with organisations like JP Morgan Chase, win state level athletics events, and still take out time to help Aarambh help their community.

Having started out with only 70 children in one center, today over 8,000 children have benefited from Aarambh’s programmes in six urban centers and three rural centers. “We lay special emphasis on enrolling girl children to make them role models for the community,” says Shobha Murthy. Aarambh also funds the higher education of young girls, who in return, work with the NGO as teachers – a self-sufficient model that ensures maximum returns.

A Case for Mentoring

Introducing Women to Financial Independence

While she was bringing education to the children of migrant communities, she realised that attracting and retaining children to the programme depends on mobilising mothers and involving them in the activities. The literacy rate is hardly 11-12% per cent among these migrant women. “You don’t need an educational degree to learn how to stitch clothes or make incense sticks,” reflects the can-do attitude with which Shoba Murthy went ahead and made these women financially independent. At the Aarambh centers today, they get to learn tailoring, do beautician courses, and learn to manufacture and market pickles, snacks, incense sticks and candles. She has also been able to garner support from corporate heavyweights like JP Morgan, L&T, Tata Motors, Reliance Foundation, and Godrej, to help sell the products prepared by women at Aarambh. More than 500 women have benefited from this initiative.

Her face lights up as she recounts the success story of Kaushaliya Singh, who came to Navi Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh two decades ago. After Shobha Murthy managed to convince her husband, she had joined Aarambh center to learn a skill. With a great acumen for tailoring, she quickly turned into an instructor. “Kaushaliya was married at the age of 16 and lived in a conservative family. For people like her, who are extremely gifted but face societal limitations, an entrepreneurial skill is a massive boost to their self worth,” Shobha Murthy says. Kaushaliya Singh, who is 55 years old today, has, through her training, been instrumental in making many women from the community independent, despite still being unable to write her name in Hindi.

A Tale of Collaboration         

The Miraculous Help Desk

When addressing the problem of education in India, the lack of infrastructure never fails to rear its head. At the rural schools supported by Aarambh, Shobha Murthy observed that children did not have writing desks, and were forced to endure bad posture, poor eyesight and bad handwriting as they were cramped into little spaces and taught while seated on the floor. The Help Desk, Aarambh’s innovative solution to this problem, she recalls, was a community endeavor, with people eagerly stepping up to help design, manufacture, distribute and constantly improve the recyclable bag, with the aim of using it to aid children.

One of Aarambh’s volunteers, who also happened to be a designer, heard of the problem and started designing an alternative to the desk that would be cost-effective too. The initial design was like the wooden structure used to stack Holy Scriptures. Though this aided reading, writing was still a problem. With many further improvements following rounds of feedback from teachers and children, a portable desk made out of cardboard cartons came up, which doubles up as a briefcase-like a school bag. A batch of 2,500 desks was created. Corrugated sheets from discarded boxes were sourced from a bhangarwala (scrap dealer) at a heavy discount, and the desks were assembled by another local workshop. The only cost incurred for that was towards the punch (around Rs 3000) that was procured by Aarambh. Both the scrap dealer and the workshop owner had their children attending the schools supported by Aarambh and were more than forthcoming. Each desk cost just about Rs 12, and was distributed twice a year owing to wear and tear.

With a more broad-based expert panel of collaborators – including activists, students from IITs, and professionals from American design firms – Shobha Murthy has now conceptualised a plastic case for the bags to help make them water-proof and accommodate the weight of heavier books required by high school students. The state government of Madhya Pradesh has already expressed interest in making this an employment model for the youth across the state and many organisations have shown their willingness in partnering with Aarambh to scale up the desk manufacturing model.

Shobha Murthy Way

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