Kameshwar Upadhyaya

         

Inspiring the Young: Tale of KISS

Kameshwar Upadhyaya

Dr Samanta

Dr Achyutananda Samanta’s journey from ‘no where’ to ‘now here’ is both inspiring and astounding. Despite being thrown into the mire of poverty owing to his father’s sudden death, he walked his life’s journey with utmost calm, solemnity and determination, to undo the pessimism that usually surrounds the lives of people betrayed by fate. It is inspirational to see his rise from the son of a ‘domestic help’ to a ‘Gusi Laureate’ who established Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) Foundation – where 22,500 students study from kindergarten to post graduation, free of cost – is a remarkable journey. His feat is all the more astounding because his students come from those tribal areas which make headlines only because of Naxal related violence.

I see in him, a paradoxical mix of indomitable will and personal humility which make him an ideal level five leader!

The Dawn

He grew up in the midst of poverty in a remote village Kalarabank, in the eastern coastal state of Odisha. He was only four years old when his father, a petty worker in a steel plant met with an accident and passed away. No financial support came forth from any corner and he grew up seeing his mother working as a domestic help in the neighbourhood houses. What was earned from that afforded only a meal of rice gruel which was supported by wild spinach as a side-dish. Amidst all this, he was fortunate to have an opportunity to go to school, even though he had to negotiate long distances from home. He completed Masters in Chemistry from Utkal University on scholarship and soon found himself an academic job.

This alleviated the financial troubles of his family, but his humble beginnings had filled him with a strong sense of duty towards helping the underprivileged sections of the society. Odisha has been one of the poorest states in India and around 25 per cent of its population, which was tribal, lived under abject poverty. The fruits of India’s independence and growth story were yet to reach 62 tribes and 13 primitive tribal groups of the state but Naxalites were round the corner. Considering this, he made it his mission to help the poorest of the poor in these areas to get a level playing field. He wanted to begin chasing this dream by ensuring that no poor child undergoes the hardships of poverty he had been through. Many thought he was in search of utopia but he was convinced that it was achievable if he had a plan.

Through his own experience he had learnt that education empowers and gives strength to face adversity in life. He figured that it was the only way to eradicate poverty among the masses because once they were armed with education they would have a wider range of options for escaping the clutches of poverty on their own. This is when he developed the courage to think about others and ventured out to eradicate poverty through education.

The KISS Journey

In 1992, he along with three of his colleagues envisioned a profound center of learning in India and so pursued to lay the foundation of Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT). With just Rs 3000 in his pocket, his savings from the job and his part-time private tuition classes, he founded KIIT as an industrial training institute in a rented garage with just two rooms. Soon after, he founded the precursor of KISS as a modest residential school, and admitted 125 students from tribal areas. KISS, in the beginning, was limited to this school and was registered as Kalinga Relief and Charitable Trust (KRCT). But as it grew in scope, it was named Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS).

Remembering the early days of KISS and KIIT, Achyutananda Samanta says, “From day one, I knew that for KISS to grow, KIIT has to grow too.” That is exactly how he nurtured KISS. Over the years, KIIT grew and took shape of a university and spread over an area of one million sqm. Through its 28 constituent schools, it became home to over 20,000 students from India and around 22 countries. With KIIT’s growth came resources which propelled KISS’s growth to support 22,500 children (out of which 12,835 are boys and 9,675 girls) coming from tribal areas of Odisha and other neighbouring states in an institution spread over 80 acres and laced with all modern facilities  that are required for quality education.

Naturally, setting up institutes of this magnitude was flush with formidable challenges which would daunt even the bravest rich. The most overwhelming challenge that he faced in the initial days as educational entrepreneur and social reformer was to arrange funds to run the institute and develop an infrastructure. The banks then, unlike now, were not as liberalised. So, getting a loan was a big problem. He also did not have a ‘perfect’ background and ‘right’ connections which would have helped him raise substantial funds. Recalling the challenge he says, “For KISS and KIIT to grow, I put in every penny of my savings, raised hand-loans from my friends, colleagues and a few other like-minded citizens. I always had it in my mind that KIIT would one day support KISS and that became true. Having said that, the burden of loans had grown huge, and at a certain point in time I doubted that I would ever be able to repay them. That thought gave me sleepless nights and in moments of weakness I also contemplated suicide. Nevertheless, better sense prevailed and I persisted. As the luck would have it, regional manager of Punjab National Bank approached me for financing my endeavour, without any collateral security, only because he was convinced of my dedication to the cause and early ripples I had been able to create.”  Out of the loan amount of Rs 25 lakh, he immediately returned Rs 10 lakh to the lenders and remaining Rs 15 lakh became his seed capital.

The KISS Way

The basic idea has always been for KIIT’s opulence to be reinvested in KISS’s development. As KISS grew and got more visibility, thanks to KIIT’s very well-oiled PR machinery, some international organisations like United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and US Microscholarship Programme started lending their support to KISS, though in a modest way. Achyuta Samanta explained to us how he manages to financially sustain KISS, “We have developed a very efficient model to raise Rs 75-80 crore that is needed to house, feed, and educate 22,500 children at KISS. Rs 30 crore comes from KIIT’s treasury; another Rs 20 – 25 crore is contributed by the 10,000 odd staff who donate three per cent of their salaries to KISS; Rs four  crore comes from the four per cent of the profits donated by 500 vendors of KISS; and donations from parents of around 200 elite medical and engineering students at KIIT, international support organisations, and other individuals bring in another Rs 15 – 17 crore.” As an example of propriety and transparency, the abridged balance sheet is uploaded on the website for one and all to scrutinise.

Operationally at KISS, frugality is seen as a virtue. The staff at KISS is kept minimal, at around 800. Senior children are usually involved with chores like serving food, cleaning the vessels they eat in, stitching their own uniforms, making the soaps and phenyl used at KISS, and preparing the pickles they eat. This not only equips them with important life skills, but also prepares them to take up responsibility.

Dr Samanta with his students.

Dr Samanta with his students.

Every year, more than 50,000 admission applications are received by KISS, many of which are forwarded by politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs. A team is then sent to the remote, less developed tribal areas and about 2,500 of the children are selected. The dropout rate is almost nil and 95 per cent of their students finish high school in first division. At KIIT, which receives around two lakh applications every year, five per cent of the total 3,000 seats are reserved for KISS students. Talking about how KISS helps its students to grow, Achyutananda Samanta says, “KISS also helps its students to prepare for competitive exams. The case of Ganeswar Mimika, a tribal student of the institute, is a classic example. He got a call from two of the best colleges in the country, IIM-Lucknow and IIM-Kozhikode, and was put in a training session that we organize for students who get a call from such prestigious institutions. After his first session, unsure of his verbal communication, he felt he should not attend the interviews. However, he was personally mentored by the KIIT dean who got him to pick a newspaper story every day, and his communication improved visibly in time for the interview. He was selected for IIM Kozhikode.” One cannot find rags to riches story better than this.

However, it is not just the support for higher education that KISS provides to its students. It also has been focusing on developing sports talent in its students which includes the likes of Bhagyalakshmi Barik, who was part of India’s rugby team in the Asian Games in China in 2010, and Ranjit Nayak, who won a silver medal for India at the Asian Grand Prix Tournament in Taiwan. While talking about the support infrastructure for budding sports stars, a sense of pride reflects in Achyutananda Samanta’s voice: “We have created modern training facilities for rugby, football, hockey, archery, shooting, volleyball etc under very competent national and international coaches. In fact, the coach who trains Ranjit Nayak gets almost twice the salary that government pays an archery coach.”

KISS already has a branch in Nazafgarh, Delhi and it is running very successfully. With largest population of illiterate adults in the world – 287 million – it will take many more KISS like institutes to improve the situation. Knowing this, he plans to setup at least one branch of KISS in every state of India and in each district of Odisha.

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