Abraham George was a young officer in the Indian army when his postings around the country in the late 1960s exposed him to faces of India that shocked him. His comfortable home in a distinguished Kerala family had not prepared him for the misery he saw. His father was the dean of Kerala University Law College, and his mother, the first Indian woman to earn a Ph.D. in optics physics, later joined NASA and the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.
In the mid-1990s — with two graduate degrees from New York University, several books, Wall Street banking experience and a successful business in computer models to address international financial risks — the memories still haunted him. He decided to act.
“I was appalled by the caste-based discrimination that was very prevalent at that time — and even today,” he says. “It was an issue of social justice for me. I was in the United States, having had the opportunity to get a good education and start a career from scratch. I felt that I should be helpful to people who do not have the same means, those at the bottom of the ladder in India.”
In 1997, Shanti Bhavan — Haven of Peace — a transformational school serving mostly Dalit children, opened in the remote countryside astride the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. “Somewhere along the line during that time in the army, I had made up my mind to be involved in developmental work,” George said in a Skype conversation from the school, which I had visited in its early days. I wanted to hear about its progress. There was plenty to talk about. George spends half of every year at the school. (His son Ajit, who manages the school’s education trust from a US base, visits annually for four months.)
George has been tracking the success of his first graduates, who did well in India’s rigorous pre-university exams and moved on to colleges in Bangalore. “The first four batches have all gone on to excellent jobs in Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Yahoo, Mercedes-Benz,” he said. “Approximately 55 young people coming from the poorest of poor are now working in the world’s top companies.”
Shanti Bhavan is more than a school. It is an experiment in educational and cultural immersion. Children at the age of 3½ to 4 who show early promise began to be recruited from local families living on less than a dollar a day. Some parents were at first reluctant, but now recruitment is no longer an issue; up to 400 families seek admission for their children annually. Only 24 are accepted and, except in rare cases, they stay from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade as full-time boarders, with visits home during school breaks.
There was resistance when George began to build his school in the village of Baliganapalli, about a 90-minute drive from Bangalore. “While the poor people were very happy to have me here, and set up a school for them, my selection criteria for them was that you have to be below the poverty line — at that time a dollar a day for a family of four (now two dollars), and so only very, very poor people fell into that category. Landlords and moneyed people in the villages around were very upset that their children could not get in.
“They were afraid that this project would cause some problems for the social hierarchy they had established for hundreds of years, when the poor had traditionally been working for them in the fields. So I was causing quite a bit of social turmoil, and they were trying to spread rumors. Two rumors initially were that I had come to take children’s body parts to be exported to America. That was one. And the other was, of course, that my name is George and I am a Christian and I had come to convert them. But within three to four years those problems were overcome.”
For the children at Shanti Bhavan, there is good food, pukka housing, or substantial buildings, and well-equipped classrooms on a pleasant campus. They study hard. “They have to do exceedingly well to compete in the marketplace,” George said.
Then he added what he calls leadership and social skills: “communication, ability to lead a conversation, public speaking, how to move in society.” Children are taught self-worth and the rejection of caste discrimination. They hear about the importance of kindness and honesty, and the need to remember less fortunate people. The school is nonsectarian. A quiet prayer hall contains the holy books of great religions displayed side-by-side. The school celebrates Christmas as well as Hindu holidays.
George decided at the start that he would not accept money from the government at any level for Shanti Bhavan — or his top-ranked journalism school in Bangalore and the Baldev Medical and Community Center near Balinganapalli — to avoid becoming tangled in politics. An American citizen, he has largely depleted his own resources on his projects. Since the recent global recession, which hurt funding, he relies on donors mostly in North America and Europe.
Nonresident Indians “are a large proportion of our donor pool,” he said, adding that philanthropy had not really caught on in India. “Indians living abroad have a different mind-set. They look at projects on their merit.”
This article appeared originally in India Abroad.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.