Sridhar Vembu wears traditional veshti and moves around on a bicycle in Mathalamparai in Tenkasi, Tamil Nadu. But calls himself more of a teacher these days. But who is Sridhar Vembu?
Sridhar Vembu is the founder of Zoho Corporation, a Silicon Valley star valued by Forbes at nearly $2.5 billion. But that’s not what today’s post is about.
Six months ago, the 53-year-old took up a “lockdown experiment” of home tuitions for three children that took up just two-three hours of his spare time.
Well, it now has four teachers and 52 students in the fold, mostly children of farm laborers from the village.
“A rural school start-up” is his scale-up goal, that will provide free education and food. A model that doesn’t believe in marks or degrees or conventional affiliations like CBSE or any other conventional board for certificates.
But he faces a barrage of challenges he says.
When the covid curbs came into force, “practically, it was not possible for them to attend classes online after the lockdown. Some parents had smartphones but cheap models. I tried out by teaching them a little Science, Mathematics, and English,” he says.
“On the ground, what I see is poverty…I noticed that kids coming to our tuition centre are actually hungry. How can you learn anything when you are hungry? That has to be sorted. I appreciate the noon-meal scheme but that is not enough,” he says, adding that his school provides two meals a day, and snacks around 4.30 pm before children are sent home.
Another challenge he faces is retaining dropouts. “There are different categories of students among the rural poor. Some who really want to get credentials, and many others who are actually planning to drop out at one point, after Class 8 or 10,” he says.
Vembu adds, classifying children based on what they know is better than segregating by age, pointing to children in Class 7 who do not know the English alphabet.
“Another challenge is that teachers do not live in the village. They come and go from a town about 30-40 km away… When people who can afford to send kids to private schools even in rural villages and when teachers of rural schools refuse to send their children there, it is the kids from poorest families alone who end up in the government schools. Their parents may be having a precarious income, they may have jobs only for a few days. Alcoholism is another problem. If a father is drinking heavily, he won’t be bringing the income home and the kid will get neglected, they will go hungry. I see it here,” he says.
Vembu insists that the root of most problems in the education system is “credentialism”. “Even the bright students focus only on grades, not the knowledge they acquire. There are many non-traditional learners. They are brilliant but the exam results will not show that. The system should accommodate non-traditional learners too, those who fail in exams but still do the best in jobs,” he says.
Vembu is working through all these challenges and concludes by saying, “This has become a serious project. We are trying to put it together as a model now…busy preparing papers, getting necessary approvals.”
In his free time, in Mathalamparai, Vembu enjoys making new friends, enjoying the fresh air, visiting tea shops, and playing cricket with children.