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The Next-Generation Solution

Premji’s foundation aims for universal education.

Some dismiss India’s economic rise as hype, and contend its exceptional performance in IT, pharma and a few other industries still leaves 800 million people locked in poverty. But these pessimists discount Indian pride and the will to lift the whole country up. And no matter how far behind a country may be, it couldn’t be in a better position to fast track development than by first becoming a global leader in IT, as India has done. It seems only fitting, then, that high-tech titan Azim Premji concentrates his philanthropic efforts on the education of India’s young.

The Azim Premji Foundation is devoted to fixing primary schools across the country, with an emphasis on getting children engaged in problem solving and other creative curricula. “We need to stop looking at schools as factories churning out students equipped merely to memorize text,” Premji said in a speech after launching the foundation in 2001. “Schools must be viewed as places that have the potential to transform the future of both the individual child and indeed the nation.”

Working with state governments, schools and communities, the foundation publicly promotes universal education; trains officials and teachers in management and teaching techniques; campaigns for identifying learning disabilities early; supports education research; produces multilingual, multimedia learning tools; implements cost-saving ideas for computer-assisted learning; and runs incentive programs. It stresses results by assessing and rewarding successful schools through its Learning Guarantee Programme. Initially, awards went to schools achieving 100 percent enrollment and 90 percent attendance; student achievement is the next step on the performance recognition ladder.

School in R.K. Narayan stories tends to be the stuff of hilarious, often complex intrigue. The reality, in Premji’s judgment anyway, is that many classrooms are threatening, ill-equipped and unproductive. India’s education system left 35 million of 192 million children ages 6 to 14 “out of school,” he noted in his 2001 speech. Only 31 percent completed grade 10, considered the minimum for basic schooling—but then, staying in school didn’t seem to do much for a lot of kids, either. Premji found it “deplorable” that more than a third of 19 million children in grade 5 could neither read nor write.

The Wipro chairman is determined to better those numbers. “We decided as an organization to focus on primary education,” he says. “A lot of large corporations and wealthy individuals tend to distribute themselves too thinly in terms of what they want to do.

“Today we are engaged one way or the other with about half a million children through our presence in more than 200 schools in more than 20 cities in India—and we are engaged with about 1.8 million children in primary schools in the villages.”

That still leaves several million kids to go, but then Azim Premji moves quickly.

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