In the outskirts of Bangalore, India, there’s a school unlike any other; Shanti Bhavan. I first heard of it by lucky coincidence after a longwinded scroll through Netflix, when I decided on a gripping docu-series titled ‘Daughters of Destiny’.
It’s an emotive, inspirational, and thought-provoking series that deserves the most attentive recognition; the founding concept behind the school will redefine how you think about ‘giving’, ‘philanthropy’, ‘altruism’, and possibly, life.
Shanti Bhavan means ‘Heaven of Peace’ in Hindi, and that’s exactly what it is to approximately 300 students who come from rural villages or urban slums in India.
The school’s mission is to create social mobility in the lowest caste communities in the country. It’s an undeniably admirable mission, but it’s not the end in itself that’s most interesting, it’s the means to the end — the concept behind the project.
Archaic and discriminatory social norms continue to permeate every aspect of Indian culture. So the concept necessarily has to be revolutionary; it needed to shatter existing mentalities to make way for new social norms that will lead social mobility.
India’s caste system is a social structure that divides Hindus into hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). There are 4 main categories (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras), though these are further divided into an overwhelming 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes. Unsurprisingly, individuals of “higher” castes have a greater social status than those of a “lower” caste.
Alarmingly, whilst this social hierarchy is not legally recognized by the Indian constitution, and discrimination on the basis of caste is prohibited, this hierarchy remains salient in Indian society. It’s a socially accepted norm that remains of great significance at the local level, to such extent that one’s caste is often included in one’s name, and becomes particularly important in the context of marriage.
Outside of the Hindu caste system are the Dalits, traditionally known as “the untouchables”. Many “higher caste” Hindus consider the mere presence of Dalits to be ‘polluting’, a perception that stems from their historic hereditary occupations that include disposing of dead animals, working as manual scavengers, or sanitation workers.
It is children from these families that Shanti Bhavan raises to break through the glass ceiling of this oppressive hierarchy. The parents of Shanti Bhavan children include match-box makers, rag-pickers, and quarry workers, who work for less than $2.00 a day. Without Shanti Bhavan’s intervention, these children would be destined to pursue these same avenues.
Thankfully, one man took a leap of faith. He made the bold choice to pursue his dream of shattering this social and economic hierarchy that has oppressed India’s poorest for thousands of years. And he’s doing so in the most awe-provoking way. His concept is founded on pure logic; he calls it, ‘the Multiplicative effect’.
The Multiplicative Effect
Dr. Abraham George is an Indian-American businessman, academic, and philanthropist. He sold his very successful business in the US to a Fortune 500 Company in 1998 to found Shanti Bhavan in pursuit of his ambition to reduce the injustices and inequalities that permeate Indian society.
His concept was conceived on a simple logic. To truly change social norms, he was going to have to think big; his actions needed to achieve scalable results. The most efficient way to do so was to create a domino effect. The results of his actions had to in turn have the power to generate further results themselves.
His solution was to found a school, that would initially accept 12 boys and 12 girls per year from an “untouchable” family, and raise them from the age of four, all the way through until their first day of work. Education is the utmost priority, and his goals are ambitious — these children are to attend the best national and international universities, to become leading professionals, and even national leaders.
But the journey doesn’t stop there. The utmost purpose for these children is to alleviate their families from poverty once they have the means to do so. Shanti Bhavan isn’t about ‘giving’ children an education; it’s about ‘empowering’ them to become successful adults that will go on to empower others. The school’s mission is to alleviate poverty.
“If these children can’t support their families and themselves, we’ve failed” — Ajit George, Director of Operations
A Lesson to All
‘The Multiplicative Effect’ provides a new way to think about philanthropy; our efforts shouldn’t stop at ‘giving’, the objective should be to ‘empower’. Perhaps we assume the people we’re looking to help aren’t able to help themselves. Indeed, that’s what many of Dr. George’s connections said to him when he initially pitched his idea for the School; people didn’t believe that “untouchable” children would have the intellectual capacity to succeed.
In one episode, a young girl at the school recalls the discrimination she faced whilst studying law at university. She explains how other students used to debate whether there was any point in educating the poor in the first place, since:
“Poor people have poor ideas”.
Unequivocally, they were wrong. The alumni of Shanti Bhavan have gone on to become lawyers, engineers, doctors, psychologists, they have studied at leading universities all over the world and they will continue to raise families out of poverty generation by generation. Let this lead us by example, and motivate us to empower others.