Published: 12th January 2021
Rural connect: How Pradeep Lokhande has been working for education and employment in India's villages for three decades
Pune-based Pradeep Lokhande and his story is worth recounting at regular intervals to remember that India resides in its villages and it's there that we have to work the hardest. Read on for more
Everyone has stories to tell. But the best story anyone would ever tell you is the one they have lived through. It follows a linear fashion of how they started on the sidelines and slowly owned the game enough to go for the goal. But the predicament with Pradeep Lokhande is that every time he bagged a goal, he would change the goal post, and aspire for a brand new challenge.
It was when he realised that the rural market is all about building relationships and maintaining them, he named his initiative Rural Relations
How else do you explain his meteoric rise from Wai, a town in Satara district of Maharashtra to gaining a job in Johnson & Johnson, then initiating Rural Relations, earning the title of Postcard Man of India and then, Library Man of India? That's his story in a nutshell, yet he tels us that there are many more goals to reach before he rests. And his latest goal post is BHub. But before we move a few steps forward, it's important to take a few steps back to see what got this 57-year-old where he is today.
Bonding with kids | (Pic: Pradeep Lokhande)
Because data is king!
"I will find a way," declared Lokhande at the age of 17 as he left the threshold of his home in Wai for Pune in search of opportunities. A Diploma in Marketing from the Institute Of Management Development and Research became his calling card and got him a job at Johnson & Johnson where he learnt all about marketing. His associations with the countryside began as he would travel 27 days a month. And when he had a bank balance of `42,000, he quit and went in search of his first goalpost. "To run a business, one needed to have a good amount of money, very good education and an excellent family background. I had none of it," says Lokhande jovially.
Through their new initiative yoMobile, they implore the public to donate phones to them so that they can pass them on to rural children who need it
That's when he started Rural Relations in 1993 and as the name goes, he put all his experience into building relationships with rural areas, via which he would bring opportunities and employment. He connected to over 49,000 villages by corresponding with them via postcards, and yes, it is as simple as it sounds and yet, it wasn’t. It took years and years. In this way, he built a database of nearly half a lakh villages. On one hand, he helped corporates penetrate rural areas and on the other hand, enabled an influx of more and more opportunities. Most famously, he is the only man known to have a one-line address — Pradeep Lokhande, Pune, 411013. This was a result of the project called villagewiKY.
In Gadchiroli, Maharashtra | (Pic: Pradeep Lokhande)
He is all booked up
The next chapter of Lokhande's life began in 2001 when he started establishing libraries for and in secondary schools of India. "I was convinced that if there is any way to bring about change in the country, it will only happen if we bring about change in the minds of secondary school children," says the entrepreneur. Lofty ideas to change the world? "Oh, no. I keep no such hopes," he laughs good-naturedly as he adds, "We just wanted to encourage reading, especially in local languages." These libraries are called Gyan-Key (key of knowledge) and there are 5,170 of them across states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Over one million students have benefitted from these libraries.
Wondering what questions he asked when he corresponded with villages for the first time? They were: When is the village bazaar held? Which products are sold? Who is the village head?
And that's not the only happy news. Students, as many as three lakh, write back to Rural Relations and 58 per cent of them are girls whose idols are Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla. You can see two lakh of these postcards, laminated and occupying the prime spot in their office in Pune. Lokhande's next story is about BHub. Confined to his home for months during the lockdown, and more importantly looking at the migrant crisis, he knew that a more intensive plan for rural India needs to be devised.
Lokhande | (Pic: Pradeep Lokhande)
He aims to target three establishments — secondary schools, public health centres (PHCs) and post offices. "These establishments already exist, we just need to make them stronger to prevent mass migration at least when it comes to education and health," he explains. This is based on the theory that for any human, three things are most important — health, education and finances. Strengthening these three will involve labour which makes it a job-creating opportunity. The corporates, government, villagers and non-resident villagers will be involved in this matter. In fact, he met the Governor of Maharashtra Bhagat Singh Koshyari regarding the same and has written to several Chief Ministers as well. In BHub, which he dubs as Business Hub or even Bharat Hub, he sees great scope. "This is a roadmap to revamp the economy too," he says.
In a few secondary school libraries, he even had personal computers installed
It is futile to ask a man who has grown up and works in the countryside why he feels such kinship with rural folk. So we proceed to ask him his opinions on education being the gateway to upward mobility in India. "It is the only tool with which you can change the country. But what we need is vocational training and respect for it. We don't need clerks anymore," he says vehemently. Smartphones have certainly reduced the gap between urban and rural, as information is at the fingertips of them both and yet, education can bridge the gap even further. And Lokhande might just be the man who can make it happen.
Inventory of recent work:
- Project Snehasambandha: Implemented across 13 states, 50,350 mechanics were given tetanus injections at their own garage
- They have students who take up responsibilities like Rakshita Bansode who maintains and plants over 1,200 plants in Umarkhed
- Last year, they set up Gyan-key libraries in all police stations in the city of Nashik
- In 2019, a Gyan-key library was set up on Uppal Police Station and a Zilla Parishad High School in Hyderabad
Stay up-to-date with figures
Number of postcards received from villages
Number of influencers in villagers identified
Number of libraries
Number of books donated
The number of villages he has basic information about
The number of years he has maintained correspondence with villages for
For more on him, check out ruralrelations.com