Published: 20th February 2019
Every morning, I wake up, think about it and feel charged: The Mohandas Pai interview
TV Mohandas Pai, the man behind Manipal Global Education, who has been working to improve the quality of education for children across India, tells us about who inspired him to start Akshaya Patra
TV Mohandas Pai is a man who stands tall. Literally, and in the world of education. The man who built Manipal Education Group into the behemoth that it is today tells us how his heart lies in philanthropy though his group has produced thousands of doctors, engineers, business experts who are spread across the globe. Excerpts from an interview:
From working in a multinational company like Infosys to starting an educational institution, how has the journey been?
Working in the education sector has been a great experience for me. After I quit Infosys in the early 21st century, I along with my friend Dr Ranjan Pai gathered funds to invest in the technology sector. Later, we decided to set up five new universities across India. In 2011, our first institution, via the Manipal Education Group, was built in Dehmi Kalan village, Jaipur and it is the first digital campus of India. Though we were tired of investment and other aspects, we never gave up on our big dream. We want to do something more in the future in the field of education. We have been encouraging many tech start-ups as well. At present, I mentor over 50 start-ups across India and have funded many in the US as well. We keep exploring many projects, therefore, life is varied and different every day.
You have gone through a lot of challenges during this period. How did you face them?
There were innumerable challenges, but challenges can be surmounted if you have a passion to do something well and do good for society. One should have the perseverance to achieve what he or she wants to. To succeed in life, one should have thoughts which can be converted into actions and energy.
According to you, what is the present education sector lacking in?
It's easy to criticise the education system. What we must understand is that there is a huge scale in the system. There are over 3.5 crore students in India, which is the largest in the world and it will only double in the next ten years. None of the education systems in the world have been able to impart high-quality education to such a large number like ours. One thing that we can do is build good institutions so that they can impart quality education.
What are the educational policies that government should work on?
First, they should give greater freedom to universities to work on their programmes and policies. Secondly, they should give funding for infrastructure, especially for private institutions. They must also have a strong scholarship programme for poor students. We need a national research foundation for students where they can research on various issues. This way, they can not only gain knowledge but also disseminate the knowledge to others.
Researchers have been protesting for stipend hikes. Do you think we're investing enough?
The education sector needs public funding for research and we recommend that the government should allow Rs 5,000 crore funds for research in Science, Technology and Humanities. This way, the national foundation could give grants to colleges on a quantity basis so that students can do better. If we create this system, we will be in a much better position in the next 10 years. Apart from this, we need to inculcate problem-solving abilities among children. Having worked in this sector for over 20 years, I believe that education is a slow and gradual process. It takes time to improve and one cannot accelerate it overnight.
What according to you should citizens give in return to society?
If each one of us has benefitted from the public education sector for which the state has paid, then we need to educate at least two children in our lifetime. If we have done so, then we have served society.
These days, many government schools are shutting down in Karnataka. What do you think the government can do?
Government schools in Karnataka are shutting down for a few reasons because parents want their children to learn English, but the schools teach Kannada only. They should implement the English language on priority. At present, we have smaller schools whereas we need bigger schools. The school should house 500 to 1,000 students and there should be enough teachers so that children don't suffer. We should do away with the smaller schools. We must also enforce discipline among teachers and headmasters. What makes a school good or bad is good or bad management. If the headmasters are good then the school and teachers are also good and vice versa.
Why can't each IIT admit 5,000 to 10,000 students a year instead of admitting only 1,000 students?
The institutions say that there is no faculty, but there is a large educated and young population and they can be trained to teach students. Then, the brand becomes more important. According to me, such good institutions should be allowed to flourish and more students should be educated. For instance, China has 100 higher education institutions, each one of them has 30,000 students and all of them have residential facilities. There are also 1,000 universities, but these 100 institutions want to be top class like IITs and they have done it. So we must allow such good institutions to scale up and work. We should give them the freedom to expand. Now, the MHRD has a new policy of giving the tag of Institute of Eminence to several institutions in India. It is good because these tags will help institutions achieve greater autonomy and then they are free to take their own decisions.
But that would mean altering policies. Are you for that?
The key is that we are an evolving country and the education policies should be formed in such a way that the good can get better and the bad should perish. However, for admission in a good institution, money is required, therefore, we must have a national scholarship programme so that no child is deprived of education. Giving loans to students will not help as it is difficult for them to repay it. We have to create the kind of structure where we put in more resources. It is not just the government or private sectors that can run educational institutions. Anybody can run them provided that the quality of education is good. It needs accreditation, evaluation and autonomy.
What does the future hold for Manipal Education Group?
Manipal has earned the tag of National Institute of Eminence and we need to focus more on research work, improving quality education, having more laboratories and creating many problem solvers. It is a gradual evolution and we aim to be in the global rankings very soon. Getting global recognition is based on research papers, globalisation, getting faculty from different countries and so on. The reason why Manipal is a good institution is because of good management. We take students only on merit and there are no management quota seats. Students have to go through a test and based on their ranking, they get seats in our college. There is no influence of friends, family members, politicians or bureaucrats. Of course, some students cannot afford the fee so they choose to go to government institutions. We try our best to help such students by giving them scholarships, but it is a very small amount. And our institutions also run on the fees paid by our students. We need to pay the salaries and look after providing proper infrastructure to the students.
How did the Mid-Day Meals programme by Akshaya Patra start?
We started Akshaya Patra in the year 2000 in a very different way. My wife and I heard that someone was building a large temple called ISKCON in Bengaluru. A friend of mine asked me to meet Madhu Pandit Dasa who is the president of ISKCON Bengaluru. Dasa is a BTech graduate from IIT Mumbai. I got to know through him that they had spent Rs 40 crore to build a beautiful temple. I asked him why he can't build a school and do social work. He was not convinced by the idea. I told him about another initiative called Mid-Day Meal programme. Curious, he asked me to explain it. I explained to him what Dr M G Ramachandran, Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, had carried this out in his state. Over a period of 25 years, children had grown two inches taller, ten pounds heavier, the infant mortality rate had come down and the literacy rate had increased. The whole society was transformed by that one meal. The impact was such that mothers built temples in MGR's honour. When he was on his deathbed in New York, people voted him to power with an overwhelming majority. Such was the love and reverence that the people of Tamil Nadu had for MGR. He was a very compassionate man. When Madhu Pandit heard this, he was happy and said, "We feed people who come to the temple as we have a kitchen to cook food. Let's feed 1,500 children in five government schools." I agreed to what he said. But he requested for three vehicles. Each vehicle cost us Rs 10 to 11 lakh. While I bought one vehicle, my friends gave two more vehicles. We did not know that the cost of feeding 1,500 children every year was more than the cost of buying vehicles. Within a period of one year, we got a request to feed 1,50,000 children. It was surprising to see that the problem of food and hunger was so intense in a city like Bengaluru. We approached the former chief minister SM Krishna to form a policy to feed children in government schools. I invited Murali Manohar Joshi, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha to inaugurate our initiative and he gave the name Akshaya Patra.
And it has grown over the yearsThe programme went on and we started to serve 25,000 children. We had no money left with us. At that time, the American India Foundation (AIF) gave us $25,000. We started collecting money to feed children. On some occasions, when there was no money, we took a bank overdraft. At the same time, one person gave us a cheque of six crores to run the programme. While the government gives us 60 per cent, we raise the rest of the money from the people of India. It is a proud feeling for us as we finished three billion meals in Mathura recently. This programme has given a new meaning to my life. Every day, when I wake up, I think about the programme and feel charged. I am happy to see that no child goes hungry and no child is deprived of education because of the meals.
How was your experience working with the different state governments?
None of the governments are bad. It takes time because governments have a lot of work to do for the people. We need to meet the concerned person and explain our challenges. Every government has always opened its doors for us. Of course, there are delays in payments from different states, but when we approach them and talk, they see to it that the payment is done. I think every government is proactive.