In India, a new approach to vocational education

In Brief: 

Surveys of the Institute's graduates indicate that 30 percent have found employment in the vocation they were trained in and another 40 percent have established their own businesses, for a total of some 70 percent who are working in the field for which they were trained. 

The New Era Development Institute seeks to provide students with skills to earn a living and impart a new vision of community service. "Our product is basically a transformed individual."

SATARA, Maharashtra, India - In India's now burgeoning economy, the building trades are flourishing, and learning how to install electrical wiring in homes is an important and potentially profitable skill.

But for Rahul Mahamumi, 16, and his friend Shivaji Shinde, 20, among the most significant benefits so far gleaned from a two-and-a-half month house wiring course at the Bahá'í Center here are an increased sense of self-confidence and a newly manifest desire to serve the community.

The course is different from similar programs because it includes instruction in "personal development" - a general term here for classes that help students improve their social skills and self image. And in this case, the instruction includes elements of spiritual and moral education designed to give students a new vision of themselves and society.

"Basically all the courses in house wiring offer the same technical knowledge," said Mr. Mahamumi. However, he said, the students at the Bahá'í Center are taught to share their skills freely and to use them to help others when they can, even without the prospect of profit. "When we are done, we hope to do service for the community," said Mr. Mahamumi, "not just for making money."

Adds Mr. Shinde, who comes from a farming village some 6 kilometers away: "The [personal development training] inspired us to think that we can do things for ourselves and our community."

The attitudes of these two young students, who are not Bahá'ís, reflect the new directions in social and economic development being pioneered by the New Era Development Institute (NEDI), a Bahá'í-sponsored research and training center located in Panchgani, a small hill station town about 30 kilometers away.

Over the last ten years, the Institute has developed an approach to rural development that combines hardheaded vocational training for rural areas with a specialized curriculum in spiritual and moral principles. The effort is aimed at producing a group of capable and energized individuals who can return to their villages and, while supporting themselves, undertake and encourage local and sustainable development efforts.

“Our aim is to give people a new vision, a new heart, a desire to give service, an increased self-confidence, and an understanding of the connection between service and their own growth.” 

— Sherif Rushdy, Director, NEDI 

"Our product is basically a transformed individual," said Sherif Rushdy, director of NEDI. "Our aim is to give people a new vision, a new heart, a desire to give service, an increased self-confidence, and an understanding of the connection between service and their own growth. And, further, that they have gained a trade by which they can earn an income and a few skills that can be helpful to their community."

The payoff to this new approach is just now emerging in places like Satara, in other villages near the Institute, and, indeed, throughout India. Drawing on and working closely with the grassroots network provided by the two million-member Bahá'í community of India, NEDI has established outreach projects in the states of Gujarat, Manipur, Sikkim and Madhya Pradesh, as well as here in Maharashtra.

So far, more than 600 individuals have undergone training at the NEDI main campus in Panchgani, and at least several thousand more have participated in one of its outreach programs. In all of aspects, NEDI, its outreach programs, and its graduates are involved in a wide range of development-oriented activities, from the provision of classes on literacy and basic hygiene to schemes for tree-planting and environmental conservation; from the creation of small-scale income generating projects and rural businesses to efforts that promote the advancement of women.

In this regard, the New Era Development Institute currently stands as one of the largest and most fully realized Bahá'í-sponsored development efforts in the world. It is a leader in conceptualizing how to apply the principles of the Bahá'í Faith to development. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting facet of the Institute's work has been the creation of a curriculum that achieves an integration of the practical with the spiritual quite successfully. NEDI administrators see such an integration as the key to inspiring individuals to take action to develop themselves and their communities.

Vocational Education with a Twist

NEDI was founded officially some 10 years ago, but its beginnings can be traced to outreach service projects undertaken by the New Era High School in the early 1970s [see page 12]. Over time, NEDI has become known primarily as a center for rural vocational education, defining its mission in terms of providing both vocational and development training to village-level men and women.

And in terms of providing quality vocational education, NEDI's success is remarkable. The Institute currently provides training in nine vocational areas: diesel mechanics, motorcycle repair, data processing, dressmaking, refrigeration and air conditioning repair, radio and television servicing, agriculture and animal husbandry, and primary and pre-primary teacher training. According to surveys by the Institute, more than 70 percent of graduates are working in the field for which they were trained, a relatively high rate in a developing country like India.

The 28-acre campus features nine main buildings: two classroom blocks, four dormitories (two for women and two for men), a workshop, a staff housing unit, and an administrative building. The two classroom blocks and two of the dormitories were completed in 1997, thanks to development assistance grants from the governments of Canada and Norway. The Institute's total staff numbers about 85, with some 30 involved directly in training and administration.

Current on-campus enrollment is about 175 students. Most are young, in their early 20s, and they come from all parts of India and a handful of foreign countries. (Currently, the school has students from Bangladesh, Tanzania and the Congo.) Most are Bahá'ís, but at least 35 percent are Hindus, Muslims, or another religion.

The tuition is low. NEDI's true cost of educating, housing and feeding each student runs about $1,300 a year. However, students are charged from $150 to $475, with women receiving a 25 percent discount. Funding for this subsidy, and the work of the Institute in general, comes principally from the Bahá'í community of India, from the Bahá'í International Community, and from long-running development assistance grants of the Canadian and Norwegian governments.

As noted, the Institute also sponsors and/or coordinates regional training courses as part of its outreach program. In 1997, according to Mr. Rushdy, some 1,300 individuals were involved in such outreach courses, which run from two weeks to three months.

In addition to providing students with vocational training, the Institute has also directly undertaken a number of small-scale development projects in the villages around Panchgani. These projects have ranged from poultry and pig raising to literacy training to the promotion of bio-gas energy systems.

A "Technology of Training"

According to Mr. Rushdy, the local projects have served in part as a proving ground for the elaboration of a development curriculum, an elaboration that is one of the Institute's most significant accomplishments so far.

"What we have achieved is really a technology of training that gives a balanced development to the individual, releasing their potential as community developers," said Mr. Rushdy.

"Every course of study has four tracks: a service track, a spiritual track, a vocational track and a cultural track. In this way, our aim is that each student should leave with some service skill - how to promote health, hygiene, literacy, the education of children and the like; some spiritual skills - so they know why they are doing these things; some vocational skills - so they can get some money to support themselves; and some cultural skills, meaning training in tolerance and diversity and the arts - so they have the confidence and the capacity to be leaders and they are able to convey development messages though the arts," said Mr. Rushdy.

At the heart of this training technology is what is known on campus as the "core curriculum." Regardless of whether students come to NEDI to learn to be diesel mechanics or pre-primary teachers, they all study the core curriculum, which is taught for the first two hours of each day and extends into an innovative campus community life and requirement for off-campus service.

The heart of the core curriculum is an attempt to teach respect for universal spiritual principles and how to apply them to contemporary issues, said Dr. Radha Rost, the Institute's training coordinator.

"We teach the basic principles of religion, principles that are common to all the world's religions - we don't teach the Bahá'í Faith per se," said Dr. Rost. "At the same time, however, most of the main elements of the curriculum are drawn from the Bahá'í teachings."

Curriculum elements include not only such progressive social principles as the equality of women and men, the oneness of humanity and the need to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty, but also in-depth discussions of topics concerned with the soul, the spiritual reality of existence, and the fundamental purpose of life.

The in-depth discussion of religion and spiritual topics underlies a fundamental tenet at the Institute: that truly sustainable development is impossible without tapping into the power of faith.

“If development agencies spend enough money, they can make any project happen. But we believe that sustainability comes from within, and the key to sustainability that all development agencies are looking for is what inspires individuals to take action to develop themselves and their community.”

— Sherif Rushdy, Director, NEDI 

"If development agencies spend enough money, they can make any project happen," said Mr. Rushdy. "But we believe that sustainability comes from within, and the key to sustainability that all development agencies are looking for is what inspires individuals to take action to develop themselves and their community.

"What we find is that this inspiration, in the long term, does not come from the social worker or the professional development intervenor. It comes from the individual's own connection with God.

"Faith is the key to sustainability, and translating faith into action is what development is all about. It has always been. Civilizations around the world have all been built on the actions of people who had a new vision and had the faith to carry it through," said Mr. Rushdy. "And this is what we hope to imbue in our students here. For we feel that, more than simply another development institution, we are in the business of establishing a new civilization."

While it is difficult to gather concrete statistics on the degree to which NEDI students are indeed spiritually energized and concomitantly acting to develop their communities, NEDI's approach has certainly drawn favorable attention from various government development agencies. The Institute has received funds for various projects from the Government of India since 1989, and, as noted, has likewise developed relationships with the Canadian International Development Agency and the Norwegian overseas development authority (NORAD). In 1997, the Institute entered into a four-year collaboration with Norway's Telemark College at Notodden. The collaboration will seek to exchange ideas about teacher-training curriculum, with a focus on cooperative learning, peace education and the use of drama.

There is also considerable anecdotal evidence that the Institute's approach is succeeding. Recent interviews with NEDI graduates at six locations in Gujarat and Maharashtra states indicated that many are indeed imbued with a self-confidence and commitment to voluntary community service.

As recounted above, students at a house wiring course in Satara expressed such new attitudes during an interview in November. The course was sponsored by the State Bahá'í Council of Maharashtra, in collaboration with NEDI. The Council provided the classroom and sleeping space, utilizing the Satara Bahá'í Center, and NEDI provided the instructors and funding for the course, which drew some 29 students, of which none are Bahá'ís. It should be noted that this sort of collaboration with regional Bahá'í organizations and agencies is basic to the mandate established for NEDI, which is operated by the National Bahá'í Community of India.

At the same time, in the nearby village of Biblewadi, the Maharashtra Bahá'í Council, in a similar collaboration with NEDI, was sponsoring a series of courses aimed at improving literacy rates, promoting better health and hygiene for women and children, and boosting self-esteem.

The sense of appreciation for these courses, which were given free of charge by NEDI staff and by NEDI-trained volunteers, was evident at a ceremony hosted by village leaders on 20 November 1997. Following a feast, in a ceremony that ran well past midnight, community leaders gave a series of speeches that praised NEDI for its work. Among other things, they said they liked the Institute's approach to encouraging self-development through moral education.

"This is a holistic program for the community, and the whole community has received a new self-confidence," said Tulsiram Moré, the village chief. "We have some bad habits. If somebody in the village is progressing, we sometimes try to pull him down. But through the spiritual education, we'll get ourselves better developed."

In the village of Shendurjane, some 20 kilometers to the north, another collaboration between NEDI and the Maharashtra Bahá'í Council resulted in nightly classes on spiritual development in November. This course, lasting just two weeks, was based on a one of a series of workbooks on spiritual issues developed by Bahá'í educators in Latin America, known in their totality as the Ruhi Institute Course. The course covers topics such as the nature of the soul, the prospects for an afterlife and the connection between the soul's evolution and service to humanity on earth.

The connection between these topics and the development of their own community was evident to the dozen young men who were taking the course. In interviews after the class, they said the discussions helped them see the connection between morality and social progress.

"Those who go through this course, they will never hurt anybody or do bad things because they will remember all the time that God is there to ask us about our actions," said Bapu Jadhav, a 20-year-old Hindu farmer.

[NEXT ISSUE: How local Bahá'í communities among the Dang people in Gujarat State are working with NEDI graduates to boost a homegrown program of community development.]

What is real development? Buses, cars and tractors or cooperation and unity?

PANCHGANI, Maharashtra, India - In striving to illuminate what it means to integrate spiritual principles with economic development, the New Era Development Institute (NEDI) has hit upon a simple but revealing exercise that can be used almost anywhere in the world.

Most of the Institute's students come from India's villages, and they attend expecting to return one day to help develop their home communities.

During the first week at NEDI, all are asked to draw a picture of what their villages are like. The drawings are often done with childish simplicity, showing stick figures and little regard for perspective, and the subjects are usually quite similar: they mostly depict a series of huts along a dirt road, surrounded by garbage and undernourished children.

Then the students are asked to draw what they would like their villages to become. This time, most of the students draw a nice straight road, electric poles on one side, with a series of big buildings: a school, a hospital, a government office. There are nice houses, usually with television sets inside. And there are buses and cars, and tractors in the fields.

Usually, however, the pictures of the "developed village" lack people. And the NEDI instructors have learned at this point to ask about that, and to question whether all of those buildings, and amenities like electricity and television, will make the people happy.

The students begin to think and discuss and soon realize that they have merely replicated what they have seen in Bombay or on a television show about New York. Then they are asked: are the people happy in Bombay or New York - and would they themselves be happy in the "developed village" that was just drawn?

After some discussion and thought, the answer is usually "No, the people are not happy." There is fighting and crime and people are afraid to go out at night, the students say. Others mention pollution and corruption. The students quickly realize, say NEDI instructors, that while the physical environment has changed, the people and the community have not.

Then the instructors launch a discussion about what might make people happy - and how that could be achieved. And the students inevitably start talking about honesty and cooperation and cleanliness. According to NEDI instructors, they soon conclude that people would be happier if there were no corruption and if people were more helpful to each other.

More discussion is held and then, at the end of the exercise, the students are asked to draw another picture of what a "spiritually developed" village would be like. Then they draw a new sort of village, one with lots of people in it, and they are all working together or cooperating. The place is cleaner and more orderly, to be sure. But it also shows happy people.

"So the first step of development intervention is to help people understand who they are as people and to help them see how they can change their behavior," said NEDI's director, Sherif Rushdy.

He and others at NEDI are convinced that such change ultimately comes only through religious faith.

"Development is changing people and you cannot change people unless people are exposed to some Divine Writings or guidance - whether it's the Writings of Buddha or Krishna or Muhammad or Jesus or Bahá'u'lláh - doesn't matter," said Mr. Rushdy. "The source of the Divine Writings comes from God and going back to that source of guidance is what empowers people.

"Now, there are other movements which have taken the religious teachings and have empowered people," said Mr. Rushdy. "The Bahá'í approach is no different from that, except that the teachings are based on the message of Bahá'u'lláh and what He has to offer for today."

For more than half a century, New Era High School has set the pace for service

PANCHGANI, Maharashtra, India - In some respects, the New Era High School might be considered as the grandfather of modern Bahá'í development efforts.

Founded at the end of World War II in August 1945, the School was one of the first education projects started by Bahá'ís outside of Iran. Its first class consisted of some 16 students, aged four to eight, and they gathered in a small rented house in this scenic and temperate hill station town.

In the 53 years since, the School has grown and flourished, becoming a highly respected private academy, drawing students from all over the world. It currently offers a complete program of study for grade levels from kindergarten through high school, and has an enrollment of nearly 1,000.

The School has long given a high priority to moral education and the promotion of values for world citizenship, and its students have regularly scored high marks on government exams and other academic tests.

Of equal significance, the School has been a proving ground for early Bahá'í efforts at promoting social and economic development in rural areas.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the School gradually began to establish a series of outreach programs aimed at assisting poor and underdeveloped villages in the region. The program was started as a service project for students, operating under the direction of Dr. Ray Johnson, who was the school's principal from 1971 to 1983.

These initial efforts began in 1973, and they involved sending eighth, ninth and tenth grade students down the mountainside into the village of Chicklee in the Krishna River Valley one day a month to assist in such projects as showing villagers how to rid themselves of scabies or assisting in the construction of a new water storage tank.

"We started these things out of a strong conviction that everybody has within them a need to serve," said Jane Grover, who was a vice principal at New Era from 1971 to 1977 and one of the initiators of this program. "And young people, especially, can develop that capacity by doing service."

These efforts gradually became more formalized. Grant money was accepted, a van was purchased, and staff members became engaged full time in rural development. Projects to promote health, literacy and better animal husbandry were undertaken.

By 1975, the New Era Rural Development Program was established and then, in 1980, a secondary project, the Institute for Rural Technology, was founded. In 1983, these two programs were combined as the New Era Centre for Rural Education and Development. And, finally, in 1987, the New Era Development Institute was founded and its administration was separated entirely from the administration of the New Era High School.

The School is today formally out of the rural development business, ceding that work to NEDI, its sister institution. But it continues to train its students to be service-oriented. Students are required to perform service in and around the campus, as well as to undertake various short-term community service projects.

"Although we are a very good academic school, our primary aim is to build a citizenry that is well developed in terms of moral values and an attitude of service," said Dr. Vasudevan Nair, the principal.