It is said that in any aspect of life, the difference between the numbers one and zero is greater than the difference between the numbers two and one; nowhere is it as clearly illustrated as in the case of education, where a little bit can go a long way in improving the quality of life.

The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India (EVFI) is one such concept that hopes to empower young tribal children in India through education. The premise of EVFI is “Ek Shikshak, Ek Vidyalaya,” which means “one teacher for every school.” Founded 15 years ago, by Shyamjee Gupta, EVFI focuses attention on tribals and tries to bring non-formal education within their reach. Currently EVFI is running over 8,000 schools in remote and tribal villages all over India and hopes to reach a target of 100,000 schools by the year 2010.

Ekal Vidyalayas offer five years of free non-formal education to village children aged 5-14 years in groups of 30 to 40. For every school a local teacher is identified. An organizer is assigned for each cluster of 10 schools. The teachers are locally educated youths who have passed grades 8 or 9 and have been trained specifically for the purpose. Many NGOs are also closely connected with the functioning of these vidyalayas. These village schools also serve the ancillary function of a meeting point for the entire community wherein ideas regarding health and better lifestyle are discussed.

Classes are held under a tree or in a hut and lessons are taught through different modes like kathas (story telling sessions), nataks (dramas), lok-geets (folk songs), and pravachans (religious discourses), etc. This informality induces even the errant students to turn up for class. The curriculum is designed by educationalists to cater to special local needs and is taught in the regional language of the state. It includes alphabetic and numerical knowledge as well as moral education. The girl child is also well represented: 50 percent of the students and teachers are female. About 20 percent of all students go on to higher education and some of them eventually return to serve the organization that helped their growth.

The EVFI has been able to keep capital costs to a minimum; one-time set up cost involves a blackboard, a chair for the teacher and banners, etc. The villagers chip in with gifts in kind in order to cement their emotional bond with their children’s schools and quite often supply many of these requirements.

Around 3,500 Ekal Vidyalayas have been identified all over India, and are ready for adoption by donors. The EVFI undertakes activities like “Van Yatra” in towns and cities in India, exhorting urbanites to adopt a school. For those in the U.S., a contribution of $1 dollar a day suffices to keep a school running.

Gupta, who is also the national coordinator of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India, has developed a special affinity for tribals over the years. Says Gupta, during an awareness-building trip to the U.S, “In all my experiences with tribal people, especially in Orissa, I have seen that they are very simple and have traditionally been exploited. It is important that they be given their due now—for one of the reasons that India has prospered industrially is because these tribals gave up their land and natural resources to the government.”

The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation in the U.S. works primarily to help raise money from NRIs and people of Indian origin and has headquarters in Los Angeles and Houston. The foundation has found patrons in the U.S. who help by fund-raising or simply volunteer services. One such passionate advocate is Sucheta Kapuria, entrepreneur and TiE founder member. Kapuria’s take on charity is simple; “Many of us first generation immigrants came to the U.S with nothing but our education, our intellectual capital. Therefore now, when we are well off, it is time to ensure that we help return the benefits of that education back to India.” Her future plans for EVF include helping to expand the seven-zone U.S set up to have chapters all over the country.

Chandra Jaiswal, an engineering manager at Adaptec adds, “As a volunteer, it is very heartening to see so many people moved by the images of the movement, and eager to help and part with their dollar a day.”

And as Ekal Vidyalaya shows, a little help can go a long way.