101 East

School for a dollar

One man is leading a mission to wipe out illiteracy in Nepal with low cost private education.

For many in Nepal, a good education remains an unattainable luxury. And despite a rapid expansion of education facilities in recent decades, adult literacy is still less than 50 per cent.

Nepal has over seven million students enrolled in primary and secondary school education, but only one in four children reach the 10th grade. Despite spending 17 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on education, government school facilities in Nepal are poor and dropout numbers are high, especially among girls.

One third of the country’s population live below the poverty line and private schools are unaffordable for most, while public schools make do with insufficient facilities, insufficient teacher training and broken down buildings.

Widespread corruption and politicisation of the education sector is blamed. Teacher appointments are made by political parties, funds are mismanaged by district education officers and numerous political groups hold education to ransom by staging strikes which regularly force the closure of schools across the country.

But one man is leading a mission to wipe out illiteracy in Nepal with low cost private education. Uttam Sanjel gave up aspirations to be a Bollywood actor in order to devote his life to children’s education.

In 2001, he started the Samata Shiksha Niketan Schools in Kathmandu. The name means ‘education for all’.

Made from bamboo collected from the local community, the schools are basic but cost just 100 Nepali Rupees ($1.35) per student each month.

Today, Sanjel’s schools make up Nepal’s largest chain of non-public educational institutions, with over 25,000 students from nursery to year 12 in 19 schools.

He aims to open at least one Samata School in each of the country’s 75 districts, supported by donations from local businessmen, expats, diplomats and foreign philanthropic organisations. In 2010, all Samata students who sat the School Leaving Certificate exam passed with over 80 per cent marks.

But the Samata School is not without controversy. There are calls for greater transparency over its donors and Sanjel often struggles to pay his teachers, leading to a walk-out at one school in eastern Nepal. Still, Sanjel hopes to close the gap between wealthy and marginalised groups and forge a path to equality through cheap quality education.  

101 East asks if Sanjel’s $1 bamboo schools are the answer to ending illiteracy in Nepal.

PRODUCER’S BLOG: ‘Give and forget’

By Aela Callan, reporter and producer

Samata bamboo school founder Uttam Sanjal is determined to end illiteracy in Nepal [Aela Callan/Al Jazeera]

On first appearances, Uttam Sanjal is almost a caricature. Dressed in a traditional Nepali dhaka topi hat and an over-sized blue blazer, he performs in front of 3,000 of his students at a bamboo “Samata” school assembly like the Bollywood actor he dreamed of one day becoming.

His permanent smile and cheery turn of phrase show a determination for positivity, no matter what the challenge. This is always a red flag to an ever sceptical journalist.

Uttam’s mission is to provide quality education for all children in Nepal. His schools are very cheap – students only pay 100 rupees (just over one dollar) each month. His students are from impoverished backgrounds. They have to find their own uniforms, but sometimes he even pays for their books.

Past experience in the developing world has taught me there must be a catch. Especially as his students have been graduating with distinctions and higher. How on Earth does he do it with such a small amount of money? What is in it for him? Is there a religious element, I wonder?

Initially, I am frustrated getting answers to these questions. In booming, accented English with the characteristic South-Asian head wobble, Uttam simply tells me “life is wonderful” when I pushily demand to know how he manages to run 19 schools – the largest network of private schools in Nepal.

“When it comes from the heart, the whole body is enjoying. This is the meaning of internal happiness. I’ve got this,” he says. 

After several days, I begin to see the world through Uttam’s eyes. Behind the overly optimistic cliches, he is acutely aware of his own country’s limitations. Widespread corruption exists in Nepal’s education sector. Teachers are appointed as political cadres in government schools, money is misused and mismanaged, and political groups regularly hold schools to ransom, calling strikes, or “bandh” which force them to shut.

Uttam seeks outside funding so that he keeps a good distance away from this mess. He does not want the government, NGOs or even INGO’s meddling in his school and its affairs. Private donations from “education lovers,” as he calls them, fund 75 per cent of his operating costs. He claims to run all 19 schools on $250,000 in donations per year. “Give and forget,” is Uttam’s philosophy, and it works – almost.  

The biggest limitation in what he is doing is that this is a one-man show. Each month, he looks in his bank account to see if there is enough money to pay his dedicated teachers. Sometimes there is not. The teachers I spoke to were very understanding about delayed salaries and seem to have bought into Uttam’s vision. Others are volunteers and have regular jobs in other schools. But it seems a pretty risky way to run the education of 25,000 kids. Also, I was shocked to learn that Uttam has new projects on the go. A bamboo university and a bamboo hospital that is already being built. It seems there is nothing that this man is not prepared to take on. 

Amid this growing empire, I did see the chinks in Uttam’s super optimistic armour. He is tired. He is fending off contractors, teachers, everyone who wants money. Sometimes, he says, he hides in the toilet. It seems plenty of “education lovers” are willing to invest in building bamboo schools, but not so many like investing in the things that do not get their names on a plaque, like salaries.  

I hope for Uttam’s sake, but especially for his students, that he can find a few big donors who embrace the “give and forget” principle. Perhaps it is possible. He is an extremely endearing character. Back in Al Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur office, Uttam has managed to infuse something of himself in the 101 East team who have been borrowing his quirky phrases like “whole body happiness,” and “Oh! Thank you sir”. Giving hope is easy, forgetting Uttam, it seems, is not.