A Conversation with Nishant: Getting to Know Haiyya’s Citizenship Educator

by Syamala Krishnamsetty

This week we’ll be profiling Nishant Chavan, facilitator of our Citizen’s  Education Project.  Today I’ve decided to sit down with my coworker over Maharashtran thalis and learn a little more about who he is, why he joined Haiyya, and hear about what he thinks youngsters can do to be more civically engaged in their neighborhoods.

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Can you tell me a little about what your mindset was like when you graduated?


I did my Bachelors in Botany.  But after that, I wanted to align myself with the medical field. I never wanted to leave Bombay.

But then I got in at the University of Pune – so every weekend I used to travel from Pune to Mumbai, and then go back Monday through Friday for lectures.  I did my Masters in Health Science there – I knew I wanted to be aligned with the medical field.

After that I worked for a public health NGO.  I joined as a researcher, and we were doing an evaluation of a project started by PATH.  They had been implementing a program at seven sites in rural Maharashtra, and four or five sites in Uttar Pradesh, and had just finished their third year.  When I joined, it was the fourth year – the year to do all the evaluation of the program.

That’s when I realized, traveling through these rural areas in Maharashtra, that people took public health seriously, but didn’t have the knowledge to act.


So that’s why you moved to Teach for India?


See, let me tell you a little bit about why I joined Teach for India.  I didn’t want to switch from public health to education.  But some of my experiences made me switch.  There was one strong case for me – over in Nagpur. I came to know a construction worker.  He was a BPL (Below Poverty Line) card holder, and if he had gone to a government hospital, he would have gotten his medicine for almost free.  He was suffering from TB.  But then he didn’t go to the government hospital.  He went to a private hospital.

People in India, they have this idea that government hospitals aren’t good.  To some extent it is true, but the medicines are the same.

He expired after three months.  The TB was in a secondary stage, and after he died, his family was sent his debt.  I don’t know if he could have been saved, but I know that he could not read or write, and if he had, he perhaps would have known he could have gone to a government hospital.  I’m not saying his life would have been saved, since he was in a late stage, but he would have had a chance, and have not been a burden on his family.

That’s why I joined Teach for India – I had to do something for the low income community to have a basic understanding – ABCs, math –  so they can get the information they need. And what I Iearned is that public health and education go hand in hand together.


So why Haiyya?


I joined Haiyya as a fellow, because I believed that students should know about their government.  I initially thought it was about making civics education more attractive, but then I saw that it was really about having a more action based civics program.  In the process, they can learn how a student can make a difference in the community.  They would develop leadership skills, because it takes a lot of courage to talk.

So what do we do if the government is supposed to do something, and the government isn’t doing it?


Okay.  So you talked a lot about your professional life before coming to Haiyya.  But this desire to help people – it must have come from somewhere.  When was the first time you realized you wanted to help people?


When I was in higher secondary school, there were many visually challenged students.  So we had this program to help them, and as I got involved, I became a very good reader and writer for them.  They would enter a class as regular students, but I would read their books and record cassettes for them to study.  Also, during exam time, I would write their answers for them.

That’s when I decided “Come on dude, you have to do something!”

Kandivali kids


Cool.  So, what kind of challenges have you faced with this project?


I’d say there are three things.  So much of what we’ve done is a pre pilot, but we have so much more to do, in more schools.  Some of the other schools we are going to are high income schools, and we have to identify how the needs are different, and take what we’ve learned from low income schools and use it to understand high income schools too.  But we have to understand the challenges are very different.

Second, it’s a volunteer driven model.  But in India, the word “citizenship,” and the word “democracy” . . .  is very high level.  Very much associated with authority.   People don’t think of themselves as agents for change.

The third thing: how to get an extra half hour in schools. Just getting extra time is a challenge, so we’re going to be pitching to school principals over the coming weeks to give us more time.


So let me ask you this.  You’ve talked about teaching kids they have power.  You’ve worked in low incomes schools, and will be headed to high income schools.  So my question is: is it easier to convince high income kids that they have power than it is to convince low income kids?


Don’t know, man.  I guess we’ll find out!


What do you think Haiyya can do in the future to convince kids they have power?


Right now, all these concepts have to be taught at a very early age.  The earlier you start, the better it is.

Let me tell you – when I was at the age of 18, my dad said “dude, you have to vote!” And I thought “what difference does one vote make?”  That’s what  I thought at the age of 18.

If we teach these kids early on how important their vote is, how to be a force in society . . . right now civics education is very good.  The curriculum is very good.  But the difference between civics and citizenship isn’t very clear.  And how do we implement a civics curriculum in a real way?


What advice would you give to a young person out there who wants to make a difference in her community?


Share, get more info, spread the word.  Read lots of newspapers.  Develop a curiosity in your mind.

Talk to your friends and your families.  A group discussion will lead to an idea on how to create change.  And when people are talking, you develop a will to make change happen.  Lead by example to others.  When people see you following a rule, or having a value, they will start to do the same.  Change won’t happen fast, but it will happen.  You have to be positive, and take a stand on things.


Cool. Thank you Nishant!

What ideas do you have for kids to be more involved in creating change in their neighborhoods?


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