The story of how a Hindu businessman from Kolkata made the educational funding of Muslim girls his priority started with the chance reading of the Sachar Committee Report in November 2006.
Manoj Mohanka of Charlestown Capital Advisors read every page of that near-400 page thesis, beginning with curious engagement, moving to interested attention and finally turning to wide-eyed amazement.
The report has since been accepted as a definitive insight into Muslim poverty in India extending our understanding of the community beyond the stereotyped 'politically pampered' and 'lazy'. Because as businessman Mohanka discovered, our friend Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court was telling a different story. That the Muslims of the country had been consistently discriminated against, the freebies given were not as much to liberate as to keep them enslaved and how the great national educational sweep had passed its largest minority by. Mohanka did not quite encounter that blinding flash on the road to Damascus. Credit to his intellectual honesty that he thumbed through every page of this report. But the reality also is that by the end, Mohanka yawned, turned the lamp off and tucked into bed.
And might have said 'How terrible' but for a possibly unconnected development that transpired two months later. For a couple of years until then, Mohanka had been sending polite emails to Professor Muhammad Yunus (of microfinance fame) to lecture at the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce.
The Professor had politely declined each time. Then someone from Stockholm rang to tell the professor that he had won an award named after the inventor of dynamite, the world went ballistic (couldn't resist this pun!). Mohanka regretted that his chance of ever getting the good old professor for a lecture had gone when he got a call from Dhaka with a polite message - 'I am coming to India and thought that since you have been pursuing me for the last two years, you should have the first right of refusal for my first lecture in your city.' You could have knocked Mohanka down with a feather.
So as it turns out, Prof Yunus comes, speaks and canny Marwari financiers can't believe their ears. Yunus lent to the weakest; they returned money fastest. Yunus did not seek collateral; his default rate was less than 1per cent. Yunus funded those with not an entrepreneurial platelet to start a business; when the money reported a surplus, the first thing they did was educate their children. Mohanka said wow, went home, got some calls for an evening well-hosted and tucked into bed. Mohanka emerged soon from that slumber.
He connected the two dots - that Sachar Report and the Yunus experiment. And this he resolved: he too would start his microfinance version; he would fund Muslim girls; he would invest in a social enterprise with the highest return. Education. Mohanka began to fund academically-solid Muslim girls in non-madrasa environments who wanted to study ahead but lacked the financial resources.
He would fund them for as long as they intended to study. Whatever it took. Secular liberalness? Not quite. Mohanka says that the logic was so clearly bottom-up that he is surprised that most have been missing the plot for years. When you educate a Muslim girl, you lay the foundations of educating her family; when you educate her family, you begin the long haul of getting Muslim boys (their children when they have them) off bylanes; when you get them off the bylanes, you make them economically productive; when you make them economically productive, you embark on the long road of cranking up the engine of the country's 14 per cent population.
Mohanka collaborated with the chairman of the Waqf Board in Kolkata to send the message out. Mohanka tracked the academic performance of his funded students each quarter; he interfaced with them every 90 days; when he realised that parents were taking them off schools to put them on a job, Mohanka incentivised school attendance.
When he realised that he was up against a social wall, he used his charm so that parents would sustain the education. And when one of his best bets, a promising young woman who was pursuing a Masters came to say she was backing off because her husband to-be had denied her the permission to study, the student and sponsor wept.
But there were times when Mohanka got lucky. Like when two Hindu well-wishers (Suresh Neotia and Arun Poddar) joined in, kindling the first hope that this could well snowball into a movement. Mohanka continues to study CVs, selects students with care, tracks academic trajectories and by his own confession, says he could do more.
But that is where the moral of the story lies: when we cannot scale, we think the game is not worth playing at all. If only we believed that the best game is played by those who played it differently and reasonably rather than never having played at all.