Dr. Achyuta Samanta: “A worldwide movement for educational equity”

A worldwide movement for educational equity. This is what I have devoted my life to–service to humanity. I aspire to be the voice for the tribal populations and the poor — by bringing empowerment to their lives with education. I have been fortunate to rise from a poor leaf-picker to become a policymaker capable of creating change […]

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A worldwide movement for educational equity. This is what I have devoted my life to–service to humanity. I aspire to be the voice for the tribal populations and the poor — by bringing empowerment to their lives with education. I have been fortunate to rise from a poor leaf-picker to become a policymaker capable of creating change and empowering the poor.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Prof. Achyuta Samanta

Dr. Samanta is a social revolutionary, a Member of Parliament in Upper House from Odisha, India. He is a humanist and philanthropist with a vision to liberate this world from poverty, hunger, illiteracy, social alienation, and ensuring direly needed human capital development. He grew up in the eastern Indian state of Kalarabanka, Odisha on the Bay of Bengal, in severe poverty with seven siblings and a widow mother. Struggling with hunger and hardships from the age of four when he lost his father in a train accident, he received his primary education in the village school by the mercy of the local headmaster, went on to complete his undergraduate, graduate and PhD degrees believing in the transformational powers of education.

In 1992, as a Chemistry Lecturer he used his hard earned 100 dollars to establish a small polytechnic industry training institution which in 2004 became the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) University–which today has IET accreditation from the UK rated as the 2nd highest accreditation in the world–only the 2nd Deemed University in India. In the same year, Dr. Samanta founded Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) residential school, which today provides free education and accommodation to nearly 60,000 indigenous children from 62 tribal groups across Odisha.

Besides his contribution to the field of Education and Social Service, Dr. Samantha has contributed extensively to women’s empowerment, rural development, tribal upliftment, tribal art preservation, cultural enrichment, literature, media and television and Spiritualism. His life and work have inspired millions worldwide with a vision of peaceful and happy world through his flagship programs–Art of Giving, Kanya Kiran and Education for All.

As a peace crusader, he’s the only Indian awarded the 2015 GUSI PEACE PRIZE, otherwise known as Asia’s own Nobel Prize. In addition to over 50 prestigious international and over 200 national awards, Kingdom of Bahrain awarded him the country’s highest Citizen Award for his humanitarian work, and he received the highest Civilian Award from Mongolia. His contributions in the field of education and educational entrepreneurship have been recognized by over 100 universities in India and abroad, government and non-government organizations. He has been awarded over 40 honorary Honoris Causa Doctorates and Doctorate of Letters.

A bachelor, married to his work, he leads a simple life in a two-room apartment in Bhubaneswar, Odisha without a piece of land or property to his name. His motto is: “Poverty creates illiteracy. Literacy eradicates poverty.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Having grown up in abject poverty as a young boy, I was taught by my mother to give back to the society and to remain honest, never humiliate or steal and not to be afraid of anyone no matter who they are. My mother also advised me that in empowering women, you can change the fortune of an entire village and this set me on a mission to give back to the society and help free the world of hunger, illiteracy, poverty and superstition by empowering women as change agents. And while my mother was alive, I also transformed my poverty-stricken village in India to a ‘smart’ village.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Between 1992–95, during the formative years of KIIT-ITI, I traveled to Calcutta four times a month to purchase lab materials and equipment. I did not have money to buy a ticket for sleeper class, so I traveled general class without the luxury of a seat. I would stand the whole night many times, sometimes near the smelly toilets and compartment doors, occasionally closing my eyes out of a desperate need to sleep. One such journey to Calcutta is etched in my memory–I was with Mr. P.K. Sahoo, founding staff of KIIT-ITI. Reaching Calcutta in the morning with no place booked, Sahoo offered his friend’s house, which was in a quintessential Calcutta slum waterlogged during the monsoon. Being from one of the poorest remote villages in Odisha, I was accustomed to such conditions. With no place to wash, we walked to the utterly polluted banks of the river Hooghly, where I forcefully shut my eyes, ears and nose, took a dip and changed into fresh clothes. Sahoo reminded us we couldn’t have luxury as we were saving everything to purchase equipment for the institute.

Fast forward, 26 years later, in 2018 I traveled in the same train, and was divinely blessed with the comforts I had never dreamed. I was in first-class compartment, the stationmaster, my staff and colleagues saw me off–I used the clean toilet to clean up, the attendant made my bedding and all the arrangements. However, I could not sleep because I was reminded of the night, 26 years earlier, traveling on the same train to Calcutta and my state of helplessness. My heart swelled with gratitude to the Almighty who made me work so hard and achieve so much for millions and myself, for giving me a life of comfort, our chief minister for assigning me an important role as a member of Parliament. In summing up my life, I would say: If your intentions and work are good then privilege, position and recognition come automatically. The entire universe conspires to give back to one who toils for the greater good of humanity.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was invited to a meeting as a guest of honor and being the simple and humble person I am; I went dressed in my white shirt, denim and slippers. Walking towards the venue, the gatekeeper did not allow me in without an ID card. I do not even carry a wallet. I tried explaining to him I was the guest of honor and that he should get me in touch with the event coordinator. Luckily, another guest of honor came by, recognized me and asked the security to let me in.

Simplicity is the key to happy living. But sometimes, it is important to dress to look decent. Now, during my meetings and at the parliament, I wear a full shirt, waistcoat and shoes.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Odisha is one of the poorest states in India, constituting almost 25 percent of tribal population who live in extreme poverty, misery, ignorance, and superstition.

I devised 3E’s “Educate, Empower and Enable” to help reverse tribal alienation, poverty and illiteracy with Inclusive Education. As the world’s largest intervention, KISS is empowering 60,000 children from the deprived indigenous communities of Odisha and neighboring states with holistic education from Kindergarten to Post-Graduation along with boarding facilities, clothing, healthcare, vocational and life skills–all free of cost.

KISS is the first exclusive tribal school “Deemed to be University” by the Ministry of Human Resources Development of India’s Government. We also serve over 1,500 street children in our New Delhi campus, as well as 10,000 students in 20 satellite sites across Odisha, as well as in Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

From the start of the pandemic, we sent our KISS students home to their districts but continued to deliver textbooks/learning resources to all our students’ homes to help maintain learning continuity. We also delivered fresh food and nutrition to maintain their healthy diets, as we do while they’re on our campus. We have also trained our KISS student as a task force to promote social distancing and respiratory hygiene awareness in their respective districts.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Since 1992, KISS and KIIT have realized the potential of sports as a change-maker and a tool of empowerment.

Our over 15,000 alumnae have become change-makers, award-winning athletes, business leaders, politicians and public figures across India and the world. KITT and KISS world-class sports trainers have trained over 5,000 athletes, some of whom have participated and won awards in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and South Asian Federation.

In 2015, KISS was granted Special Consultative Status by the United Nations Organization. Through KISS’ academic and tribal development mission nearly 30,000 families, over a million individual members of these families, and an additional one million tribal neighborhoods have benefitted from transformational development. The KISS model has successfully addressed and restricted the spread of early girl marriages, genital mutilations, militarism, and the growing tribal insurgency in the remote tribal regions.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Eradicating hunger, illiteracy, and human rights violations can be achieved when real development takes place from grassroots. Cities can be smart only when villages are smart.

I transformed my own village into a model village by starting with a vernacular school–followed by an English medium school along with banks, ATMs, Police station, Post Office, 100-bed dispensaries with 24×7 medical facility, plantation centers, women’s clubs, youth clubs, community hall, canteen with CCTV, public libraries, temples and other places of engagement. This provided employment for 300 men. The Governor of Odisha inaugurated this model village in 2006–on his request the entire area was converted, turning the village Wi-Fi and solar energy enabled with increased amenities.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the capability to walk with all to achieve a desired purpose. A leader is just a facilitator and should work in that capacity. It is not about authority, it’s about influence. I have always worked as a facilitator. I go from office to office, talk to people at KIIT to facilitate the completion of all pending tasks. I do not interfere or micromanage, which may lead to unnecessary delay. I am always available to help the proceedings whenever it gets stuck, to promote smooth functioning.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Money is not a solution to all problems but ends many problems.

People will talk against you, just concentrate on your work. When they are in need, the backstabbers will work with you.

You don’t need education in a subject to be an expert. Experience can teach.

Don’t ignore health while working day and night.

Exploring and travel are important for learning. Don’t forget it in your pursuits of becoming big.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A worldwide movement for educational equity. This is what I have devoted my life to–service to humanity. I aspire to be the voice for the tribal populations and the poor — by bringing empowerment to their lives with education. I have been fortunate to rise from a poor leaf-picker to become a policymaker capable of creating change and empowering the poor.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mother used to say: “Thili Kana, Heli Kana, Hebi Kana” –meaning always keep in mind what you were, what you are and what you will be. This is the essence of life and living.

About four decades ago, I lived in a remote village in Kalarabanka in Cuttack district of Odisha, which lacked basic amenities, even electricity. During the five-day Durga Puja festival, wearing new clothes was customary. My younger sister, Iti and I lived in a dilapidated house alone during the festival as Mother would visit and stay with our brothers. New clothes and sumptuous food were a luxury we could not dream of. We observed people making delicious food and eating without offering it to us ever–we were happy to see others enjoy. We would get a pair of new clothes from our elder brother, which we wore ‘till the next festive period with utmost pride and happiness. I would set up a small kiosk and sell balloons with my sister during the Fair. At the end of each day, I would count the money–fortunate to have earned a little surplus to survive. My mother’s words still echo in my ears: “if a human life isn’t appreciated by others, then it isn’t worth living. If one is not hailed during his lifetime, it is like being a living dead.”

That has been my life motto as I continue to work selflessly. I have not deviated from the path of honesty, even in running such immensely famous organizations as KIIT and KISS. I will continue in the same spirit ‘till my last breath.

During festivities, when Iti and I would roam around and have fun with the children and friends–never demand what we could not afford. When our relatives pampered their kids without offering us any food, I understood the humiliation one has to face as a child if one has no support to fall back on. We never complained, never wanted sympathy. That’s why today, I do everything to bring smiles to the faces of millions of children, to spread happiness among the deprived. I offer bonuses to 1000 people and financial assistance to the needy. During festivities, I distribute sweets and snacks to the children in two schools at the Kalarabanka set up by KITT and KISS.

I am blessed to rise from the balloon seller to a medium for alleviating poverty and sufferings for millions through education. God has made me capable to visit my village and spread happiness among children. One thing remains common between then and now–I get happiness by spreading happiness.

A man is a sum of experiences from the past. I am sad at the glaring inequalities in our society, but I realize that the five fingers cannot be the same. I have learnt a lesson that one can spread happiness by small giving acts. A true life is lived when one takes the experience from the past and utilizes it by not letting his fellow human beings suffer the way he did. One should never forget the past.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

None. If wishes were horses, beggars could ride them. I never thought of meeting, dining or spending time with celebrities or public figures. I have lived very simply and humbly. So, if in the course of my service, I meet any; it is mainly to multiply the effect and impact of our mission. If I may, I wish to write to Melinda Gates, hoping we can collaborate on the work we are doing.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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