One of India’s most influential leaders, APJ Abdul Kalam, had a lifelong love of learning. He believed that education would transform India, and propel it forward as a developing nation.
A Renaissance Man
APJ Abdul Kalam was a scientist in the fields of physics, aerospace engineering, and nuclear science. Kalam was instrumental in India’s first foray into space. For thirteen years, Kalam worked in the Indian Space Research Organization. He helped create India’s first satellite launch vehicle, which launched the Rohini satellite into near-earth orbit.
Kalam was also known as the Missile Man, developing ballistic missile and launch vehicle technology.
He was a statesman who filled India’s highest political office, and will forever be remembered as the “People’s President.”
He was a writer. He authored over a dozen books, including Ignited Minds – Unleashing the Power within India and Reignite: Scientific Pathways to a Brighter Future. He was also a poet, who wrote his verse in Tamil.
But most of all, Kalam was a teacher. He believed strongly in the power of education to shape young minds, and to shape the future of the nation.
Perpetually young at heart, Kalam took delight in spending time with younger people.
[…] his passion to connect with children is well known, not in a forced avuncular manner, but to be one amongst them, in fact to become a child once again during his interactions with the younger lot, many times spending his birthday with them.
– Rajiv Theodore, from a tribute piece published in The American Bazaar
Kalam’s love for India’s youngest citizens continues to serve as a reminder of the nation’s responsibilities toward its youth.
One of the nation’s most important duties toward its young people is providing them with a solid education.
Kalam believed in using education to help the underprivileged rise above their economic challenges. He had a special devotion to the poor and their needs.
His dedication to the economically challenged was no affectation. Kalam could empathize with the poor because he had been raised as one of them. His childhood was spent in Rameswaram, a small fishing village on the island of Pamban in Tamil Nadu.
For many years, Kalam’s family had been wealthy. Part of the Kalam family fortune had come from running the ferry between Pamban and the mainland. Their boats brought pilgrims from the mainland to Ramanathaswamy Temple. They also ferried food from the mainland, to sell to the people of Pamban and Sri Lanka. Business was good in the centuries before Pamban Bridge was built.
This single event in 1914 changed the lives of the their family forever. The bridge to the mainland made their ferry services obsolete.
By the time APJ Abdul Kalam came along, Pamban Bridge had been open for seventeen years. The mainstay of Kalam’s family livelihood was long gone. The family had sold off almost all of its once-vast property holdings. In addition to his studies, young Kalam sold newspapers to help supplement the family income.
Having come from this background, Kalam understood the challenges of growing up poor. He knew that without education, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated. Children often do the same work their parents and grandparents did, even low-paying work in dying industries, because they don’t have the education which allows them to transition into better-paying livelihoods.
He saw the transformation that education made in his own life. After all, he had gone from being a poor boy in a remote village to being President of India.
Kalam wanted young people to embrace education to improve every aspect of their lives. He wanted them to develop and nurture that potential for achievement within themselves.
[Kalam] strongly believed that education was the single-most powerful tool that could alleviate poverty. […] His perseverance to shape students’ minds, inspire them to walk the extra mile and achieve their dreams cannot be described in words.
– Atul Temurnikar, writing for the Times of India
Contrary to a lot of cultural bias, he emphasized that education should be promoted equally for both males and females. In fact, he saw this as crucial to making India a developed nation. In a 2003 letter to the NGO Literacy India, President Kalam wrote, “Improving literacy, especially amongst women and the underprivileged, would enable promotion of rapid socio-economic development and help us achieve our goal of a developed India.”
New School Education
Kalam supported the traditional type of literacy. But he also emphasized STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
As a scientist, Kalam knew that Indian students needed to be educated in the principles of science and technology. In order to succeed in the modern world, their understanding and skills had to surpass basics such as reading, writing, and rudimentary arithmetic. To be economically competitive, India would need young people trained in twenty-first century technologies.
Kalam championed skills-based learning. He felt that academic certification should go beyond traditional diplomas and degrees. He wanted to implement “skill certificates” to attest to a student’s mastery of specific skills. The training for skill certificates would prepare students for careers. Their education would have a direct, positive effect on their ability to earn a prosperous living. In order to truly insure that students had time to learn and practice new skills, Kalam recommended devoting a quarter of their school time to skill development.
The Indian government created the “Dr A P J Abdul Kalam Higher Education and Skill Education Guarantee Scheme” to honor Kalam. This scheme includes a provision for individual student loans up to one million rupees (about 15,000 USD).
President Kalam recognized that even skills-based education was not the complete solution for Indian students. With over three million students graduating from institutions of higher learning each year, there are simply not enough jobs for these well-educated graduates. Kalam proposed business education as part of the Indian curriculum. He encouraged graduates to start their own businesses. In this way, they could create the jobs that might otherwise elude them.
Kalam also asked banks to offer venture capital to these young entrepreneurs. This was contrary to the banks’ usual practice, demanding “tangible assets” in exchange for loans. But Kalam knew that young people just out of school wouldn’t have such assets to use as collateral. He was asking the banks to invest in the country’s future by investing in its youth.
India as a Developed Nation
One of Kalam’s goals was to see India become a developed nation by the year 2020. While strides are being made, there is still much work to be done.
Organizations such as the Abdul Kalam Vision India Movement (AKVIM) are working to make sure that Kalam’s dream of a developed India is fulfilled. The inception of AKVIM was announced about two months after Kalam’s passing, in response to tens of thousands of inquiries from people wanting to continue Kalam’s work.
AKVIM has a strong grassroots component, inviting both individuals and organizations to join and to form local chapters. This extends the reach of the organization, and allows the work of the movement to be tailored to the needs of the local panchayat.
Kalam’s vision for India went beyond practical education for its young minds. Kalam had goals for better health care, the eradication of poverty, improved sanitation, and fair governance.
In one way or another, education ultimately ties back to each of the other goals.
Back in the 1990s, Kalam proposed a coronary stent made from missile composites. This stent, developed with Arun Tiwari and cardiologist Bhupathiraju Somaraju, cost five times less than its predecessors. It brought hope especially to the economically challenged, who otherwise would not have been able to afford such life-saving technology.
It is sadly ironic that Kalam died of a heart attack nearly a quarter of a century later. What is not sad, however, is that Kalam died doing exactly what he loved most: teaching.
When he passed on, about five minutes into a lecture called “Creating a Livable Planet Earth”, he had virtually no property to his name. His financial state when he left this world was much like when he entered it as a poor boy in Rameswaram. But he lived and left with greater riches than money can ever give. He continues to have the utmost respect and deepest love of the people he so cherished.
Kalam’s contributions are still being recognized. He has had schools named after him, such as the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University. This is a fitting tribute for a man who was both a passionate educator and a top-flight scientist.
APJ Abdul Kalam has been quoted as saying, “Don’t declare holiday on my death, instead work an extra day, if you love me.” Kalam was tireless in his mission to improve education in India. The country honors him by continuing his work.
LEAF Society and Kalam
Like Kalam, LEAF Society was born in Tamil Nadu. And, like Kalam, we believe in the power of education. Our very name – Leadership through Education and Action Foundation – proclaims our unwavering commitment to education.
If you also believe that education is the key to transforming young lives, transforming India, and transforming the world, spread the word by sharing this post. Contribute to the exchange of ideas by adding your comment below. And contact LEAF Society to find out how you can help us shape young minds in Tamil Nadu.
Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her recent projects was an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, copywriting, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.