“Money and mansions are not the only wealth. Hoard the wealth of the Spirit. Character is wealth, good conduct is wealth, and spiritual wisdom is wealth.” —Atharva Veda
I stand here, amidst a sea of tribal children, my heart taking in the beauty of an Incredible Odisha created by a man I know now as a spiritual being undergoing a human experience. I feel the darkness lift, and a light enter my soul. I breathe, and I know India is rising, leaving behind a thousand years of impoverishment. To the great land of Kalinga, I bow my head, and to the magical vision of Dr Achyuta Samanta, I put in a salute.
A man’s character, I’m told, is shaped in adversity. Growing up, we’d heard about Abraham Lincoln, a gentleman who spent his early years inside a single log cabin with his family. His poverty denied him a chance to attend school, and the total amount of formal education Lincoln received lasted less than one year. But Lincoln did not forget the lessons during his adversity, and that is what eventually shaped his fine, sterling character. He turned every crisis in his life into an opportunity, rose above failed business ventures, and political defeats, to one day become the President of the United States of America. He triggered the process of uplifting slaves from their fettered existence, and to this day freedom and liberty remain the most abiding and cherished dreams of every American. To this day I also hear that he is America’s greatest President ever, and I know President Obama agrees.
As I stand on the soil of Bhubaneshwar, I take in a similar powerful story scripted far away from Lincoln’s 19th century log-cabin days at Kentucky. Here in Odisha, a state rich in history, but with abundance of poverty, I learn about Dr Samanta and how India’s most famous citizens have been awed by what they have seen. Institution building with a difference, that is what he’s achieved. Holding my breath, I hear about him skipping meals and starving during his childhood so that every member in the family could have just about enough in their stomachs to survive. Hearing his moving and inspiring story I believe that if we count each day by not what we reap, but by what we sow, then life is simpler, and immeasurably better. Dr Samanta has been sowing the seeds of Good Karma every single day of his life, and the Universe has found a way for him to become who he is today—a legend who has inspiringly dedicated his life to the upliftment of poor, tribal children in Odisha. At the same time he has not forgotten the importance of creating a sound revenue model that will allow him to sustain his project for the tribals. KIIT is the revenue model. KISS is the magic—an inspiring tribal school project (see boxes).
I am awed. Dr Samanta could have been just another billionaire in India, with so much money that it would take him several lifetimes to spend all his wealth. But he’s chosen the road less travelled. He’s managed to balance his life beautifully, wealth for him is just a means to reach the end. The magic of this man allows dreams to spread. He has managed to spread sunshine and joy in the lives of 16,500 underprivileged children, a figure he wants to raise to 2,00,000 soon. The road he’s chosen, the one less travelled, has made all the difference to the lives of many, and few acts in history are nobler than the act of living for others.
A JOURNEY TO REMEMBER
Just who is Dr Achutya Samanta, I wish to know? I learn quickly that at age 47 he is one of modern India’s greatest social entrepreneurs, an educationist with a defining vision, and a man who puts a premium on human values. From a corpus of Rs 5,000 and a two-room institute (see interview), he’s built an empire fit enough for kings to preside over. But it is not enough to be just a king. As the great Greek philosopher Plato famously said, “unless philosophers learn to rule as kings, or kings adequately philosophize, there cannot be justice in rule.” The philosopher in Dr Samanta has decided that he would build an empire that would match the best in the world, but himself lead a life of frugality. By his very actions, he’s telling the world that wealth needs to have a purpose, it must not be amassed endlessly. Eventually, it must be put to good use. Today, he’s dedicated his life to looking after the tribal children in Odisha, of whom there are thousands. “In the next 20 years, I’ll work for the tribal children. Age is on my side,” he says, clear in the path he’s walking. His wealth will not be used for multiplying and turning into mountains of money, instead he shall raise fountains of wisdom on a sound, financial base.
He’s giving the tribal children, oppressed and marginalized for centuries, a chance to make it big. Would you ever believe that a team from KISS actually won the world rugby championship in London? Rugby and India? Rugby and Odisha? Rugby and a tribal school in Odisha? On a world stage? I couldn’t believe until I saw the winners, mostly tribal children who’ve shown what opportunity can do to the underprivileged. Absolutely anything is possible, and if we give our tribal students a chance, they’ll leave no stone unturned to prove their worth.
In the popular website InterviewwithGod.com, one of life’s greatest lessons is that the richest man is not the one who has the most, but the one who needs the least. Indeed, it is such a vital, important lesson. One of the world’s richest men, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, lives in a house that cannot be described in any way as a wealthy man’s mansion. Buffett often says that he’s content with the comforts his current house provides, and he doesn’t need a structure bigger than the one he has. Mr Buffett has also pledged nearly all of his personal wealth (about USD 50 billion) to charity when he dies. Near the 7-star KIIT educational facility he’s built, Dr Samanta lives in a very modest rented accommodation with his aging mother. She’s the one that raised him and his six siblings single-handedly after his father passed away when Dr Samanta was only four years old. Once again it leaves me in wonder because he’s chosen not to have his own house.
Seneca, the Roman philosopher, says that the “greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.” Indeed, when one can reduce his desires, life’s true messages start flowing in. The frugality of Dr Samanta’s life continues, twice a week he fasts—it has turned into a habit right from his starving days as a child. Austerity has become his constant companion. He’s decided that bachelorhood it is for him, even though many keep quizzing him on whether he’s plans to tie the knot at some point and “settle” down. But he’s already settled, in his mind. And his mother tells him not to buy up the agricultural land that belongs to villagers. He listens and respects her wishes. It’s another way of making sure that the societal goodwill is kept in place, and brute show of money does not come in the way of its spread.
I realize that Dr Samanta is deeply moved by the trials and tribulations of his own childhood. When his father passed over into the next life, some of life’s greatest lessons came his way. They say you learn who your true friends when are when calamity strikes you in the face. Dr Samanta’s family too learnt quickly that friends and relatives desert you when the going is tough. His father was a steel mill worker with meager means, and what he left behind got easily spent in marrying off the elder sister. Without any piece of land to fall back upon, or any source of regular income, it became a Himalayan ordeal to take care of his siblings and the widowed mother. Dr Samanta recalls some of the horrific moments that poverty can create. His mother struggled hard with odd jobs, and on many days there was no food in the house. Buying decent clothes was, of course, a luxury no family member could afford.
Today the sight of tribal children studying new books at his institutions makes him happy. “I could never buy a new book when I was young,” he says. He ended up borrowing books from seniors, even during his days as an M. Sc. student in Chemistry at Utkal University. The thought of his mother and sisters starving at home often made him skip meals. He refused to fill his stomach adequately until he could feed them first.
He could have led a relatively comfortable life with the job of a lecturer, but he wasn’t going to take the easy road. He chose the one less taken, and that has made a difference, to thousands of underprivileged children across Odisha and beyond. I stand here, witnessing the majestic KIIT campus. I have no words to explain my wonder at the quality and scale at which it has been built. Indeed it is a kingdom on its own. A sprawling, world class educational facility in Odisha. A beautiful concept of KG to PG for tribals who must rise from centuries of being on the fringes and margins of India’s growth. It makes me feel that India is on the right track, and so is its education.
Once again, I salute the vision of Dr Achutya Samanta.
THE KISS OF LIFE
When it started in 1993, the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneshwar had 125 children. Less than two decades later, it has turned into the world’s largest residential institute for tribal children. Somehow, KISS has breathed new life into Odisha’s backward segments as they see their children get the best education right from kindergarten to post graduation. “KG to PG” is Dr Samanta’s pet phrase, and he’s proved that just about anything is possible when someone sets out to do something noble.
Today there are 16,500 children from 62 tribes at KISS, and 40 per cent of them are tribal girls. The campus sprawls out over 80 acres and the built up area is a whopping 8,00,000 square feet. The library alone occupies 15,000 square feet and holds over 20,000 titles. This makes it the largest residential tribal institution in the country. KISS provides accommodation, food, healthcare, education, vocational training absolutely free. To top this, there is job assurance once the education is complete. Modern education and preservation of heritage go hand in hand, and KISS ensures that while the tribal children are exposed to a high quality life, they do not forget their roots and stay connected at all times. “We want them to become agents of change in their community,” says Dr Samanta. “At the same time we want them not to face any of the hardships and hunger that their parents and forefathers have encountered for generations.”
KISS’s mission is to use education as a means to eradicate poverty and hunger from the poorest sections of tribal societies, empower the students, bring tribal children into the mainstream, enabling them to lead a decent life at par with non-tribals, and provide sustainable livelihood and all-round development. KISS has signed MoUs with the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies in Germany, UNICEF, UNESCO, Oracle Educational Foundation, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and GIVE India among others.
KIIT, THE KIN OF KISS
KISS is what it is today because Dr Samanta knew the importance of building something financially strong like the KIIT which could then support a dream project like the KISS. He started with the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT). What started as a small engineering college, has transformed into a world class university spread over 25 sq km of land. There are 17 wi-fi campuses with a total built up area of 7.5 million sq feet. The university has 22 constituent schools offering 50 programmes. It is not the world class infrastructure alone but the quality teaching and research illustrated by the accreditations to the University Grants Commission and the AICTE that positions KIIT has a centre of academic and all-round excellence.
With 17,000 students from over 20 countries, besides India, pursuing under graduate and post graduate studies in engineering, MCA, management, rural management, law, bio-technology, MBBS, BDS, nursing, fashion technology, cinema, and media studies and language, KIIT stands out as one of the finest universities of India. The students are enrolled in 50 academic programmes of KIIT Group of Institutions including 11,000 students in KIIT University. There are 800 faculty members, scientists and researchers. Besides, there are 2,500 management personnel and support staff. KIIT has developed academic partnerships with more than 60 world class universities.