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Dr. Madhav Chavan has designed a low-cost, replicable way of bringing pre-primary and primary education to poor children living in the urban and semirural slums of India. His method for universalizing primary education has been adopted throughout the country.

This profile below was prepared when Madhav Chavan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

Fellow Sketch

Madhav Chavan’s Pratham, is the first organisation to achieve large scale educational success in India. In order to fill the gaps in the education system, Madhav uses a low cost model to mobilize communities and enable children to gain access to learning resources so that every child can “learn well”. 

Madhav Chavan established Pratham with the singular mission, “Every Child in School and Learning Well.” In 1995, Madhav realized the education gap for children in the slums of Mumbai especially in regard to literacy. To address that issue head on, Madhav developed a high quality and low cost model that could be replicated throughout the country. Pratham’s Combine Activities for Maximized Learning (CAMaL) curriculum provides effective teaching strategies to balwadis and government schools to ensure age and class appropriate reading, writing and arithmetic levels. With the belief that infrastructure is most commonly generated from within the community or with government partnerships, Madhav evolved the Read India model based on a triangular partnership: connecting the corporate sector with government and the citizens. From this flagship project Pratham has expanded to explore many other grassroots interventions. Today, Pratham also offers separate adult literacy classes for mothers to bridge the teacher-parent gap, the Second Chance program for drop outs, Digital Classrooms and Early Childhood Programs. 

Most notably, Pratham pioneered a nation wide survey on schooling and learning, ASER, that has evolved into a tool that provides accurate data on the state of education in the country. Since 2005. ASER has been used to construct national and international policies and it has helped Pratham become the principal mover and inspiration for universal primary education across India.

Pratham has grown immensely from its humble beginning from one slum in Mumbai to more than 100 districts, 21 states and six countries, supported by a workforce of 200,000 volunteers. 40% of dropouts who were part of Pratham’s programmes are now in school. Furthermore, children who are part of the Pratham Balwadis are more likely to continue to higher education. Madhav’s goal - an India where every child can read - is now taking shape pushing forward a radical revolution in education.

Note: This is an update from August 2014. Read the ELECTION profile for more information.


Dr. Madhav Chavan has designed a low-cost, replicable way of bringing pre-primary and primary education to poor children living in the urban and semirural slums of India. His method for universalizing primary education has been adopted throughout the country.


Madhav is addressing a major problem in India's education system through his "capital-light" preschool programs. By tapping into unutilized resources in terms of infrastructure, staff, and community involvement, his approach keeps start-up and on-going costs at a minimum, offering even the poorest communities the opportunity to educate their children.

Madhav's organization, the Pratham Mumbai Education Initiative, holds people as its main asset by developing a systematic and rigorous training and monitoring process. The result is a network of effective teacher-entrepreneurs who can replicate the Pratham Initiative in other cities. The low-cost strategy serves more than 100,000 children in Mumbai and is being scaled up in 12 other cities in India. Pratham is now leveraging its critical asset, a low-cost distribution channel, to provide a variety of other useful services at little incremental cost.


Quality education in Indian schools–both private and government–has been a subject of discussion over several decades. But the problems in government schools and among the underprivileged sections start with the failure to achieve basic literacy and numeracy skills. Over 35 percent of children in government schools are illiterate in spite of three or four years of schooling.

Weaknesses in teaching-learning processes at school and lack of assistance from poorly educated or nearly illiterate parents contribute to poor learning. Changing the classroom processes may seem simply a matter of training the teachers but experience shows this is not so. Even trained and enthusiastic teachers gradually succumb to the apathetic surroundings and the bureaucratic system. There is a general demoralization leading to a lack of hope, discouraging any good work. One input that is clearly missing is community participation and support of the teacher.

Access to formal education and the present quality of learning achievement are staggering problems for developing countries like India. A number of citizen sector organizations are working to solve these problems for children from poorer backgrounds. Such programs are often sponsored by multinational funding organizations that rent or build classroom space, hire certified teachers, purchase supplies, and build central administrative offices in each city where they operate. While this provides an excellent learning-teaching environment, the high initial investments, nearing $75 per pupil a year, are quite costly. Reaching tens of thousands of children in this way would be prohibitively expensive for most community-based organizations in developing countries.

A cost-effective model to address the access and quality of educational facilities is needed. The long-term provision of infrastructure for formal schools is the responsibility of the government, at least in terms of providing funds to construct and maintain schools and teachers' salaries. However, if such infrastructure is not immediately available, other efforts should be made to ensure that children learn well and join mainstream education as they grow up.


Keeping the module "capital-light" has been the most effective strategy for Madhav. For most of its six-year history, Pratham has not owned a single building or vehicle or paid rent for any space, including its administrative offices. Relying on donated space in communities and municipal schools, the program has almost halved its costs, saving $80 to $100 a year on each balwadi ("preschool"). Classes are held in spare rooms in community centers, mosques and temples, municipal schools, and the buildings of other organizations. When nothing else is available, classes meet in teachers' homes.

Each balwadi costs an average of only $7.50 per child a year, allowing the organization to expand the program rapidly. Pratham has replicated the balwadi model to provide a bridge program for older children who have dropped out of school and a remedial learning to children in Grades 3 and 4 so that each child achieves basic literacy in a few months. Here, young women teachers from the community are placed as teachers' assistants in municipal-school classrooms to help such children. Last year, Pratham launched a computer-assisted learning program that costs only $4 per student a year because corporations donate the computers and municipal schools provide space and utilities. On average, all these programs cost roughly $10 a year per pupil. Additionally, the requirement that each neighborhood find a rent-free place for preschools has ensured community involvement and support. Conducting classes in public venues has increased awareness and acceptance among parents.

Another key to Madhav's capital-light structure has been his strategy to develop committed and loyal teachers from a previously untapped source. The organization has decided to recruit people from outside the workforce, mostly unmarried young women with a fair amount of education who traditionally do not work outside the home. In order to attract and retain the young teachers, Pratham ensures that balwadi teachers work only part-time and remain in their local communities. This has also highlighted the importance and social impact of the program, thereby increasing the job's social stature and actively enhancing the organization's brand name. Pratham has recruited and trained more than 6,000 teachers and 250 supervisors to ensure consistent delivery of quality instruction. As a result, turnover is low. Most Pratham teachers have worked for their balwadi since its inception. Job vacancies are never even listed, since departing teachers find and train replacements before leaving.

Ensuring quality in teaching has been another important strategy for Madhav. By maintaining strict performance standards and providing systematic training, Pratham has turned people without teaching experience into effective instructors. In fact, training is the only overhead in which Pratham invests a lot of money. It maintains 24 teams to provide teacher training and in-class evaluations.

Since Madhav is a keen believer in entrepreneurship, one of his key strategies has been to foster entrepreneurship among teachers. A balwadi teacher is expected to view her class almost like a start-up venture, since she is likely to have started it and developed its activities herself. She can charge children a certain amount based on income levels of their parents and must pay for the teaching kits from these fees. In addition, administration is highly decentralized–balwadi in Mumbai are divided into 50 autonomous mahila mandals ("women's groups"), each registered as separate citizen organizations. Budgets, training, and oversight processes for all programs are determined centrally, but all other details are left to each teacher and ward. Pratham's ultimate vision is for these women's groups to become completely self-sufficient, linked to headquarters only for training and oversight. Already, several balwadi now finance themselves through a combination of tuition fees and contributions from local charities. The decentralized approach has shown other organizations how to channel the creativity and energy of thousands of people from the community and avoid bureaucratic inertia. It has also built a strong sense of community and empowerment among Pratham's staff–a key to inspire loyalty.

Madhav has used corporate partnerships to create a group of believers committed to his idea. Instead of limiting donors to an arm's-length role, Pratham invites companies to become part of the organization, creating a powerful sense of ownership among both donors and staff members. This policy encourages personal initiative on the part of people connected with Pratham, ranging from the young balwadi teacher who asks a friend to help start another balwadi, to the corporate chief executive who asks another CEO to help start a Pratham program in the city. Key corporate employees with a strong commitment to Pratham have created successful partnerships by leading their companies' involvement. Several corporate partners, including ICICI Bank and Hindustan Petroleum, have provided office space and equipment and have even lent employees at full salary to serve on Pratham's executive group. Other corporations have given more modest financial support or in-kind contributions like computers and employee volunteers.

The ultimate test of Pratham's strategy is its impact on educational outcomes. Here the evidence is overwhelming. A recent study found that Pratham's balwadi students are far more likely to go to primary school than children who have not gone to preschool. More than 40 percent of the children in Pratham's bridge course (trageted at school dropouts) program are now in school. Tests show that they are doing better in language, arts, and mathematics than their classmates. In the remedial program, tests show that the number of children with no literacy or numeracy skills dropped by half and that the proportion of older children achieving basic educational competencies doubled.
Pratham has now helped start educational programs in 12 other Indian cities and regions, with an additional 13 planned in the next 6 to 12 months. The organization serves 35,000 children outside Mumbai–a number expected to grow to 70,000 by the next school year. Pratham plans to establish programs in the 300 largest Indian cities by 2005 and to have nationwide primary education by 2010. McKinsey consultants have supported Pratham both by providing strategic advice on growth and governance, and by helping to design the balwadi health program.

Madhav and his ideas have also been an inspiration and principal mover behind the India Education Initiative (IEI) that has undertaken the mission of universalizing primary education in India. In attempts to activate and encourage increased productivity in areas of government responsible for education, the initiative suggests creating partnerships between government, businesses, donors, and the voluntary sector. From here, the IEI will work to develop and expand education in each city around the country.


Madhav was raised in a highly charged political atmosphere where his parents were active members of a trade union. Growing up in an environment where political discussions of the 1960s held center stage, Madhav got into student politics in college. He knew he was being groomed for a political career and dove into it wholeheartedly–running mass kitchens for famine victims, editing a magazine on political developments in China, taking up the cause of landless laborers, and raising money for various causes. But the changing political scenarios of the 1970s, coupled with the fragmentation and emergency in India in 1975, disillusioned him. He went back to academics, graduating in 1978 with a master's degree in chemistry. He continued in the United States to earn his M.S. in chemistry from Ohio State University.

In 1987 he returned to India and started teaching physical chemistry at the University of Mumbai. In 1988 Madhav got involved in an indefinite teachers' strike and wrote a letter to the prime minister of India on the teachers' demands. The letter got forwarded to Mr. Anil Bordia, the education secretary of the Ministry of Education, who called him to discuss the issues. The meeting was a turning point in Madhav's life.

Madhav's political past, his social experience, his exposure to the United States, and his innate entrepreneurial expertise helped him form some radical ideas about education. In 1989, with encouragement from Mr. Bordia, he started implementing some of these ideas while working for a mass adult literacy coalition with the National Literacy Mission. By the end of 1992, Madhav realized that the government initiative in organizing a community coalition had not worked out properly and that the National Literacy Mission was a failure. But by then he had managed to get about 100 people to listen to his ideas, so in 1993, when UNICEF spawned an idea to ensure universal primary education, they asked Madhav to be a part of the discussions. After many meetings, it was clear everyone agreed on the goal, but no one knew how to reach it.

Madhav's interest in education drove him to take the challenge. Founding Pratham in Mumbai in 1994, Madhav and eight other local activists followed a goal to ensure that every Mumbai child between 3 and 10 years of age went to school. Their initiative has the support of UNICEF, the Mumbai municipal corporation, and several local industrialists. In 2000, Pratham was one of three innovative organizations short-listed for the World Bank's Global Development Network award. Madhav lives and works in the city of Mumbai.