How coding is becoming a reality for those at the bottom of the pyramid

Topics coding

Over 100 students have graduated from Masai so far and found jobs with an average income of Rs 660,000 per annum. More than 65 per cent of the students are from economically weaker sections
How to avoid being married off was the only thought that occupied Kusum Sinha’s (name changed) mind. Even if she steered clear of the constant topic of discussion at home, her prospective marriage, the 17-year-old had nightmares about it.

She had seen the fate of her two elder sisters sealed by the institution of marriage due to its suffocating strictures that left little room for financial independence of women. In their families, marriage was seen as the be-all and end-all for young girls. Kusum knew the only way to escape her impending fate was by becoming financially independent.

The local school had been far from an enlightening experience, and a weak grasp of English made her feel at a disadvantage. She could handle sciences, math and even felt a natural affinity to computers and what made them tick, despite having no access to one at home.

Luckily, she heard of Navgurukul, a not-for profit organisation that was teaching coding to some boys from her native place at its stunning leafy campus in Dharamshala. She set her eyes on another campus, run by the NGO for girls in Bengaluru.

Kusum finished the six-month course in coding and was assisted by the organisation to find a job with Mindtree. Her annual salary of a little below Rs 500,000 allows her a decent living and has given her a breather from the relentless pressure of getting hitched. Her parents are for now letting her chart her own path, and she hopes her younger sister will follow in her footsteps.

Kusum's journey mirrors that of dozens of others who made their way to the Bengaluru campus, says Abhishek Gupta, who co-founded Navgurukul in 2016.

The organisation has so far supported 190 students through its two residential campuses, and another 300 online. A new campus for girls that can house 200 students at a time — supported by Microsoft and Accenture — is coming up in Pune.

Coding has been a career option for decades in India, but it is now attracting the lower strata as well, says Gupta, a computer science engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi who has worked with Microsoft and has been a member of an education task force of the Delhi government. It is gaining popularity among girls who are looking to escape marriage, he adds.

Typically, the parents of the students at Navgurukul are rickshaw-pullers, small-time shopkeepers, plumbers, masons and so on who earn anywhere around Rs 100,000-300,000 annually. Although Navgurukul offers opportunities for boys, too, Gupta says his focus will remain on girls who have very few options in life.

A new non-profit called Generation.org (financed by McKinsey) is also catering to this segment, but it enrolls college graduates unlike Navgurukul that teaches those straight out of high school.

Prateek Shukla, who set up the for-profit Masai School in Bengaluru in June 2019, agrees that coding is gaining popularity. Masai School has recently started an income-sharing model for students who cannot afford the course fees.

Over 100 students have graduated from Masai so far and found jobs with an average income of Rs 660,000 per annum. More than 65 per cent of the students are from economically weaker sections.

Shukla points out that more than half the students applying for coding aren't from strictly science backgrounds. Fifty-six per cent of them have had a non-computer science background. Unlike in the past, today almost all youngsters want to brace for a digitally charged future. The National Education Policy 2020, too, has included coding as a subject that students can opt for as early as in Class 6, because it encourages structured thinking in a manner little else can.

Becoming a world-class coder is easier said than done as public institutions with low or negligible fees are few and far between. Students from the IITs who specialise in computer science are by and large expert coders. As are students from the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, which is known as the place for coding in the country. In terms of total numbers, this section remains miniscule as making it to the IITs and the IIIT is not an option for most.

Despite the sought-after nature of coding and the fact that dozens of companies (online and offline) have sprung up to cater to this segment, there is no institute equivalent to the IIT, let alone IIIT, in the private space.

Many players, Indian and foreign, including Coding Ninjas, Code Academy, Udemy, Jigsaw Academy and White Hat (recently acquired by Byju’s) woo students with a fee in the Rs 200,000-300,000 range for a six-month intensive course. But many offer a less than indifferent quality. And that, too, is limited to those who can afford the fees. As Gupta points out, genius is equally distributed but opportunity isn't.

For those at the bottom of the pyramid, coding remains a dream that is becoming a reality only of late.


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