New Delhi: Southwards of Gurugram, the sprawling malls give way to farmers harvesting mustard crops and massive school buildings on agrarian land.
Along the route, children peep out of school buses, while hoardings proudly proclaim each school’s toppers in Haryana’s Mahendragarh district, a once rustic region that has now metamorphosed into an education hub.
For decades, Mahendragarh had been dissed as the second Kalapani — a reference to the dreaded cellular jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that the British used to imprison freedom fighters. Locals say the reputation was due to the backwardness of the region, which was once known for its broken roads and arid landscape.
They also blame civil servants for the moniker. In his seminal work on Haryana politics, Three Lals of Haryana, former IAS officer Ram Verma makes a mention of it. He vividly describes how in the 1970s, new IAS recruits were dispatched to Narnaul-Mahendragarh area as a ‘punishment posting’.
Verma writes that the journey to Mahendragarh in those days would begin from the relatively urban Rohtak before turning into a bumpy ride on “raw unkempt roads” and the sight of women travelling far to fetch water while carrying their children.
Some of the backwardness still remains.
“There is not a single shop here to drink a decent cup of coffee. For even this, we have to travel as far as Gurugram,” a student at the Central University (Mahendragarh) told ThePrint.
But the district has transformed itself into a centre of education.
According to Rajendra Singh, Block Education Officer (Ateli), there are about 350 private schools in the district that has 370 villages.
“The number of government-owned primary, middle and senior secondary schools in the district is 750,” he said. “This area has never been an economically prosperous one. Serving in the armed forces and agriculture are the two main professions here. But when the competition between some big schools in the area intensified due to better results in competitive exams, small private schools also found an opportunity to expand.”
Nowadays Mahendragarh routinely figures in the top performing regions of Haryana in the state board exams, and its school students are known to bag top positions in the National Talent Search Examination (NTSE), a scholarship exam conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
There is consensus in the region that the transformation began in 1995 when the Yaduvanshi Shiksha Niketan was set up at Mahendragarh town. It was the first time that the local agrarian families saw a large private school.
The school was started by Rao Bahadur Singh who hailed from a village in Rajasthan bordering Haryana. “I was a moderately educated person. But I always believed that if provided with good education, this area can also grow rapidly,” Bahadur Singh told ThePrint. “I started this venture on the advice of a person named Rajendra. Even though the businessmen and bureaucratic people continued to ignore this district.”
“In 1998, four children from my school cleared the Haryana Pre-Medical Test (PMT) exam. All these children came from families with farming backgrounds. Before that, the farmers used to believe that only a doctor’s child could become a doctor. One year after that as many as 12 students qualified in different medical exams,” Singh said. “Following in the footsteps of the successful Yaduvanshi experiment a long line of schools opened up in the Mahendragarh district. None of the owners of these schools were big businessmen; instead they all were humble, common people. In the last one decade this district has emerged as a new hub of schools.”
The Yaduvanshi Shiksha Niketan now has as many as 13 branches spread all across Haryana.
Meanwhile, other elite schools like RPS, Suraj, Happy Evergreen, Tagore, Shri Krishna, Euro International, DPS, have cropped up here and cater to children from Delhi, Gurugram, Pilani, Ghaziabad and even Chandigarh.
Excellent results, strict rules
Excellent results and strict hostel rules are some of the reasons that are drawing the students of Delhi-NCR region and other parts of Haryana to these private schools of Mahendragarh.
According to data with Haryana Education Department, students of Mahendragarh district are among the top performing when it comes to board exams. The district held the top spot in the state, for the best pass percentage (61 per cent) in Class 10 board examinations, in 2016-17 session.
It slipped to the second spot with a 64 per cent pass percentage in 2017-18 session and was fourth in the 2018-19 session, with a 64 per cent pass percentage.
For the Class 12 board exams, Mahendragarh was third in 2016-17, with a pass percentage of 74 per cent. It was fourth in 2017-18 with a pass percentage of 64 per cent but slipped to eighth with a pass percentage of 65 per cent in 2018-19.
But where its students really shine are in the NTSE exams. Over the last five years, students from Mahendragarh have consistently secured ranks in the NTSE exams. The exam is of two phases, with Phase 1 a state-level test and the second phase being a national-level competition.
In the 2015-16 session, of the 95 students who cleared the NTSE Phase-1(state-level) exams, 38 were from Mahendragarh. That number rose to 39, when 105 students made the cut from the state in 2017-18.
In 2018-19, of the 198 selected, 67 were from Mahendragarh and in this academic year, of the 197 selected from the state, the district accounts for 72 students. (The exam is held in November).
It’s these results, students say, that draws them to these schools. “My parents were immensely impressed by the results being delivered here. That’s why my brother also got enrolled here,” said Shreya Yadav, who is studying at RPS School after opting out of a school in Gurugram. “The area is indeed a backward one but a few years can be easily sacrificed to secure a better future. The rules and atmosphere here is quite strict, for example girls cannot talk to boys.”
“’Our top grade results and strict rules are the reasons that affect parents’ decision. The local schools are number one in terms of infrastructure facilities, but in the hostels we try to keep children away from the internet,” said Dr. Sarita, Principal of RPS School. “Unlike Kota, where there is cut-throat competition between coaching institutes, there is healthy competition here. That is why the search of NCR people for better education for their wards is culminating now in Mahendragarh”.
Haryana Education Minister Kanwar Pal Gujjar believes that the armed forces may have played a part in the spurt of private schools in Mahendragarh. “Those from Mahendragarh district shine in merit-based jobs,” Gujjar told ThePrint. “The kind of awareness this area has witnessed in the field of education is not seen in other districts. One of the major reasons is that people of the district joined the Army in large numbers and realised the value of education.”
From schools to politics
The success of the private schools is pushing their owners into politics.
Mahendragarh is part of the Ahirwal region and politics here has for long been dominated by the family of Union Minister Rao Inderjit Singh, who was with the Congress before he switched over to the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The challenge to Singh is now coming from the popular school owners.
For example, Rao Bahadur Singh, Head of Yaduvanshi Group, was an INLD MLA between 2009 and 2014. He even contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 but lost due to the Modi wave. He is now with the Congress.
Swati Yadav, Director of Euro International School, is treading a similar path. She contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a Jannayak Janta Party ticket but joined the BJP just before the Haryana assembly elections. Her father was once associated with the INLD.
Manish Yadav of RPS Group had also sought an assembly ticket from the BJP in 2019, even organising a huge event during Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s Rath Yatra but finally lost out.