Technical education is perhaps the most distinctive Salesian contribution to the youth of India, particularly the poorer among them. One of the very first initiatives the Salesians launched in India, soon after their arrival a hundred years ago, was an industrial school in Thanjavur, besides accepting an existing elementary school and orphanage. By taking the lead in the field of vocational training, they were not only opening up new vistas of opportunities for the youth of the region, but also showing the way to put a nation on the road to progress.
Today, with over 120 institutes imparting technical training to over 23,000 youngsters across the country, the Salesians of Don Bosco are regarded as the leading non-governmental agency in the field of technical training in India. What makes them different from many other NGOs in the field is the fact that they target the poor and the marginalized youth. Their Institutes aim at empowering those young people who, due to poverty or the lack of a guiding hand, have been pushed to the margins of society. A job-oriented training is precisely what these youngsters need in order to take their place with dignity in society as productive citizens.
Don Bosco Technical Institutions generally belong to the lower levels of technical training, like Polytechnics, ITIs, and a variety of non-formal training centres. In comparison with the country’s high-profile temples of technology, they are more modest and less glamourous, but in no way less important from the perspective of nation-building.
The 100-year-old history of Don Bosco Technical Institutions in India clearly shows the farsightedness of our pioneer missionaries who were adept at turning obstacles into opportunities. The first Salesian technical institute in India was set up in Thanjvaur in 1906 under two thatched sheds, with two trades - carpentry and weaving. But soon it made a name for itself because of the excellent training imparted to the students.
In true Don Bosco style, in the first year itself, they held an Industrial Exhibition, which immediately became the top attraction in the town. The exhibits - all produced by the students themselves - consisted of a variety of articles of furniture and clothing, drawing and painting. Thereafter, the exhibition became an annual feature which the townspeople looked forward to with great expectation.
Commenting on the performance of the boys of Tanjore, Fr. Francis Carpene SDB wrote to the Rector Major in 1915: “The Indian youngster is intelligent; his mental faculties develop ahead of his European counterpart and is gifted with a powerful aptitude for imitation. Meek of temperament, he lets himself be easily directed. Granted the constancy, he will have nothing to envy the boys of our more advanced centres in Europe for.”
In 1918, W. E. Haldwell, the District Board Engineer of Tanjore, who presided at the opening of the exhibition, had this to say: “The students of this industrial school turn out articles of furniture and clothing second to none, as you will see for yourselves in the adjoining room, and as the large number of certificates of merit and medals won by them at various exhibitions throughout Southern India will testify.”
Sir K. V. Reddy, minister for development, Government of Madras, wrote at the end of his visit in 1920: “The more I see, the more I feel convinced that these should form the nucleus of our scheme of Industrial and Technical education in this country. These missionaries have placed us under a deep debt of obligation.”
Besides organizing exhibitions at home, our Industrial School in Tanjore made it a point to participate in all important industrial exhibitions in various parts of the country and always came away with prizes and trophies. In an All-India Exhibition held in Patna (Bihar) in 1921, for instance, the weaving students of Tanjore won three medals of merit with the highest distinction in ordinary pattern exhibits.
In 1921, The Madras Mail, a leading newspaper of the day, adjudged the Salesian Industrial School of Tanjore as ‘one of the best in the Madras Presidency and hence in the whole of India’.
In 1921, after a visit to the School, the Governor of Madras Presidency wrote thus: “The Salesian Mission does its best in every way possible to impart to Indian youth an education proper to the vocation of each one. An education imparted according to individual inclination and vocation is of utmost importance in the formation of young India. It is necessary to make young people grow up with the idea not so much of becoming government employees, advocates or secretaries as of taking up a trade that will render them all really useful and productive citizens.”
In 1925, in recognition of the services rendered by the school, the Government decorated the Director, Fr Mederlet SDB, with the coveted Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal.
In the Northeast of India, where the Salesians started their work in 1922, the story was no different.
At the beginning of 1923 when the Director of Public Instruction visited the Don Bosco Technical School in Shillong, he was genuinely amazed. He asked the Minister of Education to go and see the school. The minister came and was loud in his praise and hopes.
In 1925, the Governor of Assam, Sir Henry Kerr, after a brief visit to Don Bosco Technical Institute in Shillong, wrote to Mgr. Mathias: “I had not the slightest idea that you had such a variety of works going on. I hope that in a short time, your young and versatile Salesians will make their presence felt all over Assam ....”
It was in 1930 that Don Bosco Technical School in Shillong held its first public exhibition of works done by the students. The Governor, his wife, and other dignitaries visited the exhibition and expressed their pleasure. None of these people had ever thought that boys could be brought up to such a high standard of working skill. As a matter of fact, the governor’s wife wanted to return the next day to the school and find out for herself whether or not the pupils really were capable of such workmanship. She came and got her proof as she moved from department to department.
In 1932, the editor of a Calcutta newspaper paid a visit to the Technical School in Shillong and then wrote that he was really taken up with the sound principles on which the vocational school was run, adding, “Nothing more than ten years ago, the people of Assam had not even heard of arts and crafts.”
Years later, the Minister in charge of Tribal Welfare, after visiting the Salesian mission in Imphal, told the gathering: “I know the Don Bosco School in Shillong and have always been an admirer of your work there. The government of India is happy to know that there are people like you, dedicated, sacrificing, and disinterested, who give themselves totally for the education of our people. I am sorry to say that as yet the government have not reached the point where they can do as good a job.” Turning to the students, he continued, “You are fortunate, you lads, because you are in a school of Don Bosco. Here you will learn many things, good and useful, for your life. Always remember the Salesian Fathers who care for you more than your relatives do!”
Mgr. Mathias was once asked what he would propose for the development of the youth of the country. His instant reply was: ‘Teach them a trade so that they can earn a living.’ He would often tell the Salesians: “The best contribution we Salesians could make to this country is to build schools where young people would learn arts and trades, technical and professional subjects.”
He was quite aware that technical schools would entail much heavier investments than ordinary schools. A technical school needs all that an ordinary school needs - grounds, classrooms, labs, teachers - plus expensive machinery and up-to-date tools and instruments.
He was convinced that vocational schools were to play an important role in the country’s future and therefore the Salesians should promote them as much as possible in India. He himself was responsible for setting up some of our oldest and best-known technical institutes in the country, such as Don Bosco Tech, Shillong, and St. Joseph Tech and the Salesian Institute of Graphic Arts in Chennai.
With a view to extend and strengthen their services and to facilitate networking among them, the Don Bosco Technical Institutions in India, have recently come together to form an apex body — “Don Bosco Tech India” (DBTI) — an umbrella organization of all the Don Bosco Technical Training Institutes in the country. Currently DBTI has under it some 123 training institutes spread across the length and breadth of the country. It probably is the largest non-governmental organization engaged in technical training in India and has a 100-year-long history of imparting technical and vocational training.
A unique feature of DBTI is that it has institutions under it for both formal and non-formal technical training. While Engineering Colleges, Polytechnics, ITIs and similar institutes are open to those who have the educational qualifications, the non-formal institutes offer job-oriented training (functional vocational training) for the numerous marginalized and neglected youth—school dropouts and others who do not qualify for the formal courses.
Care is taken to offer excellent infrastructure and up-to-date facilities in all Don Bosco Technical Institutes, irrespective of whether the courses are formal or non-formal. The non-formal courses often enjoy greater flexibility with regard to syllabus and course organization. They are designed in view of the current needs of the industry and the requirements of the job market. And that explains why the non-formal trainees get easily absorbed in the industries, having to spend less time job-hunting.
Along with skills and technology, Don Bosco institutions are also committed to give the students an all-round formation to help them enter the world of work with confidence and competence. We believe that the values of Don Bosco’s educational system are as good and necessary for the world of work as they are for society in general. Don Bosco Technical Institutions aim at making young persons not only self-reliant but also self-restrained and selfless, with a vision of the world and everything in it as God’s gift, to be shared and used with respect.
Our technical Institutes are a concrete expression of our commitment to give the best to those who have received the least in life, the poor and the marginalized ones.
A Governor’s Envy
In November 1950, His Excellency Jairamdas Doulatram, Governor of Assam, opened the Industrial Exhibition at Don Bosco, Shillong. After visiting the exhibition, while addressing the large gathering of people, he said: “Now I understand how a boy can be taken from the streets or from the jungle and transformed into an active young man, useful to himself and to society. The educative method of Don Bosco does these marvels.
“My dear boys, your Rector told me that you are 250 in the boarding. But now I tell you that from today onwards you will be 251, because I too want to remain here with you, to receive the benefit of the education of Don Bosco.”
Later, the governor asked for a life of Don Bosco, and after glancing through its pages, said: “India needs a man like him”.
He was so enthusiastic and so well impressed that at the end of the exhibition he invited all the Salesians of Don Bosco to tea and showed himself extremely friendly and familiar when they went to Governor’s House.
A History of the Salesians, vol II