BANGALORE - When the results of India's biggest engineering entrance exams came out last week, eight of the top 24 scorers were from the southern state of Telangana - the most for any region.
But quieter celebrations marked a more historic achievement: an unprecedented 709 students from tribal and poor communities in the state had passed the exam.
They are first generation learners, children of agricultural labourers, domestic workers, drivers, security guards, and roadside tea sellers.
Last year, about 500 had cleared the exam.
When Naini Mamatha, 17, called her parents on the phone from her hostel to say she scored in the 89.11 percentile, her mother, who had never gone to school, cried for a few minutes. She blessed her, and then went back to work in the farms in her forest village in Mancherial district in Telangana.
A member of the Korwa community, recognised by the Indian government as a particularly vulnerable tribal group, Mamatha is the first in her family to go to school, and will now be the first in her village to do an engineering degree.
Every year, tens of thousands of soon-to-graduate Indian high-schoolers take the Joint Entrance Examinations (JEE) for admissions to undergraduate engineering courses in 1,650 government-run colleges. This year, for about 39,000 seats, over 635,000 students took the JEE, held in January and in September in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
JEE is also a requisite for JEE Advanced, which further sifts candidates for a mere 11,000 seats in 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), India's premier engineering colleges whose graduates often attract the highest paying jobs.
"I want to be an IIT-ian, and do computer science engineering," Mamatha said, listing her tickets out of poverty and into social acceptance.
Candidates that can afford to often prepare for the three-hour multiple-choice entrance test from the age of 14, when they are in 10th grade, in order to take the test after the 12th grade. They spend at least half a million rupees (S$9,200) a year on coaching and practise sample tests every day for two years.
As a result, engineering colleges are dominated by upper-caste and high- and-middle income students.
Cities like Delhi, Kota in Rajasthan and Hyderabad in Telangana have thriving sub-economies of JEE coaching centres. Entire building walls and billboards are plastered with blown-up passport photos of bespectacled teenagers who have made it to IITs.
"The poorest of the poor are not exposed to this world, and even if they are, they can't afford coaching," said Dr R. S. Praveen Kumar, 53, the secretary of Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society.
A police officer from a poor family himself - and a trained veterinarian - he convinced the Telangana government to reinvent education programmes for children from marginalised communities to focus on leadership, science research, medicine, engineering, and even mountaineering and underwater diving.
Under Dr Kumar, Telangana strengthened its 158 state-run residential tribal and social welfare schools from 2013, with committed science and English teachers, computer labs, sports, music and cultural activities.
Select students get focused coaching, free of charge, to sit competitive professional exams like the JEE.
From 4,000 vacancies in 2013, the welfare schools in rural and urban areas now have over 140,000 applications for 30,000 places. "When we arm them with information, self-confidence and support, tribal and poor children lose their feeling of inferiority and dream big," Dr Kumar added.
On video call from her school-run hostel, a shy Mamatha spoke in halting English, which the Telugu-speaker learnt only in the last two years. During the pandemic-induced lockdown, she went home, but without a smartphone and Internet, she could not attend online classes.
Fifteen days before the exam, her school principal brought her back to the hostel to resume coaching.
"Mamatha could have scored above 90, but she had to work in the farm, had no electricity or proper place to study. Given their hard life, these kids work double hard," her maths teacher Ramesh Sagurala said.
Mr Anil Katroth, 19, had a 94 percentile score in JEE, is now preparing for the advanced test on September 24. He studies 12 hours and writes two sample tests a day.
Mr Anil belongs to the Lambada community, a historically nomadic tribe. "My parents cannot read or write but I'll be a civil engineer, my older brother is doing a degree in agriculture and my younger brother is studying to write the civil services exam," he said.
The welfare school staff admit that their work doesn't end with getting their students into prestigious universities.
Recalling Rohith Vemula, a PhD student who hanged himself in 2016 because he felt marginalised in the University of Hyderabad, Dr Kumar said: "Universities may not be as supportive of our students as the teachers or parents back home. So we have an acclimatisation module before they enter campuses, to expose them to the nature of these spaces and show them how to digest any culture shocks, while retaining their curiosity and studious nature. We also have alumni reunions and a helpline."
Such support networks immensely helped Malothu Lachiramnaik, 19, a tribal student and son of paddy farmers who is now in his third year of civil engineering in IIT Hyderabad.
"I used to be nervous initially, but after three years, my spoken English is better, I've got good friends, I do lots of sports, dance and fun college things. You know, anyone who gets real opportunities can have all this," he said.