On a warm May evening in Goa, the Panaji Gymkhana came alive with its sprawling grounds buzzing with smartly dressed schoolgirls, each wearing a helmet, waiting their turn to ride away on a spanking new bright pink bicycle, of which they had just become the proud owners.
The explosion of pink bicycles and girl power that evening was thanks to a project of RC Panaji Midtown, RID 3170, the president and members of which had decided to act on the disturbing statistics about how so many adolescent girls from underprivileged families drop out of school at puberty as they do not even have modes of transport facilities and have to walk to schools located 2 to 5km away. The 500 beneficiaries are students from Classes 5 to 9 in 25 schools.
When president of the club Siddha Sardessai was planning an iconic project for his year at the helm of the club, “I thought I should do something big, and nearer the scale of what PDG Ravi Vadlamani does while launching his projects…. he always thinks big.” With this idea in mind, his team drew up a plan to give 500 bicycles to rural girls from poor families, so that they could have a safe means to reach their school. The club has 78 members and they were aware that apart from safe transport, many girl students drop out from school because the long walk not only exhausts them but also leaves them exposed to the vagaries of extreme weather such as torrid heat and torrential rainfall.
Sardessai explains that as this is their club’s silver jubilee year, the project had to be a remarkable, sustainable and impactful one. The money required for the 500 bicycles was around Rs 20 lakh and two corporates — Vianaar Infra LLP and Marikety Foods — funded the project through their CSR grants. The corporates were represented at the inaugural event by Savio Monteiro and Spiro Grana respectively. The Rotarians did not forget the safety feature; the girls’ heads needed to be protected while they rode to school and West Coast Mohit Ispat Foundation sponsored the helmets.
The beneficiaries were identified through the schools, so that only the most deserving girls got the bicycles. The club president explains the ground rules which have been laid down to ensure that maximum benefit accrues from this project. “While the criterion for selecting the girls was the distance between the school and their homes, and the financial status of the family, the bicycle was presented to the girls with the clear understanding that if the girl leaves the school for any reason it has to be passed to another deserving student.” The same will hold true when the girls pass out from the schools; essentially the bicycles, even though presented to the girls, belong to the 25 schools, so that the maximum number of girls can benefit from this project and get empowered through education in the coming years. The colour has been deliberately kept a bright pink to ensure that the other condition of this project — the vehicles should be used only by the girls for going to school, and not by the family for running errands, or attending to farm work. And of course to safeguard them from the village thieves!
Predictably enough, the girls who became the proud owners of the new bicycles, were beaming with joy as they received this empowering tool from the dignitaries, who included Indian cricketer Mohinder Amarnath, DG Venkatesh Deshpande, club secretary Sachin Bhandare, silver jubilee celebration chairman Milind Shankhwalker, and past and future presidents of the club. At the glittering event, balloons were released to reiterate the underlying theme of this project — empowerment, freedom and endless possibilities that education brings.
Addressing the meeting, DG Deshpande congratulated the club for this initiative of giving mobility to rural girls and advised the recipients of the cycles to make the best use of the gift and excel in their education. Amarnath added, “This excellent project reminds me of my childhood when in a boarding school I received my first bicycle and was thrilled to get it.”
On the possibility of helping the brighter among these 500 girls get higher education, Sardessai said such students would automatically be screened for monetary help by the club’s ongoing, 25-year-old project titled Sakshrta. “This is an educational grant project, where we have been funding the education of less privileged students from Class 1 till graduation. This started way
back in 1998. But now that education in government schools is free, we are funding students for graduation courses.”
He explains the tough rules that are observed to ensure that the funds are not taken from the club and frittered away on non-educational activities. While the scheme funds the education of medical, engineering and other professional and graduate courses, the money is released only after the student completes the first semester. So it is almost like a reimbursement. “Earlier, we had found that there were students who were taking the money but not doing the course; unfortunately, what is given free is rarely appreciated. So now we have brought in these new rules.”
On the ratio of girl students who go for higher education, he says, “I am happy to share that recently of the 11 grants we approved for professional courses, six were girl students. Earlier we used to do Happy Schools; now we feel we are creating happy students!”