When Mayank Katara, the son of a small-time plumber, was struggling with his studies, he was referred to Lalita Sharma Anant, president of Rotary Club of Indore Adarsh, RI District 3040, and an experienced professor with a doctorate in public administration and international studies, who had given up a well-paying job to hold classes for less privileged children in Indore.
“He used to come to our classes, but was not regular. As he was a very bright boy, I shifted him to a small private school near his home. I knew the owner/principal and managed to get his fees waived,” recalls Lalita.
He did extremely well and qualified for admission into IIT, Palakkad. Once again, his mentor guided him on the intricate process to secure a bank loan to pay his fees. It is eight months since Mayank has graduated from IIT and has secured a job with an annual package of ₹18 lakh in Bengaluru, where he is working now. “Whenever he is in Indore, he comes to me and helps out with taking classes for other children.”
This amazing educationist, with 18 years of experience in teaching public administration and international relations to the students of law at the DAVV HRDC University in Indore and also the Paul Institute of Professional Studies, can reel out many such success stories (see box). But let’s go to the beginning and see what made her give up a secure teaching job and start teaching underprivileged children… the number hovers above 200 at any given time!
I saw a lot of children and youth, some gambling and others smoking. They were not only wasting their time but their entire life.
– Lalita Sharma Anant, president, RC Indore Adarsh
Reverting to 2008 when Lalita, who hails from Sikkim and is married to a fellow Rotarian and businessman Hatim Anant, says that it all began when the couple’s new home was under construction in Indore. Says Lalita: “When I used to visit my house under construction, I saw a lot of children and youth, some gambling and others smoking. As an educationist I just could not look away. They were not only wasting their time but their entire life. It was like watching a very serious wound being inflected on the soul of India.”
She felt she had to do something about it. She consulted her husband, and reached a decision. After they shifted, she started a small tutorial inside her house with just eight children. In just a month the number grew to over 100. So she shifted the classes outside the house on the road.
There was no police or any other harassment because the house was in a little isolated area which did not disturb anybody. But since she felt it would not be safe to keep small children on the road, she identified a huge park in front of her house which was unkempt and filthy and used for anti-social activities. She and her husband, whom she describes “as my strong backbone and greatest supporter,” got it cleaned and shifted the classes there. Many of the youngsters, who gradually came into this open class stream of education, were dropouts, some of them who would rip off parts of the fencing of the public garden, sell it and use the money for gambling, smoking and substance abuse. There were children who had never seen the inside of a school, and were doing part time jobs for paltry money.
What had begun with just eight children from her neighbourhood, identified with the help of a vegetable vendor and a laundry man, grew speedily and the number ultimately swelled to 280!
Quite often, Rotarians and others donate something for their birthdays, anniversaries etc, and we direct them to particular students and the institutions where they can directly pay the fees.
As more and more children started coming to her classes, an astonishing number of 15 senior teachers, all women, joined her to teach these children. To add to that, the senior students who passed high school and had then graduated after getting extra coaching/learning from her open-to-sky classes, started volunteering to teach the younger children.
As she reels off a number of heartwarming success stories, I ask her about her Rotary journey (see box), how she raises the funds to sustain her teaching endeavour and whether other Rotarians or her club members help with the funds. She explains that the funding comes in various ways, making it clear at the outset that “actually, not too much of money is really required, because we have no physical structure, no designated space, and yet the classes have sustained now for 14 years!”
Lalita explains that more than money, there are bigger challenges. It is often difficult to convince the parents to allow their children, especially girls, to continue their education in schools. The parents want their children to work and bring some money home; the girls being encouraged to work as domestic help along with their mothers, and the boys as daily labourers. Typically, a girl’s education is seen as of little value, the argument being that after all ‘she will get married and go to another home’. The other problem was that as many girls had to walk a long distance “to reach our classes, they faced eve-teasing and the parents wanted them to stop coming. But we worked out solutions by counselling the parents about the value of education and its long-term benefits. We also got in touch with the police station and sorted out numerous problems including eve-teasing, and some deserving girls were given bicycles for the long commute to school,” says Lalita.
As for the money to pay the fees of the promising students who are put in private schools, Lalita says, “Quite often, Rotarians and others donate something for their birthdays, anniversaries etc, and we direct them to particular students and the institutions where they can directly pay the fees. Also, since I’ve worked for 18 years, I have my personal savings; PF and FDs, and I often use my personal or my husband’s money to pay for some students’ fees, or we find sponsors for them. The other thing is that since many of our volunteers come from a low-income background, we have to give them an honorarium, so that they can support themselves and their higher education, as many of them are in college. In an emergency of course Hatim helps,” she smiles.
It is often difficult to convince the parents to allow their children, especially girls, to continue their education in schools.
There are various kinds of courses in this open-to-sky school; the classes are held for students from Class 1 to 12; “for graduation and PG courses, we have a mentorship programme, and get mentors to coach the students. We also have a bridge education programme for dropouts and even those who have never been to school. We prepare them thoroughly; for eg, those who have never been to a school are enrolled as private candidates in Class 5 exam in a government school. Once they get through — and we make sure they get through by preparing them well — for Class 6, we enrol them in the regular stream.”
This way, the child enters into mainstream education, and a path is created for her to go for higher education and achieve her dream. But many youngsters do not want to go in for higher education for various reasons. So when they are a little older and have passed seventh or eighth grade, “we have certain skill development programmes or vocational training for them and after completing that they are employed in different places,” she adds.
The special and most heartwarming feature of Lalita’s home university is a group of 35 Didi and Bhaiya teachers, who were students once, but have now graduated, in law, business administration, nursing and so on and now volunteer to take some of the classes.
The class timings are according to the convenience of the mentors and the volunteers who come for six hours a day, two batches — 1 to 6pm and 3 to 7pm — are held.
So how did she find the teachers?
As a winner of many awards —Global Women Influencer Award at New York in 2019 for her selfless service to education at the grassroots, and recognition as one of the 100 Most Impactful Women of India by the then President of India Pranab Mukherjee for “her selfless service to society” in 2016 — she was once on the Dr Subhash Chandra Show on Zee TV, speaking on the purpose of life. It was being watched by a very bored and sleepy teacher, who suddenly woke up, was inspired by her talk and came the very next day to join the group as a volunteer teacher.
35 Didi and Bhaiya teachers, who were students once, but have now graduated, now volunteer to take some of the classes.
What is touching is her humility; in 14 years, year after year, she has touched the lives of 580 students every year on an average. And yet she dismisses her efforts saying: “We are really nobody; we are only instruments of a higher power.”
As she soldiers on, the challenges continue, a real one being the monsoon rain when classes can’t be held in the open. And there continues to be an army of youngsters and parents who continue to see zero value in any education. But her efforts to promote awareness on the real value of education continue.
Lalita is proud of the socio-economic transformation that has come into the lives of the students who have graduated. “Many have entered multinational companies, reputed pharma companies, nursing and we also have an IITian,” she says with pride, adding, “at the end of the day, the outcome has been beyond expectation and highly satisfactory for both the students and teachers.”
She feels there is a lot of scope for the expansion of this concept of open education “where lakhs of students throughout the country can be streamlined into mainstream education. In 2017 our open sky learning classes were registered into an organisation called Abhakunj Welfare Society.”
Lalita Anant relates the interesting story of Pooja who used to attend her classes and dropped out from Class 9; “I knew that she had a spark in her and wanted to do something. We track every child, so when she stopped coming for a few days, along with one of her teachers, I visited the girl’s home one evening. I had learnt that the family is in a very severe financial crisis. The parents had four daughters and Pooja was required to accompany her mother to work which involved cleaning utensils in various homes. I counselled the mother and said: ‘Your life is over but you can give your children much better opportunities. If she is not educated, she will find a partner from the same background and her life thereafter will be as difficult as yours.’”
The Rotarian found from the mother that the girl was earning ₹1,200 a month and she asked the mother to send the girl to “us to help out as several youngsters do. They help us out in different ways and we help them in return by sponsoring their education. And we pay such volunteers some money every month because they also need their pocket money. Pooja completed her Class 10 in a private school where I paid the fees. She opted for science and went on to Class 12.”
After that she went to a government college and completed her BSc. The bright and hard-working girl wanted to study further but said her family was opposing this. Once again it was time for a home visit; “we went and counselled the parents and she completed her MSc in pharmaceutical chemistry from the Indore university and emerged a gold medalist. After that she came to me and said now I need a job.”
Lalita helped her with her applications to pharma companies and coached her through several sessions on how to handle interviews and the related paraphernalia. “I have several volunteers who come to me; they helped her, coached her, polished up her speech and she has now got a job as an analyst in the pharma major Cipla. Today she earns around ₹25,000 a month and enjoys so many benefits and welfare measures given by the company.”
I’d like to share that our children who are in Class 4 and 5, know their tables till 40 and 45!
Now she is supporting the education of her younger sisters… they have also finished their education and one of them is pursuing a B Ed course.
Then there is the heartening story of Sadhana Yadav who was very weak in her studies; even till Class 5 she was not able to construct sentences. Lalita first thought she might be dyslexic and was planning to consult a doctor. “Then again we thought we’ll work with her, and while doing so found that her concepts from the junior classes were not clear and we guided her. I myself sat with her for months and today she is a trainer at Flipkart and is going to take her MBA exam. She is supporting her younger brother and sister’s education. I have paid her fees from Class 8 to high school; then we sent her to a government college where we didn’t need to pay any fees.”
Then there is the story of a girl who will be graduating as a nurse this year. She was going to a government school and almost dropped out of school. Lalita tried getting her enrolled in a private school “but she was not confident of being able to cope with the pressure so I found her a few mentors.” She was given personal/individual mentoring; finally she got back her confidence and managed to get into a very good nursing college (The Aurobindo Institute of Medical Sciences). The father did not have a job but was very sincere. “We know a doctor couple who own a pathology lab; they have hired her for part-time work from 6 to 10am. With the money she earns there, she pays her fees, and is doing well.”
Another girl who was doing a pharma course, lost her father to cancer midway through the course. Her mother said she could not continue and “she was on the verge of leaving. So I told Hatim to create a vacancy in his shop and he gave her a job to make some entries… this is to ensure that they understand the importance of work, and it also gives her dignity. She paid her fees with this money, has completed her pharmacy course and will be doing masters very soon,” says a beaming Lalita.
She adds demurely: “Like these, we have so many other stories. I’d like to share that our children who are in Class 4 and 5, know their tables till 40 and 45!”
Her Rotary journey
Lalita Anant and her husband Hatim joined Rotary six years ago; “a couple of our friends were Rotarians and they said it’s a good organisation to join. We are Bahais and felt a natural fit because we found our values and principles are the core values of Rotary, be it promoting peace, equity and inclusiveness. We found the Rotarians to be a good group of people. So we joined a Rotary club,” she says.
But unfortunately, after they joined, they “found not much was happening so we left, and the club closed too.” But after six months, there was an orientation programme to join Rotary, “which we attended as we had always wanted to join Rotary, because it has beautiful people and the right kind of diversity and inclusiveness, which we value.” Now, she adds, the couple is very happy with their club.
So does she try to get help from her club, where she is president this year, to help these children from disadvantaged families?
We had always wanted to join Rotary, because it has beautiful people and the right kind of diversity and inclusiveness, which we value.
Lalita demurs and says: “Actually, it’s just a four-year-old club and we collect only a minimum amount of club fees. No, I haven’t spoken about this in our club. One of my drawbacks is that I cannot ask.”
Well, she is known only to give, I comment. She laughs and says, “I find it very difficult to ask for money but so many people in my club, and outside, know about our work. We also do awareness programmes for adolescent girls. Recently, we had a session on MHM, and then a workshop on making rakhis and other activities.”