No longer Children of a lesser God

Conference Chair PRID Shekhar Mehta with RI President K R Ravindran, RID Manoj Desai, Sharmishtha Desai and HOC Chair PDG Kamal Sanghvi (extreme right).

The next time, when a child knocks on your car window, try sending that child back to school. Just one child and you’ll understand what it takes to send just one child back to school,” said ­Shekhar Mehta, Chair of both RILM and the RI Presidential Conference on Literacy and WinS held in Kolkata.

Similarly, “little fingers rummaging through waste bins for food,” children who have to work to supplement family income, girls dropping out of school at puberty because they do not have separate toilets with adequate water and sanitation, should make us pause and think: “Are these children of a lesser god?”

Last week the CEO of Bharati Foundation asked us: Is there a way that Bharati Foundation and Rotary can work together on Happy Schools?

PRID Shekhar Mehta

But thanks to Indian Rotarians’ commitment through Asha Kiran and other programmes to send children back to school, empower them with digital literacy and make adults literate … all towards the ambitious goal of making India totally literate, “Rima Devi is no more using a thumb impression to draw money from the bank. She now proudly asks for a pen to sign a cheque. That is our reward,” he said.

But, Mehta warned the mammoth gathering of nearly 2,500 delegates at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, the task before them was massive and it would require tremendous hard work to achieve Rotary’s ultimate goal for a literate India. While working towards this objective, Rotary was picking up many partners …the Indian Government, several NGOs, and “now more and more corporates are coming forward to partner with us.”

He recalled how when four years ago he had contacted the Bharati Foundation for a partnership, its CEO had told him, ‘Do not expect too much from us, as we have a Foundation of our own.’ “But last week, on a con-call, he said: Is there a way that Bharati Foundation and Rotary can work together on Happy Schools? So partnerships are happening and during this conference we will be signing several MoUs.”

RI President K R Ravindran honours Dororthy Fernandez with Literacy Hero Award in the presence of PRID Ashok Mahajan, PDGs Ramesh Chander and Anil Agarwal.
RI President K R Ravindran honours Dororthy Fernandez with Literacy Hero Award in the presence of PRID Ashok Mahajan, PDGs Ramesh Chander and Anil Agarwal.

Mehta said Kolkata gave the first Rotary Club in Asia as also the first RI President from India (Nitish Laharry) and the other two RI Presidents had some connection with the city. “Each one of them is a hero … and today we are going to recognise six Literacy heroes. Rotarians and Inner Wheel members who have made 733 Happy Schools possible are heroes; as also Rotaractor Roshan who cycled for 6 months to spread the word of literacy. And Ritu Kedia, daughter of PDG Kishore Kedia, who swam 16 km from Bangladesh to St Martin Island for the cause of literacy.”

Mehta added that Rotary was “trying to change the world for the better with the power of knowledge. Our promise to the HRD Minister was to send 100,000 children back to school and tomorrow we will touch the 30,000 mark.” Under the Happy Schools, the target was 1,000 schools, once again a tough call. Each school costs Rs 5 lakh, but Rotarians and Inner Wheel members have really worked hard and already converted 733 schools into Happy Schools.

I am now being called a literacy inspector and toilet director … most of my pictures these days are in front of a toilet.

RID Manoj Desai

“The impact of our work is such that through just one programme of e-learning we’ve reached out to 1.9 million children. And we are forging outstanding partnerships with the government; we’ve promised to work on e-pathshalas for 1 million adults over the next 5 years.”

But all this work — on both literacy and WinS, as well as other great Rotary projects, “would not have been possible without the leadership provided by the District Governors. Every plan and project gets implemented at the club level.”

RI Director Manoj Desai said normally Presidential conferences have 1,200 delegates or a little more, “but this one has 2,500 delegates.” Listing his work, he said during his eight months in office he had visited 27 of the 36 Districts and was highly impressed by the work done on various projects, including those on literacy and WinS. “I am now being called a literacy inspector and toilet director … most of my pictures these days are in front of a toilet. But the (RI) Board salutes me because it realises that this is a phenomenal job that is required in this country.”

West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi presents Literacy Hero Award to Arman Ali in the presence of (from left) PRID Shekhar Mehta, RI President Ravindran, RID Manoj Desai, TRF Trustee Chair Ray Klinginsmith, PDGs Ramesh Chander and Anil Agarwal.

He said finally his “dream” of Rotary becoming a preferred partner to various entities was being realised; whether it was ministers, NGOs or celebrities such as Amitabh Bachchan, Saina Nehwal, Juhi Chawla or Mary Kom, they were all partnering with Rotary for various initiatives. “And Shekhar and his team are doing wonders on literacy; the online voting for Literacy heroes attracted over 7.26 lakh votes. Many corporates are now coming to us for CSR partnerships and things will only improve. I find tremendous enthusiasm among Rotarians who are reaching out to slums and rural corners that you can’t even imagine, making a big difference even in the less developed States such as Orissa and Bihar.”

West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi lauded Rotary for its fantastic work; equipping over 4,000 government-aided schools with digital literacy equipment to help the “poorest of poor children,” training 5,081 teachers, setting up over 5,000 e-learning centres, sending back to school 10,000 children through its Asha Kiran programme and its pledge to send back to school 3 lakh children in 3 years, were great initiatives that were the critical need of the hour. “And Rotary’s Wash in Schools programme is providing the much-needed hygiene and sanitation in our schools.”

In a video message, cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar endorsed the WinS project and underlined the importance of washing hands. All kids hate to wash hands, and he did so too as a kid. “But my mother didn’t allow me to have my food without washing hands.”

The impact of our work is such that through just one programme of e-learning we’ve reached out to 1.9 million children.

Kamal Sanghvi, Committee Chair, thanked all the “unique angels of giving” to enable Rotary to achieve major milestones in both literacy and WinS. His involvement in the planning and execution of this conference had been a “life-changing” experience for him.

Ramesh Chander, Chairman, and Anil Agarwal, Co-chair of the Literacy Heroes Awards Committee, traced the journey of the nominations and final selection.

On Jan 26, a Facebook page was created and the Committee formed and the cause promoted on social media platforms such as a website, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. Advertisements in print and electronic media invited prospective ‘heroes’ to apply. There were some anxious moments as the momentum took a little time to build up. The last day was Feb 21, but till Feb 18 only 13 applications had been received. But by Feb 21, the number swelled to 82, bringing smiles all around.

On Feb 22, the Jury, led by Justice M N Venkatachaliah, Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice, and including PRID Sudarshan Agarwal, Former Governor of Uttarakhand and Sikkim, K N ­Memani, Former CEO, Ernst and Young, Dr Kavita Sharma, VC, SAARC University, Prof Shantha Sinha, Magsaysay award winner and Radhey Shyam Agarwal, noted industrialist, met in Delhi and selected five literacy heroes.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

 Literacy Heroes

West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi honouring 'Literacy Hero' Armene Modi as PRIP Rajendra K Saboo looks on.
West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi honouring ‘Literacy Hero’ Armene Modi as PRIP Rajendra K Saboo looks on.

Arman Ali, Executive Director of the Sishu Sarothi, a centre in Guwahati, which looks after the rehabilitation, training and legal rights of children with special needs, has played a pivotal role in ensuring better education for special needs children through the Centre for Special Education. Accepting the award — a citation and cheque for Rs 1 lakh — he said he was both “humbled and honoured by this award, which will help people with multiple disabilities, less than one per cent of whom get meaningful employment.”

Armene Modi, a teacher from Japan who founded the Ashta No Kai (For a better tomorrow, in Japanese) Foundation in Maharashtra, was another Literacy hero. She gave up her teaching career in Japan to return home after stumbling upon India’s 1991 Census that 61 per cent of Indian women were illiterate. This initiative started when she saw in Maharastra villages “many young girls with mangalasutras around their necks, and wondered what is happening.” By bestowing this award on a “small initiative working in 10 villages in rural Maharashtra” Rotary had recognised the empowerment of rural women and girls through literacy and education. “Issues of illiteracy, poverty and gender ­discrimination are not the problems of the poor and the marginalised alone; they concern all of us,” Armene said, quoting Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on the importance of awakening a woman. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the nation moves.

Dorothy Fernandez, a teacher by profession, working for 19 years for the empowerment of the girl child from underprivileged families in Goa, was another recipient. She works with children of rickshaw pullers, street vendors, domestic help and construction workers and has set up six learning centres for their education in association with Unicef. She also works on the education of the children of unorganised sector workers and homeless communities across 25 villages of Bihar. “When I saw young people loitering around not knowing to read and write, I felt very sad. Today many of these children are empowered and contribute to the income of their families after education.”

The Friends of Tribals Society found that running full-fledged schools in a tribal area was almost impossible. So its founder designed a new concept, Ekal Vidyalaya or one-teacher schools. This kicked off in 60 areas in Jharkhand as a pilot project; today this Rotary Literacy Hero operates over 53,000 schools, educating 9 lakh children across the country. They have taken education to remote and rural corners of India, and managed to attract passionate and dedicated teachers who give their best to the children despite modest salaries.

Wizdoms Global Library, which has developed 900 libraries and donated 2.5 lakh books benefitting 12 lakh students in rural areas, was another literacy hero. Conceptualised in 2007 by Lt Cdr Vikram B Naik (Retd), it works on the concept of libraries going to people instead of people going to libraries. After setting up these libraries in States such as Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, they now want to create digital course material for underprivileged.

While these heroes were selected out of 82 applications, Larzy Verghese,
a teacher from Mumbai, who did not hesitate to sell her house and land to start a school in a slum area, was the winner in the people’s choice award, which was decided through online votes. “In 2004, when I saw the slum which had no roads, no facilities, and no food, with lots of children wandering here and there, I wanted to do something for the kids. I thought what is the use of my education if I can’t do anything for them, and set up this school.” She got 36,000 votes.

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