Rotary in a mission mode

(From left) RI President John Germ, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar and TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee.
(From left) RI President John Germ, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar and TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee.

Rotary is an organisation that is in a “mission mode” and today India needs organisations in a mission mode. “It is a disciplined organisation with a pool of talented and dedicated people. For 110 years you’ve continued your legacy of service and have become a symbol of service in society the world over. The polio drive is a special feather in Rotary’s cap, particularly in India, where we have eradicated polio and we all acknowledge the lead role you played in ridding India of polio.”

HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, who was the chief guest, at the South Asia Literacy Summit organised in Chennai by the Rotary India Literacy Mission (RILM) said right from his college days he had attended various Rotary functions “because of my friend Pramod Jejurikar; we joined the Bank of Maharashtra together and left it together too. In between we did many things there apart from banking!”

Today Rotary had taken on the challenge of ridding India of illiteracy and the Government of India looked upon Rotary as an important partner in this mission. India had only 17 per cent literacy when it became independent 70 years ago. “Today the literacy rate is over 75 per cent and that is a big stride we’ve taken. The British never wanted India to be literate. They only wanted babus to be created through their education system, therefore from Lokmanya Tilak to Gandhiji, all the senior leaders started the national education movement, along with the swarajya movement”, he said.

Dreams are not what we get when we go to sleep; dreams happen when we are awake. In Rotary, real dreams are the vision and imagination we have when fully awake and we work to make them come true.
– TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee

But thanks to the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan launched by A B Vajpayee when he was Prime Minister and the Right to Education introduced in 2006, today we have 98 per cent enrolment of children in the age group 6 to 14 in our schools, which is a remarkable achievement. “Now the thirst is for quality ­education. But the Government cannot do everything, society has to partner with us and I consider Rotary one of the best partners. With Rotary, and other voluntary organisations, we have to bring everybody in the education system because only that can give an individual real freedom; education is emancipation.”

But such literacy or education should also include digital, financial and democratic literacy. While we had 270 million people who were illiterate, India also had 270 million youngsters in educational institutions… “from KG to PG. If each of these can teach one illiterate person, in the next 3, 4 or at least 5 years, we can make India totally literate,” added Javadekar.

The Minister said one major mistake India had made after Independence was not to involve the community in the task of educating its people. He recalled that in 1970, when as a college student he went to some tribal villages in Goa for some survey, in one village, the “villagers asked me if I could be the teacher in that village, because they had no school. I asked them if I come, what facilities will you give me. They said we have one house where you can run the school and another where you can stay. So the community was ready to do everything to educate their children and incur all kinds of expenditure involved. But this social participation was erased when government entered the field of education and said that we will do everything.” And from a participating society we became “a complaining society”!


War against illiteracy

“Where else will you find nearly 2,500 volunteers assembled for three days for a war against illiteracy? And they have come from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” said RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta, addressing the three-day summit, “these summits fill us with vigour, energy and new hope.”

Giving an overview of RILM’s TEACH (Teacher Training; E-learning, Adult Literacy, Child Development and Happy Schools) programme, he said it has now grown exponentially. Against a target of training 5,000 teachers, over 20,000 had been trained; in E-learning, the flight path was even higher. “In Gujarat, 25,000 schools were being set up, of which 10,000 were already functional, and at the summit, an MoU was being signed with the Maharashtra Government to set up 36,000 E-learning centres on a 50:50 partnership basis. These two programmes alone will impact 3 million children and the value of the project is Rs 60 crore.”

MoUs galore

Other MoUs to be signed at the meet were with Nandan Nilekani’s EkStep, UNESCO, British Council etc. “And we’re soon coming out with an app Learn English easily. This year thousands of adults will be made literate under our programme,” he said. An MoU with the Loomba Foundation of UK, worth Rs 5 crore, was being signed to skill 30,000 widows in 30 States of India. This programme was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi, where 5,000 widows are being trained.” Another MoU with Labour Net, a leading skill development company, would do more than just skilling people. “We’ve been assured by them that 90 per cent of the trained people will either get employed or be able to start their own ventures,” Mehta said.

India has Rotary that is growing stronger and more active with each passing year; a Rotary that says it is dedicated to moving this country forward, that took on the challenge of eradicating polio.
– R I President John Germ

Under the Asha Kiran programme, 45,000 children had been sent to 373 Asha Kiran centres run across the country. “Not only do we teach many such children in brick kilns but they have come from Bihar to West Bengal and when they get back to Bihar we are tracking them to ensure that they get back into schools. And 40–50 per cent of these children do get back to schools”.

Mehta said RILM had managed to forge partnerships in many States and by the year end, it hoped to have a presence in every State of India.

On the Happy Schools front too “outstanding work has been done by Rotarians and Inner Wheel members. Last month I inaugurated eight happy schools and felt exhilarated to see the happy smiles on the children’s faces. They were getting footwear for the first time as well as sports equipment, apart from books and stationery. We did 1,500 Happy Schools last year and a path breaking MoU being signed with the CII’s Sports Committee will ensure that we bring sporting facilities to 50,000 schools.”

On International Literacy Day, HRD Minister Javadekar had launched the programme for RILM setting up 5,000 libraries. “We had said we’ll do it in five years but with 1,600 libraries already done, now it looks like it will be done in two years. We’ve also signed another MoU with an NGO to set up 10,000 libraries. They have collected 350,000 books and are helping us set up libraries.”

From left: Summit Secretary A S Venkatesh, Judy Germ, RI President John Germ, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar and TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee, RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta, Rashi Mehta, Marlene Kamdar, Summit Chair J B Kamdar and Sharmishtha Desai.
From left: Summit Secretary A S Venkatesh, Judy Germ, RI President John Germ, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar and TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee, RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta, Rashi Mehta, Marlene Kamdar, Summit Chair J B Kamdar and Sharmishtha Desai.

Virtual eye for blind students

Mehta said that along with the Triumph Foundation of RC Thane Hills, “we are providing ‘virtual eye’ or non-braille computers for blind students in all the 410 schools for the blind in India. PRID Ashok Mahajan took only one minute to say okay, I will underwrite the sponsorship of this programme. The cost: Rs 8 crore, or over $1 million, but he did it.”

All this work was possible, he added, because “we have given a new dimension to the PPP model and this project has now become a passion of Rotarians and hence the progress.”

However, the time had now come for consolidation. Till now isolated projects — some making Happy Schools, others setting up E-learning centres, and so on — were being done. But now it was time to take a holistic approach to create a bigger impact. “Let us do two or three projects at one place — make one Happy School, train teachers, put E-learning facilities there and if you could add the fourth element of sending all the children of the area into those schools, it would be wonderful integration. And we’ll salute the clubs who can add the fifth dimension — using the same school in the evening for adult literacy.”

The British never wanted India to be literate. They only wanted babus to be created through their education system.
– HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar

If Rotarians could create 50 such islands of excellence in India, it would be a model that could attract corporates and NGOs as partners. If TEACH was doing well, it was thanks to the hard work and dedication of all DGs and District Literacy chairs, he acknowledged.

Right leadership

Addressing the inaugural session, RI President John Germ, who sat through the entire three-day event, said that through this mega project, Indian Rotarians had shown that “you are the kind of leaders we need in India”. Education was an important component among the six focus areas of Rotary. “We have found by experience that the kind of work we do in Rotary is the kind that needs to be done around the world. Rotary, by promoting peace, fighting disease, providing water and sanitation, hygiene, saving mothers and children, growing local economies and supporting education, was making an incredible difference in people’s lives.”

Education was the most powerful tool to fight illiteracy. “If you can’t read, can’t do basic math, there is no way to move forward. You can’t make financial decisions if you don’t understand numbers, and you can be exploited. But education gives you a stepping stone… more control over your environment and your entire life.” Literacy can make a positive impact that extends far beyond an individual and helps raise more financially stable and secure families, he added.


Maintaining that entire societies benefit from education, Germ said the power of education was so great that for every added year of education the per capita GNP (Gross National Product) goes up by a median of 18 per cent. “What an astonishing number and what a great investment.”

Unfortunately, there were too many illiterate people across the world; over 775 million people over the age of 15 are illiterate. “That is 17 per cent of the world’s adult population. It is estimated that 250 million children in the world cannot read, write or do basic math and of these, 130 million have attended school! Rotary focuses so much on literacy because it is the first step to remove poverty.”

For every added year of education the per capita GNP (Gross National Product) goes up by a median of 18 per cent. What an astonishing number!
– R I President John Germ

He reminded Rotarians that “it is our job to give children tools to learn by supporting schools. It is also our job to understand the obstacles that prevent them from doing so and remove them.” These include building separate toilets for boys and girls in schools so that girls can also continue their education; providing clean drinking water, sanitation, uniforms, books, pencils and so on. “Sometimes the barriers that prevent children from attending school appear simple but to many families they are insurmountable. Literacy is a Rotary priority across the world, including in my home State of Tennessee.” Here Rotary has forged a partnership through which hard bound books are given to children under five.

Germ said that India does face tremendous challenges and achieving the goal of universal literacy was one of them. “But India has Rotary that is growing stronger and more active with each passing year. India has a Rotary that says it is dedicated to moving this country forward. It has a Rotary that took on the challenge of eradicating polio, something that so many people said can’t be done. It has a Rotary that looks at India’s challenges and says, “I think I can”, just like the little blue engine in one of the books they had distributed to children in his home State. While all the bigger and more powerful engines balked at taking a big train across the top of a mountain, the little blue engine said: ‘I think I can’, and slowly but surely achieved the feat.

Similarly, Rotary can look at the huge challenge of illiteracy in India, say ‘I think I can’, and one day, it will look at universal literacy and say ‘we knew we could’!”

Stupendous efforts

Addressing the inaugural session TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee said that thanks to the “stupendous efforts of over 15 lakh plus Rotarians, our ladies of Inner wheel, our youth wings — the Rotaract and Interact”, everything is being done to achieve the goal of total literacy. The RILM team, led by Shekhar Mehta, was guiding clubs and its partners, tying up with the Government and other high profile NGOs such as UNESCO.


“So when I asked Shekhar what am I doing here, he said well, Kalyanda, it was you as Rotary’s world President in 2011–12, who first mooted the idea of making India, indeed, all of South Asia, literate, and you set up the Committee and the structure to take it forward. I am only caretaking this literacy enterprise. I told him at RI, we are all caretakers.”

Usually, an office is held for a year, and the baton passed over at the end of it. “Our Foundation, which was started 100 years ago, has been working with WHO, the Gates Foundation and the Governments to free the world of the dreaded polio and we are almost there.” It provides scholarships to hundreds of students every year to study the nuances of peace keeping and peace making. Among its many areas of focus, literacy is one, and “we believe that a more literate world will be more healthy, peaceful, prosperous and safe. Thanks to our record performance, we are rated as one of the best Foundations in the world today.” And all this is done through grants for projects, with about $300 million, collected and donated by Rotarians annually.

He had been told by Mehta that thanks to the Foundation’s support, the literacy programme is doing so well in India. The second highest number of grants that Rotary Foundation gives to RI districts and clubs, after grants for health projects, comes to literacy nowadays. The work being done by the clubs through this money is tremendous, Banerjee said.


And now Indian corporates, wishing to meet their mandatory CSR requirements, are joining hands and are giving term gifts through Rotary and partnering its literacy projects. “This is sweeping our country, all States, all corners, including Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East States like Tripura and Manipur.” E-learning projects were catching up everywhere and Gujarat and Maharashtra in particular, were putting up thousands of E-learning centres. Apart from separate toilets for girls and handwashing stations in schools, “just 25 km into villages from Chennai, thanks to Rotary, every single home in the village is putting up toilets with water arrangements. It’s spreading like a small tsunami.”

When he was told all this by Mehta, “I cautioned him to ensure there are enough teachers in village schools”, with none of them subletting their Rs 25,000 a month job to unqualified persons for Rs 6,000 or so and engaging in other activities as he had seen happening in Himachal Pradesh.

Anyway, the RILM Chair was optimistic that by June 2017, India’s literacy rate could go up to 80–85 per cent. The dream of course was for total literacy, but “then dreams are not what we get when we go to sleep at night, a dream is what happens when we are awake. In Rotary, real dreams are the vision and imagination that we have when we are fully awake and work to make them come true.”

Welcoming the delegates, RI Director Manoj Desai recalled how “we began our literacy journey in Sri Lanka when TRF Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee conceptualised this project, and then we went to Nepal, Hyderabad, Delhi, Pune, Kolkata and now the Literacy Summit has come to Chennai.” The passion and devotion with which Rotarians were working on TEACH ensured that “we will win this battle against illiteracy”.

Conference Chair J B Kamdar thanked his team for helping him put together this mega event which had attracted 2,450 delegates from several countries. It was one of the biggest events to be held in not only Chennai but also Tamil Nadu. “I agreed to be the Chair because Shekhar (Mehta) tactfully underplayed the immensity of organising such a summit, where a micro picture would be given over three days about the kind of work done by Rotary to promote literacy through cooperation with the Government and partnerships with both corporates and NGOs.”

Pictures by Vishwanathan K

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