Be it at their PT sessions, dressed in bright coloured T-shirts and shorts, the dining hall offering prayers with bowed heads, on the basketball field at their spacious 10-acre lush green campus, or asking me how to become a good journalist, the girls at Him Jyoti School in Dehradun will remain in my memory for a long time.
Sandhya Rai, who with her mellifluous voice can enthral an entire Assembly, is an orphan from Sikkim, and hails from a poor family, as almost all the 267 students selected from government schools in Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttarakhand. From Class 5 to 12, their education and residence is borne by the Him Jyoti Foundation, a charitable trust born in 2003, thanks to one man’s dream. Many get scholarships for higher education.
A train journey
Recalling that dream, PRID Sudarshan Agarwal, a former Governor of Uttarakhand, says a discussion with his five Rotary companions on the train he took for his oath ceremony resulted in a corpus of Rs 11 lakh by lunchtime at Raj Bhavan, with his personal contribution being one lakh rupees. “Thereafter I wrote to other friends and corporates; money started pouring in. Over two years, 100 students were receiving Rs 25,000 a year for their courses.”
In 2005, the late PRID O P Vaish suggested they start a school for underprivileged girls and contributed Rs 5 lakh, and Him Jyoti School was born in a rented building with 20 girls.
With the Governor telling the State Chief Minister about the school for girls, a 10-acre land-fill was allotted.
Seeing its perfectly manicured and landscaped greenery, it’s difficult to believe this place was once a mere garbage dump where truckloads of cow dung were required to grow trees. PDG of District 3080 Prem Bhalla, Treasurer-cum-Trustee, recalls how parents were initially suspicious of sending their girls to this school. But within a decade, after three batches have passed out, with five girls studying in LSR College in Delhi, several pursuing professional courses in medicine, dentistry, engineering, education, Chinese language etc, the scenario has changed. “Now there is competition to enter Him Jyoti; we select 300 best girls from Government schools in Uttarakhand and take 33 each year after written tests; two seats are reserved for Sikkim,” says Bhalla.
Interacting with the girls, hearing their chatter and response in perfect English, it is difficult to believe that when they come here in Class V they speak only Garhwali and Kumaoni, and barely some Hindi. The quality of education imparted by the Principal Jyothi Dhawan, an accomplished educator in both national and international curricula, and her team is so good that most of the girls go for higher education. The handholding continues; the Foundation supports the higher education of 52 girls, with an annual stipend of Rs 25,000–30,000.
I watch two short plays — including Sai Paranjpye’s Birds of a feather which the girls re-enact so lovingly for me and am amazed at the talent pool. The girls speak English with a clipped accent; Jyoti says with a smile: “Recently our team defeated the Doon School team in a debating competition.”
But challenges abound in ensuring that the girls who receive such a quality education go through their high school exams comfortably, and then proceed to colleges. Jyoti recalls how many girls facing board exams are reluctant to go home for winter breaks. “They say we have to help our mothers and don’t get time to prepare for our exams. So we counsel parents that a 5-hour daily break and a secure place to study are essential.”
Though the parents understand this and give them the required time, what the girls cannot be assured is a similar quality of lifestyle — comfortable accommodation and nutritious food. And so many girls return from their summer and winter breaks with pinched cheeks and tanned faces.
Isn’t there another danger of the girls turning up their noses at their parents after their transformation into polished, accomplished young ladies?
Jyoti says girls are constantly counselled by their teachers to be grateful to their parents for allowing them to study at Him Jyoti. And Agarwal administers annual oaths to parents that “hum apni betiyon ki shadi abhi nahi karengey, hum unhey aagey padhney dengey.”(We’ll not get our daughters married now. We’ll let them study further).” And parents willingly take that oath.
A chat with them confirms they haven’t forgotten their roots. Gulshan Jehan — there are eight Muslims girls in the 267 group — daughter of a labourer earning barely Rs 3,000 a month, wants to be a doctor. Joshila Rai, from Sikkim, whose father has a small farm, wants to be a civil engineer. Others want to be teachers, pilots, musicians, journalists. No dream is too big for them.
But all of them say in unison that when they go home they are very happy to help their mothers — in cooking, fetching firewood or water and tending to their younger siblings. Joshila’s priority after getting a good job will be “first of all to fulfil my mother’s dreams; she has had a very tough life.”
But one major problem in the hills, points out Bhalla, is alcoholism. Jyoti quietly adds that only the other day one of the senior girl’s father came “completely sloshed and she was sobbing and said, ‘I don’t want to go home with him.’ So we told him she couldn’t leave that day as she had some lessons to complete and asked him to send his wife the next day to fetch her.”
The school is environmentally friendly; solar power panels provide 4,800 litres of heated water and water harvesting is done religiously.
Agarwal’s term as Governor has long ended but he continues to visit the school; a stickler for cleanliness Jyoti recalls the time the 83-year old founder picked up a cleaning cloth and demonstrated to the kitchen staff how to clean the walls!
Funds pour in
Agarwal says Rs 1.75 crore is annually spent on running the school; many donors sponsor the girls’ education at Rs 60,000 per student a year. The Foundation now has a corpus of Rs 16 crore; “ONGC, the Uttarakhand government and Dr Sitaram Jindal, a friend, have contributed Rs 2 crore each. We’ve spent Rs 8.5 crore on the school buildings — classrooms, hostel, teachers’ quarters, a guest house and principal’s residence.”
Currently all the students are being supported by Indian corporates, Trusts and individuals. ONGC sponsors 50 girls, and Apollo Tyres has undertaken to sponsor another 50; CR Dua (20), The Rotary Foundation Trustee and PRID Sushil Gupta (12) and Agarwal’s family (10) are other
sponsors. “The Rotary Foundation gave us Rs 60 lakh under two Matching Grants for the school and hostel furniture, computers, etc,” he says. While the Sikkim Government has donated Rs 40 lakh, Agarwal has raised another Rs 50 lakh through a golf tournament while he was Governor and his family has committed an additional Rs 50 lakh. Other notable donors are K N Memani, Virendra Dayal’s family trust, R N Khanna and Rakesh Oberoi. “Now, as we have a corpus fund, we want support for the vocational training institute which we are building to train 125 girls every year in a two-year course. It will be ready by 2015,” says Agarwal.
A valuable lesson to be learnt for those interested in charity is that on his 80th birthday, on an appeal from his family printed on the card, his friends donated Rs 55.7 lakh for the school.
A Rotarian from 1961, Agarwal was RI Director in 1987–89; “Rotary has helped me to give expression to my inner urge to serve fellow human beings,” he says.
Today, Agarwal, who is giving a dream future to hundreds of underprivileged girls of Uttarakhand is justifiably proud that he “has made some contribution to repay my debt to the community which gave me so much honour and respect all through my life. I imbibed values of honesty and compassion from my mother who gave me invaluable advice when I became a judicial officer in 1956 — to treat wealth as no more than mere dust; and to always help the poor.”
Pictures: Rasheeda Bhagat