Where schoolchildren no longer sit on floor

It is not Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai, but just the small town of Sonkatch in a relatively underdeveloped State of Madhya Pradesh with a population of barely 20,000. It is only a tehsil and not a district headquarter. A small but extremely vibrant Rotary Club of Sonkatch (D 3040), with just 40 members, has supplied furniture — welded benches and desks — to a whopping number of 1,000 schools in the region. The total furniture project cost — ₹3 crore!

3-girls-books

“You go to any school in this region and its surroundings and the chances are that the furniture has been given by Rotary,” says PDG S N Lathi, a member of this club.

Both he and Dr Zamin Hussain, the present DG, give me a touching and ceremonial welcome in the tiny place, about 75 km from Indore, and we set off to see the school furniture. Our first stop is the government higher secondary school in Sonkatch, where over 1,000 students, both boys and girls, study.

The children immediately recognise the Rotarians, and greet us with huge smiles. I interact with the boys and girls from Classes 7 and 8 and their dreams are the same as those of children of their age anywhere in India… to become teachers, doctors, engineers. An odd girl wants to become a fauji (soldier), another a pilot and so on.

Rotarians from D 1880, Germany, laying the foundation stone for a toilet block in Chayanmaina village. DG Zamin Hussain (fourth from left) is also in the picture.
Rotarians from D 1880, Germany, laying the foundation stone for a toilet block in Chayanmaina village. DG Zamin Hussain (fourth from left) is also in the picture.

Dr Hussain says proudly, “I studied in this school from Class 6 to 11. In those days everybody studied in government schools… the children of top officers, politicians, businessmen and ordinary people. I must say I got very good education.” That he became a doctor after that, is testimonial enough.

Former president of the club, Sowbhag Singh Thakur, recalls a touching story in one particular school where they had given the first set of furniture. “Initially the benches could not accommodate all the children. So to sit on a bench, the children used to come to school much earlier… as early as 6.30 a m for classes that begin at 7.30 a m!”

The furniture here has been given in 2012–13. So what difference has this Rotary project made, I ask the class teacher Mahesh Samaria. “A very big difference,” he says. “Earlier the children found it very laborious to sit on the ground and take down their notes. Now they don’t feel so tired and are very comfortable.”

In many schools, the Rotarians have also put up water tanks and the one I see in a school looks almost new, even though it was put up in 2002.

Dinesh Rathore, an RCC member and photographer, in front of a Rotary toilet.
Dinesh Rathore, an RCC member and photographer, in front of a Rotary toilet.

So what more do they want from Rotary? Pat comes the answer from the teacher: “We need a water cooler; actually two. We have a borewell and a water tank and good water supply, but in summer the water is so hot. Water coolers will make the children very happy.”

At the next school too, which is an all-girls school, the same request comes for water coolers. In this school there are 800 girls and DG Hussain says that Rotarians have distributed sanitary napkins and have also put up vending machines where a sanitary pad is dispensed at ₹5 a piece. Incinerators have also been provided for hygienic disposal of soiled napkins.

It feels really great to learn from Anil Tiwari, a class teacher, that though the girls come from disadvantaged families, many of them go for higher education. “They really work hard and we get 70 to 80 per cent pass in higher secondary exams. From that group, about 60 per cent go to college, while around 40 per cent get married as this is a semi-rural area and the parents are always in a hurry.” He proudly talks about one student who went to IIT Kharagpur and got a ₹15 lakh annual package.

In one school, the furniture we gave could not accommodate all the children. So to sit on a bench, the children used to come to school much earlier… as early as 6.30 a m for classes that begin at 7.30 a m.
– Sowbhag Singh Thakur, Past President, RC Sonkatch

As we drive on to other places, a wall poster catches the eye: Beti hei toh kal hei. (Your tomorrow depends on girls.) Who can deny that?

So what is the secret behind a small club with barely 40 members in a semi-rural part of India doing not only a financially impressive, but also a sustainable project, long before TRF started using the sustainability mantra, I ask DG Hussain. “Ma’am it is very simple,” he responds. “First of all, there is no politics in our club. And we always keep our partners fully informed about the project and how their money is being spent by giving them prompt and detailed accounts. We invite them to come and see for themselves how judiciously we have used their money. Actually, we often send them the list of schools where we have put up furniture, and ask them to choose which school they would like to visit, so there is transparency.”

The club has done several TRF matching grants and is now executing a global grant. He himself joined the club in 1988 and was its president for two consecutive years (1998–2000).

Rtn Dave Diffendal from RC Cleveland, USA, when he visited the computer training centre at Chayanmaina village.
Rtn Dave Diffendal from RC Cleveland, USA, when he visited the computer training centre at Chayanmaina village.

But surely this is not common, and is it allowed? “Generally it is not allowed, but it was in that year, because I had started many projects and my club members insisted that I should continue.”

On how the furniture project started, Hussain says, “About 20 years ago, our club decided that since most of the government schools don’t have furniture (desks and benches), the children sat on the floor and got two major health problems. One, they had to bend down to write and that bent their spines; and two, the distance between the eye and the book, which should be about 25 cm, could not be maintained and that put a lot of pressure on their eyes and was bound to affect their vision.”

Asked why his Rotary club doesn’t give benches and desks made from wood or other material, rather than steel, and that too in sets which are welded together, he says that is for durability. Each set costs ₹2,000; “we have got a very good vendor and have bargained hard with him to maintain this price and he obliges because he knows the furniture is for the children from government schools.”

DG Zamin Hussain, his spouse Rashida and PDG S N Lathi with Rotarians of RC Sonkatch at a beneficiary school site.
DG Zamin Hussain, his spouse Rashida and PDG S N Lathi with Rotarians of RC Sonkatch at a beneficiary school site.

And there is a good reason for welding the benches to the desks; “we make it into one unit because very often for school or even government events, they take away the benches or chairs, and who knows if they would come back or not! This unit is so big that nobody will carry it! And it is also too heavy for children to move or throw it around.”

I note that care is taken to ensure that the welding is done smoothly and there are no rough edges or sharp corners that would hurt the children. In one school I see benches that date back to 1999–2000 and they are in good shape; the inscription is intact and says the project was done with a TRF grant, jointly with RC Cleveland, D 6630, US; RC Milano, D 2040, Italy; and RC Sonkatch, D 3040.

The governor explains that actually their club was earlier doing several “very small projects and we were not aware of the matching grants available from TRF for a couple of years. We got our first grant in 1978 when we made furniture for a balwadi.”

The Sonkatch block is totally saturated, and we’re now giving furniture to other schools in Madhya Pradesh through other Rotary clubs. This is our signature project and in this area Rotary is known for its school furniture.
– DG Zamin Hussain

The project picked up steam from 1998 and till date these Rotarians have reached out to 1,000 schools with different grants and the project cost has crossed ₹3 crore. Hussain adds, “We have done over 20 grants, and one global grant of ₹40 lakh is currently on.” Interestingly, so earnestly have these Rotarians been working that the “Sonkatch block is totally saturated, and we are now providing furniture to other schools in Madhya Pradesh through other Rotary clubs. This is our signature project and in this area Rotary is known for its school furniture.”

Now, he adds, if any club in D 3040 wants to give furniture to a school, “we tell them you contribute only ₹25,000 to TRF and we will give the furniture free of cost to that school.”

Another reason why this project is continuing and has gathered strength is that “our partners have a lot of faith in us because we constantly share information and accounts with them on the progress of the project and how the money was spent. There is transparency, accountability and credibility, and when our foreign partners, be it from Italy, US, or Germany — the present RI Director Peter Iblher from the Rotary Club of Nürnberg-Reichswald, Germany, has also visited a project — come, we make them inaugurate the project, give them a great reception with garlands, rose petals, drums etc. They see what has been done and report to their partners,” says the DG.

water

PDG Lathi recalls that once when a Rotarian from Italy came to see their furniture project “we gave him such a royal and colourful welcome with a safa, garlands, etc, that when he described it to his club members they wouldn’t believe him. So next time he came with 20 of them and we gave them the same welcome. They were thrilled and became our permanent partners.”

We next drive to the village Chayanmaina, which these Rotarians have virtually adopted and transformed with help from enthusiastic members of the RCC (Rotary Community Corps) such as Dinesh Rathore, all of 30, who goes into raptures when he talks about Rotary. The young man runs a computer coaching centre, and doubles up as a photographer at Rotary events, by which he makes his livelihood.

Lathi points to at least three schools on the route that have “Rotary furniture. In the interior parts of this block, jaha government school hei waha Rotary zinda hei (where there is a government school, Rotary is alive there). From Sonkatch to Chayanmaina village, you will find five schools with our furniture. Even smaller places with 20 to 50 families where there are schools, we have given furniture as we don’t want any child to sit on the floor in school,” he says proudly.

In 1998, through a TRF project, when we gave the children new uniforms, the mother of one child had tears in her eyes and told us: My child has worn new clothes for the first time in his life.
– PDG S N Lathi

Hussain adds, “The district (Dewas) education officer has told all the schools to apply to our Rotary club for furniture.” Lathi adds, “Locals politicians, even MPs and MLAs, call us to say: We’ve made the announcement that Rotary will provide the school furniture so please send so many sets to such and such school!”

Hussain recalls that when he was president in 1998, TRF had announced a Children’s Opportunity Grant, and applications were invited from clubs. “Ours was the only club in the district to send the application promptly and we sought funds to provide books and uniforms to 1,200 students. But we negotiated with the vendor and told him bluntly that nobody needs any commission but give us a good price; we managed to accommodate 2,100 children!”

Lathi says he vividly remembers that particular project because “there are lots of adivasis (tribals) in this area. And in Bagli, about 60 km from here, when we gave the children new uniforms, the mother of one child had tears in her eyes and told us: My child has worn new clothes for the first time in his life.”

At Chayanmaina, the Rotarians once again get a warm welcome. They have been working here since the 1990s; in this area, says Hussain, “under the 3H grant, we did 200 toilets. The GoI is now talking about the need for toilets but long ago we ensured that in this village every home has a toilet. And each one is a Rotary toilet, complete with the wheel!”

classroom

It is a typical Indian village with a population of barely 2,000; the streets are narrow and dusty and our SUV struggles to negotiate them. An elderly man is having a siesta on the khatiya under a tree; cow dung cakes are drying, a tractor is parked a little distance from the school and along with a couple of motorised two wheelers, makes up the vehicle count of the village. “This is the real India and where Rotary is needed the most,” says Lathi.

The homes are part thatch and part concrete, but each of them has a toilet. Dinesh Rathore points to the Rotary wheel that is inbuilt into every toilet, and Lathi says, “We made 180 toilets in 2011, and each one cost us around ₹16,000 in those days.”

In this village we visit the Government Middle School which has 110 children. Durga Varma, the daughter of a doctor, and her friends Ranjana and Sakshi all want to become teachers. Their classmate in Class 8, Harshvardhan, wants to become an engineer, but Aayush, the son of a teacher, wants to become a policeman. Medha and Nisha both want to become doctors, and Rupali wants to join the army. It comes as a pleasant surprise to find the girls saying firmly that all of them want to go to college and complete their higher education and that they will not allow their families to force them into an early marriage!

When asked what more do they want from Rotary, class teacher Nandalal Rathore says; “a projector. I have a laptop and I want to show the children so many interesting things from the Internet.”

The final word has to go to DG Hussain. Seeing his passion and focus on the projects he has been doing for Rotary through his club, I wonder aloud how a doctor like him finds the time to do all this. Scratching his head, he smiles, “Good question. I often ask myself that… I suppose it is the passion that Rotary infuses in you.”

He adds candidly: “Election is the biggest project in our district.” So how did he get elected? “I was very candid and said mei daru nahi pilaoonga (I will not bribe you with liquor); if you think I am capable and worthy of your trust, elect me or else I don’t want to become your leader.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

A school sans electricity

I am both saddened and shocked to know that the government middle school in Chayanmaina village, about 100-odd km from Indore, has no electricity. One of the teachers, Nandalal Rathore, says he would love to ask Rotarians from RC Sonkatch to give them computers. “I am sure they will accept our request, but then since we don’t have power supply, we won’t be able to use Internet. As I have a laptop, I charge it at home and give the students some idea of the wonders that exist on the Internet.”

That this school has no electricity is surprising given that Rotary has virtually adopted the village and built toilets in every home. All the children nod their heads in affirmation when asked about electricity in their homes.

This is strange; how can all homes in the village have electricity and not a government school? Answers PDG Lathi, “Bill ka chakkar hei… who will pay the electricity charges.” To my question why RC Sonkatch can’t do this, DG Zamin Hussain, a member of this club, says that already several Rotary clubs in the district do pay the electricity bills of several schools. “If the school gets a pass percentage of 60 to 70 per cent, our club can think of doing this as an incentive,” he agrees.

Also, he adds, “There are so many such schools without electricity in our district. I have some donors, and will ask them if they can pay the electricity bills. For each school, the amount will be only around ₹500.”

But how do the children manage to sit inside the scorching room in the summer, because the classrooms have fans but without a power connection, they are useless, I ask. “We go out and sit in the open for our lessons,” says Durga, a Class 8 student. But then that means back to the floor once again, despite the “school furniture” given by Rotary! And that is such a pity!

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