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Friends unite to educate girls

Nov 09, 2011

An educational trust founded by nine friends who graduated from a leading Indian institute in 1969 helps in providing free education and vocational training to over a hundred girls by sponsoring three Rajasthan-based schools.

Delhi:  Once upon a time – yes, this is one of those stories – nine teenage boys enrolled in an engineering college. This was the 1960s and all of them had big dreams. Bheem Raj Bhati and Ashok Sureka came from Jaipur, Manohar Baheti was from Indore; from faraway Patna came Om Gupta; young Percy Batlivala came from Kanpur, while Naveen Kapur, Pradeep Kashyap and K. Darshan Singh came from Delhi.

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The Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), tucked away in the small desert town of Pilani in Rajasthan, was where they all first met. A world class educational institution, some crazy pranks and lab experiments, walks to Panditji’s ‘dhaba’ outside the college gate for some finger-licking non-vegetarian fare (the college mess only served ‘veg’!) and late-night cramming of voluminous text books – these are the things that brought them together and forged lasting friendships.

Five memorable years later, the engineers parted ways. Some went off to foreign shores; some back to their family businesses; some to a Master’s degree in India. Today, over four decades later, these ‘boys’ are officially senior citizens and each one has achieved what he had set out to do. Bhati, Sureka, Baheti, Kapur, Singh and Gupta – they are successful entrepreneurs; Batlivala, a PhD scholar, who worked in the US and then in India with Motorola and retired as Director of Motorola India, is a top consultant today, while Kashyap is better known as the father of rural marketing in India. An inspirational story so far, the perfect example of the significance of quality education.

Okay, now meet another group of ‘pucca’ (permanent) friends – Monica Saini, Megha Mahawar, Preeti Mahawar, Poonam Chawla, Cheena Verma, Payal Mahawar and Suman Dhanka. These 10-year-old girls are classmates at the Vimukti Girls School in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s state capital. The dream of studying in a proper classroom, the passion to become something in life and the Pogo channel – that’s what binds these bright and talkative Class Four girls.

The Trust became operational in 2007. Funds are collected yearly by motivating batchmates to support three Rajasthan-based schools – the government school in Devli and Jaipur-based Vimukti Girls School and Pratham Shiksha.

Wondering what connects the ‘old boys’ with these children of domestic workers and daily wage labourers? It’s the BITS69 Educational Trust that these nine BITSians have been instrumental in setting up. The Trust, one of the major funders of the Vimukti Girls School, is the reason these girls are able to go to a school. For it enables Vimukti to provide them with free education, uniforms, transport, as well as a modest snack.

The genesis of the Educational Trust lies in deep-rooted friendships and the desire to make a difference. Shares Batlivala, the founding trustee, “We graduated in 1969 after which all 300 of us went our separate ways. However, there were a few of us who wanted to regroup the ’69 batch. Fellow trustees Baheti and Sureka, along with another batchmate Deepak Khosla, were the driving force behind this effort. I was in the US working for Motorola then.

When I shifted base back to India in 1994, I, too, started attending these sessions. Meanwhile, my work took me extensively into rural India where two things struck me. First, wherever I went I saw that it was the woman, who worked the hardest – up at first light and last to sleep, she got the kids to school, cooked, sent her husband to work, milked the cow and even went out in the fields to work.

It’s been four years and close to Rs 30 lakhs have been pumped into Rajasthan-based institutions.

Yet, in the social hierarchy her status was even lower than that of the livestock. The other thing I observed was that very few women were given the chance to study; and in those few families where the woman was educated, I found that the whole ‘parivaar’ got educated. These were things that played on my mind whenever we met for our alumni meets. Then, in 2006, it occurred to me that a great way to extend the BITS ’69 bond would be to start something that would help educate others. After all, it was our education that brought us together and got us to the point of professional excellence that all of us have achieved.” 

The Trust became operational in 2007. Funds are collected yearly by motivating batchmates to support three Rajasthan-based schools – the government school in Devli and Jaipur-based Vimukti Girls School and Pratham Shiksha. It’s been four years and close to Rs 30 lakhs have been pumped into these institutions. Of this, Vimukti has received Rs 7.6 lakhs, which has been used to sponsor over a hundred girls – it takes Rs 8,400 to educate a child for one year. Monica, Megha, Preeti, Poonam, Cheena, Payal, Suman and their 30-odd classmates never miss a single day of school!

Take the case of Payal, 10. One of three siblings, a typical day for her is like this: Up at 6 am, she gets her younger brother ready for school and by 7, drops him at the bus stop. Back home, she collects water and does other sundry household chores. She hurries through the tasks because she wants to get to her books. She puts in at least two hours of studies before getting ready to go to Vimukti at 1 pm. “I love my school. On holidays I can’t wait to get back to class. ‘Maine thaan liya hai ki main doctor banoongi’ (I’ve decided to become a doctor),” says the youngster, whose favourite subject, predictably, is Science.

Vimukti, which started in 2004, is an afternoon-shift school, operating out of the premises of a prominent English medium school in Jaipur. The girls get a pick-up and drop from their homes in the two big city slums of Jhalana Dhungri and Jawahar Nagar Kacchi Basti. Elaborates Bharti Sharma, Vimukti’s Coordinator and the Trust’s pointsperson at the school, “The girls come from large families. Their parents are mostly domestic workers or daily wagers. They work at home in the mornings and then with little inconvenience to their parents also get the opportunity to study. It’s a win-win.”

But at Vimukti, it’s not merely about providing free education till Class Eight. Innovative teaching methods are employed, the class size is kept small, easy-to-follow textbooks are used and regular extra-curricular activities and exposure trips are organised to make learning fun. This is also something the BITS69 Educational Trust believes in. Says Batlivala, “Education just doesn’t happen in a classroom. An outing is as necessary because it gives children a chance to experience different things. So we always say that a part of our funds should go into giving children that extra edge.”

That extra edge is also being given through vocational courses for the older girls. Informs Batlivala, “The last time we gave Vimukti around Rs 4.5 lakh we said that while we will continue to sponsor girls, maybe some of the money could be used to provide them with vocational training through cooking classes, short-term beauty courses and computer lessons.”

And because these classes are for girls from Class Six onwards, Preeti Mahavar can’t wait to become a senior. This 12-year-old, who aspires to become a teacher, can’t wait to get her hands on a computer. But for now she is happy to be part of the occasional out-of-town trips that she and her classmates get to go to.

Recently, at the BITS ’69 alumni meet in Udaipur, Preeti and her friends were invited to give a traditional dance performance. Wearing bright pink outfits and sparkling jewellery, the ‘pucca’ friends rendered a perfect Saraswati vandana in front of a 500-strong gathering. Once off the stage though, their teachers had a new challenge: The girls didn’t want to change back into their school uniforms because they thought they were looking like “apsaras”!

That afternoon Preeti and her friends indeed looked like little goddesses ready to caste their spell on the world, even as, in the audience another set of buddies, Batlivala and his  BITS’69 batchmates looked on proudly.

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