22 May 2015

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Armed with pamphlets and diagrams and bursting with information about the importance of menstrual hygiene, my mother and I made our way to the bustling town of Anupshahr, where the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES) ‐ a non‐profit organization committed to fight poverty through education‐is located.

I came to be interested in the cause of menstrual hygiene when I read a few facts on the UNICEF websites. India has the highest percentage of women with cervical cancer. 12% of the women use sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to using ashes, newspaper and even plastic. While cloth is a viable and eco‐friendly option, sometimes five women of one household would use the same cloth, increasing risk of infection. Researching on the education material, I realised though very informative, they often missed the practical aspects of menstruation and hygiene which would address the concerns of the ‘new adolescent’. This set me on a journey of compiling an illustrated booklet in very simple Hindi targeted at addressing the concerns of a newbie grappling with adolescence and menstruation.

I compiled an illustrated booklet on menstrual hygiene in simple Hindi, got the initial 200 copies crowd funded by friends and families. I’ve made presentations at many other schools in and around NCR, but my experience at PPES was completely new. As a person trying to spread awareness about bodily changes during adolescence and how to deal with it, I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing awkward glances, stifled laughter, and most unfortunate of all, complete cluelessness. In a country where menstruation is seen as something shameful and disgusting, these reactions were to be expected. I planned many games that would help in rapport formation so that both teachers and children would respond and ask questions about the ‘taboo’ subject.

This visit was different. Once we had our icebreaker session, I began the presentation using placards for the children of classes 11 and 12. The girls asked questions without much encouragement, and some of them even helped out when I began rambling in broken Hindi. Soon after, the perennial question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ was thrown into the room, and everyone broke into smiles and emphatically explained their dreams of being a doctor, teacher, nurse, engineer and even a radio jockey. In the presentations for students of classes 6 and 7, the girls were not so forward, but still asked me questions in hushed whispers after the presentation was over. I also attended a Personality Development class that was unlike any other. Madhu Ma’am explained society perceptions by starting with the difference between gender and sex (ling), something that very few teachers ever explain. In fact, I only learnt that sex referred to biological differences between men and women and gender referred to the roles given to us by society this year. I have to say it was one of the most enlightening classes I have ever attended. It’s very difficult to talk about such a subject that conflicts with what is taught at home, and the teacher managed to change centuries old perceptions (like how it is the girl’s role to work in the kitchen) just by raising questions.

After my interactions with the students, the school nurse gave my mother and me a tour of the city. We were accompanied by Sonam, the only student who lives on campus. We saw the Ganges and a temple, and then went on towards Sonam’s house, which is in the poorest part of the town. To encourage that area about PPES and the importance of education, community toilets had been built in the area. A solar energy system using lanterns was also established o that the villagers could have access to light, at the low cost of Rs.45 per month. Despite continued efforts, the area has a resistance to regular work; most children of the area do not go to school, and end up in jobs such as Rikshaw wallahs and cobblers. Young girls end up in the flesh trade. It’s times like these I realise that 70% of the country lives and thinks like this. However, I am happy to say that Sonam is an anomaly. While we ate dinner, she told us that she wanted to fight for human rights on a large scale level in the future. When we went up to the roof of the guest house, she emphatically told me that she can’t wait to go to college and see the world.

The next morning, I spoke with the teachers about my booklet. I learnt about the extensive syllabus the school had to offer, and offered a couple of ideas that could be used to strengthen unity amongst the children. We then went up to see the plant where the sanitary napkins are made. This unique system results in a high rate of attendance, as now there is no reason such as lack of facilities or discomfort which prevents girls from missing school. Both the students and staff get the pads at subsidised rates. Finally, we had the pleasure of meeting Sam, the man behind the idea that changed the life of an entire town and village communities. He spoke to us about how the school started, the problems the area is facing and plans for the future. We left after a mere 24 hours, but every minute of the visit taught us something new.

PPES strives for excellence and equality, a goal that is reflected in every part of the school experience: the girls excitedly greeting us hello, primary school kids reciting Hindi and English poems with equal aplomb, the signposts that ask whether you loved your daughter today. It is so encouraging and impressive to know that many of their class 12 students end up studying engineering, sports education, journalism in cities like Bangalore, Gwalior and others. In fact there are some students who are headed to community colleges in the US. But above all, the school fills you with hope. The school is like a family away from home, which not only cares for the needs for over a 1000 girls from Anupshahr, but also gives them a platform to be able to dream. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the girl’s name in the newspaper one day for excellence in their chosen field. I came to the school with the purpose of making a difference‐but I learnt so much more in the process. I know I’ll be back soon, ready for more.

The Other Side

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I am the Executive Director of The Other Side Intercultural Theatre, Inc. The Other Side is a 501(c)(3) non­profit organization based in Brooklyn, NY, USA. Our mission is to create a cross­cultural exchange of dramatic storytelling amongst girls which supports their common experience, inspires leadership, and develops community. Through drama exchange girls become invested in friendships created and stand up for themselves and each other. Using Theatre of the Oppressed and other devised theatre techniques, participating girls create plays, telling their own stories. Theatre of the Oppressed is a technique of doing theatre that addresses social issues in participants lives, and gives them a vehicle to rehearse possible action to make a change. As part of the creative process, each U.S.­based participating group documents and shares their plays with an international­based participant group, and vice­versa, thereby creating an intercultural dialogue and building friendships. Through these drama processes, performances, and friendships, the girls learn about each other, about themselves, and gain the confidence to create change in their communities and advocate for equality for girls worldwide. Like pen pals. But with theatre. 

In addition to all the administrative direction of the company, my very first love and strength is teaching. I have been visiting Pardada­Pardadi Educational Society in Anupshahr, Uttar Pradesh, India, since 2010, and it has completely inspired this whole company. In April 2015, I conducted my 3rd year of The Other Side drama exchange workshops with the students and community of PPES in Anupshar. 

When I got my ride to the village early Thursday morning, I was so happy to see a student of mine in the car with me­ Surbhi! Surbhi is a girl who used to work at the Call Centre, and some Other Side students in NYC might recognize her from photos, because she chooses to dress “like a boy.” Some students had asked about this, and she told us that it allows her to walk freely around town, and helps her have the confidence to achieve her goals. 

She told me two pieces of great news. 1) She is working at the PPES office in Delhi, as a regular employee (meaning that she a. is earning a living and b. NOT living in her village where there aren’t many opportunities for her.) 2) She has been accepted into a program to come to the US for one year! She is going along with Reeta and Bandana, two other Call Centre girls who I know. Some of you met Shivani­ she is in the same program as these ladies. We don’t find out what state they are in until around July, and they come to the US in August. So excited for these opportunities! 

Upon arrival at the school, it was like coming home. I feel really at ease in this society and culture, and so used to the way things are. I reunited with many old friends, students, teachers, and met new volunteers and new teachers as well. I was very pleased to find out that the new school year now begins on April 1st­ meaning I get students in the beginning of their term; no tests, no interruptions. So I organized my classes to match up with each participating Other SIde group. 

My work in Anupshahr is focused on gathering groups of girls to connect with our groups of girls in New York City. I organized my classes to match up with each participating Other SIde group. For example, we have 4 different participating schools in New York City (Bronx Writing Academy, Isaac Newton Middle School, Global Tech Prep, and Nightingale­Bamford) and I organized 4 different classes at PPES to coordinate with each New York group, to create a more personal exchange. 

Each group spent 2 weeks with our curriculum. I also have 3 ambassadors, teachers at PPES, who assist, translate, and continue with the exchange for the rest of the year. Madhu, Anjana, and Reena are these ambassadors, as well as Taruna and Usha who help out with some video and tech. 

The girls started by playing games to get their bodies used to expression. This has always been a big challenge with girls at PPES, as they are not used to expressing themselves, or being asked for their own opinions or feelings. We then do a Theatre of the Oppressed activity proving that we can change the way we think about things, and turn that change into actions, by following opposite action directions. (For example, I’ll say walk, but you do the action of stopping, and when I say stop, you do the action of walking.) I actually did this activity in Hindi, all I needed to do was learn the words for “walk” (ghumo) “stop” (ruko) “jump” (kudna) and “clap” (thali). This then leads to the concept of “Stereotypes” which was difficult in some ways to define, but not hard to identify stereotypes about girls in this area. Some examples include; Girls should be housewives, Girls do not go to school, girls should not wear jeans, only Sari or suit, and girls should not go outside of their homes for something like school or a job. 

From this list, girls think of stories when they’ve experienced one of these stereotypes. Maybe they wanted to go to school, or wear jeans, or tried to convince a friend to go to school. From these stories, plays are developed through our play­building process. 

The second week focused on watching videos from each participating group in New York, in which the girls there shared their own stereotypes, hopes and fears, and questions for the girls in India. 

The final product was a film that included the girls’ plays, plus introductions (“Hi, my name is Sonam, I am 13 years old, I love to play cricket...etc) any answers to questions and new questions themselves. All the footage was gathered, and a few select students who were particularly engaged in the activity got to help to edit, choosing music, titles for plays, and captions. 

The workshops culminated in a screening of all the videos for all participating groups at PPES. These films are also a part of the final days of workshops back in New York, which will end in May. 

In addition to the classes, we also had a few special live exchanges. 

The first was a skype exchange between Nightingale­Bamford, and a mix of girls who are all connected to the Call Centre in some way. The Call Centre is a project of Kingdom of Dreams to empower rural girls and connect them globally through call centre work. The call centre is based on the grounds of the PPES school. Many girls who graduate from PPES go through call centre training and become employees of Kingdom of Dreams, or have great communication skills that open up many opportunities for them (like traveling to the US, studying in Bangalore, working at the PPES office in Delhi, etc.) The girls who participated in the skype were excited and very nervous to speak English and perform their play­ which was about asking her parents for higher education. 

Although the session was only 15 minutes long due to scheduling, it was so much fun, and exciting for both groups of girls to learn about each other. They got to ask questions, sing songs, do dances, and watch a play. My hope for the future is that we have more time, so that both groups get to perform their plays! 

The second exchange was a taped blog radio show called The Voice of Leadership. Reeta, a 19 year old girl employed at the Call Centre and going to the US for community college next year, spoke with Lila, a 14 year old girl in Brooklyn who has participated in our teen internship program. Both prepared a monologue (and Lila a song) about the pressures their society puts upon them, just because they are girls. The show was hosted by Linda Lombardo, who facilitated a discussion in which we discovered how much these girls have in common as leaders in their community, how they feel when their society expects something from them, and their dreams for the future­ even though they come from such different worlds. 

The third exchange was with our Other Side house band­ H.E.R.O, which consists of 4 ten year­old girls playing their favorite pop songs. H.E.R.O was working on writing a new song about women’s rights, and asked if I could choose one girl from Anupshahr to write one verse of the song, from her perspective. 

The girl I chose was Sonam, and I want to tell you more about her. Sonam and H.E.R.O talked to each other on Skype and learned all about each other, as well as shared music and the song they are working on. 

Sonam, who is 13 years old, is living at the volunteer guest house. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a student living at the guest house; most students live at home and commute to school daily. Sonam is a student who comes from the poorest village in Anupshahr, Madar Gate. She is actually the only girl in her village attending school. 

Why is Sonam staying at the guest house, and not in her village? There are many reasons. While she was living at home, her parents were not letting her get to school every day, because educating a girl is not something they value. She has fallen really behind in her classes because of this. So the founder of the school intervened and insisted that she stay at the teacher’s colony so that she gets to school every day, and also gets extra tutoring from all the volunteers and teachers that live there. Her energy, spirit, and youthfulness has been really great to have around. She is also getting better and better at spoken English. 

I’d love to share Sonam’s verse with you here: 
Somewhere between mother and daughter … 
is a trapped dream. 
Somewhere between daughter and son… 
your love is not fair 
Somewhere between respect and crying… 
a girl has to ask 
Somewhere between father and son… is a woman 

In addition to my work with The Other Side, I also love spending time with my Anupshahrian family. I like to help out with a few additional projects that are somewhat unrelated to the drama exchanges, and spend time getting to know different teachers and community members. 

The third day I was there, I went with the Satiya Bharti principal, Ajay Chauhan, and a few other teachers to a village to try to convince families to send their girls to PPES. It was an amazing experience, first of all riding on a motorcycle through the fields and over the Ganges on a long bridge. Motorcycle is a very common way of getting around in this area, although there are very seldom women who drive them. 

We visited this village, Ajay spoke for a long time in Hindi. Then I spoke in slow English and he translated, about the importance of educating girls and what an incredible education they will get from PPES. It was amazing to see men nodding their heads in agreement as Ajay translated. (It was mostly men at the meeting.) I then did the same Theatre of the Oppressed activity about opposite actions to show that we can change our thinking. 

I was pleased to see a girl named Kavita who had been in my first class at PPES, along with Shivani and Reeta. Kavita comes from that village, and she is about to go off to Bangalore for Yoga instructor training. Leaving this small village as a girl to study in a big city instead of getting married is a wonderful success story and a big deal! 

When we finished our talk, we were given chai as is the custom for any visitor. But we soon learned that a boy in the village (about 20 years old) had killed himself a few days earlier, and his younger sister goes to our school. So we paid our respects to his father. It was a somber visit and more chai was given. But I think it meant a lot to his family that we came. 

On the ride back, we stopped at a Mela along the Ganges river. We went down to the river, ate some panipuri, took some photos, and then headed back to school. This day will always stand out in my mind! 

I also got to travel to Delhi with Satiya Bharti teachers and students, and the field trips are always fun. It’s a great way to see the girls discover the world outside of school, and to have fun hanging out with teachers. 

I visited a few teacher’s and friend’s homes in Anupshahr and surrounding villages, which is always a great way to get to know the lives of the people who live there. I love spending time with them, eating, taking photos, and singing. 

On my birthday, I wore a sari and performed some music for the lower school at their assembly. I played some of my original songs, some inspiring pop songs like Roar and Brave, and some music games. I also played the one Hindi song I know how to play, which was a big hit! I also learned another new Hindi song, and now it’s a gimmick of mine to play these two Hindi songs. (Tujise Bichaad Ke Jinda Hai, and Tuje Dekho Tho Ye Jana Sanam) 

Using drama as a tool for expression, communication, and aesthetics, girls in New York and Anusphahr connect with each other, share dreams and hopes, and also learn about their differences. The Other Side is just one small piece of the large puzzle of the community work of Pardada­Pardadi, to empower end educate girls and women in the rural area of Anupshahr. There is a lot of work to be done, a lot of mindsets to be changed, and sometimes I have to check myself; I am not Indian, I come from a very different culture, who am I to say what’s right for women? So I try to focus simply on storytelling. I can share my own personal stories, the stories of girls in the USA, and give the girls in Anupshahr a space to tell their own stories, and find community and sisterhood within them. The rest of the empowerment magic comes from what the girls choose to do with their lives­ and knowing that they have a choice is the very first step. ­

- Melanie Closs, Founder and Director of The Other Side Intercultural Theatre. PPES Volunteer 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015

Creating Dreams Where Few Dare Dream

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 It’s a little past 5 PM on a Friday in Anoopshahr, a town about 100 kilometers north of New  Delhi, and Virendra (Sam) Singh, sitting on a plastic lawn chair, is holding court in the  expansive front porch of the girls’ school he founded, Pardada­Pardadi Educational Society  (PPES).  It’s his way of encouraging informal exchanges with his teachers, community  organizers, volunteers and occasionally, parents.  As the last of his visitors leave, Singh picks up  his reading materials, usually the day’s Delhi newspaper and a book on current state on the  Indian political economy, strolls across the playground toward the teachers’ lodge, about 100  yards away, separated from the school by a gate, but very much a part of the school complex.   The lodge has a cozy lounge where he joins a few PPES teachers, graduate students interning at  the school and volunteers from the US who stay at the lodge, for some chai and biscuits, served  by a cook/housekeeper assigned full time to the lodge. He chats on the day’s events, in the  school and at large, and after about half hour, takes leave and strolls toward a gray Toyota  Innova van, hands over his papers to the driver and instructs him where to go….downtown to  find the father of a sixth grade girl who stopped coming to school several days ago with no  explanation.  

Sonam is the fifth daughter of a cobbler, who repairs shoes in the town market…not in a shop,  but on the road side, using a small wooden crate as his work station.  Cobblers from the Kanjar  caste, who skin dead cattle and work with leather, occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy,  often forced to live in the least desirable part of the town.  With great difficulty, Singh was able  to convince Sonam’s parents she should be educated ….it is not uncommon for Singh to canvass  door to door convincing parents to educate their children – that’s how he started the school in  2000.  Sonam’s four elder sisters never attended school…she was the first one to receive in  elementary education; for her parents, enrolling her in school took some courage.  Sending girl  children to school is against the social norms…unthinkable for members of the Kanjar caste that  Sonam belongs to! Singh and teachers at the school were happy to have Sonam among them, and  disappointed when she stopped showing up …and Singh took notice, and added the matter to do  his “to do” list.   

In a few minutes Singh’s Toyota reached downtown Anoopshahr, about a kilometer long,  narrow, crowded street where a wide range of hawkers, street food carts and shopkeepers share  the street with meandering cattle, stray dogs and occasionally, monkeys. Sonam’s father, a  diminutive figure, is stationed at an intersection, offering repair services for those passing by;  Singh instructs his driver to stop some fifty yards away.  Lest his visit to the shoe repair man for  a conversation should attract unwanted attention, he instructs his driver to fetch Sonam’s father,  which the driver obliges.  The cobbler greets him but avoids eye contact, gazing at the ground  instead – Singh’s asks him why his daughter was not in school.  The cobbler mumbles, his words  barely audible; says the teachers asked Sonam to leave…an outright lie, according to the  teachers. Singh tells him that just wasn’t the case, and he would personally take responsibility for  his daughter, and the cobbler agrees!  Victory!  One more success!  The child does show up at  school the following Monday, gets a warm welcome and a temporary new home – in the  teachers’ lodge, where she will stay, under the watchful eye of one of the teachers, until the  commotion at home about her returning to school slowly peters out and she feels safe.   

Sonam’s case is typical of Singh’s approach to leadership. Earlier that day another teacher  brought to his notice that a student in her class behaves like tomboy, prefers to dress in pants and  shirts, and gets teased by her classmates.  Singh takes note – he will have a talk with that entire  class next day and let everyone know in no uncertain terms such conduct is not acceptable and  every student and teacher will be treated with respect.  A large person, about six feet, usually  dressed in a golf shirt and a Polo windbreaker, always at ease with himself and others, with a  loud, booming voice, his words carefully chosen and articulated, always to the point and  delivered with precision, he projects both personal charm and a command of his environment. As  the founder, brains and driving force behind the PPES, which educates 1,300 girls in a sprawling  three­story complex that houses multi­faceted rural development programs. Like a typical multinational corporate CEO he once was, Singh relies on skilled professionals to run each of the  multi­faceted activities. But he watches over the PPES operations like a hawk…where he notices  a serious short­fall in performance or serious violation of policies, he swoops down and takes  control, and usually won’t let go until the issue is resolved to his satisfaction.  

Virendra Singh was born as the eldest son of the “zamindar” (feudal landlord) of Bichola. His  family owns hundreds of acres of sugar cane and paddy fields in and around Anoopshahr, and   sprawling mansion that  projects wealth and social status, in the middle of a few hundred  thatched roof huts that make up the village of Bichola, about 10 kilometers from Anoopshahr.   After graduating from a college in India, he, like many aspiring young professionals in the  1960’s, headed to the UK and eventually to the US for higher education, graduated as a chemical  engineer and landed a job as a research engineer at the multinational chemical giant DuPont,  where he spent the next 35 years, the last 15 as CEO of the company’s operations in India.  He  was offered an opportunity to spearhead the company’s expansion into China, but he felt a  different calling.  He wanted to redirect his life away from the corporate ladder, return to his  village, reclaim his rights to the family estate, not to live a life of comfort and leisure but to start  something new and pioneering, to improve the lives of the people in his village.  Before setting  off pursuing his ambitions, he visited Dharamasala and spent a few days with the Dalai Lama,  and felt enriched and inspired by the experience. With his two daughters comfortably settled,  either at colleges or in jobs, he commandeered a hundred acre parcel of land in Anoopshahr and  decided to sink his substantial retirement benefit package to start a school for girls that in a few  years would become the town’s major source of education, vocational training, economic  development and jobs.   

Anoopshahr may be 100 kilometers east of Delhi, but it’s a different world altogether. Lunch for  two at a mid­-range Delhi restaurant costs more than the average monthly income of many  Anoopshahr households. The province of Uttar Pradesh, where the town is located, is the most  populous and poorest in India.  The area where Singh wanted to make a dent is characterized by  abject poverty, illiteracy, strict caste hierarchy often enforced by threat of violence, minimal government infrastructure, corruption at all levels of government across the board and general  lawlessness – kidnappings are a cottage industry and honor killings are considered routine and go  unreported.  Traditional Muslim families account for a large percentage of the population.   Average household income in the villages, less than Rs. 1,000 ($15) a month, average literacy  41% and only one in four children enrolled in a school.  The villages are technically “wired” but  power is made available only a few hours a day, if at all – just long enough to charge cell phones  for those well off enough to have them. Singh felt educating girls is the key to social change and  rural development – an educated girl is likely to find a job, avoid unwanted pregnancies and help  educate her children in turn.  Singh also knew his project would take years, perhaps decades, to  make a dent.  He knew also the odds were heavily against him – educational aspirations are  either low or do not exist at all; families overwhelmingly prefer male children, girl children not  valued and educating them considered a waste as boys there do not like educated girls, local and  state governments try every weapon in their arsenal to block rural development projects, as the  ruling (Congress) party had long preferred to keep the state’s population uneducated and  dependent on government handouts, since that ensures a lock on blocks of voters. 

Singh developed a unique, creative model to implement his ideas on promoting girl child  education.  He chose the name, Pardada­-Pardadi, meaning great grant parents, to send a message  of reverence for the elders. The name is value­-neutral and non­threatening, which is important in  a community that easily feels threatened by any outside ideas.  He wanted to address the  questions parents would raise before they were even asked, such as expenses of school and  books, taking girls away from household chores and where the Pardada­Pardadi pathway would  take them. The school would provide free schooling kindergarten through high school; education  wouldn’t be just book learning but value­centered, inculcating and reinforcing the values of selfrespect, self­confidence, independence, honesty and work­ethic.  All children would receive free  books, uniforms plus three meals a day – big incentive for parents in a subsistence economy.  After sixth grade, girls who do not live near the school would receive a bicycle to commute to  school, and a school bus would transport those who live too far to bicycle.  And the final  incentive – this is really a big deal – is that the school would open bank accounts for each student  and deposit Rs. 10 for every day the girls attend school.  With compound interest, girls who  begin in first grade and continue through 12th grade would stand to collect up to Rs. 40,000…a  princely sum in a region where average monthly household income is under Rs. 1,000.  But the  money cannot be withdrawn until the girls reaches at least 10th grade. 

Singh became the sole salesman for his school, explaining his ideas and canvassing door to door  in the villages.  Eventually he recruited 45 students, enough to launch the school. Every girl  received books, uniforms, free meals and promise of Rs. 10 each day.  Within in weeks, the  parents sold the uniforms and books, and 26 of the 45 girls dropped out.  But that didn’t stop  Singh from forging ahead.  Rest is history. 

Today Pardada-­Pardadi’s enrollment is near 1,300 – the maximum current facility can hold. Singh has been able to implement most of his vision – today Pardada Pardadi’s comprehensive  approach encompasses traditional class room education with the values of individuality and selfrespect infused into the curriculum, English language instruction, hands­on instruction in personal hygiene, vocational education, arts and crafts workshops, cooking skills and hands­on  training in leadership skills.  School typically begins at 10 AM every morning, when all 1,300  children gather in a large atrium in the middle of the school complex; students by rotation are  assigned assembly­related duties, such as thumping a drum to bring the assembly to order.  The  school emphasizes practical and life skills at every turn.  Fifteen girls by rotation are assigned  kitchen duties every day – under supervision, they cook, serve and clean up.  Meals typically  consist of chapatis or bread, dal (legumes) or beans and fresh vegetables.  A bakery in the  complex bakes fresh bread, puffs and cookies, served as morning and afternoon snacks.   

In the three full days spent at the school, this writer did not notice a single instance of a class  room without a teacher, a teacher speaking harshly toward a student, students squabbling among  themselves or playground friction.  All corridor, workshops and classrooms are clean and free of  garbage. Students seem to relish greeting visitors or showing off their newly learned English  speaking skills.  But the code of conduct doesn’t seem enforced by teachers – the values are  made integral to the education process from grade one, and it shows.       

A combined vocational education and economic development programme at Pardada­-Pardadi  includes a fully equipped commercial tailoring shop that under contract manufactures garment  bags for a major luggage company – girls who participate in the program are paid for each  finished piece.  Girls learn highly skilled embroidery work making designer napkins, dining table  runners, bed spreads and comforters sold in Pardada­Pardadi’s own retail outlet in Delhi, as well  as in boutique shops in Europe.  In another section of the school, girls learn to sew sanitary pads  from waste cotton materials.  These pads are made available to the girls at a nominal cost, and  also sold to institutions.   

Singh sees his school as the center piece of a comprehensive rural development effort. In  addition to the tailoring, he opened a call center that employs girls trained in spoken Hindi and  English.  The call center so far has one client – a popular, high-­end Hindu religious theme park  in the suburbs of Delhi, and the school’s marketing staff is working on securing others.  The  school encourages students to introduce their mothers and sisters to training and job  opportunities at the school, which also recruits teachers, administrative aides, clerks and  maintenance workers from the community.  The school has also initiated an innovative  community development and financial literacy project, under which community organizers go  into villages to organize savings clubs – members contribute as little as Rs. 5 ($0.09) per day to a  community loan fund; two members of the club are entrusted with securing the fund – one keeps  the money in a small, lockable metal safe, while the other holds the key.  Club members in  genuine need can borrow from the fund at a nominal interest rate, a small fraction of what local  money lenders charge.

The village is wired for electricity but the wires usually run dry. Besides, many families cannot  afford the cost of wiring their homes. The school started a community battery powered lantern  lending programme to help children read at night. Solar panels help charge the lanterns during  the day and villagers can check out the lanterns at dusk and return them next morning. 

The school complex today consists of a three­-story, square shaped building, with class rooms and  offices on all four sides, with a 50­feet high atrium in the center that serves as gathering place for  the morning assembly, dining and snack room during school hours and indoor sports area after  school hours. The building houses all the classes, kitchen and dining facilities, a science lab,  computer lab and vocational training facilities. Personal hygiene instruction is held in a separate  building equipped with sinks and showers.  Yet another free­standing structure houses the  bakery.  The teachers lodge, recently added, provides furnished single rooms with attached baths  for teachers, Indian and foreign volunteers and a school nurse, and includes a kitchen and the  services of a full­time cook and housekeeper.  

An industrial strength diesel­-powered generator runs the all school hours to ensure power for all  class rooms, offices, vocational training centers and the computer lab.  A fleet of three school  buses transport children from villages too far to bicycle.   

Posters mounted on kiosks with messages such as – “I will choose my own husband”, “I will  choose my own career” “I care about my health” dot the school grounds…messages that go  contrary to the prevailing village culture.  The school is indeed a protected oasis – protected by  high metal gates with guards that screen visitors and hand out badges to official visitors.              

Singh’s golden retirement parachute provided the start­up funds for the school 13 years ago.   Today the school’s annual budget is about Rs. 23,500,000 ($400,000) and funding comes from  numerous individual supporters as well as grants from Indian businesses and foundations.  The  school received no government support. Singh has developed fundraising support groups in the  UK and US – these groups contribute about $150,000 a year.

Pardada Pardadi students score 100% success rate graduating high school ­ to date 260 girls have  graduated, with an additional 40 to 50 in the pipeline each year.  Dropout rate has been cut from  85% in the early years to 12%. The school ensures that those graduating are placed in jobs or  offered scholarships for college or technical education.  Graduating girls have been placed in  jobs, thirteen so far within Pardada Pardadi complex, and thirteen in the hospitality industry,  fashion design and call centers.  Twenty girls have been awarded scholarships to pursue degree  program in information technology in Bangalore, and one girl is headed to the US on a one­year  scholarship awarded by the US Embassy. Girls graduating enjoy higher status in their  communities.  The school to date has made a significant impact on 2,000 of the 40,000 families  in the school’s catchment area. 

Pardada Pardadi is not just a school ­ it’s more apt to call it an ambitious social engineering  project, with the school serving as a center piece, its reach extending into personality and  leadership development, vocational training, career development, community building and  economic development.  The school runs operates 12 months of the year with no breaks! Singh  envisions expanded vocational training and a new university with rural development and teacher  training as its primary areas of focus.  He would like to set aside a large parcel of land in Bichola  to build a new hospital, and would convert his family mansion into a luxury lodge to serve as an  incentive to attract doctors and nurses.  He has already willed the bulk of is estate to the school.   Projects clicking in his mind currently include a community radio station and a street theater. 

Singh sees his approach as holistic, and vehemently refutes any notion that the multifaceted  programmes are a distraction from the organization’s primary mission – educating girls. The  school is his dream, his life’s work. His approach is that of a corporate CEO that he was.  At 74,  he shows no signs of slackening. His division heads keep the operations humming but no little  detail escapes him, and he has his finger on the pulse.  Never out of ideas or resources, he is on  the go about 10 hours a day, intervening when his intervention alone would make a difference,   receiving representatives from companies, showing around new volunteers, travelling to other  innovative schools in search of new innovative ideas and of course, mobilizing new resources.  He spends the summer months in the US with his two daughters, both accomplished  professionals, devoting much of his time building new support groups and visiting potential  funding sources.  He even has a plan to carry forward his dream after him.  He lives in a large  luxurious penthouse condominium worth millions, in Gurgaon, an upscale suburb of Delhi.  Whichever daughter opts to move to India to carry forward his dream would inherit his  condominium, he says.
- By Janaki Ram Ray