Virendra Singh’s story makes for inspiring reading. It is the story of a man who, after leaving for the USA from India as a young graduate in the late 1960’s, returned to his ancestral village in rural Uttar Pradesh to set up a school for girls. We meet Sam — as Virendra Singh is called by family and friends — in Bengaluru, where is the guest of honour at an informal dinner party being hosted for the alumni of the school he helped set up.
More than two decades ago, Sam was contemplating making a trip to India. After a lifetime working at DuPont, the American Conglomerate where he had risen through the ranks to become part of the company’s board, Sam felt an urge to do more. So in the year 2000, after 40 years of service at DuPont, Sam retired from his position and returned to Anupshahr, his ancestral home in rural Uttar Pradesh, to embark on a dream project: setting up the Parada Paradai Education Society (PPES) for girls.
In a definitive profile of Sam Singh published in the Livemint on January 2008, the writer Raju Narisetti illustrates the uphill task Sam faced while setting up the PPES. Describing a family tree in Sam’s ancestral house which only recorded the names of the male members of the family, Narisetti writes “For, some five generations of Singh’s Thakur family tree on the wall, starting with the first known ancestor, simply list an anonymous Shrimati (MRs.) when it comes to the women of the family.”
Even though Anupshahr in Western Uttar Pradesh is just a four-hour drive from the National Capital, New Delhi, the difference in the economic and social development of the two regions is stark. Soon after coming home to India, Sam was faced with the harsh reality of life in rural Uttar Pradesh.
Reality of rural life
Historically, Uttar Pradesh has an abysmal track record when comes to issues of gender and women empowerment. News reports from the rural areas in the state continue to be characterised by gruesome reports of violence against women. Even as late as 2016, the state ranked among the some of the worst in India when it came to crimes against women.
Things are not much better in the state when it comes to literacy. At 67.68%, Uttar Pradesh has some of the lowest levels of literacy in India, and the level of female literacy (57%) continues to be lower than that of men (77%).
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It was against this backdrop of general economic and social impoverishment that Sam was trying to bring about change. “There were very basic problems of life”, Sam says, recalling his early experience.
“So imagine, I am coming here thinking everyone will love me and hug me and kiss me because I am giving them this great idea of education; whereas everybody thought, ‘the guy is out of his damn mind. He doesn’t know India, he doesn’t know anything’ And I didn’t”
When PPES first started classes, the school only had 45 students on its rolls, and 13 of those girls dropped out within the first week. A big challenge that PPES faced when asking families to educate their girls was overcoming a deep — rooted cultural bias against the girl child. For mothers in the village, Sam says, the first priority was to meet the basic necessities of life.
“Their next biggest concern was to get the girls married.”
Running a school for girls
Over the years, PPES has evolved several strategies to ensure that girls stay in school. One such initiative that has paid particularly rich dividends was a decision to aggressively track attendance and pay each student Rs 10 for every day of class attended. The sum accumulated over the years, amounting to anywhere between Rs 40,000 to 50,000 — not a small amount in a region where the average per capita income averages around Rs 40,000 — can only be accessed by the student after she graduates from the school and turns 21 years of age.
PPES also provides a livelihood program for the family members of the girl; there are tie-ups in place with institutions of higher education around the country, the organisation even provides low-cost education loans in partnership with institutions like Rang De.
For the families to benefit from these programs, however, the girl student should be enrolled in school. Once the student drops out of school, the benefits cease as well. In the 17 years since the PPES has been established, the number of students enrolled at the institution has steadily increased to 3000, with plans to increase the number of students to 4000 by 2018.
“Young, rural women”
The journey from Anupshahr to Bengaluru is long, taking nearly two days by train. For many of the PPES students, the journey not only covers a huge distance, it is almost a leap forward in time. It is only when they step out of the village and their former lives as students that the girls realise how far they have travelled.
Preethi, who works in Bengaluru for a leading private bank was once a full-time employee of the PPES. She worked at the organisation for several years, having first interned there during her days as a student in Delhi University. Preethi recounts her experience of chaperoning the first batch of PPES graduates as they made the journey from their villages to Bengaluru.
It was the first time the girls were leaving Anupshahr and once on the train, many of them developed cold feet. “Two of the girls got down and were about to go back to Anupshahr” Preethi says. It took her all of her energy to convince the girls to get back on board the train and continue on the journey.
Once in Bengaluru, the girls pined for home, longing for the familiar surroundings of Anupshahr. They missed their family and friends. Even the food, mostly sambar and rice, was alien. “You see in the village, rice was something you ate when you were sick” Renuka, who heads the PPES operation from Delhi says.
“Assertive, articulate women”
Speaking to a few of the former PPES students, it is hard not to be amazed by the huge odds that they have overcome, both personal and societal, to pursue an education or get a job.
Savita Singh is a graduate student currently pursuing a technical degree at an institution in Bengaluru. Savita’s ailing mother passed away right before her exams, a day before she was to board her train to Bengaluru. Even though she wanted to come home, her father convinced her to stay.
Hitesh Kumari currently works in the administration Department of a Technical training college Electronic city in Bengaluru. Hitesh’s plan to pursue an education were initially stonewalled by her brother, who was academically poor. She’d had to get a distinction in school to convince her family to let her study further
These are just a few of the personal stories of the PPES girls. Like thousands of other young people entering the workforce in India today, these girls are now navigating the challenges of living alone in a big city. In light of all they have faced, it is easy to forget that these are also girls in the brink of adulthood, with all its responsibility, revelations, unexpected joys and sorrows.
Many of the girls that we meet tell us they miss home, but there is also the unique and exciting experience of living in a city like Bengaluru, going through hostel life, acquainting oneself with a new culture, and making new friends.
For many of them, the journey so far has been hard, but they remain determined to see things through.
A version of this article was first published here on Youth Ki Awaaz
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