Virendra (Sam) Singh | Turning young rural girls into assertive, articulate women

Virendra (Sam) Singh | Turning young rural girls into assertive, articulate women
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First Published: Wed, Jan 23 2008. 12 37 AM IST

Roti-driven model: Virendra (Sam) Singh stands among students during lunchtime at Pardada Pardadi School in Anoopshahr, UP .(Harikrishna Katragadda)
Roti-driven model: Virendra (Sam) Singh stands among students during lunchtime at Pardada Pardadi School in Anoopshahr, UP .(Harikrishna Katragadda)
Updated: Wed, Jan 23 2008. 12 37 AM IST
Bichola (Uttar Pradesh): To get a sense of how far Virendra (Sam) Singh has come and how far he still has to go, it might help to begin this story with his family tree.
Names spanning eight generations of these former zamindars (feudal landlords) are painted on a wall inside a family compound in this village, which is surrounded by acres and acres of sugar cane fields and is 3.5km away from the nearest main road.
Names, that is, if you happened to be a lucky male descendant. For, some five generations of Singh’s thakur family tree on the wall, starting with the very first known ancestor, simply list an anonymous Shrimati (Mrs.) when it comes to the women in the family.
Roti-driven model: Virendra (Sam) Singh stands among students during lunchtime at Pardada Pardadi School in Anoopshahr, UP .(Harikrishna Katragadda)
“The pundits didn’t bother to record the women’s names,” says the 68-year-old Singh, whose grandfather had put up the genealogy on the wall, and whose daughter Renu’s insistence led to names of some women being added, starting with Singh’s generation.
Welcome to a little-noticed corner of India, in the Bulandshahr district of western Uttar Pradesh, where women come last, if at all, despite their chief minister being a woman. Here, just a three-hour drive from New Delhi, female literacy is still only around 41%, well below India’s low 54.16% national average.
Mothers around here, when asked about how many children they have, still count only their boys. Macho, out-of-school male teenagers laze around on sagging cots in the sun while their mothers and sisters, head and face typically covered by a traditional ghunghat (veil), collect grass for the cattle that produce just enough milk for families to supplement their largely tiny, leased, albeit fertile, farmland.
And, then, on Malakpur road, just outside Anoopshahr town, there is the quaintly named Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES), Singh’s work-in-progress labour of love, which has hit upon a creative way to try and not just educate the girls of these villages, but, in doing so, turn them into a generation of women that won’t silently acquiesce to being nameless entries in countless family trees.
“No amount of pity was going to solve the problem,” says Singh. “It is a business problem that only business can solve.”
And Singh has made it his business to do so. On the face of it, PPES has a rather simple, monetary pitch to the parents of these girls.
Send your daughter to PPES’ free, all-girls vocational school every day, where, in addition to academics, she is also taught skills such as sewing and embroidery. She will get three meals a day, textbooks and school uniforms, and, depending on the distance from the school, a bicycle. And the real carrot: for every day she attends school, PPES will deposit Rs10 in a bank account that is opened in the girl’s name. The promise: Rs40,000 in each girl’s name by the time she finishes Class XII and is eligible to receive the money.
If this amount doesn’t seem significant, here is a sobering fact. Singh points out that the average income in many of the district’s 196 villages is just about Rs600 a month for many households that he is targeting.
“We impart knowledge, but we are a roti-driven model,” says Singh. “We want to develop socially and financially independent, future mothers.”
Series so far
All of 2007, in this 60th year of India’s independence, Mint’s 60 in 60 series promised to introduce readers to 60 Indians who, in myriad quiet ways, are contributing to making their country, and in some cases the world, a better place.
It is perhaps only fitting that we began the series with an educator, journalism professor Thomas Oommen in Kottayam, Kerala, and we are concluding it with Singh, another educator, who turns 68 today.
Many of the educators profiled in the series had responded, often a long time back, to what are now mounting concerns that decades—indeed the same 60 independent years—of government efforts have only largely created an education system with small, celebrated pockets of excellence, such as campuses of the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management. Meanwhile, it has also contributed to a largely failed, government-run primary and secondary education, especially in India’s villages.
Girls play softball in front of the school during a break. (Harikrishna Katragadda)
Indeed, just last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that the current 11th Plan, through 2012, will be India’s “Educational Plan.”
But, people, such as Singh, and others we have profiled in the series, aren’t counting on a government-led education miracle any time soon.
“Why are we not the doers?” asks Singh. “Why are we passing the buck to an inefficient government? We need to put our damn feet, mouth and everything else there.”
In Singh’s case, it has also meant putting $850,000 of his own money, worth about Rs3.3 crore these days, into PPES, mostly retirement savings from 37 years of working with E.I du Pont de Nemours and Co., the US-based chemicals giant.
Overseas origins
In some ways, Singh was an unlikely person to take on the role of an educator, let alone educating women. The pampered son of a wealthy, feudal clan that owned hundreds of acres of sugar cane fields, Singh was a talented field hockey player and “a lousy student,” as he puts it. But, the teenager woke up when his father, brought home a copy of the Hindustan Times that showed Olympian Kunwar Digvijay Singh “Babu,” a hockey role model for Singh and past his prime, standing in line with everyone else to buy a ticket for a game at a Lucknow stadium, which had been named after Babu.
That incident would be a turning point in some ways as Singh then sailed through a textile engineering course at Panjab University before heading to Manchester for higher studies.
But, two weeks of perceived racism in the UK was enough for Singh to pack up his bags and head to Lowell, Massachusetts, the other big centre for textile engineering at that time. Here Virendra would become Sam, courtesy Harold Pope, a professor who just couldn’t pronounce the Indian student’s first name. Sam stuck, as most friends and associates now refer to him as Sam Singh.
Eleven job offers would follow after graduation from Lowell and Singh, on the advice of Prof. Pope, who suggested the young man avoid the logical textile belt of America’s deep South (read: racist, back then), ended up at a DuPont plant in Seaford, Delaware. There, Singh, being the only non-white R&D engineer in the facility, found his education and title meant that he was allowed to sit with his white colleagues in a racially segregated cafeteria. That drove home unexpected lessons about discrimination, and the value of education, for a young man who was only used to being at the top of the food chain in Bulandshahr.
Over nearly four decades at DuPont, Singh would rise through the ranks, eventually becoming CEO of South Asia, and moving to India in 1991 to oversee DuPont operations.
“Dad never had the intention of staying here (in the US) forever,” says daughter Renu Singh, a lawyer in Washington, DC who recalls the many fights she had with him on how women were treated in her extended family and in Bichola. “When I was small, he used to talk about having a hockey team or sponsoring one in Bulandshahr,” she says. “Somewhere along the way, he started thinking about a school just for girls. I don’t know if he saw the light that women there needed help.”
Singh, for his part, simply says: “When you leave your country, you become more conscious of who you are,” recalling how ashamed he felt on seeing yet another newspaper photograph, this time on the front page of The New York Times, of Indian children rummaging for food in a garbage dump.
Frequent discussions with a marketing colleague and friend, Gene Kreuzberger, in the late 1980s at DuPont’s Wilmington, Delaware, headquarters, would often revolve around the fantasy of how, if their CEO, Chad Holliday Jr., came with a $100 million budget and said go “solve India’s poverty” because it would create millions of future customers for DuPont, how Singh might go about it.
One day, Singh remembers vividly, an excited Kreuzberger came to him saying how a model actually exists in India itself. “Some fellow named Dalai Lama was already doing it in India,” Singh remembers Kreuzberger saying. “Gene had no damn idea who the Dalai Lama was.”
And, when Singh explained who the man was, he recalls Kreuzberger pausing for a few seconds and then saying: “Sam, our name may not be Dalai Lama, but we know much more about marketing.”
Singh promptly headed to Dharamsala where he spent nine days watching how the Dalai Lama was combining education (Tibetan Buddhist values) with economics (the making of Tibetan textiles and handicrafts). By the end of the trip, Singh would pay for two carpets and pick up, for free, the business case for what would become PPES.
Back home
In April 2000, with both daughters out of US colleges and in jobs, Singh formally retired from DuPont and headed home.
Battling bureaucracy—it could take two years to simply get a license to start a school—and bias—why would a rich, old man want to spend money on our daughters?, Singh decided to gather up 100 acres of family sugar cane fields that would be gradually transferred into a trust for the PPES campus. Today, PPES is a large, plain building with several class-rooms, workshops, small offices, a computer lab, and some apartments for teachers, all built around a large open assembly area where the children also eat their daily meals.
Singh also discovered very early on that it wouldn’t be enough to set up a free school and expect grateful parents to send their kids. He realized that even though most of the children were often not in school, they are all in school as far as the local government school records were concerned. The government pays each child Rs300 a year for attending school so, often, teachers were only too happy to register the kids with a tacit understanding that, when it came to paying out the Rs300, the teachers would simply keep 50% of it.
Another obstacle, Singh realized, was the government’s free mid-day meal programme. Again, children would often show up at lunchtime and many schools would overlook it because either they took pity on the hungry kids or because the more kids in the programme, the more the budget for such meals and the ability of the village headman, who was in charge of the funds, to pocket some of it.
Singh’s response was to come up with the pay-for-attendance model and three free meals a day. And, rather than continue to simply wait forever to get all the required permissions, Singh struck a deal with a local principal who agreed to keep the kids on his rolls (he got to keep their Rs300 dole) just in case the school had to stop functioning over any bureaucratic snafus.
To get teachers, Singh also reached deep into southern India, hiring a group of six teachers, primarily skilled in vocational skills, from a Christian mission in Tamil Nadu.
And, then, Singh went from village to village, sometimes invoking his family heritage, at other times the money the children would earn, to cajole parents into sending their daughters. PPES started in November 2000 with 45 girls from what Singh estimates is a pool of 40,000 eligible girls.
The learning curve
Despite what seemed like meticulous planning from a distance, the early years were rough for Singh. While the money attracted parents, it also became the cause of significant attrition, as high as 85%, as some parents started asking for the money by taking their child out of school. Other parents simply sold their daughter’s bicycle and books. Absenteeism was also a chronic issue as the girls were often roped into helping raise other siblings or deal with any family crisis.
Singh, who would hold a Sunday morning conference call with his two daughters in Washington, remembers those days all too well. “I was a brave guy when I talked to my daughters,” he says. “Inside, I was scared. I would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating like hell.”
But, the biggest hurdle was something that Singh says he just hadn’t planned for.
Asked why all the skills that were being taught at the school weren’t enough to send her daughter to PPES, one mother, showing the utmost respect, put it bluntly in Hindi: “Bauji, khodegi tho ghaas hi,” as in, after all, my daughter will only end up cutting grass for the cattle.
Only then did it dawn on Singh that it just wasn’t going to be enough to equip the girls with education and vocational skills, and expect them to somehow find livelihoods that would be different from what their mothers and grandmothers did in an area where there just weren’t such options. While moving out of the village in search of a job was an option, Singh faced families that had a long tradition of only sending their girls off in marriage. “In solving a problem, I realized I was creating one,” says Singh. “The girls themselves didn’t want to leave their village, and I also didn’t want to add to the ghettos we have created in places like Noida,” referring to the suburban Delhi neighborhood that is home to a lot of migrant workforce from UP.
PPES was always envisioned to be run by a marketing head, whose job it is to find avenues to sell the bedspreads, pillow covers, quilts and bags that the girls are taught to stitch. While that was to be a way to generate some income for the school, Singh realized that to succeed, he would actually need to create local jobs. “You gradually get pregnant,” says Singh.
Shifting gears
Singh began by tweaking his model.
No longer can the girls get their money simply by dropping out. They would need to graduate to be eligible for the funds, putting pressure on the parents to leave them in school. The school doesn’t take married students either, an attempt to try and reduce the incidence of early marriages. And, when the girls do graduate by finishing Class X, the money is only theirs when they turn 21 or if they turn 18 and then get married.
Girls who come without wearing the uniform or show up very late, for instance, can be asked to go back home. And, those absent without prior approval or skip school beyond the annual paid (12) and unpaid (12) holidays that the school sanctions, lose Rs20 a day.
Children travelling more than 7km to get to PPES are now picked up and dropped off by two school buses, all aimed at helping reduce absenteeism.
To try and break down caste and communal barriers, as well as to teach them household skills, Singh insisted that PPES would have no cleaners or servants. Each day, 20 girls chosen from across various classes, take turns to cook and feed the entire school, including the teachers, and then wash the utensils and clean the school, including its toilets. When it is their turn, which comes about once in 20 days for every student, the 20 girls are exempt from attending classes.
In 2006, PPES graduated its first 14 students and there are 17 girls set to take Class X exams in 2008. PPES now has 730 girls on its rolls from 43 villages, and drop-out rates have fallen dramatically to about 11%, notes Singh.
Six of the school’s graduates now work at the school, drawing monthly salaries of Rs2,000, even as they are studying, via distance education, for their next levels.
It is clear that these PPES girls have turned into assertive—and articulate—young women, such as Preeti Chauhan, who now handles the school’s accounts, including the bank accounts of the girls. Or Kavita Kumari, who works with the school’s marketing office in Meerut, which may not be too far from her village Dugrauth but is far removed from how life could have been. It wasn’t that far back, before Singh intervened, that Kavita’s mother, who limps from polio, and her father, who had been in an accident and was temporarily disabled, were facing demands from a local landlord, from whom they had borrowed Rs40,000 at 300% annual interest rates, to literally hand over a teenaged Kavita to him.
Then there is Asha Pal, who won a coveted 60-day annual trip to US schools and homes that goes to the best performing student of PPES’ senior class. Having only seen planes in the sky that seemed about the size of her outstretched hands, she simply refused to believe, even when she was sitting in one, that it could ever soar.
Students at their sewing machines. (Harikrishna Katragadda)
A vocational teacher at the school now and a clear ringleader of PPES graduates, she is a mix of steely determination and shy idealism, having discovered that others do seem to want to follow her lead. Asha called off her engagement, telling her parents she wouldn’t want to marry until she is older and done with her education. And, not too secretly, she hopes she might yet be able to take advantage of her five-year US visa, having seen how men and women seem to share equal tasks there—be it at home or in school. “They don’t treat women differently in America,” she says.
S. Shanti, one of the teachers from Tamil Nadu, who heads skills training at PPES, proudly notes that it is because of Asha that her village, Karanpur, now sends 63 girls to the school.
While turning student leaders into the next generation of teachers is precisely what Singh had hoped would happen, PPES still needs to figure out how to help the growing number of school graduates.
The school is trying hard to brand and market its bed-spreads, quilts, curtains and pillow cases, with hopes of finding customers who would place regular orders for ethnic exports from Bulandshahr. It has opened a 2,100 sq. ft Pardada Pardadi boutique in the MGF Plaza Mall in Gurgaon, the sprawling suburb of Delhi, as well as sales outlets in Meerut and Bhopal, and started an online shopping link at its website (www.education4change.org).
The goal is to generate enough orders so that the school becomes a production centre where graduates can also end up working for a salary, in addition to helping fund future generations of PPES students through any profit.
Apart from all of Singh’s personal investments in the school so far, the push to create jobs for the girls means significant new investments, in stitching and other textiles-related machines, marketing and retail space. The rent for the Gurgaon shop alone runs to Rs210,000 a month. And, if steady orders do come, PPES will also need to invest in secure power back-up in a region where there is often only about eight hours of electricity at best, often supplied sporadically or only overnight. The school’s current operating expenses average around Rs470,000 a month and it typically generates revenues of about Rs200,000 each month.
Having ploughed in a lot more than the $500,000 he had originally set aside as his upper limit, Singh has tried to raise money, mostly through word-of-mouth and a network of friends from his corporate days. Still, his unique model of wanting to do everything internally, especially getting the children to cook meals or clean toilets, doesn’t always sit well with goals of potential backers who just want to fund education.
Sam is “a very genuine man and his heart and soul is in there,” says Badri Agarwal, president of Satya Bharti Foundation, the philanthropy arm of conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, whose flagship company is Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s largest mobile phone company by customers. “But, I keep telling him his sales and marketing model is not right. He needs tie-ups with others.”
The Bharti Foundation, which aims to set up 1,000 schools, has, however, asked Singh to set up and run two primary schools, which he has promptly started, including one that is temporarily in the same Bichola compound as his family tree.
Students doing the dishes. (Harikrishna Katragadda)
Others, such as the Sehgal Foundation and the US Embassy in Delhi’s Program Development Office, have also provided funding and computers. UTI Bank (now Axis Bank) recently agreed to spend up to Rs14 lakh over three years and some 50 individuals, from a UK entrepreneur to a Mumbai public relations executive, are sponsoring the annual education of 71 girls, at Rs17,000 per year.
Singh notes that there are 150 primary schools spread across the 196 villages in Anoopshahr tehsil, or adminstration subdivision, alone. “Give me 75% of whatever you are spending on primary education,” he says of what he would like from the state government. “And, when they are done studying there, we will not only guarantee the children 6th grade admission in PPES, we will bus them.”
This way, India’s education ministry can actually become the education audit ministry because, audits “are a good thing,” says Singh. “And, if I am succeeding, then give me the neighbouring tehsil’s schools.”
Bharti’s Agarwal agrees with Singh’s suggestion. “Some 99% of schools will have to be set up by ourselves (the Foundation) as there are not many people like him,” he says. “We need to expand his area of influence.”
Like many social entrepreneurs, Singh is starting to worry about what happens to PPES after him, noting that “730 girls is not even a drop.”
Singh hopes that perhaps one or both of his daughters would want to manage the trust after him. Back on the PPES campus, each graduate of the school is asked to leave behind what should stand tall for future generations of girl students: each of them gets to plant a tree and, in front of each tree, is a plaque that simply shows her full name.
Then, perhaps, it won’t matter so much if some of the Pardada Pardadigraduates are still denied equal billing in their family trees.
Sixty in Sixty was a special series that we ran this year, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. Starting with Mint’s 1 February debut issue, we introduced you to 60 Indians—both here and abroad—who were not rich or famous. These were people making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We conclude the series this morning with our 60th profile. We thank you for all the letters you wrote on the series and the many names that you recommended. Mint will continue to write about such individuals in other parts of the paper. Your feedback is welcome at feedback@livemint.com.
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First Published: Wed, Jan 23 2008. 12 37 AM IST