Road to a Digital Nation starts with building toilets

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day Address

Its India’s 68th Independence Day, and the first address by a Prime Minister who was born in independent India.

And while,  Narendra Modi made his way through a speech that would appeal to a new India. An India of the 21st century, and almost a decade and half post millennium, his speech brought out issues that dog the daily lives of common India.

The three themes in Narendra Modi’s address ( full text here in 18 Indian languages) were Clean India, Skilled India and Digital India as a vision for Made in India appealing to the needs, wants and aspirations of a people 50% of whom are less than 30 years of age. Mr. Modi is a practical man, and he knows the linkages between the keywords.

And, there is a personal connect here!

Cut to 1999, when I was the comms head in an MNC Telecom software company. Among the portfolios that landed on my lap, and which I embraced was CSR ( corporate social responsibility).

Enter Mathew Cherian, then CEO of CAF ( Charities Aid Foundation), and presently, the CEO of HelpageIndia and author of book (A MILLION MISSIONS – THE NON-PROFIT SECTOR IN INDIA)

Mathew and I, after putting in place, possibly the first intranet-linked auto-deduct payroll giving scheme in India ( where employees can contribute a part of their monthly salary to a charity of their choice, with the company giving a matching grant) for raising relief funds for the 1999 Odisha Super-cyclone, and the 2000 Rajasthan drought, decided to turn our attention to a project which could be on ground and sustained by the corporate over a long time.

Based on discussions with the CEO and Head of HR, we decided on ‘bridging the digital divide’. In other words, setting up a computer lab in a local village school, so that underprivileged kids from the community could aspire to, and come and work at the MNC software company.

Enter Col. Taneja, the man was all of a sprightly 80 when I first met him. He had been helping out in the neighbourhood villages in and around Palam Vihar with funds from friends and relatives. Col Sahab, as we called him, spoke British English and Haryanvi, and his towering frame commanded respect among the villagers and sarpanches of Carterpuri and Choma villages. The NGO he set up was initially named, Friends of Carterpuri and Choma villages.

Truth be told, the first time I laid eyes on the Carterpuri Village Government High School, I was appalled. I grew up in a steel town in West Bengal, and used to cycle to villages around, but here was a village and a school, right in the middle of a suburban colony, but with only the boundary wall and the principal’s office standing.

There was a large banyan tree in the central yard, but since all the roofs had collapsed, classes were held in the open with the black tar paint on the boundary walls serving as blackboards. I counted about 80 kids, of all ages from toddlers to teens attending class, with 3 classes being conducted on adjacent walls.

The teachers were doing what was then routine, teaching by rote and repetition. So the combined cacophony of Hindi, English and two times tables rhymed into a unique blend of sounds.

But, what was even more startling was the smell from one wall behind the principal’s office, which was the public loo wall. Boys did it standing up, girls squatting, and close by was a tap for washing hands, drinking water, but no water.

We were allocated that wall for the computer classroom we had in mind. Col.Taneja knew the impact this would have on an impressionable mind, and when we returned we changed the plans, completely.

First, while we had the computers ready, this was a software export unit, so we had very high-end PCs which were imported at subsidized customs duty. At that point of time, no piece of equipment was allowed to be taken out of the development centre without the permission in writing from the customs authorities. When the cause was explained, rules were amended to allow donations of PCs to government schools. That process, however, deserves another post.

Second, what do you do about electricity? Haryana, then, had power lines but with very little trickling down to the switch. That was easily solved, the investment plan was updated to account for a generator and fuel, and the air-conditioning then mandatory for old PCs, was scaled down to a locally- made air cooler system with a dehumidifier.

Third, what do you do about the wall? Fact one, there were no loos, or segregated drinking water and washing taps. Teachers and the principal were non-committal about the placement of loos in the original plan. One of them rued the fact, that the fields that were being used earlier, had been allocated for housing plots, and now it had become difficult to defecate in the day. People, men and women had to do their stuff either early morning or late at night.

So, this is what we did.

We updated the plan to build two separate loos on either side of the computer room. One side would have urinals for men and boys, as well as ceramic potty. The other end would have potty’s and a closed wash area for women and girls.

Meanwhile, Col.Taneja found leverage out of our commit to rope in other friends to fund re-building and furnishing classrooms. He personally designed wood top bench-seats, with wrought iron frames, since they were virtually indestructible. “Bakshi, these folks use the school grounds, for all kinds of events, and tie cattle with benches”, he used to say.

The much- awaited computer lab was inaugurated a year later, but the moment the building with toilets and running water was in place, there was a sudden change in the school.

First thing I noticed was the kids started looking smarter. Cleaner clothes, better turned out. Teachers started landing up, beyond the three I first met, we found there were a dozen more, who started taking classes, and the classes started moving indoors, thanks majorly to Col.Taneja’s other funders, who funded the re-roofing of collapsed classrooms.

We created an employee volunteer group: “ReachOut” to go and teach a class of all who were interested on how to use computers, with a special session for the Principal and teachers. 

Eight years later, when I visited the school with Toni, chairperson, READ Global, an NGO I am still associated with. The school was unrecognizable.

Of course, development all around had all but removed all memory of the village shacks around the only “pucca” wall in the place. The school had been fully developed, with class rooms all around the walls, with a yard and tree now at the center. The classes were busy, so we stopped only at the crafts center, where village women were making and selling knitted and stitched household furnishings.

After, the usual round of greetings, namaste’s all around, the tall young woman, who was drawing designs on a PC, came across and started bending down to touch my feet. A gesture that so surprised me that I stepped back with a start. Disappointed, she straightened up, smiled and asked how come I didn’t remember her. And then the penny dropped, the only girl in the first under- 10 years class at the computer lab, had grown up, with her familiar grin, and was standing right in front of me.

And, then in fairly good English told the gathering of visitors from California and the local NGO volunteers. ”This sir, put in the computers, and taught us how to operate PC”, “that was when our school got the toilets with doors”.

Cut to present date, and announcements by many leading corporates committing CSR funds to building toilets, in answer to the Prime Minister’s call, and I am reminded of that journey.

And my personal take-out; The road to building a digital nation starts with toilets with doors and clean water.

Update: Mathew on reading the blog, told me that a number of those students are currently employed at the software company. The circle is complete!

This entry was posted in Corporate, CSR, Jay Vikram Bakshi, Leadership, politics, social enterprise, sustainability, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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