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When the sky is not the limit...

Literacy India, an NGO under the leadership of Captain Indraani Singh, India's first woman pilot, is a story of gruelling work schedules, a continued struggle to raise funds and rock-like commitment. But the inspiration for all of us, saysANJANA RAJAN, stems from the realisation that though we cannot all fly a plane, we can certainly pilot a new and more meaningful course for our lives that will help us give something back to the society that has nurtured us.

MOST OF us recognise the numerous social and economic ills the country faces, yet we do nothing about them, thinking of ourselves as solitary individuals with no power to fight such enormous problems as poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, poor health standards and prevailing malnutrition. Banked up in this way, the hurdles to India's becoming a strong nation on par with the advanced economies of the world seem insurmountable. Thankfully there are people with a grander vision than that which crumbles before a problem, and who have the sagacity to see that every effort counts. One such person is Captain Indraani Singh, Founder Secretary, Literacy India - an NGO that works towards providing education and employment opportunities to underprivileged Delhi residents.

Founded in 1996, Literacy India's present sphere of activity is a cluster of villages around Palam on Delhi's outskirts.

Though one of its goals is to act as a partner in the Government's Literacy Mission programmes, its work - divided among several projects over two premises and reaching out to nearly 170 children and young adults - is not hampered by a blinkered vision in which education is limited to literacy and literacy defined - for all practical purposes - as the ability to merely write one's name. Adopting a wide approach to education, the volunteers at this NGO use an integrated teaching methodology that not only assures sustained interest among the students but also provides hands-on experience and wide exposure that these children of urban villages would otherwise have missed out on.

The Vidyapeeth project provides primary education at a full time school with paid staff. Indraani emphasises that the children she and her fellow volunteers coax into coming to school have never been in such an environment before. Initially, the school was all about learning personal hygiene and grooming. The age varied from four to eleven years. The goal of the Vidyapeeth is to bring the children up to a level where they can be enrolled in the appropriate class in a Government school. Through co-curricular activities and lots of love, the volunteers have managed to kindle the desire for a good education in the children in most cases.

For the brighter students there is a Gurukul programme, which provides special coaching so they can be sponsored to attend an English medium public school. 25 such achievers have been successfully placed. St. Soldiers Public School in the vicinity is one of the institutions participating in this programme.

Indraani points out that when a child gets admission and a scholarship to attend an English medium school, this prestigious event is transmitted to others in the family or neighbourhood, and in this way her message of the importance and delights of education is passed on.

There is also Pathshala, an open school under which students receive three hours of basic education. For the teenagers who need a means to earn a living, there is the Karigari scheme, which provides vocational training in disciplines like tailoring, carpentry, plumbing, electrical assembly and motor driving.

Not only is Indraani's message of education infectious, her enthusiasm for this work is too. Rajpal S. Duggal, a management consultant who was approached by the NGO for his professional services, was so touched by the crusade that he is now an active volunteer.

His sense of belonging is evident. Apart from normal teaching, he says, "we take them on a lot of excursions - at least four to five a year. We want to transform the lives of all 170 children on our rolls. Right now we feel we have touched the lives of around 60 of them. We want to carry this much further. Our five-year plan is to touch the lives of 5000 children. Almost 60 percent of students are girls. This year we have placed around 22 children in Government schools. Our aim is to introduce schooling to those who have never had the chance."

Theatre plays an important role in Literacy India's activities. Indraani Singh comments on the surprising talents that have come to light through workshops with alumni of the National School of Drama. They present one major production a year, the preparation for which usually starts during summer vacation. Last year's production was "Ali Baba Chaalis Chor" while this year's - recently concluded - is "Charandas Chor". Indraani is gratified at the emotional attachment shown by professional theatre associates like Ish Amitoj and Shrivardhan Trivedi.

"Ali Baba" was also presented in Kolkata, and the entire trip starting with the train journey - a first for most of the participants who had never been outside their village before - and including visits to the Science City and other sites in Kolkata was a grand learning experience. "Charandas Chor" will be presented in Shimla shortly. Like most school heads, Indraani is loath to let her wards miss a day of classes, and therefore tries to arrange the performances during holidays as far as possible.

She is also happy to assert that her `star' pupils, despite seeing some of their peers selected by television channels, have got a level head on their shoulders and give far more weight to their studies than any celluloid or silver screen dreams.

To raise community awareness the volunteers organise street plays on important issues such as family planning, AIDS awareness, health and the like, in the villages. At present a professional agency is conducting these presentations, and the aim is to present 500 plays in eight or more villages of the Palam area. The group is confidant that their own students will soon be capable of running this project, named Jagrukta.

One might think that Indraani Singh, busy flying her Indian Airlines aircraft all over India and to neighbouring countries, would be immersed enough in fulfilling the demands of career and home, and might want to rest on her laurels as the first woman commander of an Airbus 300, not indulging in any other strenuous activity. But she firmly believes that as a professional she has a duty towards her fellow citizens and reiterates that all professionals in various walks of life ought to contribute at least 10 or 15 percent of their time, energy or thought towards such constructive activity. This percentage she quotes as a bare minimum that each well educated citizen owes as a debt to society.

Such a contribution is not really a sacrifice, as it will reap its rewards, she affirms, in the form of a safer and more stable society, since young people deprived of education and sustenance are likely to drift into destitution and crime.

Literacy India is not an unalloyed success story. It is about gruelling work schedules, a continued struggle to build up a corpus fund and rock-like commitment. But there are lessons her for everybody.

Not every one of us can fly a plane. But that need not stop us from piloting a new course for ourselves and the people around us. And even the skies need not be the limit.

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