India’s ever-burgeoning youth population has become the subject of plenty of articles, attention and speculation. As per the 2011 census data, around 41 per cent of India’s population is below the age of 20 years. The potential is immense – as a human resource to be harnessed for the country’s development, as a customer base ready to be exploited by wily capitalists, and as the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and problem solvers. But without education, employment and opportunities, this potential can be easily wasted and become an intractable problem of an enormous size. After all, only 4.5 per cent of the rural population and 17 per cent of the urban are college-educated or above (the figures are lower for women—no surprises there), while out of the 74 per cent literate population, primary school level and below accounts for the major share (around 32 per cent). As things stand today, the case for outright optimism is less compelling than cautious anxiety.
With the State grappling with this risky and unpredictable asset, civil society intermediations are imperative to bridge that yawning gap between expectation and delivery. NGOs have a huge role to play in channelling this segment of the population. Whether this sort of dependency is desirable is a separate matter. But there can be little doubt that they are vital in every socio-economic sphere of our society in its current state.
One such NGO that has been quietly doing the good work is Purkal Youth Development Society (PYDS). Officially registered in 2003 but with roots that go back to 1998, PYDS works with children from socially and economically backward sections, providing them with free education of high quality, healthcare and nutrition, and long-term mentorship. Their efforts are not one-time or of limited duration. Recognising the undeniable fact that meaningful impact takes time and nurturing, they ensure that all their interventions are designed to deliver the right results, with deep and focused—rather than broad-based—investments.
The genesis of the NGO can be traced back to the time when GK Swamy decided to help the children from poor families in Purkal, Uttarakhand, who were deprived of the resources needed to successfully complete their education. He began by spending innumerable hours in tutoring them and securing scholarships for the more gifted students. In time, this good work morphed into a school specifically set up for children from impoverished backgrounds. The society and its supporters managed to collect enough funds to establish this school in 2006 (called the Yuva Shakti programme), even as the scholarship programmes were flourishing. Since then, the school has added facilities such as computers, science labs, basketball courts and a library; what has remained constant is its dedication to its target cohort. It has collaborated with well-known organisations in the education space such as International Award for Young People (IAYP), idiscoveri Education (XSEED Programme), and The Global Education and Leadership Foundation (tGELF). The scholarship programme was gradually disbanded in favour of a greater focus on the school.
Aside from free education, four nutritional meals are given every day to the students; not surprisingly, these also claim a healthy chunk of the Society’s expenses. The truth is, the provision of nutritional meals becomes even more indispensable when you consider the statistics on the malnourishment problem in India – as per a 2013 nationwide survey by the ministry of women and child development and UNICEF, the proportion of underweight children in India was 29.4 per cent, and that of stunted children 38.7 per cent. India also has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of underweight children under five in the world. The twin curses of poverty and malnutrition (the former being a major contributor to the latter) make it near impossible for these children to have a reasonably dignified future. As an aside, it has been observed that targeting girls and young mothers tremendously helps in bringing down these rates.
PYDS places special emphasis on the girl child while Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti, a sister organisation, works exclusively for women empowerment. The Purkal school also provides comprehensive health check-ups and vaccinations. The school, which took its first steps towards building the primary school in 2010, has evolved into a day boarding programme with 400 students, more than half being girls, and is affiliated to CBSE till Class 12. The number of students is slated to cross the 500 mark next year. CBSE affiliation came in 2013 and to date, 127 students have successfully passed out. The teachers are aided by a coordinator who makes sure that their performances are up to the desired levels; there is also an activity coordinator to keep tabs on competitions, field trips, student-exchange programmes (including to the United States), and other activities. Aside from studies, children get to dabble in various extracurricular activities and sports. The long hours favoured by the school are meant to enable critical learning and skills training. The underlying idea is diverse, holistic development of these children, keeping in mind the harsh realities of their lives and the toll that it can take, mentally and physically. Each child’s progress is reviewed periodically on emotional, physical and scholastic parameters. In terms of performance, its students do better than the national average in learning abilities, and its board-exam results have been improving year on year with practically zero dropouts (about 96 per cent of its students scored 60 per cent and above in 2014–15), thanks in part to its teaching and non-teaching staff of about 75.
The long hours favoured by the school are meant to enable critical learning and skills training. The underlying idea is diverse, holistic development of these children, keeping in mind the harsh realities of their lives and the toll that it can take, mentally and physically. Each child’s progress is reviewed periodically on emotional, physical and scholastic parameters.
On to life and ongoing plans
The support doesn’t end here. Even after passing out from the school, the Society ensures that its help and guidance are at hand for these young students who are encouraged to pursue higher education; many of its alumni are doing exactly that in reputed institutions. Its ‘On to Life’ programme assists them in counselling and admissions, getting access to grants and loans, finding the right mentors, placement help, and financial support in some cases. As of 2014–15, out of 108 pass-outs, 40 are successfully employed, 50 are pursuing professional degrees, and over 25 are financially supported by PYDS in their higher education. Most of PYDS’ alumni, be it through its erstwhile scholarship programme or its school, are pursuing higher education in diverse fields such as technology, tourism, mass communication and economics.
One of the key learnings for the Society has been that for truly well-rounded education, children need a caring environment that constantly enables their strengths, minimises their weaknesses, and encourages them to perform at their highest level. This paved the way for hostel facilities for 60 girls and 25 boys this year which has heralded a marked improvement in their performance. Future plans include buying a two acres land for more hostels – this will require a couple of crores at the very least. They also plan to establish a Science Recreation Laboratory with the objective of making science a fun learning affair for students and germinating a passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in them, especially crucial for girl students who are woefully underrepresented in this field. The Society hopes to have additional sections in its secondary school and a new programme for the commerce stream, with the sole aim of getting 25 girls admitted to the best commerce and law universities in the country. All these plans urgently require funds from donors old and new.
PYDS is also active in community development projects, with an emphasis on community participation and sustainability. Student involvement is encouraged. Some of its environmental initiatives involve eco-friendly practices such as rainwater harvesting, planting of trees, and collection of biodegradable waste (the initial campaign was run by its students). It has constructed over 50 toilets in homes and villages around its base location, in collaboration with ADOPT Charity. Community-sensitisation efforts against evil social practices like dowry and child abuse take the form of street plays and the ever-popular nukkad nataks.
Issues and learnings
PYDS doesn’t see these interventions as merely operating a school. It acknowledges the fact that without suitable opportunities and education the poor have very little chance of a decent existence. Staying true to its mission of ‘creating leaders for individual, social and global change’, it sees its students as change agents who are capable of becoming catalysts for a larger transformation in the society, thanks to their experiences, intelligence and empathy. The hope is that the students of today will become the future leaders in every professional sphere. The power of education has also led to a gradual transformation in the mindset of the community that it works in, who now recognise the importance of literacy, knowledge and practices such as maintaining hygiene.
Purkal sees its students as change agents who are capable of becoming catalysts for a larger transformation in the society, thanks to their experiences, intelligence and empathy. The power of education has also led to a gradual transformation in the mindset of the community that it works in, who now recognise the importance of literacy, knowledge and practices such as maintaining hygiene.
However, issues are aplenty—as they always are in this country. Despite the overwhelming number of families that approach the Society, current constraints force it to take in only about 21 new students every year, which is only 21 potential lives helped on a yearly basis. Scaling up geographically as well as in terms of infrastructure and resources demands copious amounts of funds—something that the Society recognises. No less challenging are the trauma and exploitation that these children have gone through and are constantly vulnerable to, community sensitisation and efforts to change existing mindsets, and fruitful partnerships with other NGOs. As expounded by its CEO GK Swamy, education is a long-drawn-out process that needs patience but poverty demands constant attention and short-term, quick-fix solutions. The two are, by nature, incompatible.
Some of the more critical learnings include helping these students choose a future that is best suited for them. This may take the form of deciding which field of higher studies to go for or what jobs best fit their interests and skill sets. The right guidance to prepare for the inevitable challenges goes a long way in ensuring that their promising future becomes a happy reality. The children also become more driven and focused once they have a clear goal and are then ready to take on the accompanying challenges. The other key takeaway is that they require dedicated mentors, especially in higher classes. PYDS has taken cognisance of both learnings and, accordingly, are revamping their organisation. It doesn’t plan to increase the number of students significantly in the near future, choosing to focus on improving the performance of its students and doubling their efforts to ensure that they reach out to the poorest of people.
Current constraints force the Society to take in only about 21 new students every year. Scaling up geographically as well as in terms of infrastructure and resources demands copious amounts of funds. No less challenging are the trauma and exploitation that these children have gone through and are constantly vulnerable to, community sensitisation and efforts to change existing mindsets, and fruitful partnerships with other NGOs. As expounded by its CEO GK Swamy, education is a long-drawn-out process that needs patience but poverty demands constant attention and short-term, quick-fix solutions. The two are, by nature, incompatible.
Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti
Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti (PSSS) literally translates into ‘empowering the women of Purkal’, and this is precisely the mission of this NGO established as an offshoot of PYDS in 2003. The idea is twofold: impart skill training to women from underprivileged backgrounds from the nearby villages (41 in total till now), thereby creating a separate stream of income, and then enable them to become leaders and entrepreneurs in their own right. The training comes in the form of teaching them the workmanship behind handmade products (patchworking, appliqué and embroidery) for home and fashion which are then sold to customers, primarily through word-of-mouth referrals. This is a not-for-profit exercise for PSSS. During the six-month training, the enrolled women receive an honorarium (about Rs 750 per month) as well as nutrition and limited medical support. More importantly, preschool education (Shishu-Shakti) is given to their children while they are in training or at work. This is a free seven-hour-long day-care facility wherein the children are given healthy meals, participate in games and activities, and are taken care of. Without this service, many of the women would have been unable to partake in this programme – this demonstrates that care and thought have gone into planning it. In the last FY, it catered to the needs of 54 children; to date, about 250 women have undergone training. The day-care centre is run and funded by PYDS.
Post completion, the women are free to either join one of the existing SHGs operating under PSSS or form their own group. The SHGs are responsible for production of specific items. They are independent entities with their own leadership structures. They have full ownership of their bank accounts and profits although they are free to use the Society’s infrastructure and other assets. Most of the SHG activities are managed by these women, thereby giving them invaluable experience in accounting, finance, management and retailing. The ultimate objective is to enable these SHGs to become mature, independent commercial bodies, with these women as successful entrepreneurs. PSSS’ role here is to be the facilitator and guide with its well-qualified trainers and staff (which includes designers and accountants) and a pool of volunteers, while collecting only a basic management fee from the SHGs. Marketing support is provided as well and this includes exhibitions at popular locations such as Dilli Haat and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. The initial working capital provided by PSSS is gradually being paid off by the SHGs and the medium-term goal is to build their own capital fund.
Following the standard SHG model, a maximum of 10 members can form one group, which then maintains its own bank accounts – one for savings, which each member contributes to on a monthly basis and can be used by members as and when they need it; the second is the business account wherein all sales proceeds are directed. Raw materials, wages and operational expenses are paid for from this account. The underlying agenda here is economic independence for these SHGs and their members, a mix of social benefits with pure profit-making, if you will.
Due to space and resource constraints as well as mobility restrictions for some women in remote areas, an outreach programme was set up in 2012–13 at Gangol Panditwari, a village eight kilometres away from the original PSSS building; it could support 50 women. However, due to rental issues it has been closed down, even as the one in Jharipani has flourished with 35 women working there currently, thanks in no small part to a supportive landlord. Some of the expected benefits of the Stree Shakti programme are the income generated and the skills and education imparted to these women. Less obvious are the increased aspiration levels with regards to their children’s education and nutrition as well as their own life decisions, hygiene and sanitation, and proactive involvement in local self-government.
Funding gaps and plans
Despite its strong network of supporters and donors, funding continues to be an issue, as is the case with smaller NGOs. For instance, PSSS received donations to the tune of Rs 23 lakh in 2014–15 – that hardly covered its day-to-day operations and left little scope for expansion, in terms of the number of women it could take in or additional centres that it could set up. The current subsidised lunch programme is a huge drain on available resources while also not being utilised by all the women since they are unwilling or unable to pay the five rupees per meal. PSSS is currently on a mission to raise funds for a free lunch programme and extensive healthcare and medical facilities for these women to help them work longer and better. Interested donors are encouraged to reach out to them.
Transport facilities are also incredibly important to enable more women to join this programme. As anyone who has travelled in the rural areas of this country will tell you, even travelling from one village to the next can be a difficult task. A free bus service in Purkal and a reimbursement mechanism at Jharipani has helped tremendously in recruiting women from the poorest neighbourhoods to join PSSS. When there is so much work to be done with so little money, even spending a rupee on transport is a significant investment for these women. To this end, PSSS hopes to raise the required amount to continue delivering this service.
PSSS is currently on a mission to raise funds for a free lunch programme and extensive healthcare and medical facilities for these women to help them work longer and better. Transport facilities are also incredibly important to enable more women to join this programme.
PYDS received about Rs 5 crore donations in 2015–16 but its expenses are also bigger, with a major portion spent on education, food and transport. All surplus amounts go to the general fund. Around 50 to 60 per cent of its donations come from India, with foreign donors not far behind. Some of PYDS’ more famous donors are The Hans foundation, Big Tech, Max India Foundation, and Institute for Education. It has also been certified and recognised by Give India, Credibility Alliance, Charity Aid Foundation and Samhita.
The Society understands the ongoing need to strengthen the reserve and corpus funds and constantly seeks out corporate sponsorships. PYDS and its affiliates are also distinguished from the NGO pack by their willingness to share financial information, as demonstrated by the fact that all relevant details, key metrics, progress reports, expense breakdown and bank account information are readily available on their website. FCRA compliance (which has acquired new urgency in the past couple of years) documents are also up on the website.
There is little doubt that PYDS and its sister organisation are doing some great work in an area that finds little attention from the government or the media. Uttarakhand is in the bottom half of the Human Development Index among all Indian states, and also has high levels of inequality when it comes to income, education and health dimensions. In this harsh light, PYDS’ work becomes even more invaluable for the people of Purkal. The next step is to expand in terms of student intake and additional programmes and centres. These will need careful, long-term and detailed planning, not to mention an obvious increase in donations as well as more efficient operations and expense management. The Society understands the need for additional donors and, hence, actively seeks out corporate sponsorships and partnerships. While it does have a presence in NGO-related websites and newsletters, a more robust media strategy with special importance given to social media can help tremendously in getting its message out there in front of people who matter. This has become vital in today’s hyper-connected world where attention spans are limited; thankfully, there’s always space for good work to be highlighted, if pursued in a smart way. Plus, it is much more cost-effective and can supplement traditional ways (like networking and PR) of seeking out funds. There’s also a strong case for PSSS to expand to new locations and branch out on the training skills imparted, so that the SHGs can delve into a diverse range of businesses. There’s also a case for educating these women in basic finance, English and Math.
The Purkal model and learnings are assets that can be replicated in other areas with the right strategy and intentions. One would like to see PYDS partnering with other NGOs to deliver similar kinds of social service, with the former acting as a mentor thanks to its over 10 years of field experience. This can circumvent the current issue of funding for its various sub-projects. One hopes that this issue becomes a thing of the past so that this Society is free to explore its potential to the full, just like its many students.
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