Our journey so far…

Here I am looking back, writing this piece on the 14th of March, 2019. It has been 2 and a half years since I made my first visit to Bhanwata, one of the villages where we work, and almost 2 years since we set up our first learning centre at Agar. We have covered a long distance since then, from a time when we had absolutely no money and no team, but just a dream. We have now set up 2 learning centres and have started our work on livelihoods. We are actively looking for land in the village so that we can start our work on healthcare.  During this period, there have been a few hits and a few misses. Nonetheless, we are wiser.

Before I go any further, let me take a step back and explain the underlying philosophy, what one may call the vision of our organisation. We have 2 broad goals:

  1. Put an end to all migration from rural areas to citiesWith this, we would have solved twin problems of family distress in rural areas and pressure on infrastructure in cities. The idea is to bring all the good things of the city into the village.
  2. To strengthen the bond of community which I see is dying a slow death, even in the rural areas.

Keeping these goals in mind, we decided to work on livelihoods, education and healthcare. We are building skills on one hand (through our education program) and setting up business ventures on the other hand (so as to make use of those skills). This will help us generate employment in the village. Besides, it will help us generate revenue which could then be used to fund our learning centres and the nature cure hospitals, which is the 3rd pillar of our model. While education and healthcare will be undertaken under a trust, the livelihoods projects will be undertaken by a private limited company (as it is a ‘for profit’ activity), which will in turn fund the trust.

Livelihoods

Our livelihoods projects have got off to a very good start. Within the first 5 months of operations, we are expecting to do about Rs 800,000 in revenue (including unbilled revenue). We have started off with stitching of bags, pouches, wallets, organisers, etc. Watch this video of our first livelihoods project.

What I am especially excited about is the upcycling of plastic so as to generate value out of waste, while at the same time relieving Mother Earth of plastic waste.  Here are some of our products.

                     Generating gold out of waste

We would be glad if any of the FMCG companies could tie up with us wherein we make these products using waste plastic of their products. They could then use these products to do their gifting. This way, not only do they get good PR but there won’t be any extra cash outgo from their side as they anyway would have spent money for their gifting program. On our side, it will help us generate employment in the village and also help us generate revenue which in turn could be used to fund the learning centres and nature cure hospitals.

We also did a soft launch of our food processing vertical in Jaipur and have got very positive feedback. So those who decide to visit us in the village will be treated to what you see below – yes some delicious cookies. We have also been baking bread, growing wheatgrass and should be marketing mustard oil later in the year. 

             Delicious bajra cookies

We have also taken the initial steps of setting up an astro tourism venture. We are partnering with SciComm India, a Noida based company. We had an audit team come from their side and they found our location to be very suitable for astronomy.

Of course, the food processing and the astro tourism ventures are yet in their infancy and all the hard work lies ahead of us. We also want to do something around carpet weaving, which is the main occupation of people in Agar.

Education

After having taught in mainstream urban schools for 7 years, I would go to the extent of saying that children should not be sent to schools. Conventional education and institutions that we call school today are beset with a lot of problems – use of force and fear to get work done, curbing curiosity, age based division, etc. The list is long. Those who are interested to read about these problems, and what could be the possible solutions, could read through these 2 blogs:

  1. Memoirs of a dropout teacher (Part 1) An insider’s view of conventional schools
  2. Memoirs of a dropout teacher (Part 2)

In order to overcome these problems, we have set up learning spaces called ‘Masti ki Paathshala’ where children can simply be themselves and learn what, when and how they want to learn. Masti ki Paathshala is not a ‘school’ but a space for children to explore their interests and passions. We have no curriculum, no exams and no marks, all of which in my opinion stifle learning. Attendance is not compulsory.

Our goal as facilitators is simply to expose children to different experiences. In the past, we have done workshops on photography, film editing, graphic design, stitching, art, the sciences, etc. We are presently in the process of setting up an astronomy laboratory so that the children can make friends with the world above us. As our children come from very poor families, they have hardly travelled beyond the nearby areas. In order to broaden their horizon, we want that they travel as much as possible, so that they are exposed to the world outside. For instance, in the month of May, our children will be travelling to Kheerganga, near Manali, and volunteer with the Healing Himalayas Foundation, an organisation that works on cleaning the Himalayas. This has been fully funded by the Pathways World School Aravali, a school of repute in Gurgaon. In all likelihood, our children will volunteer alongside children from Pathways. I have always believed that the poor and the rich, the city bred and the rural people need to interact more so that we empathise with each other and better understand each other’s perspective.

As of now, we have set up 2 Masti ki Paathshalas, in Agar and Bhanwata. While the Masti ki Paathshala at Bhanwata has been set up more recently, the one at Agar shall complete 2 years in April 2019. Watch this video done by one of our boys on our first anniversary. 

A proposed change to our model

Our education program has been a casualty of our livelihoods projects. Owing to a very small team, there has been a dilution of focus ever since we launched the first livelihoods project in November 2018. This has led us to also question our existing model. As of now, we have no contact with the local Government or private schools. While this gives us the flexibility to run our operations the way we think is most efficient, this also has some problems:

  1. We have very few girls who come to Masti ki Paathshala.
  2. Leave aside a few exceptions, we get children only from a radius of about 500 metres.
  3. Largely, I have been unable to play games with the children in the evening, which I feel is so necessary to build a good relationship.  

For these reasons, we intend to work in the Government schools from the next academic year. While we will continue to not follow a defined curriculum and not examine children, we wish to work in the Government schools which I feel will increase our reach. In fact, I am already teaching English in the local Government school and the experience has been quite good. From the next academic year, we intend to increase our offering in the Government school to programming, graphic design, art and craft, etc. If the pilot is successful, we could then scale up and work with more Government schools. 

Healthcare

We intend to set up nature cure hospitals as soon as we can buy land in the village. Nature cure requires only locally available inputs – mitti (Earth), hawa (air), paani (water) and herbs that can be grown locally. Therefore, it does away with expensive medicines and the requirement of doctors. Besides being a ‘near free of cost’ model, it is highly effective. Thus it is a highly effective, localised and a low cost model, which makes it highly suitable for rural areas.

Our Team

I am glad that our team size has now expanded to 6 full time members, supported from volunteers from across the world. Besides Kaluram and I, our team now comprises of:

  1. Alwin, a young man from Kerala, who is himself learning and will be teaching programming and artificial intelligence to the children.
  2. Deepu, a boy from the village, is working on the food processing vertical, and also chips in at other places.
  3. Gowtham, from Andhra, is doing all the baking. He also works with young children.
  4. Ritu, is heading the stitching vertical.

A big thank you to all our volunteers who come from across the world. While they stay here for a short while, I am happy that we have formed lifelong relationships.

Funding

Thanks to our donors – individuals and institutions, small and large – we are no longer hand to mouth. But of course, we are still paying each other a pittance as salary. That surely must go up to make our work sustainable. While donations would be helpful, I am hopeful that our livelihoods projects start generating profits so that we become self sustainable.

I am happy that we have set up the ball rolling. Of course, it remains to be seen how far the ball rolls!!

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