In the village of Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, there is a family compound that belongs to the farmers of the land. The walls of the compound are dotted with names of generations of zamindars. The legacy of land and labour left behind by these men are remembered every single day. Renu Singh had a problem with this wall.
There were no names of women there, she rightly pointed out. Women, who were just as much a part of the history and legacy of Bulandshehr, were reduced to nothing but an occasional ‘Shrimathi’ on these walls, which translates as a mere Mrs. Renu was born and raised in the USA, but her family hails from Bulandshehr. Her father to whom she often complained, Virendra Sam Singh, was one among the wealthy zamindars of the land.
Sam, as his peers in America called him, moved to Massachusetts to attend college. He graduated a textile engineer and found a job in DuPont, the international chemical Conglomerate.
Sam recalls that racism was rampant in the area at the time. Yet, he sat with his white colleagues during lunch simply because of his education and his rare expertise in the industry as a research and development engineer. This was when the importance of an education and a title struck him.
Over the years, when his daughter Renu complained about the status of women in their extended family back in India, this was the lesson that Sam would draw from.
Back to his village after a global career
Sam worked for 40 years at DuPont. He worked his way through many positions until he became the head of their South Asia market. But his colleagues say that no matter what, he stuck out like a sore thumb in business.
Sam’s heart belonged to people. He would always ask how each decision affected the people. This might have been an odd trait in the business world, but it was the stepping stone for the next part of Sam Singh’s life.
Four decades in another continent can isolate many from the problems of the land where they come from. But for Sam, it only made his desire for change stronger. Each time his American colleagues discussed another New York Times piece about poverty in India, he knew he had to go back and do something about it.
In 2000, he returned to Bulandshehr with an idea – a school to educate all the girls in the area. No girl in the history of these families had gone to school and it was no easy feat to create a different history for 40,000 girls.
Sam went door-to-door with his proposition. If the parents sent their girls to school, he would deposit Rs.10 in their bank accounts for each day they attended. In this way, they would have approximately Rs. 40,000 by their graduation. They would receive free education, three meals a day, and free uniforms, books, and bicycles to travel to school. At the end of three months, he had 45 students.
He knew that the school would take time to gain the needed licences so he struck a deal with the principal of a nearby government school. The girls who went to Sam’s school would be enrolled with them, and they could even keep the money the government granted as fees. But their education would happen at Pardada Pardadi, which was what he called his new nest.
The next big hurdle
Within a week, the number of students dropped to 14. The staff he brought all the way from a Mission School in Tamil Nadu became despondent. But Sam reminded them that what mattered were the 14 who stayed. They would soon make that number 15, and maybe someday, 40,000.
Pardada Pardadi took three years to become an officially recognised school. In these years,Sam developed a unique schooling model, attuned to the various needs of the community.
The parents of young girls worried that they wouldn’t learn how to do household chores if they went to school. So Sam made sure that once in every 20 days, every girl got a chance to take part in the student-run team that cooked, cleaned and looked after the school. They also learned sewing and a few other vocational skills.
Many parents began taking their children out of school to get the money. So Sam made a rule that no money would be given until the child graduated class X and turned 21. They could get their money by 18 if they got married after school, but no married child would be enrolled in their school. He made this rule so that parents would stop getting their daughters married so early.
Parents sold the books and bicycles he gave them and used the money for their household needs. So he arranged for two buses that would pick up any child who had to travel a distance of over 7 km.
The biggest problem of all though was that these girls did not have job opportunities in their villages once they graduated. So Sam decided that they would sell the bedspreads, quilts, pillows, and curtains they made at Pardada Pardadi. After a lot of struggle, he managed to open up a boutique in Gurgaon, as well as two retail outlets in Meerut and Bhopal.
Sam’s path was filled with obstacles. But today, Pardada Pardadi educates over 1,300 girls from Bulandshehr and 50 nearby villages.
The way forward
Sam Sigh invested a large chunk of his money in running the school. But a few years after he began, he reached the upper limit he had capped while planning how much he would give.
So he began looking for funds. He reached into his corporate pool of wealthy and influential friends. Many of them were moved by what he was doing and donated generously. But there were still numerous costs to be met. He decided to fund the girl’s education from the money that was slowly trickling in from their textile business, after paying the salaries.
While the entire business ran on losses for a while, Sam kept pushing and remodelling his structure. Each girl completing her education was the only profit he needed to keep going.
Eventually, their finances stabilised. With support from the likes of Bharti Foundation, Axis Bank, and the US Embassy in Delhi, Pardada Pardadi now stands on a much more firm ground.
In 2004, Sam cleared his family’s sugar cane fields to plant his school. Today, every girl who graduates from Pardada Pardadi has a tree planted there in her name. If she doesn’t get to become a part of a family tree, Sam decided that she deserved a tree of her own.
You can support the work done by Sam Singh and his team at Pardada Pardadi.