In 2006, Dhirendra Pratap Singh completed his Bachelors in Mathematics (Hons) from the University of Delhi, fairly certain that taking up a public job would be the next chapter in his life. Little did he realise at the time that the India Fellow programme, for which he had gotten selected (in 2007), would change the course of things to come. Organised by iVolunteer, the six-weeks programme, placed young Indians at a field partner organization, where they worked on a specific project or issue. Dhirendra’s placement with Himalayan Gram Vikas Samiti took him to Balligaon, in Uttarakhand.
He recalls, “I was extremely idealistic at that time. I came into the programme thinking I was going to bring about major transformations in those 6 weeks.” He adds, “My mentor at India Fellow brought me down to earth and made be more realistic than idealistic.” He went on to describe how at the Balligaon school, there were just 2 teachers for a school comprising of 5 classrooms. Moreover, one teacher also managed the midday meal programme and ensured that lunch was served to the children. “Really! What were they thinking?” he exclaims. Rather than transforming things, he came away having learnt, in his own words, “the true meaning of both patience and challenging.”
Soon after the India Fellow programme, in 2007 itself, he was selected for an internship with the University of Jakarta in Indonesia. At that time, Jakarta was facing a big issue of street children; children from poor families from neighbouring villages/islands were running away from home in search of a better life and finding their way to Jakarta. As part of their efforts to find a solution to the problem, the Indonesian Government organised a learning programme called “Children of Tomorrow.” The programme invited selected Fellows from countries which had seen this similar problem (like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan etc.) to share their ideas on how to tackle this problem.
Whilst interacting with the runaway children, Dhirendra and the other Fellows soon realised that the children were, more than anything else, very “aspirational”. And in fact, it was their aspirations which had made them run away, in search of greener pastures and better opportunities. To prevent runaways, it thus was important to give children opportunities in their hometowns. To test this finding, a pilot was also run. With the help of a local NGO, shelters for children were set up. These were safe and secure shelters that provided children with both food and an education. In fact, the children themselves were taught how to man the same (from cleaning to cooking etc.).The splendid job the children did of running the place coupled with the fact that there were no further displacements, was proof enough of the Fellow’s findings.
Dhirendra’s experience with the India Fellow programme as well as the Jakarta internship stayed with him. An enthusiastic debater and a voracious reader, he landed up reading a lot of editorials and research that insinuated how “the country was going to the dogs.” This also spurred intense discussions between him and his college roommates – Debashish and Sharat. The trio, along with a fourth friend Anne, decided to put some action behind their words. A simple action – they began volunteering at a local NGO. They did a variety of things, helping the NGO out with urgent requirements, but the one thing they did not like about their volunteering was that “there was no structure to it. It was too random in nature.” At the back of their heads, the quartet believed that if they had their own organisation, they would do a much better job of managing volunteers. And that’s exactly what they went on to do – set up their own organisation – Milaan.
Before setting up Milaan as a school, the quartet toyed with many ideas. One option was to go back to Balligaon for a long term and make a difference at the school there; but the language barrier (they speak Kumaoni there) prevented them from doing so. They felt they would not be able to catalyse the people towards a transformational change.
Dhirendra’s family had ancestral land in Sitapur; so that was an option they began exploring. “Sharat and me drove down to Sitapur with a blank slate one day, to explore all opportunities.” A 15 day door-to-door survey of 10-15 villages in the area followed, which led them to the gaps/needs of the area – a major one being that there was no secondary school in a 13 km radius! Which meant that most children, especially girls, were going to school till the 5th standard, then dropping out. Says Sharat, “When you educate a girl, everything falls into place. Crime goes down, health goes up, economic development goes up. Everything falls into place!” Sitapur clearly could do with a secondary school.
But of course they started small – by sponsoring the education of a handful of children. From textbook and stationary support, they went on to provide a much needed roof to the building where the children used to study. A grand building stands on Dhirendra’s family’s property today. The ground floor houses 8 classrooms, a makeshift kitchen and the principal’s office; and leads up to a yet-to-be-constructed second floor. With time and money, this will be completed.
Time will also see the entire school being an English-medium one. (It is currently Hindi-medium from 5th standard onwards as the older children went to the Government primary school and do not have a strong English-language foundation.) Along with certification (which will be applied for once the school is complete. Currently, a tie-up with a school in Lucknow enables children to appear for their 12th standard examination from there. ), the quartet’s dream* of giving Sitapur a quality, Government-recognised school will be realised!
*While Debashish works with Star TV now and married life has taken Anne elsewhere, it is the duo of Sharat and Dhirendra that continue to run and build Milaan.