05 Dec., 2007

Reaching out to horizons

Poverty failed to stop them. These young achievers stood out in the crowd, braved all obstacles and yet made their mark. RITUSMITA BISWAS talks to some of them to know their story.

Madhavi Baidya never saw her father. He died in an accident before she was born. Thrown out of her husband’s place, Madhavi’s mother Sonali Baidya fled to Kolkata from her ancestral home in the city suburbs. Her aunt, who after being widowed in an early age stayed in one of the slums of Kolkata and worked as a domestic maid, gave Sonali shelter. A class V pass out, Sonali had no other option but to work as a domestic maid. She worked as a part-time help in about 6 houses in the city but made sure that her daughter did not follow her steps. Despite the pressing economic need in the family she sent her daughter to school daily and continued her education up to college. The problem started when Madhavi stepped out of school and was ready for college. “We needed money and there were none. It was impossible for me to pay Rs 6000 as Madhavi’s admission fees and also meet her monthly college expenses.”

It was at that time that Kallol Ghosh of Offer India came forward and volunteered to pay the admission fees. Professor Santanu Ray, director of ICFAI business school and one of the well-known philanthropists in the city also joined his hand to help Madhavi. And thus despite her extreme economic poverty Madhavi continues to study in the college and is all set to become an honours graduate soon. Cases like Madhavi, whose mothers are working as domestic helps, are not rare. They are spread across the nooks and corners of our diverse country. These are the young achievers who with a little support make it to great heights.

Take for example the case of Balaji. Son of coolie worker Aswathaiah, K. Balaji is one of two sons in a family of three. After his mother’s passing a few years ago, Balaji’s father became dependent on him, to help with running the house, as he is the eldest son. It was difficult growing up without a mother. Living in a thatched- roof house in Chappadipalli, a village near Palamaner, every monsoon brought with it many woes. The roof would leak, but, nothing could be done about it. He hoped that he could somehow help in getting a better life for the three of them. He went to school and then college, but it was very hard as the college was twenty kilometers away from his house. They were never financially stable. How much money could coolie work fetch, given that work comes only at seasonally? However Balaji was a boy who had never stopped dreaming. He joined an e-Learning program organized by an NGO SMILE and acquired basic knowledge in computers. He then went on to do an advanced course and finally managed to secure a job as office assistant at Centre for Social Action Trust, Palamaner. He says he is very happy with the job.

Manisha too has a similar story. Being a rag picker she was leading a condemned life of a destitute on the streets of Noida till an alert social worker of Sankalp Saksharta Samiti, a partner NGO supported by Smile Foundation, one of the largest organizations for children that has over 100 projects and 1 lakh beneficiaries, noticed her wandering aimlessly on the streets and brought her to the school being run by the organization. During her initial days in school, she was shunned by her other classmates as she was dirty and smelled bad. Persistent counseling and patient efforts of teachers brought about a change in Manisha and from being a directionless child she became a focused and responsible child. Today, Manisha holds a government job and leads the life of an aware and confident young woman.

What sets apart these young achievers who despite their extreme poverty manage to make their mark? Is it just luck or destiny or do they have some innate qualities in them that make them stand in the crowd. “Luck surely is a factor. Had professor Santanu Ray and others not helped me to fund my education, my dreams of making it to the college would have been just that; that is a dream,” says Madhavi Baidya. But she agrees that she always had the dedication to study and the dream to achieve her goals. “True I got help but yes I looked around for it,” she says. And it is typically this industriousness and dedication, which sets a young achiever apart from the rest.

“Every child has immense potential in him and her. We just need the proper spark to light it,” says professor Santanu Ray of ICFAI Business School, who is also instrumental behind running the ICFAI republic schools, a project for underprivileged children across the country, in Kolkata.

The need of the hour is to focus on education and health of the children, believes Smile Foundation. The foundation that reaches out to over one lakh children has recently launched a mega project at national level called Smile On Wheels with an objective of providing a comprehensive mobile health care service to under-privileged community in outreach, remote rural areas and slums. “We do not select any young achiever from the crowd and give them any special treatment. However, if we do notice a particular child is talented in some area or other we try to offer special help to him/her so that her talent is nurtured,” says an official.

Dedication, sincerity and the ability to dream seems on the other hand the key factors that is instrumental in making these young people successful. For instance, if we take a close look at the careers of Swarnajit Chatterjee and Md Arif we realize that theirs is a tale of grit, determination and dedication. Unlike many of their counterparts in the city, these people did not have an access to the so called premium schools and branded coaching classes with ace tutors promising to make them sail through the board exams.

Nonetheless both of them topped their respective board exams in West Bengal. There was a point when Swarnajit thought he would drop out of school. Had his school - Bankura Sonamukhi Bora Chhatra School - not 'adopted' him, it would not have been possible for Swarnajit to take his Higher Secondary exams, let alone possibly top it.

His father Hariprasad Chatterjee is the owner of a small grocery store while his mother Mili Chatterjee is an Anganwadi worker earning not more than Rs 1200 per month. The small amount that the family earned was not sufficient and forced Swarnajit to ponder whether or not he will be continuing his education or drop out and lend a helping hand to supplement the family income. His schoolteachers, however, were reluctant to let him go. After all he had always stood first in class and was a brilliant student.

With their active support Swarnajit focused on his goals and continued to toil hard to achieve results that would justify the faith that his teachers had on him. It was a rigorous study of over 12 hours per day that helped Swarnajit to achieve his best results and score around 91.8 % in the board exams. Though the HS council has officially not given the rank, yet survey shows that in the state no one has crossed his score of 459 on 500. “I studied for over 18 hours a day. I knew I had no second chance and so I had to make it to the top this time,” Swarnajit says.

“Hardwork definitely has its dividends. Despite your poor condition if you have the grit to overcome every hurdle and the tenacity to fight back you will surely meet your goal,” says Professor Ray.