For nearly three years, Chandigarh-based Sandeep Kumar has maintained a routine of attending calls, listing down details, hopping on to his Activa, travelling to said locations and returning with heaps of old/used books and stationery.
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The 28-year-old founder of an NGO, Open Eyes Foundation, has been running a unique initiative called ‘Raddi se Shiksha’ where he goes from door-to-door to collect these books and stationery, later distributing them to underprivileged students.
The initiative has helped empower hundreds of government school and college students with more than 10,000 books till date.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India, Kumar narrates how he was born to a farmer in the village of Dhani Mau in Haryana’s Bhiwani district. He stayed in the village until he could complete class 12, after which he moved to Chandigarh where his bureaucrat brother and sister-in-law were posted.
After graduation, he took up the Junior Basic Training Course, which presented him with the prospect of teaching students in government and private schools until class 5.
As part of his training in the final year, he worked with a government school in Bhiwani. The exposure caused him to identify some jarring gaps in the ‘free education’ system.
“The students were very intelligent and would pick up all the concepts we taught in class. But when I asked them if they were taking notes, they would stare at me with blank faces.”
‘We don’t have books, pens or pencils, masterji,’ the kids would lament.
Initially, the youngster shelled money from his pocket to fund these basic requirements for some deserving students. But as soon as word spread that a teacher was giving out free copies, many students started asking him for free books. This led him to probe the matter.
“According to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, the government provides free education to these kids until class 8 along with a certain amount of money for books and stationery. A lot of times, this money is transferred directly to their accounts but ends up being used for other things. But when I visited some students who were taking books from me, I realised they were living in abject poverty. Their families did not have enough money to put a square meal on the table, how would they use the allocated money to buy books? I was deeply disturbed, but I was clueless about what to do.”
After returning to Chandigarh, he saw similar issues in city-based government schools and colleges. But this time, he decided to visit these institutions and identify students he could help.
“Because of a lack of textbooks and other study material, these students feel isolated from the rest of their class. I wanted to find a way to help them.”
What happens to textbooks, guides, half-used books, and stationery once a student completes an academic year, he wondered. Well, they are thrown out or land up with the raddiwala.
So he took the first step of his journey from his own home.
“I found some of my old textbooks and half-used notebooks that had blank pages. I separated the unused pages and bound them together to make ready-to-use books and refilled old pens. I thought if I could inspire other people to do the same, we could help some deserving students.”
Many encouraged him to formalise the initiative and build a trusted network. This led to the establishment of his NGO, Open Eyes Foundation.
A journey that he began alone has a network of 200 volunteers across the city today.
‘Raddi se Shiksha’ works under a rotation system, where they reuse old books and make new notebooks using old copies, registers, and files.
“We also collect these books at our office in Sector 39B. Before issuing them books to needy students, we request them to fill a form that says that they will return them (textbooks/study material) once their purpose is served. In this way, we expand the circle of change.”
The initiative appeals to willing individuals, housing societies, educational institutions, and corporations. One way to get involved is to organise a donation/collection drive and notify the team, who will arrange for a pick-up from your doorstep in Chandigarh.
Kumar adds, “Hotels, corporates, and educational institutes can also donate their one month’s dry waste as a CSR activity to support the project.”
Apart from Raddi se Shiksha, Open Eyes Foundation also conducts remedial classes or free tuition in slums, enrolling kids in government schools. They have distributed sanitary pads to more than 600 women for four months, and regularly organise awareness sessions on menstrual hygiene.
Where does the Foundation get the funds? Well, Sandeep owns a car service station in Bhiwani, proceeds of which sustain these initiatives. Donations from members, volunteers, and good samaritans also make things easier.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)