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Vidyadhan – Bridging the Gap

Education at the primary and secondary levels in India is free in India when delivered through government schools. The quality of education varies wildly, and there are some glaring shortcomings in the program, which is why most NGOs and non-profits working in this sector tend to focus on early education, midday meal schemes (to keep kids in school) and supplemental tutoring. This makes eminent sense, since fixing the foundation and getting the basics right are the keys to literacy.

But kids who finish elementary school and have aspirations for college are often left out in the cold. There is tuition, however low, and hostel fees for those wanting to study out of town. In my own family, my father-in-law was an orphan who was determined to go to college and ended up begging for sponsorship from rich merchants in Bhubaneswar to pay his fees. He ended up with a phenomenally successful career and set up a small trust called Digjyoti to help kids like himself in Orissa.

The Vidyadhan program, set up by the Sarojini Damodaran Foundation, is a similar program conceived on a much larger and more professional scale. The program started in 1999 in Kerala and has given out 4,000 scholarships so far. About 750 students are helped each year at this time, but the plan is to grow this number to 100,000 in the next 5 years and cover as many other states as feasible.

I spoke with Meera Rajeevan, the program director, recently via phone and asked her how the candidates are selected. Since the program began in Kerala, where Kumari Shibulal and SD Shibulal, ex-chairman of Infosys, hail from, a network of trusted friends and family have been involved in means and merit testing. Currently, aspiring candidates for the scholarships have to pass an entrance test and an interview after which a volunteer visits the family to ensure the candidate does indeed have a financial need.

Volunteers also monitor progress on a regular basis (often more than once a year) to determine of the candidate continues to be eligible. It is a fairly rigorous process with hardly any misuse of funds by any recipient in the decade and a half since the program began. Each district has a district coordinator who keeps tabs.


One of the earliest recipients of the Vidyadhan Program is Dr. R. Gauthamen, who is currently on a Fellowship at Oxford. Dr. Gauthamen’s family ran a tailoring business in Alleppey that was constantly subject to the vagaries of demand. When he graduated high school with high grades, he was interested in studying medicine but his father could not afford the college or hostel fees. His teachers recommended him to the Foundation and after a detailed interview and home visit, his scholarship was approved. (The test was added in later years.)

The Vidyadhan program supported him through his MBBS and MD in India after which he rajendranapplied to Oxford. Today he is doing a super-specialty in neonatology at John Radcliffe Hospital. He also works as a sponsor and liaison for the Vidyadhan program in London. “When I first met Mr. Shibulal,” he says, “I asked him why he was doing this for me. He told me that the day would come when I could pay it forward and that is what I am doing.”

Kumari Shibulal personally interviews all the potential candidates in Kerala. “Once, when I was talking to a girl who had applied, she broke down and started crying about her father’s ill health and how this was causing her family a great deal of suffering,” she recalls. “When she left after the interview I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I ran behind her to assure her that everything would be all right.” The Shibulals ended up paying for the family’s medical expenses as well. The family takes a very close and personal interest in this activity of the foundation and is keenly invested in the success of each student.

Now the program is expanding into Karnataka where the foundation takes the help of a local NGO called Vidya Poshak to administer background checks. Says Meera Rajeevan, “Unlike Kerala, we find that parents in rural Karnataka are less interested in sending girls for further education. So we are focusing more on the girl student here.” The program also gives a higher weightage to kids from rural areas.

In order to scale to 100,000 students, though, the SD Foundation realizes that it cannot be the only sponsor. The approach now is to find external individual and corporate sponsors from around the world who will directly sponsor the children. In an innovative approach, the Vidyadhan program makes sure that all sponsorship money is directly deposited into the bank account of the student. All administrative fees are borne by the foundation.

I asked Rajeevan if there was any potential for misuse. She confidently asserts that it has never happened, with even drop-out rates being only in the 10-15% range. This number, usually arising from the student not meeting the performance criteria, goes down to miniscule levels for kids who successfully make it to college and is a testament to the selection process. “And even if there were any misuse,” she points out reasonably, “it would be only for a year’s worth of funds.” Sponsors have also access to the students’ grades and fee receipts which brings even more transparency to the process.

What are the challenges for this program? “Each state has its own issues,” she says. “In Karnataka there is less awareness of the need for education.” Also, mentoring is a much needed investment for these kids who often suffer from low self-esteem as they rise above the circumstances they grew up in. Many cannot speak English well and find it hard to participate in the non-academic activities of the institution they join. This is where Rajeevan hopes the one-on-one sponsorship model will make a difference. “It is not mandatory, but if the sponsor wishes to get more involved with the student they are supporting we would very much welcome that.” The program is working on an online mentoring model as well.

As Dr. Gauthamen puts it, “Education is the best route to upward mobility.” To support the Vidyadhan program in its efforts or to become a sponsor/mentor for a college going student please visit

Note: My husband and I have been very impressed with the program and have decided to sponsor one student. Keep checking in here for more updates as the process begins.

India’s Daughters Don’t Just Need a Cultural Change

Facebook has been aflame with the documentary “India’s Daughters” where the filmmaker got unprecedented access to a convicted rapist who laid out exactly the way many Indian men view women. (The documentary has been banned in India, but, as is the case with most forbidden things, has immediately become the most sought-after piece of film on the internet. Follow this link if you still have not seen it.)

Celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Kirron Kher and Jaya Bachchan have taken to the air to express their outrage. I have not seen any of their speeches, nor do I have to. While I was in India recently, the lament was universal – cultural change must happen. The mindsets of people must change, whereby they learn to respect women and value their daughters.

The sad truth is that this call for attitudinal change has been going on for a long, long time. And there is no denying that much needs to be done in this regard. According to Wikipedia

In April 2013, Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat noted that the legal principle of reliance on the sole testimony of the victim had become “an easy weapon” to implicate anyone in a case of rape. Justice Kailash Ghambhir of the Delhi High Court stated that penal provisions for rape are often being misused by women as a “weapon for vengeance and vendetta” to harass and blackmail their male friends by filing false cases to extort money and to force them get married.

If our judges can believe this, boy, we have a long way to go.

And therein lies the problem. We do need the activism that has led to the expansion of definition of rape and the enactment of tougher laws, the activism that still continues to fight for marital rape to be added to the list. We do need to educate our society on the value of women. But while we are waiting for society to catch up, women will still be gang-raped and murdered.

Societal change is a generational, sometimes multi-generational, process. In the meantime what are our women and girls to do?

Let’s look at the statistics. The conviction rates for rape cases in India were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.(Courtesy First Post). Not only was the conviction rate low to begin with, it has steadily worsened over the last few decades.

What’s the point of having better laws if they are not going to be enforced? Enlightenment begins at the courthouse.

Enlightenment also begins at the police station. The estimate of unreported rapes varies between 50% and 90% in India. Rapists are often people in power, at least relative to the victim. Rape is an exercise of that power, of strong over weak, of powerful over powerless. And the fastest way to do something about that is to transfer that power.

First, make separate cells in police stations, run by female officers trained in administering rape kits, supported by prosecutors trained in rape laws, that provide assistance and support to victims. These cells can even provide a level of anonymity till a case can be made against the perpetrator and should be able to provide safe houses for the victims once a case goes to trial.

Second, fast-track rape cases and cases of violence against women though the morass that is the Indian judicial system. If the initial processing has been handled well, these cases should be relatively simple to prosecute. Create a separate judicial panel that is well-versed in crimes against women in each state to adjudicate these cases.

Third, put stiff fines on eve-teasing, groping, and any other actions that are precursors to violence. Today’s eve-teaser gets emboldened when his actions go unpunished and he might well escalate to more aggressive behavior. The local thulla should have the authority to slap that fine and, if he is corrupt (a high likelihood) then he should be reported to the rape cell in the local police station.

A zero-tolerance policy and stiff and swift punishment has to be the first response to this crisis. Nothing signals our attitude towards these crimes better than how we treat the people responsible for committing them. And if it means, Justice Bhat and Justice Ghambhir, that some innocent men are going to be swept up into the system unfairly, well, at least they are going to get their day in court, instead of getting thrashed by a mob.





The Ghost of Christmas Present

Mona Inaya

Ari and MonaHolidays bring on a kaleidoscope of sentiments, unlocking bolted doors to beautiful beginnings, reunions, peaceful endings, decisions to either forgive and let go or be emotionally distant. The magic and excitement that lead up to the big REVEAL on Christmas day heighten anxieties on all levels. There’s sleeplessness, moodiness, tension, mixed with anticipation and perfectionism, all in the name making another happy. And then, when the day arrives, the moment passes beforeyou can truly “enjoy it”. The holiday is over. The clean-up is finally done. The decorations all putaway, without a trace they ever existed, to rummage through again for another do-over next year.

How many of you hide your chaotic life to put on a smile for the future memory frozen in time by the holiday picture? And how many of you feel like the inflatable Santa that just popped, (after it took you 5 hours to set it up), when the special day doesn’t go as planned after all the thought that went into it?

I so wanted to make this Christmas for Ari a really special one. Last year she was too young to Christmas Dinnerunderstand the fuss. I’d been waiting 30-odd years to share the magic of the season with a child and we were in India, where I felt I needed to put in a little more work into something that would have been rather effortless in the United States. I was also terrified of messing up and being like the Grinch who stole Christmas. She and I had gone through a lot in the previous year and I had a crazy notion that a mini Xmas Spectacular would erase all that. Above all, I just wanted to make her happy.

BUT Ari had her own plans. We thought she had the normal seasonal cold/cough but we had to rush her to the hospital for a sudden spike in her fever – a 103.9° temperature (The pictures don’t reflect how sick she was because Christmas magic made her feel excited to dress up). She caught a viral fever and then bronchitis. The doctor who had been her pediatrician from the age of 2 months finally concluded that she has chronic allergy bronchitis, which will trigger from allergy or a cold, and she’ll be susceptible to asthma and other respiratory /lung infections too.
Of course, our Christmas dinner was cut short, after I had spent at least 8 hours in the kitchen, and our spirits were dim, after we’d been on a high all month. And it suddenly was just a normal day… we were sad and scared for her. No parent can stand to see their child silently crying, using their blankie to stop the tears rolling down their cheeks, and confusion in their eyes. It’s not a terminal illness, or even unmanageable, nonetheless, it’s a lesson.

Ari with treeI learnt that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go according to plan, and while no one can plan for the worst, we have to be emotionally flexible, hope for the best, and work around the obstacles. And most importantly, I learnt what was really important to me, to us. I will never forget this Christmas Eve, because as a family, we were there for our daughter’s 1st Christmas. It was/is another reminder of why we are all together. It wasn’t a spoiled evening, or even an obstacle; it simply was proof of how much we care for each other, and how lucky and grateful I am for everyone who came to our rescue!

Mona Inaya, who previously blogged on this site as Yamuna Kona, brings up her daughter as a single mom, and has started a blog where you can follow her journey. Check out

I'm moving!

First of all, a big thanks to all the people who have been reading me here. You guys rock!

Secondly, as some of you know, I have a full time blog called Water, No Ice that is an online magazine for Indian Americans. We recently went with a new theme( sort of equivalent to the urge to move the furniture around the house every couple of years or so) and there is room for my personal articles the way it is laid out now.

I’ve been writing there under the category called “Blog”. I would urge all you subscribers to move over to Water, No Ice and join there. Eventually we’ll move all the articles here to that section.

If you don’t want all the WNI posts and just want the “Blog” posts, I believe there is a way to subscribe only to this particular category. Try it out and let me have your feedback.

Once again, thanks for your support and hope to see you over at WNI.

Ann Killion's journalism is hard to believe

Anyone who has been through the wringer of the longest Democratic primary in US election history has come away with one undeniable learning – the blatant irresponsibility of the media. Using the crutches of “They say” and “Polls show” (“they” and “polls” being the anonymous aggregate of our fears and prejudices) the American mainstream media perpetrated and encouraged the most egregious misogyny, fanned the flames of racism and demonstrated the kind of bias one usually experiences in countries under the yoke of dictatorships.

But when a sports column demonstrates the same kind of feckless reporting, it makes one sit up and take notice. Ann Killion’s article in the San Jose Mercuty News today administers the shock right at the headline – “Swimmer Torres’ achievement hard to believe.

Now Dara Torres, who qualified for the Olympic team last week at age 41, is no stranger to headlines. She made news 8 years ago when she had a comeback of sorts at age 33 after a seven year hiatus. Both times, she overcame competitors young enough to be her daughters. Even then, there were hazy rumors about her suddenly improved performance. Yes, her achievement is extraordinary. Yes, it does make you wonder. But to take your doubt and turn it into an article that completely relies on innuendo to support its argument is really poor journalism.

We’re all more skeptical, but we’re also smarter. We know better than to bite when someone points to their amazing training regimen as evidence that they are purely the product of hard work. We know that doping allows those kind of grueling training regimens. We know that money can buy not only enhanced training, but also pre-test testing and all sorts of edges and nuances. We know that a little storefront in Burlingame can’t be the only place in the United States that was ever peddling undetectable substances…..

The first exposure many Americans had to Olympic doping scandals were freakish female East German swimmers whose performances seemed too good to be true. And they were. We used to think it was just “them.” But the past few years have taught us the hard truth: American athletes are just as suspect.

Dara Torres is an Olympian again.

Incredible. Unbelievable. Exactly.

All Ms. Killion has to offer is the fact that East German athletes, once thought to be almost racially superior because of their Olympic prowess, were finally caught abusing performance enhancing drugs. Ergo, goes the logic, there is something fishy about Ms. Torres’ achievement as well. Once you eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, what is left, however improbable, is the truth.

I see the attraction in posting an article of this sort. There is no downside. If Ms. Torres, who has asked for the most stringent doping tests in a bid to clear the smoke, does turn out to be a user, Ms. Killion would have been proved right. And if she doesn’t, well, Ms. Killion has cleverly covered herself by mentioning that tests today are by no means foolproof.

Why would a respected journalist put out a piece that is pure smear? Two explanations come to mind. One is that there is a real fire behind the smoke that Ms. Killion has generated, except there is no way of mentioning her sources. And this is the charitable explanation. The other is that the entire article is founded on a personal belief that women beyond a certain age are simply not capable of the kind of strength and stamina that gave Ms. Torres a berth on the Olympic team. ( The third, more mercenary explanation, is that of sensationalism, but I am going to give Ms. Killion the benefit of the doubt here.)

I hope, for Ms. Killion’s sake, that it is the first explanation that is true and her argument substantiated with facts in the near future. Even so, she has just downgraded herself to tabloid journalism and diminished the reputation of the paper she works for. A wet noodle goes to the sports editor as well, for letting this article through.

As for Ms. Torres, I wish her well. As a 41 year old myself, I would like nothing more than to believe that us middle-aged mamas are capable of just about anything. I am going to wait for the results of the test, hope for the best and then cheer myself hoarse when she competes.

The one lakh car – A case for despair or optimism?

Tata’s new 1 lakh rupee( $2500) car made enough of a splash to be written about in the San Jose Mercury News( either a testament to the Tata media machine or the growing India sensitivity of the newspaper). Having just returned from a hectic trip to India, I thought I should put in my 2 bits on the subject.

I visited 3 cities in my 3 weeks in India and it can be fairly said I spent most of my time gazing out the window as the car I was in slowly inched its way to its destination. The pace of life turned languid as maybe one or two things from a long checklist got accomplished, if at all. For someone who is in India purely as a tourist who wants to sightsee and shop, it is a jolting reminder to stop and smell the exhaust. The traffic situation in India is so extreme that it is a miracle that anyone wants to add a car to the whole smoggy mess.

Will the cheap car just make things worse?

If the cars are just incremental to the existing overcrowding of the streets, I foresee a day when it will take the same time to travel from the US to India as it does to travel from any major metropolitan airport to your home there! Already many car owners are ceding the stress to hired drivers and the driver-for-rent business is just booming in Chennai. Added pollution will drive up asthma attacks and road rage will migrate from the volatile north to the rest of the country.

But my New Year’s resolution having been to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses, I’d like to take a stab at an optimistic  POV. Say the car, instead of being an add-on is actually going to replace some of the 2 wheelers on the road. This may add to the gas consumption and pollution overall, it might actually improve the state of traffic. Improving traffic by adding of larger vehicles to the mix may soun counter-intuitive, but my brief look at traffic patterns suggests that 2-wheelers are a real menace to society. Unconstrained by size issues, they duck and weave through traffic, making it impossible to maintain lanes, give any wedge room for manouevering and making it very hard for car drivers to follow the road rules( where there are any, of course). Chennai roads were in a state of permanent gridlock thanks to the antics of these motorists with the typical Indian attitude of “If I let you have an inch of space, more fool me”. Whereas in South Bombay, where there are much fewer types of vehicles on the roads, the traffic kept moving , even though there were many more cars than in Chennai.

My optimism may be unwarranted and the Indian government and populace has not shown any particular signs of being traffic-friendly or rule0respecting, but there’s one thing the Tata’s can do that can mitigate the environmental impact of their new product- have easy conversion to CNG or LPG modes of fuel consumption. In every city I visited, air pollution levels are significantly down because taxis and autos have converted to one of the above fuels and if people do have to spend  an extra hour in traffic because so many more of them can now own a car, at least they can do it with relatively less impact on their physical health. Now about their mental health, bhai Tata hi jaane.

The declining value of memory

While I’ve always sucked at connecting names and faces and the past is just a blurry haze, I’ve always prided myself on remembering long strings of numbers, like credit cards, library membership numbers and a rolodex worth of phone numbers. I was my husband’s Blackberry before the Blackberry was created. “What’s that Delhi number again?” he would yell from upstairs for the biweekly call home.

Now my one remaining skill is also becoming redundant. A new free program called Roboform saves the password and login at every site I visit and chose to subscribe to. Not only do I not have to remember my user name and password, I can also choose to forget my name, address and phone number, secure in the knowledge that Roboform has my back. All that is required of me is remembering one master password and should I choose to tattoo it on a less visible part of my anatomy, I am all done.

Over the years, we have slowly been outsourcing our memories. Where once our Brahminical traditions required us to memorize lines and lines of verse and pass on our culture through story-telling from grandparent to grandchild, we now rely on the digital world to be our brains. All contact info is stored and backed up on the computer. Directions to places need no longer be imprinted on gooey gray matter; a GPS will take you where you want to go. My most repeated sentence these days to my children is “Look it up” as pages and pages of forgotten history, geography and science lessons are now available at the touch of a wiki-button.

This devaluation of memory is happening early these days. In school, where once we memorized ‘Daffodils’ and ‘Abu Ben Adam’( I still remember most of those poems and plenty of Kabir dohas), kids have access to online information and no longer need to memorize poetry, prose or math tables. Like a private in an army, all that is required of them is name, address and phone number. Pretty soon, the cell phones every kid seems to be carrying around these days will do even that job for them.

I wonder what is happening to all the memory cells of the brain that are now in disuse. As it is we were only using about 10% of our brains at any given time; now technology invites us to let those few cells go too. Are we simply turning into hosts for our machines? What we consider a symbiotic relationship today is slowly turning us into helpless creatures that would be lost without their PDAs ,PCs, GPSs and other similar electronic acronyms.

A company called Memory Lane offers people with memory loss a chance to recreate their memories in the form of videos, CDs and books and use them to reminisce. It is meant for the extremely aged and those suffering from Alzheimer’s but I suspect I will soon join the ranks of those signing up for the product to keep my memory offline. That is, if I can remember to.