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Going bananas over computers

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That's the scene among the children of Navlakhumbre village in Maharashtra under a CSR initiative.

Go for IT: Children at work in the computer lab set up with corporate aid at Navlakhumbre.
Go for IT: Children at work in the computer lab set up with corporate aid at Navlakhumbre.

Surekha Kadapa-Bose

The village's enthusiasm led UPS to set up two computer labs with 50 PCs each and all the other infrastructure needed.

It's a sleepy village nestled amongst rocky mountains. Thatched huts and one-room houses huddle together on either side of a narrow, dirt road. At first glance, Navlakhumbre presents a pretty picture-postcard look. But gradually one notices several youngsters in shabby clothes, sitting idly around the houses and staring with vacant disinterested eyes at the lone vehicle manoeuvring the narrow road with difficulty. Most of them are employed on farmland, but only during the monsoons. An air of poverty overhangs the place.

Amongst these surroundings, a giggly young voice suddenly chirps, "You know, computers have become as important as air and food to us. We need computers for everything we do!" Just about 3 ft tall, dressed in faded, frayed blue pants and pink T-shirt, 11-year-old Aarti Shette enlightens us on the plus points of computers. "You have to press ctrl S to save your copy," advises Manjusha Shette, an eighth standard student. "I am writing a letter to our teacher using Windows 98," explains Sadanand.

They are among 650-odd children from Navlakhumbre and the surrounding nine wadas where poverty and illiteracy are rampant who are discovering the wonderful world of computers. "All this is courtesy the UPS (United Parcel Service) people-to-people programme," said Shivaji Bhegade, a floriculturist who was instrumental in bringing the programme to Navlakhumbre.

The UPS programme identifies one village each year in a different country in need of development such as education and technology. Started in 1998 the programme has travelled to villages in China, Mexico, the US and Poland. Last year it was the village of Lipa in Poland, while this year it is Navlakhumbre's turn.

The attempt is to provide village children with educational avenues through technology. "The selection of a village for our programme depends upon the demography, the poverty rate, the consistent desire by the villagers to learn and the willingness to change their lifestyle. We had undertaken surveys of many other states and villages before zeroing in on Navlakhumbre," explained Pirojshaw Sarkari, Managing Director, UPS (India).

Navlakhumbre, with a population of 3,500 comprising mostly small farmers with rain-fed land, is about 100 km from Mumbai. The nearest railway station is Talegaon on the Pune-Mumbai route. What attracted UPS were the nearly 700 students in the village who could have a bright future if guided properly. Not only the students even the adults were interested in learning computers. "We have a 75-year-old man who comes to learn computers after the school closes and our lab is kept open for the adults of the village," said Sagar Shinde. Together with Amar Chavanand Shruti Atre, he teachs the kids and adults computer technology.

Enthusiastic response

The village's enthusiasm led UPS to set up two computer labs with 50 PCs each and all the other infrastructure needed. Employees of the company from 12 countries along with officials from Germany, the UK and Estonia got together and built the labs from scratch in the village.

The secondary school, Shree Ram Vidyalay run by the Indryani Vidyamandir Education Trust, as well as the primary school run by the Zilla Parishad. did not have computer labs or proper furniture and faced constant power failure. The people-to-people programme set up the labs at these schools within two days; it put up false ceilings, and installed desks, fans and ACs.

And, importantly, it set up huge generators to ensure that the computer classes continued uninterrupted even during power failure. "We got roads and proper electric connection in record time from the local government so that our children can benefit as much as possible," explained Bhegade.

Bhagyashree Kulkrani, who commutes daily from nearby Talegaon on her two-wheeler to teach the children English says, "The enthusiasm of these children to learn is so contagious that we don't mind even coming on holidays to teach them." She is surprised at the ease with which the kids from the age of six to 15 have picked up English and knowledge of computers.

Shruti and Bhagyashree, who are both city folks and employees of UPS, admire the cooperativeness of the villagers. "The needs of these kids are minimum, they are happy playing with stones and don't pester for toys. They complete the household work such as washing vessels and clothes, filling up water and looking after younger siblings... all with a happy smile and still manage to reach the school in time to learn! Many of the urban children don't show this kind of eagerness," say the teachers.

A little enticement...

However, initially, the children here too used to absent themselves frequently as they were unfamiliar with the world of computers or such dedicated teaching. "We started offering each child a banana a day in the classes and the schools started getting 100 per cent attendance!" says Sarkari.

The children were also given uniforms, schoolbags and books. Village elders got free health camps.

The programme also provided garbage drums at different places in the village to help prevent people from throwing garbage on the roads.

Soon, the children of Navlakhumbre will be e-connected to students of Zunhua and Xibaipo in China, Lipa in Poland, Guanajuato in Mexico and Hungry Horse of Montana, as part of the programme.

Sitting in their respective villages, these village children will literally gain a window to the whole wide world.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 23, 2007)
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