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Village Girls Battled Society Rules to Ensure Access to Public Ground

Shreya Kumar
Seema and her little sisters usually spent their evenings looking over the playground that was behind their house. They used to sit there together, braid each other’s hair and cheer silently for their two brothers who used to play football, and sometimes cricket.At times, their mother would scold them for sitting outside watching the boys in the field. For her, girls should not be sitting or roaming around outside. It was against the local practice for girls of the village to step out alone or even play in the ground.And nobody raised a question on this practice. Except Seema.Seema and her sisters expressed their interest in continuing to play games on the ground. They were met with a lot of orthodox viewpoints and were forced to step off the ground. They silently reached out to an NGO working in their area – IT For Change, and became a part of their programme called Dwanigalu (Voices). Since 2016, under this programme, the NGO’s team has been working with adolescents to strengthen their leadership and agency, especially that of adolescent girls in the community. They imparted ‘rights orientation’ using an innovative training model that combines both traditional and technological mediated methodologies. The focus was on ensuring mobility and access to public places for adolescent girls.When Seema and her sisters expressed their strong interest in continuing to play on the ground, IT For Change conducted the Dwanigalu training for them. These girls, after understanding that it is their right to access as well as play on the ground, started motivating other girls in the village to join them as well. Along with Prakriye, a field unit of IT for Change based in Mysore,they worked out an action plan. This action plan consisted of a series of discussion with parents of the girl children in the village, a showcase of audio and video screenings of women sportsperson, followed by discussions with elders and influential personalities of the village. Slowly, after a series of deliberations, the parents and elders of the family started turning in favour of access being granted to girls to access public spaces and the ground. The team along with the girls reached out to the youth group that was responsible for managing and using the playground. Separate schedules were created for different groups to play on the ground, ensuring right of mobility as well as safety for the girls of the village. This entire process took over eight months of repeated consultations, deliberations and negotiations with different stakeholders of the village. But towards the end, the smile on Seema’s face spoke of how important this ‘right’ was for girls of her village. That no Seema’s of the world could ever get banished from the ground because of her gender.Currently, IT For Change is also running Adolescent Training Programme in more than 25 villages. And the villagers are slowly turning in favour of supporting girls with their rights and choices. A small one, but a definite win!Watch the video here!*Name has been changed to ensure privacy. About IT For Change:Founded in 2000, IT for Change works at the intersection of digital technology and social change, with a view to promote social justice and gender equality through research, policy advocacy and field practice. Field Unit of IT for Change: Prakriye manages community information centres, a physical space, mobilising women towards using technology to access information.EdelGive supports the ‘Namma Maathu, Namma Jaaga (Our discourse, our space) programme which aims to build a supportive community ecosystem for the prevention and redressal of all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls. Visit: About EdelGive FoundationEdelGive Foundation is a grant-making organisation, helping build and expand philanthropy in India by funding and supporting the growth of high-calibre small to mid-sized NGOs. EdelGive makes, receives and manages grants, to empower vulnerable children, women and communities via a zero-cost platform.
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Empowering Girls Through Technology: STEM Solutions for Hygiene and Sanitation

Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja study in Andhra Pradesh Social Welfare Residential School, Veapada, Andhra Pradesh. Aspiring to become scientists, all three of them often discuss the need to devise solutions for global problems. During a casual conversation with her friends one day, Priyadarshini realized that many girls in the community were suffering from urinary tract infections. The doctor placed the blame on poor washroom hygiene. Furthermore, some girls avoided drinking water just so they didn’t have to use the toilet. Having studied about the importance of water in the body, Priyadarshini knew just how hazardous it could be for them to reduce water consumption. She discussed the issue with Rupa and Sreeja one day. “Let us talk to the cleaning staff and see if they can maintain better hygiene in the washrooms,” said Rupa with determination. When the three of them went to meet the workers, they were sorry to hear their plight. “So many girls and women use these toilets, maa. We have to clean the toilets three to four times a day. The rest of the hostel also needs to be swept, dusted and mopped. Yesamma has a severe backache from all this cleaning work. I, too, get so tired by the end of the day. What can we do, maa?”, said Lakshmi, the cleaning lady, helplessly. Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja later found out that close to 600 people were using the hostel washrooms. They realized that the problem was deep-set, and much thought and serious action would be needed on their part. But what could they do? How could they improve the hygiene levels and, at the same time, support the hostel cleaning staff? Were the resources available to them enough to devise a viable solution? The answer to these questions came from the SheCodes Innovation Program run by Learning Links Foundation in partnership with NITI Aayog, Government of India and Dell Technologies. This program provides a platform for girls to solve pertinent problems through tinkering and innovation. It also gives them access to modern technology and equipment. Under the SheCodes program, the three girls applied the principles of design thinking and figured out that a humanoid robot would be an ideal way of achieving their goal. The system they envisioned would ensure more timely and efficient cleaning of toilets, with the sensor technology detecting foul smells, turning the robotic arms on, and flushing water till the odour reduces. They used tinkering software like Tinkercad and hardware like the Arduino board to build their prototype. Thereafter, they went on to collect consumer feedback on their prototype and used it to refine their design. The entire process was very challenging for these school girls but they proved themselves to be stronger. With the support system established under the program- consisting of mentors, teachers and their school principal- they were able to give a concrete shape to their vision. Today Rupa, Priyadarshini and Sreeja continue to work on their robot. Their ultimate aim is to provide safe and hygienic washrooms to all. On the occasion of National Girl Child Day 2020, Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, felicitated the team for their innovative work!The SheCodes program has empowered many a girl to explore new ideas, come up with tech-driven innovations and make their mark in a male-dominated STEM world. An excited Rupa, visibly thrilled at the success the trio has seen, says, “It was to fulfil my dream of becoming a scientist that I started attending the tinkering sessions. Through the program, I have participated in the Tinker Marathon 2019. I never thought I would get selected for the nationals. When I got to know, it was the best moment of my life. My teachers supported me greatly in the tinkering lab as I learnt the hardware and software for designing.I also got a chance in the SheCodes Top 30 program. The tablets provided by Dell Technologies and Learning Links Foundation were a great help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the lockdown, we were able to work on our prototype using the tablets. The bootcamp also helped me learn about fascinating concepts like 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. It helped me work on my English-speaking skills, too. I have been able to pass on my learning to others through the project orientation sessions that I conducted for students in my school, to get them to participate in STEM competitions.”The girls in the SheCodes program are emerging as future STEM leaders, inspiring many others in their journey to becoming effective change leaders.   
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I Couldn’t Reenter the Workforce. So I Helped 40,000 Women Restart Their Careers

Gayathri Tharanipathy, 33, didn’t anticipate that it would be five years before she could rejoin the workforce when she took a career break in 2016. A Javascript developer, Gayathri says her many attempts to get back to work were all in vain. Either her confidence was lacking during interviews, or there were not enough companies willing to hire women with a gap in their professional career.“I was working with Tata Consultancy Services from 2010 to 2016 after which I went on maternity leave. The leave extended into a career break, but I began actively looking for jobs as soon as I could,” says the Chennai resident, adding, “I gave a few interviews when I realised my knowledge of technology was lacking. So, I enrolled myself for an internship with an e-commerce platform to get hands-on experience of working with new technologies but soon after that, the pandemic hit and my hopes of finding a job dwindled further.”This may well be the story of millions of women trying to rejoin the workforce. In 2017, World Bank estimated nearly 20 million Indian women missing in action from the workforce during 2004-2012.But it was at this low-point in Gayathri’s professional career when she found Avtar — a diversity and inclusion platform that helps women get a jumpstart on their second career paths.Having experienced the difficulties of rejoining the workforce first-hand, Dr Saundarya Rajesh founded Avtar in 2000 and has since helped over 40,000 women find successful careers.“Actually, once we crossed about 35,000, we stopped counting,” laughs Dr Saundarya as she narrates her story.Dr Saundarya Rajesh, founder at Avtar — an inclusivity and diversity platform that has helped over 40,000 women with their second career paths.Uprooting the ‘deep-rooted mindset’ behind women rejoining the workforceBorn in Bengaluru to a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Dr Saundarya grew up in Puducherry. “I learnt diversity for the very first time right there in my elementary school classroom where my classmates ate differently, spoke differently and were very different persons,” she says.After her schooling, she completed her Bachelor of Arts course with honours in English Literature in 1988.Speaking about the start of her own career, she says, “After I completed my undergrad, I applied for an MBA program at the University of Pondicherry. Citibank came to the campus during my final year, and my husband (then batchmate) and I both got placed at Citi.”She adds, “A placement at Citi was a huge deal back then. The offer that I was made at that time was Rs 6000 per month, and the next highest offer [from a different company] was not even Rs 3000.”To work for Citibank back in the early 90s, she says, was exciting. “The country’s first-ever email system, first-ever credit and debit cards, first-ever point-of-sale terminal – Citi was a hotbed of innovation. And I was a fast tracker, with two promotions in two years, in quick succession. But my third year turned out to be fateful, when post marriage and motherhood, I found it unsustainable to continue a full-time job. Flexibility, part-timing, work-from-home, etc. were not even words in the corporate vocabulary. With no option but to take a complete break, I quit,” says Dr Saundarya.A couple of years after her break in mid-1995, she decided to seek opportunities to re-enter the workplace. “To my shock and disbelief, I found that organisations had deep-rooted mindsets about women coming back to a career after a break. I also realised that conscious inclusion of different kinds of people, with different orientations towards life, work, families, etc. which was a great booster of a positive culture, was starkly missing,” says the 52-year-old.The miniscule number of women who did manage to find their way back to the daily grind was nothing to write home about. “Even if companies did hire second-career women, they were treated as second-class citizens. The empathy was lacking. And it was not because corporations at that time were filled with anti-diversity folk, it was simply because there was no awareness. Around this time, I began teaching at a local college. Out of a need to understand the system better, I began researching – on women’s careers and organisations’ connection with women,” she says.This is what led to the start of Avtar on 3 December 2000. She “wanted it to be different” from the usual ‘avatar’, which means ‘reincarnation’.The team at Avtar with Dr Saundarya Rajesh.A second shot at a career“It was my husband who first mooted the idea that I become the solution to my own problem,” Dr Saundarya says, adding, “Mine was not such a capital-intensive enterprise. I needed money to rent a small office, some computers, and salaries for my team for a few months. The seed capital for which was given by my mother-in-law.”Launching a platform to combat years of misogyny wasn’t easy.“When we started India’s first career service for women – Avtar I-WIN, in 2005, we found that women were unclear about their role identity – they were educated yet were not encouraged to pursue a career. They were urged to be aspirational in their studies, but when it came to creating an independent identity of their own, the family stalled,” she says.Conflicting demands, especially on younger women professionals, leads to huge workforce drop-offs.She explains, “Even as we convinced organisations to relook at their hiring and create more welcoming workplaces, we also felt that the intentionality was missing in many women. We asked ourselves this hard question — do women really make the most of it when given opportunities? The answer lay in intentional career pathing. This is a technique that helps women manage both the half-circles of their life.”And herein is how Avtar differs from the many job portals in the market.“One representative from Avtar was regularly in touch with me. She encouraged me to give more interviews that I was suited for, and that is how I got an opportunity to join as a senior support engineer in the tech arm of an MNC in August 2020,” says Gayathri. The 33-year-old adds that Avtar coordinated with her for the entire process until her date of joining and even followed up with her months later to ensure she became a full-time employee.“I have recommended Avtar to all my friends who are actively looking for jobs who tell me they are currently going through various training programmes,” says Gayathri.“If you set an alert with regular job portals, your email will be filled with jobs that you are probably not suited for or interested in. But Avtar is different. Over the five months that I was on the Avtar platform, they didn’t send me many opportunities. They asked me what I was looking for and accordingly followed through with opportunities,” says Gayathri, adding she never thought it would be possible to get another job, especially with her baby and a four-year career gap.In an all-new Avtar“We began helping organisations in recruiting second career women in the early 2000s. A modest 480 women professionals seeking career returns were hired by some of the leading MNCs through our recruitment drives,” recalls Dr Saundarya, adding that kick-starting a career for the initial candidates was difficult. “We needed to not only educate the corporates – guide them on creating welcoming workplaces, provide sensitisation training to managers, enable the creation of more inclusive job descriptions, we also needed to mentor the women.”She adds, “These are women who are no strangers to the workplace – they have worked, been in the corporate environment before and then for a variety of reasons, decide (or are forced to) drop off. They need a lot of support – their skills need to be honed, their confidence re-built, and a sense of community created. Over time, we have stopped making this just about finding jobs for women – it has become a full enablement package. Corporates work with us to not just provide jobs but also help the women get back on their feet – with a plethora of training options.”In November 2020, the company launched MyAvtar — a job portal for marginalised society sections, including the LGBTQ+ community.“It brings together organisations who are deeply invested in community building, but not just as a CSR item – and job-seeking people, whose job search is essentially different,” she says.“A friend of mine recommended I try Avtar. I was looking for a job change, specifically something that was LGBTQ-friendly. I got in touch with a representative of Avtar and immediately started getting calls for different interviews. And after two-odd months of signing up for the platform I got a job,” says Sachin Pendharkar, who works as a software developer.“People from Avtar are closely working with candidates. They follow up after every interview. It was different because I didn’t have to hide my identity. I knew it was a safe place to work, and no one would question me about my sexual preference. Here, you also know that the company recruiting you is inclusive,” adds the 27-year-old, who is based out of Pune.Driving change at the grassrootsThe Avtar team is also reaching out to young underprivileged girls for the mentoring program Puthri, which was started in 2016. “This is to create career intentionality in them. Today, we have 62 live projects across as many schools, where we work with over 6,500 girl children from deeply underprivileged families in the age group of 13 to 18,” says Dr Saundarya, adding, “A Puthri scholar is selected by her school and enters the program when she is in her Class 8. She is mentored by us for five years and exits the program after completing her Class 12 and getting into a grad course.”It is no wonder that in 2016 the Government of India recognised Dr Saundarya’s efforts, in the area of women’s workforce participation, as one among the #100 Women Achievers.Dr Saundarya Rajesh with the Puthri students.“Each of us 100 women received the award from Smt. Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development in Jan 2016,” she says with a glimmer of pride.From helping a little over 400 women back in the early 2000s to more than 40,000 finding jobs today, it took one woman to change the narrative who continues to lobby for women and the marginalised to get a fair shot of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts.The story has been extracted from 'I Couldn't Reenter the Workforce. So I Helped 40,000 Women Restart Their Careers' (
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SWAN Livelihood Building Capacity through innovative training and learning programme!

Swan Livelihood is a Delhi based start-up that empowers youth through innovative training and learning programmes. It started functioning in January 2020 by imparting training to the youth from the economically weaker sections of the society. The training curriculum involved a comprehensive in-class training followed by connecting the participants to the employers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the operations of all at the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) institutions including Swan Livelihood came to a complete halt impacting the job aspirations of innumerable youth.Meghna Joshi, a social entrepreneur and the founder of the Swan Livelihood could grasp the situation well through her experience of several years in the corporate and social sectors. She could very well relate to the ‘pain points’ of youth coming from the economically weaker backgrounds, college going students and working professions through her intensive insight into different levels of the society.To tackle the situation and to provide counselling support to the youth, SWAN launched a new up-skilling platform ‘Skill-X’, which included a series of specially designed workshops to train the youth for a competitive professional environment. The online workshop sessions conducted so far aimed at enhancing proficiency in Creative Planning, Writing Emails, Effective Communication, Setting Goals with a series of reflective modules, evoking Creative Consciousness through creative self discovery, mind mapping and visual journaling. All the courses are designed in-house and are continuously fine-tuned on the basis of the feedback from the participants. Detailed surveys with over 100 participants, discussions on the problems being faced by them in getting employment, the skills they would like to learn and further upgrade on their existing skills have helped in preparing these modules.The online training sessions have received good response from college going students, early stage working professionals and late stage experienced people as well. The online sessions are conducted on one to one mentoring mode with groups and individuals. Self-reflective exercises, activities and frameworks conducted during these workshops has helped individuals in building their capacity and understanding their true potential, says Meghna, who did her graduation in Business Economics (Hons.) and masters in Environment & Development. Born to parents who held senior positions in the Government of India and are now the key supporters of SWAN initiatives, she finds it easier to discuss the problems threadbare with them. “During my stint in the professional journey, I realized that there is a lack of mentorship support and felt that a robust mentor-mentee connection can create new opportunities for the individuals in attaining their true potential and also learn from the expertise of the other person. This becomes crucial for women professionals and women entrepreneurs. In order to provide new avenues to budding entrepreneurs SWAN Livelihood is holding networking, discussions, learning’s and brainstorming sessions every Sunday over various issues of common interests as a part of new initiative called the Sunday Learning Circle under Skill-X. Each member of the group gets a chance to present a theme of his/her own interest every week and so far we have held six successful sessions through various facilitators and budding entrepreneurs. The main idea is to disseminate the work or thoughts, come across like minded people, get suggestions, or support that can help in finding new dimensions and forge partnerships”, says Meghna, who is also an art enthusiast, a nature lover and an avid bird watcher heading the GBBC Delhi Chapter, an annual event organised by the Bird Count India every February. The passion for bird watching inspired her to name the venture after the bird SWAN, ‘the mythological Vaahan’ of Hindu goddess of education, Saraswati.The SWAN team plans to diversify further into e-learning so that they can impart skill-based learning to many more people. It may serve as a milestone in their quest to attain sustainable development through the SDGs-2030 that advocate technical, vocational education training (TVET), decent work opportunities and providing help to young adults. 
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Gas Stove to a Goat: Teacher Couple Spend 10% of Salary to Help Needy For 6 Years

A school teacher couple, of Pathardi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, have emerged as promising social entrepreneurs helping destitute women, widows, orphans, distressed farmers, needy school children, among others.For the last six years, Popatrao Funde (40) of Waikarwasti Zila Parishad (ZP) Primary School and wife, Anuradha (39) of Ranjani ZP Primary School have been putting aside 10 per cent of their salary for their philanthropic work. So far they have provided assistance to 1200 garaju (Marathi for ‘needy’) in this Western Maharashtrian municipal town in “an effort to give back to society".It all began in June 2014, while Popatrao fell unconscious at work in Dhaswasti ZP Primary School and was rushed to a hospital. He recalls, “The physician told me I had fainted due to low blood pressure and that I should be thankful to God that I survived. It was then that I decided to do my humble bit for those in need and try bringing some cheer to their lives, especially to those who are not as fortunate as I am.”Every Sunday, the Funde couple visit localities in the neighbouring villages to seek out those who could do with some assistance — financial or otherwise. Be it a sewing machine for a hard-pressed couple, clothes and books for a school-going child, birthday gifts to a child, a goat for a farmer couple, daily rations for an orphanage or a crematorium worker, a gas stove for an eatery on a cart, footing the hospital bills of an ailing factory labourer, a wheat grinder for a housewife-entrepreneur — the duo have helped with it all.Auradha Funde (left) with a family whom they gifted a goat.A school which once housed cattle gets a makeoverMost ZP primary schools in Maharashtra are in remote areas, unconnected by roads and far away from urban settlements. These schools with only two teachers have a student strength ranging from 1 to 60.During his 10-year tenure at Dhaswasti ZP Primary School in Dhaswasti, 11kms from Pathardi comprising majorly of Dhangars—a pastoral community of shepherds, wool weavers and buffalo herders—Popatrao motivated friends, well-wishers and acquaintances to help equip the two-room rural school with computers, e-learning kits, loudspeakers, benches, water purifier, toilet facilities, etc. In 2011, Sheetal Dhas, a Class four student of the school stood third in the Maharashtra Government’s State Scholarship exam while Sagar Kute, also from the same class, stood 10th in the district.Anuradha (left) and Popatrao (right) with a couple they gifted a sewing machine too.In 2016, Popatrao was transferred to Doiphodewasti Zila Parishad (ZP) Primary School. “The day I arrived at the school, some time in June, I found that cattle had made it their home. Undeterred, I stripped to my trousers and began cleaning the classrooms and the premises. Soon the villagers arrived and surprised at what a teacher was doing, began assisting me.”He reached out to the villagers, convincing the parents to send their kids to the school. The school resumed with 16 students reaching a strength of 20 within months. He gifted stationery worth Rs 2,000 to the students, and appalled by their oral hygiene, he gave away toothbrushes and toothpaste, too. He motivated several men of the village to give up alcohol, formed a Bhajan Mandal and also created a women’s savings group. Age-old disputes among villagers were resolved too. “I also promised a sum of Rs 1,000 would be deposited in the Sukanya Yojana for every new-born girl child,” says Popatrao.The Funde Couple (left) with another family they gifted a sewing machine too.Within the first eight months, he helped raise donations which led to the school acquiring computers, water purifiers, toilet basin, all totalling Rs 10 lakhs. He motivated the villagers to adopt water conservation methods, helped resolve disputes, encouraged people to take up shramdaan activities in order to clean up the village’s surroundings. “Fortunately, the Ahmednagar District Collector attended the school’s annual day which made a great impression among the villagers who had never seen a government official before,” says Popatrao.Anil Mahadeo Kawade who while being the District Collector of Ahmednagar in 2017 attended the annual day event at the 20-student strong Doiphodewasti ZP School. Now the Commissioner, Cooperation & Registrar, Co-operative Societies, Pune, recalls, “Popatrao has an innovative approach towards teaching kids. Seated on the floor, he interacts with students from first to the fourth standard, simultaneously and he has had amazing results with them.”Since December 2019, Popatrao has been serving as a teacher at Waikarbasti ZP Primary School and has equipped it with e-learning systems, a projector, water tank, furniture, teaching aids, and game equipment etc. with the help of donations raised by well-wishers. Due to his innovative teaching methods, he was selected by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Culture of Government of India, for a week-long puppetry training workshop in Hyderabad.According to Pathardi Municipal Corporator, Bandu Patil Borude, the Funde couple have earned the trust of the locals due to their exemplary social activities. “We need more people like them amongst us. Those who come to the aid of the needy and the destitute,” he says.The Selfless FundesFollowing the onset of the pandemic due to Covid-19, the couple has been unable to reach out to people personally but still continued with their good Samaritan initiatives. Anuradha says, “We started posting details about our activities on social media and have been receiving scores of referrals for the assistance which made our job much easier.”During the pandemic, the couple have provided daily rations to 50 Adivasi families, and also helped out 20-year-old Dipak Rakh, who grew up without parents. “We got to know of Dipak through a Whatsapp contact and gifted him with a cheque Rs 10,000 and assured to take care of the costs incurred for his MPSC exam preparations,” says Anuradha.With a school-going child and elderly parents to support, besides EMI payments for their house and two-wheelers, the couple admit they have spent “over Rs 3 lakhs” on their humanitarian activities.But humorist, inspirational speaker and story writer Dr Sanjay Kalamkar who has known the couple for long says, “Though they say that they spend a mere 10 per cent of their salary on philanthropic activities I believe they spend much more.”The Fundes continued their good Samaritan work even during the lockdown.The story has been extracted from Gas Stove to a Goat: Teacher Couple Spend 10% of Salary to Help Needy For 6 Years ( 
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Husband-Wife Duo Use Domes, Recycled Materials To Build 300 Homes; Save 30% Costs

Dhamani structure, housing 22 family members in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, grabbed regional media’s attention in 2009. There was a sea of visitors outside the newly constructed yellow home, made from local bricks and recycled materials.Everyone wanted to know how the 2,200 sq ft house, accommodating mango and coconut trees, was constructed with a budget of merely Rs 8 lakhs.The monumental feature of the house, its arch which celebrates the old architecture, is at the heart of the structure. The skylight slits on the ceiling help hot air exit and allow cool air to enter from the lower rat trap cavity in the walls. Rat trap cavity method is a brick masonry method of wall construction. Here the bricks are placed in vertical positions instead of the conventional horizontal positions, thus creating a hollow space within the wall.Dhamani house“We slashed construction costs with our vernacular material palettes like stone and bricks and use of climate-responsive designs such as brick vaults and arches,” Praveen Mali, co-founder of ABHA Architect tells.The aesthetic and architectural principles of Dhamani house can be reflected in the 19-year-old firm’s construction projects. Mali started the sustainable firm along with his wife, Vidya, with the sole purpose to build green homes by using traditional practices. Integrating aesthetic designs like a dome, arches and vaults is their unique selling point.The Sangli-based husband-wife duo draw inspiration from William Laurie Baker, the British-born Indian architect and pioneer in constructing sustainable homes using mud and other local resources.“As the construction industry flourished with an influx of modern construction materials like cement, glass and marble, we started devaluing traditional methods. People’s definition of a house changed, as it turned into an asset with a long-term investment. Investing money in a house that didn’t match modern conventional standards was not appealing any more. We wanted to remind people that ancient constructions have lasted for centuries in India. Buildings were built in a way that respects the climate and we need to reinforce that,” says Mali.Praveen and Vidya MaliFrom residential, commercial to institutional structures, the duo has constructed nearly 300 houses across Maharashtra and Karnataka. In the majority of the houses, the duo has been able to save 25 to 30% of costs with their innovative designs.Mali and Vidya share why they are bringing back the norm of domes and arches along with insights into their eco-conscious material palette and passive cooling strategies. These are not only cost-effective but are known for their durability and disaster-resistant features.Repopularising Domes to ArchesBesides, the historical significance and symbolism, the semi-circular arch, the vault — an arched covering of stone, and the dome hemispherical structures have several architectural advantages.“Due to its ratio of high volume to the surface area, domes require less building materials and thus use less energy. It promotes thermal insulation and maximises solar gain. Since domes are corner-less, they allow for optimum air circulation. As for the arches, a two-dimensional curved beam construction, they can carry a much greater load than a horizontal beam can support. A vault [French voûte, from Italian volta] is a type of arch, usually of stone or brick, serving to cover a space with a ceiling or roof,” says Mali.Based on their low-cost and aesthetic appeal, Vidya and Mali have successfully convinced many clients to adopt biblical designs.Recycled Materials, Fly Ash Bricks & MoreEntering with ideas of eco-architecture in an arena littered with carbon-emitting construction materials was not easy. Not only did they have to deal with a lack of sustainable construction materials but also grapple with people’s ignorance.“More often than not, we have to hunt for appropriate and quality building materials that may delay the construction process. We even started manufacturing our own bricks in the process but had to stop due to some reasons,” says Vidya, adding, “We patiently explain the benefits of all the materials used and their historical significance."Brick is the most striking material in every structure by the Malis. Different types of bricks like burnt bricks, recycled, fly ash and compressed mud-brick form the foundation of the building.“While burnt bricks are durable and resistant to abrasion and fire, fly ash bricks are lightweight and absorb less heat. The wire cut bricks can be made from discarded bricks and mud bricks are low cost and low embodied energy,” explains Mali.The use of bricks and other materials like stone, tiles, wood, walls and fillers depends on the geographical location. For example, in Konkan regions, they use laterite stones and wire-cut bricks dominate in the Southern region of Maharashtra and Karnataka.Cost-Effective & Climate-Responsive StrategiesVidya and Mali have always eschewed modern architectural techniques like Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC), steel bars, steel plates due to their carbon emission-causing factors. And facts back their claims. For instance, cement generates around 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.Malis opt for load-bearing structures over RCC constructions. In this system, walls bear the load of the roof. It is more economical and ecological than RCC.Ventilation, controlled open spaces and distinguishing passive cooling methods are reflected in each of their near-perfect projects. This is achieved through verandahs, courtyards, rat trap cavity walls, roof tiles and filler slabs.Explaining the technicalities of such methods, Vidya says, “Filler slab is an alternate slab construction technology where part of the concrete in the bottom of the slab is replaced by a filler material like Mangalore tiles or clay pots. Both the rat trap method and the filler slabs provide thermal insulation, resulting in cooler interiors during summer and warmer interiors during winter.”On a parting note, Vidya and Mali reinforce the need to combine sustainable practices and traditionally significant designs for a greener future.“We must try and treat the Earth as our home and refrain from polluting it. Civil construction plays an integral role and if architects, builders and engineers move towards the eco-friendly process now, we will see a tangible result in future,” adds Vidya.The story has been extracted from Couple Use Domes, Recycled Materials To Build Homes; Save 30% Costs (
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Low-Cost, Innovative Check Dams Help 8,000 Jharkhand Farmers Save Water & Earn More

Around 25 years ago, villagers in the Khunti district in Jharkhand saw a massive amount of tree cutting carried out for development purposes. Locals say the activity was so rampant that about 100 trucks of wood were being carried every day.Moreover, the absence of afforestation drives to compensate for the massive environmental damage led to depleting groundwater levels and water shortage. The natural water springs and canals dried up. The situation worsened, when from 2010 onwards, the villagers no longer had water to bathe, and drinking water became scarce.Despite spending lakhs of rupees, water conservation efforts taken by the state government failed. The check dams built from concrete could not sustain under the strong water current and heavy flow during monsoons.However, bori bandhs, an innovative concept of low-cost check dams, have turned out to be a game-changer. The idea, conceived in 2018 by Ajay Sharma, founder of NGO Sewa Welfare Society, has solved the water crisis and doubled farmers’ income. So far, the check dams built under this initiative have benefitted about 8,000 farmers across 70 villages of the district.“As a journalist, I have witnessed the hardships faced by the villagers in the district and tried to raise their concerns through my writing. The water crisis has affected the agricultural produce as well as their personal lives,” he says. He explains that contractors often give away gunny bags used for cement transportation during construction. The same bags can be filled with soil or sand and arranged in a dam-like structure. He adds, “I thought it would be a good idea to introduce shramdaan (voluntary labour work) to them.”A volunteer effortTo encourage villages to volunteer, Ajay gave the initiative a traditional twist. “The villagers follow a tradition called Madait, wherein people come together for a community cause and to celebrate good work done, have a meal together,” the 49-year-old says. Based on the same principle, Ajay ensured that after a day’s work, the villagers came together to eat meals to celebrate their achievement.Bori bandhs, made on small rivers, streams and canals, are at least 30 feet wide, with a barrage-like structure made by arranging gunny bags on top of another. The biggest check dam structure built so far is 80 feet, and requires around three hours to construct. Ajay says gunny bags filled with grass (in addition to the soil or sand) prove to be better, as grass grows in water. “The strength of the dams increase, with the grass holding the soil. The wall-like structure is strong enough to last for a couple of years, and needs minor repairs, depending on the intensity of rain or floods,” he says.Madait involves consuming food together to celebrate the good workThe NGO was launched in hopes of attracting donations for the cause. With the help of some funds, the work began on a budget of Rs 2,000. The funds collected from donors are used to procure groceries and feed the volunteers for the day. After convincing some villagers to volunteer for the trials, Ajay built five dams in the Tapkara block during the summer of 2018. Locals benefited from the rainwater that was retained, and subsequently, other villagers from other areas volunteered as well.“We built 118 bori bandhs in 2019,” Having seen the success, many villagers started building these dams themselves. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 40 bori bandhs could be set up in 2020.The farmers have been reaping the benefits of volunteer work.“The concept has turned out to be a game-changer in terms of water conservation. There is no village which has not built a bori bandh in the Mandal. Farmers have arrested water in small streams, canals and rivulets, which has allowed them to take two crops a year, as against the restriction of one harvest due to shortage of water,” says Wilson Purti, Mukhiya at Hassa Panchayat.‘A good alternative to cement structures’Wilson says that apart from being affordable, bori bandhs are highly beneficial. “The farmers do not remain unemployed after harvesting the first crop, and are engaged in agriculture activity throughout the year. The rainwater that used to run off earlier now gets arrested and percolates inside the ground,” he adds.The panchayat head, who leads eight villages, says the farmers have also doubled their income. Along with traditional crops like paddy, wheat and mustard, they now also grow corn, watermelon and other vegetable varieties. “The villagers are also in a bid to recharge groundwater levels by reviving the springs,” he adds.Ajay’s initiative also won him appreciation from the district administration and an award of excellence from the Central government’s Union Jal Shakti Ministry, under the participatory water management category at the National Water Innovation Summit 2020. He also won the SKOCH award.In a video recorded in January and shared by Ajay, Deputy Commissioner of the district, Shashi Ranjan, says, “The cement structures suffered damage in heavy rains, and the bori bandhs serve as a good alternative. The water storage in these check dams will last until March, and farmers use the water for multiple daily uses including agriculture.”However, Ajay feels that a lot more can be achieved with more funds and contribution of volunteers. “The hardest part is to change the villagers’ mindset. They’re often under the impression that the solution won’t have any long term benefits and thus won’t work. It’s also difficult to unite different groups for a common cause. It takes days of convincing before they agree to the task. The shortage of funds is always a problem. Sometimes, I use my personal expenses for the trips or to organise events,” he tells. “The region is also affected by Naxalites, and if the state government supports us financially, a lot of hardships can be eased,” he says.The story has been extracted from Low-Cost, Innovative Check Dams Help 8,000 Jharkhand Farmers Save Water & Earn More (
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Seeds of Prosperity

A small business or micro-enterprise can pave the way to a comfortable living, more so when regular or well-paid jobs are in short supply. This is especially true for individuals and families living below the poverty line. A vegetable cart, a roadside kiosk selling household items, a small home-based tailoring business, or a street food stall—even with a thin profit margin, can offer an escape from hardship for those at the bottom of the pyramid.The major challenge that micro enterprises face is arranging for seed capital to set up their small-scale ventures. This can be a daunting task for the poor. They typically operate at a low scale of economy, lack loan collaterals or satisfactory credit histories, and have little or no access to relevant information.Two organizations, from United Kingdom and India, have joined hands to tackle this problem. Their solution: giving one-time in-kind support to the poorest and most vulnerable people, to help them start their own micro-enterprises. This transformational initiative is named Unnati (advancement, prosperity), after a suggestion from one of its first beneficiaries. PROJECT UNNATIThe Road to Parity, a UK-based charity, and Learning Links Foundation, an Indian NGO, launched Project Unnati in October 2019.The pilot phase was implemented in slums of Delhi. The first batch of recipients was chosen after careful screening on parameters such as per capita household income; household size; number of people dependent on the sole breadwinner; and educational levels. Women-led households and people with disabilities were given priority. The candidates’ business plans and commitment levels were also evaluated.The selected aspirants were given trade-related tools and materials, of a maximum value of INR 5000 each. Over the next three months, the project team monitored their progress and helped them surmount challenges they were facing while plying their trades. One of the early beneficiaries of the initiative is Renu, an illiterate factory worker, who was struggling to run her household on her small daily wages after her husband got disabled in an accident. With support from Project Unnati, she acquired a push-cart and started selling vegetables, leading to an instant increase in her income. “Getting the start-up support has been a life-changing opportunity for me. I was worried and struggling hard to provide for my family but now I’m confident that in a few months I will be able to expand my business and do better for my family,” says Renu.The project has witnessed an increase of 65% in the average household income among the recipients. Moreover, the emerging entrepreneurs display a natural resourcefulness and drive to succeed, overcoming obstacles like lack of education and harsh living conditions. One beneficiary, for example, switched to selling boiled eggs instead of vegetables when she found that this brought better profits. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted economic activities across the world, and the Unnati beneficiaries, too, were affected by the sudden crisis. Most of them got housebound as their slum localities were declared to be ‘red zones’. Others, who had gone to their native villages, were unable to return.   With time, as restrictions have eased, some of them have been able to resume their trades, even if earning less-than-usual. Says Ajay, a fast-food stall owner who was among the first batch of beneficiaries: “It was a tough time for all, such ups-and-downs keep coming in life, but I am sure that this opportunity has come to me for a reason and I will work hard to make the most of it. I feel confident after this little success of mine, and someday I am sure to make a good fortune for myself.”The project has benefited and changed many lives for the better and even more are hopeful of launching their ventures with support from Project Unnati.
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The Magic of Money Management

Sabari, a mother of six from Jharkhand, was hopelessly trapped in a cycle of debt. Her husband, a daily wage worker, spent most of his earnings on alcohol. Though Sabari herself had a job as a Krishi Mitra (a Government-appointed agricultural counsellor at the village-level), her monthly income of INR 5000 was never enough to cover the household expenses. This left her with just one option: borrowing from the local moneylender (sahukar) whenever the need arose.This is a common story across India — and indeed, around the world — where the poorest are often the worst affected by the ‘debt trap’. People from the bottom of the pyramid hardly ever have access to banks or financial institutions. They have limited earnings, little or no savings, and no assets that can be used as collaterals. Thus, they are forced to borrow from private moneylenders, who have a tendency to charge extremely high interest rates.  The dependence on such loans grows in times of crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Failure to repay adds to the borrowers’ existing problems, often subjecting them to harassment, bullying, threats, or even worse. Is there a way out?For Sabari, the answer came through a financial literacy programme that trained her to manage her money better and take the right steps to achieve financial stability. By applying the learning imparted in the training sessions, she was gradually able to free herself and her family from their dependence on the sahukar. The name of the programme: Jaadu Ginni Ka (literally, the magic of the ‘guinea’- the name of a traditional gold coin, now seen as a symbol for a unit of money).Through this unique initiative, Vodafone India Foundation and Learning Links Foundation are teaching the essentials of financial management to youth, the urban poor, micro-entrepreneurs, farmers, artisans, rural women and housewives across the country. Its specially designed curriculum is available in 10 different languages. The course material uses simple vocabulary and relatable, day-to-day examples to explain basic financial concepts like income, expenditure, inflation, investment, banking, loans, insurance, investment, budgeting, mobile banking and Government welfare schemes. The method of instruction employs videos, pictures, charts, puzzles, card games, group discussions, Q-and-A and reflective journaling. A free mobile app ‘SamVaad’ also makes the content available to users. Why financial literacy?Findings from a pan-India survey in 2018-19 revealed that only 27 percent of the respondents were financially literate. The study, titled Financial Literacy and Inclusion in India, was carried out by National Centre for Financial Education (NCFE). It found that the financial literacy rate was 24 percent in rural areas and 33 percent in urban areas. 21 percent of the women and 29 percent of the men were financially literate. In general, educational and income levels showed a direct correlation to financial literacy.A financially literate person has basic competences linked to earning, spending, budgeting, borrowing, saving, and using financial services such as banking, insurance and money transfers. Financial literacy involves a mix of awareness, information, skill, mindset and actions, through which an individual can take good financial decisions and, in due course, attain financial security. It is important for achieving financial inclusion, which in turn is crucial for empowering individuals, as well as strengthening the overall financial system. Financial literacy and inclusion together can encourage general economic growth and the achievement of larger development goals.The ‘Jaadu Ginni Ka’ Value ChainJaadu Ginni Ka creates a value chain that can spread awareness about financial literacy across communities. This enables rapid scaling-up of the benefits of the programme. For example, Rinky, a Community Resource Person from Odisha, has learnt about savings, investments and financial record-keeping by attending the programme. This has helped her to manage her own household finances better and recover from past setbacks caused by poor investments. In fact, Rinky has also started using the SamVaad app to teach other women in her village. Bidyabati, a participant in Rinky’s training session, has started saving regular sums in a bank account and has invested in a Government-backed scheme to secure her daughter’s future. Similarly, Madan Lal from Rajasthan and Vidhyak from Jharkhand are using the learning from the programme to run their own small businesses more efficiently. At the same time, they are teaching and encouraging their customers and neighbours to adopt modern financial practices. The program has already benefited lakhs of youth and adults across 16 States of India.Financial literacy is the first step on the road to financial freedom. A financial literacy programme like Jaadu Ginni Ka helps in bridging the gap between the mainstream and marginalized sections of society. Its ultimate aim is to empower people and bring sustainable change that leads to financial security and eventually prosperity. Learn more about the program at
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EnglishHelper - Providing Uninterrupted Learning During School Closure

“No child should be left behind! Our deployment of AI technology for English in thousands of government schools across India has created a tech-enabled learning model that signals a transformative opportunity for large-scale change across the country. Our technology is provided as a classroom solution (ReadToMe School Edition) supported by the same technology as a phone app (ReadToMe Student Edition) for self-study at home. It is true that not all government school students will have access to Android devices, and that gap needs to be closed with public, private and philanthropic sources of funding. The aim is to provide each student, anywhere in the country, the ability to access ReadToMe Student Edition.” - Sanjay Gupta, CEO, EnglishHelper Technology that Is Integrated with School CurriculumNationwide school shutdowns over the past several months have created new challenges for students and teachers. To help students learn while at home, EnglishHelper’s ReadToMe® software, which has been traditionally used in school classrooms (ReadToMe School Edition), is now also available to students on Google Play Store as ReadToMe Student Edition. This app is accessible to students across India through an Android smartphone or tablet. ReadToMe Student Edition is an AI-enabled multi-sensory reading and comprehension app that is trained to read textbooks in the English language. The app supports reading and comprehension for K-12 learners and is designed to facilitate self-learning for students.The journey began in 2013 with 100 government schools using ReadToMe® to read English textbooks under the RightToRead project – EnglishHelper’s flagship program, now having a footprint in 27 states and 4 union territories across the country. The new app, developed in 2020, widens the access, since students can use this powerful software to learn on their own at home. The technology is expected to reach 20 million students by 2021. Presently, ReadToMe Student Edition is trained to read NCERT textbooks in English including subjects like history, geography and even mathematics. The scope of the app is constantly being enhanced with the coverage of textbooks prescribed by various states. The program is also used for CBSE and state boards, too.  Teachers SpeakSowmyashree B. is the English teacher at Government Higher Primary School, Veerbhadranagar, Bengaluru. She has been using ReadToMe School Edition in her classes with textbooks being read by the software, and integrated for use as per the regular school time table.   Sowmyashree says that students learn better with ReadToMe® - it helps them get their pronunciations and spellings right, and allows students to understand unfamiliar words and their meanings easily, through the use of the picture dictionary and the vernacular dictionary tools in the software. She says that the familiar accent of the reading voice is really helpful, and being able to adjust the reading speed of the text helps every student learn at her comfort level. Sowmyashree adds that while the pandemic and school closure left teachers and students in a state of panic, the ReadToMe Student Edition app came as a big relief in overcoming the disruption in school learning. The app is designed to assist students with self-learning while schools are closed, and students do not have access to their teachers. Sowmyashree is upbeat about the app and encourages her students to practise their lessons daily. She says that when schools reopen, students will be able to enjoy learning with ReadToMe®, both in the classroom and at home, thus closing any gaps in their learning.  Voice of StudentsFrom Bengaluru in southern India, to faraway hilly Himachal Pradesh in the north, ReadToMe® is much loved! “I have just one goal - a job in the government sector so I can support my family”, says Komal, who is a 16-year-old, grade 10 student of a government school in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh. Komal adds, “my father used to work as a driver, but lost his job during the lockdown, and now my mother, a tailor, is the only breadwinner. I will be able to end the financial troubles of my parents when I grow up and get a job.” Komal is admirably resolute at such a young age. “I want to speak English like my relatives do, especially like my cousins from Delhi”, says this young girl with dreams in her eyes. Like many in India, English is aspirational for Komal. “Exams for good government jobs require English language skills. Also, people pay more attention to you when you speak fluent English. It is important that people listen to you when you are a government official.” With little or no academic help from her parents, Komal is one of the millions of students who are solely dependent on their school for all their learning needs. When her school closed due to COVID-19, Komal started using ReadToMe® Student Edition on her father’s mobile phone. She is already familiar with ReadToMe®, which was regularly used in her school before the school closure. Komal has now been reading her English lessons on the app for at least an hour daily and reports that she has improved her English language skills through this regular usage. She says, “I can study anytime and anywhere with the app at my own pace.” Komal believes she is one step closer to achieving her dream, now that she uses ReadToMe Student Edition.   Technology Enables ScaleThese are just a couple of stories from the countless heart-warming tales of students and teachers who have benefitted from ReadToMe®, primarily through the RightToRead program that reaches over 8 million students across the country. When the lockdown was announced, the program was being implemented in 25,000 schools and is expected to achieve a footprint of 100,000 schools once schools reopen. The newly developed app has the potential to reach over 200 million students, especially from the lower-income segments across the country to help them continue their curriculum-aligned English classes while schools are closed, and to consolidate their learning at home even when schools reopen.  A Multi-stakeholder Public-Private InitiativeFrom just 100 schools a few years ago, the program has grown exponentially! This has been made possible by the engagement of multiple stakeholders from the private sector and the government. The trick is to keep the model simple. The key approaches and areas of focus are the following: EnglishHelper has stayed obsessively focused on working with government schools.EnglishHelper has partnered with agencies that are well established in the sector and trusted by the public education system.RightToRead projects go through a rigorous assessment process. The assessment reports have been made available for all (they demonstrate a significant gain in students' English reading fluency and comprehension).The principle of affordability has always tempered commercial goals.This Public-Private initiative is becoming a model of replication in states across the country. In the state of Maharashtra, millions of government school students are studying with the help of this reading and comprehension technology. RightToRead is a ‘without borders’ initiative that has expanded its footprint beyond India, moving to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. After a successful pilot, the program is currently being implemented in all 10,000 schools in Sri Lanka.EnglishHelper has partnered with organisations across the public and private sector to make their vision a reality. They continue to form new partnerships to ensure that one day, every student will have access to quality English education.For more information on EnglishHelper and their work, please write at [email protected] or visit the website
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