Air India pilot Captain Indraani Singh teaches underprivileged women and children to fly
A mother of two, Sudha was routinely tortured by her in-laws while her husband had the least interest in working to support his family. Nine years later, an angry and frustrated Sudha left her home in Lucknow along with her sons. She came to Delhi in search of a better life. But getting work proved to be difficult as she did not have any experience and could walk only with difficulty due to a congenital defect. She was reduced to begging at times. After knocking every possible door for two years she finally saw a ray of hope in an NGO. A chance meeting with a Literacy India volunteer changed her life completely. At its Bajghera centre, Sudha learnt tailoring and embroidery and now earns Rs 6,500 a month. Sudha is not only able to provide for her children but also able to educate them at Literacy India, which provides free education to her children. “I earn and I eat. I am not a burden on anyone anymore,” a beaming Sudha tells Governance Now.
Literacy India is changing lives of many more Sudhas. A brainchild of Captain Indraani Singh, who holds the distinction of being the first woman in Asia to pilot the wide-bodied Airbus 300, Literacy India educates children from economically weaker sections of society. Capt Singh’s journey started in 1996 when she got her command with Air India. After fulfilling her career goals, she took up the task of shaping the lives of others. Singh, who says flying is her passion and philanthropy is her life, started with five children and now caters to 20,000 children every year through her NGO.
Parvati, 21, is one of the many girls who benefitted from the free education provided by Literacy India. Parvati, whose father is a rickshaw puller, studied at Literacy India’s Bijwasan centre. “Literacy India educated me and also offered me a computer operator’s job after completion of my studies. I am extremely happy. Recently, I bought a scooter from my earnings,” says Parvati, who earns Rs 7,500 per month and contributes to the family income.
“Earlier, they [women] used to lead a very mundane life. They used to do household work for the whole day. And in the evenings their husbands used to beat them. After coming here, they feel empowered. They feel they now have an identity,” says Singh, who is now in her early 50s.
The NGO’s products, branded ‘Indha’, are very popular. Indha is the Hindi word for a wheel-shaped broad base of cloth which village women use to carry earthen pots over their heads to fetch water. Literacy India dreams of providing such a broad base to women to build a life of dignity and self-sufficiency, says its website.
The NGO sells these products in India and abroad. Under the Indha project, women are trained in tailoring, embroidery, art and craft, beauty, culture, computer, and driving. This not only gives them a chance to enhance their creativity but also stoke their entrepreneurial spirit.
“There are 300 women who are learning and earning from the Indha project. Overall, Literacy India educates and empowers 50,000 women, youth and children every year. The project now runs in 11 states, and we have 55 centres across the country,” says Sohit Yadav, project director, Literacy India.
The Indha products are widely used for corporate gifting. Companies like Microsoft, SITA, Kuoni and RBS Bank have bought these products. The NGO has also made some customised gifts for these companies.
“Across India, 300 women have been trained as artisans in nine years. They have been able to reach this position because we have given them work. Under Indha, we are working in six states – Delhi, Haryana, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Telangana. We are not only training and empowering these women, but are also facilitating education for their children,” says Satya Prakash, project director, Indha.
“Once, a 55-year-old woman, who had lost all hopes, came to us. She had an ailing husband. Her son and daughter-in-law had no respect for her. At the [Bajghera] centre, we trained her in art and craft work. Now, she is an independent woman and is respected by her family. She feels she has achieved something in life. She is no longer living in sorrow,” says Singh.
Digital Dost is Singh’s another project that uses Gyantantra Digital Dost, a computer-aided educational package for primary level. Through an interactive medium, children are able to grasp a subject easily. It also educates them about issues like AIDS, hygiene, saving money and child abuse.
“Empowering them [women] was more important as the entire family situation started to improve because of their progress,” says Singh.
Such is the case with Parvez. Initially, her husband did not allow her going to the Literacy India centre. But after a lot of convincing, her husband allowed her to go to the centre and learn stitching. After honing her skills, Parvez now works as a trainer at the Palam Vihar centre of Literacy India. Earning Rs 7,500 ever month, she now contributes to the education of her children.
Like Parvez, Urmila too improved her stitching skills at the centre. The centre offers her flexible timings as she has to take care of her four children. “I come here at 10.30 in the morning and work till 5 pm. I also go back home in the afternoon to cook lunch for my children. I am able to earn Rs 2,500 per month,” she says.
Literacy India has changed many lives. But it was not an easy task. “Changing the mindset, motivating them towards education and sustainability are tougher tasks [than flying],” says Singh.
Literacy India also provides a platform for children to work in films and theatre. The children have performed at Rashtrapati Bhawan, National School of Drama and Shri Ram Centre. Some of those who have completed their education from Literacy India are employed in corporates, hotels and export houses. “Theatre is a medium for these children to gain confidence. They innovate and improvise the scripts too. They are my brand ambassadors,” says Singh.
(The article appears in the November 1-15, 2015 issue)