Rajesh Dighe, 15, walks 2.5 km every morning to school in Maharashtra's Bhiwadi village, a two-hour drive from Pune. About 8000 miles away in New York, a volunteer trains for a 42 km marathon, to collect funds so that Dighe's school can give him quality vocational training that will make him employable.
This volunteer is one of hundreds who run for the Lend-A-Hand-India (LAHI) foundation, which operates a carefully crafted skills development programme in rural Indian schools, funded significantly by marathon runners.
Founded and run by New York-based couple Raj Gilda and Sunanda Mane, the non-profit is working in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. It is currently training 11,000 high school students in 61 schools. Another 4,000 students have graduated.
The curriculum, called the Introduction to Basic Training (IBT) programme, runs alongside the government school syllabus, once a week. Students are trained in engineering, home sciences and health, energy and environment, animal husbandry and agriculture by local instructors themselves trained by the foundation.
Dighe never misses school on a Friday, which is 'IBT-day' in his school, the Hutatma Umaji Naik High School. He can lay out electrical fittings at home, repair broken appliances, practice economic, organic-farming techniques on his family plot, solder and weld metal, even make large quantities chikki and prepare a costing sheet to sell it at the local market.
Over the past few years, industry chambers like the CII, ASSOCHAM and NASSCOM have repeatedly pointed to the growing need for India to focus on such vocational training programmes to make the country’s youth employable in sectors where there are jobs requiring specific skills. LAHI’s initiative has been one of the most successful so far.
For Gilda and Mane, the journey started seven years back.
“It all began with the New York City Marathon,” Gilda said. In 2005, the couple and their friends were wondering how to raise seed money to start the non-profit – a dream they had harbored since 1998. One day, a colleague at work told Gilda she was running a marathon for a charity and asked him to sponsor her. “I thought – this is a smart way of raising funds,” Gilda said.
He calculated the time he needed to train – 18 weeks – and ran the first marathon he could, in Paris, 2006. He has since run every New York City Marathon and a couple in Mumbai. Over the past five years, Lend-A-Hand-India has raised more than $200,000 ( Rs. 110 lakh) through marathons. “Marathons are in our DNA,” Gilda said.
Today, a third of all school graduates trained by Lend-A-Hand-India are pursuing programmes at Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) that prepare students for an engineering career. The Maharashtra government has asked all state schools to partner with the non-profit.
But it wasn’t always this easy. In India’s caste-divided society where manual labor is often looked down upon, convincing parents to have their children trained in carpentry or plumbing wasn’t easy. “We had to explain to parents that the idea is to help them become engineers eventually,” Gilda says.
Tanubai Dhamaal, grandparent of a Class 8 IBT student, saw the impact of the training on his grandson when the family mixer stopped working recently. There was no need to call a repairman from the closest town. His grandson identified and fixed the problem within minutes, Dhamaal says.
"This saved us time and money," he says.
At most IBT schools, students are taught in classes they have electrified themselves, on desks that they have learnt to build in carpentry. "Before 2007, there were no engineers in Bhiwadi. Now, there are 47, all IBT graduates," says Sudhakar Jagdale, the school's headmaster.
Mayuri Mokashi, a 15-year-old IBT student, today boasts skills that range from identifying a person’s blood group and hemoglobin count, to smart floriculture techniques. On a recent Saturday, she was embedding a shoot from a plant which gives large pink roses into the stem of another which grows small, yellow flowers, a technique her agriculture instructor taught her moments ago.
"Large flowers are easier to sell," she smiles. "I feel much more confident now, armed with these skills. I can not only help out much more productively at home, but I have a more clear understanding of what career options are out there."