Wearing grey frocks and red ribbons in their plaits, Swarna Maratha (12) and Kavita Kakkar (14) hop on to their bicycles and pedal away to school every morning. A little chatter, some singing, and 30 minutes later, they are in their classroom at the Gharde Sajjan Vidhalaya in Alonde village in Vikramgarh district, some 120 km north of Mumbai.
Back at their homes in Kakkarpada in the evening, they quickly finish their homework and get together to play kabbadi and kho-kho.
But life was very different when they didn’t have the bicycles. The Class VIII students used to cover the 8-km journey to Alonde on foot since their families couldn’t afford the
Rs 3 one-way bus fare. It used to take them over an hour to get to school and another to get back. “Our legs used to hurt so much we could barely concentrate on our books, playing was out of question,” said Kakkar, who hopes to become a doctor.
The best friends wipe the dust off their bicycles with a wet cloth every day. Maratha has no idea that her red beauty used to lie rusting in a corner of a flat in Santacruz, a Mumbai suburb. Its previous owner, Mihir Kamath (11), had become too tall for the cycle and his father, physician Dr Sanjay, had already promised him a new one.
Kakkar’s chocolate-brown cycle was also lying in some garage or stairwell in a Mumbai building.
How the cycles made the journey from Mumbai to the village girls — and how nightmarish it was — is best known to three people: Hemant Chhabra, his wife Sangeeta, and Simona Terron.
The trio has been working on a mission called ‘The Bicycle Project’. They collect old bicycles from people in Mumbai, get them repaired and then deliver them to children in villages around Mumbai so it is easier for them to get to school.
How it all started
It all started one rainy day last year. Chhabra, who runs an eco-centre at his farm in Vikramgarh, 120 km north of Mumbai, was traveling by a bus around the area at 6.15 am. He saw a line of children walking to school despite the downpour. “I felt really bad. Eighty years ago my father used to walk miles to reach school and even today children have to do the same,” said the 47-year-old Andheri resident.
That day Chhabra decided that he would do something to help those children. “My son loves bikes. We had an old one lying at home. I thought I could take that and a few other old ones from friends and give them to those children,” he said.
Chhabra shared his idea with Sangeeta and Terron, a journalist friend of his. The thought germinated into a full-fledged project. By Diwali, Terron had prepared posters and write-ups appealing to Mumbaiites to donate their old bicycles. They had also zeroed in on the school in Alonde, received a list of 137 children — those who had to walk for over five kilometres, were good in studies and had regular attendance — and fixed a date to give-away the cycles: January 26.
Chhabbra, who also manufactures and supplies eco-friendly bags, picked up 20 cycles during his many work trips around the city from the beginning of November to mid-January. At this rate, it would take him forever. So, he took a break from his business.
From January 19-25, he dedicated all his time to the project. From 6 am to 1.30 am the next morning, Chabbra would drive around the city collecting cycles from people’s homes. He also had to make the donors fill forms with a long list of questions — the cycle’s description, reason for donating and so on — to give to the police. Cycles were used to plant bombs in Malegaon so they didn’t want to take any chances.
“It was a nightmare. I had to track down vague addresses and carry cycles down the stairs in buildings that didn’t have lifts,” he recounted. “The recession helped or I would never been able to put in so much time.”
Of course, there were many times when Chhabra felt like giving up. But there were many more when he was touched and felt motivated to work harder. “A lady donated the cycle of her 12-year-old son who was killed in a road accident along with his father last year. She had been holding on to the cycle as it reminded her of her son but decided to give it away when she heard about the project,” he said.
And many strangers became Chhabra’s friends in the process. Thane resident Usha Godbole (46) didn’t have a cycle to donate but she gave five days of her time to collect eight bicycles from people in her neighbourhood. She went around collecting abandoned bicycles in her housing society. She and the society’s treasurer then put up notices asking people to claim their bicycles and got the unclaimed ones repaired.
“In the late 1980s, the nationalised bank I was working in had held a drawing competition in a village school on Children’s Day. It was heart-wrenching to see that students had walked for miles to participate in it. When I read about the bicycle project, I remembered those children and decided to help,” said the housewife.
Four members of the Mumbai Bikers, a group of people who cycle every weekend, also helped Chhabra to collect bicycles till the wee hours on three consecutive days. One of them also cycled for around 110 km to help out at Chhabra’s farm where all the bicycles were stored; they had managed to collect 68 in all.
On the road
On January 26, the Chhabras and Terron gave away the cycles — without speeches or hoopla — to the students of Classes 5 to 8 at the school in Alonde, according to their height.
The children were tight-lipped in front of the school authorities but their smiles said it all.
Ishwar Kakkar, who used to bunk school at least once a month because of the arduous journey, swore that he would never miss a day now. Renuka Nimble immediately wrote a letter to “Manisha madamji” thanking her for the cycle.
Chhabra faxed this letter to Manisha Sheth, a Kandivili resident who had donated the cycle that went to Nimble and two others. Her nine-year-old daughter Bineeta and her friends Parth and Uttkarsh had written little notes and tied them with red ribbons to the cycles. They read: “To the village kid who gets my bicycle. Happy riding!”
Chhabra has barely recovered from the marathon cycle collection. But he knows 69 children in the school at Alonde are still waiting for bicycles and there are many more villages, too.
They are also in the process of setting up a website so that donors can know which child got their bicycle and contact him/her if they want.