Monday, November 11, 2013

Making An Impact

Pushpa Basnet looks after the children of prisoners, while Sunil Khandbahale makes dictionaries translating words from vernacular languages into English to benefit students

Photos: Pusha Basnet; Sunil Khandbahale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Some time ago, the local government authorities in Kathmandu called up Pushpa Basnet and said, “There is a small baby girl, would you like to have it? I said, 'Yes, why not.'”

A curious Pushpa asked the story behind the child. “They replied that the girl’s father got angry with the mother because she did not make an omelette,” says Pushpa, during a talk at the the Innovative and Knowledge Conference, 2013, at Kochi. “So he poured kerosene on his wife and burnt her.”

In Nepal, if a child does not have a local guardian, then the infant goes to jail, along with the parent. In 2005, while Pushpa was doing her masters in social work at St. Xavier's College, she happened to visit the Sundhara Jail and met one such infant - a nine-month-old baby girl.

“She held my hand,” says Pushpa. “It seemed as if she was telling me, 'This is not the place for me to stay.' Maybe, it must have been my imagination, but I replied, 'I will do something'. And that was how I set up a home for these children called 'The Early Childhood Development Centre'.”

In the past nine years Pushpa has been working with 18 different jails. And everyone has their own story. There is a girl named Meenakshi, who was born inside a prison and had never been outside. “The first time she came out, she ran non-stop,” says Pushpa. “She had always lived surrounded by walls and was so excited to be free. When she got a boiled egg, she threw it away thinking that it was an insect.”

There are 45 children who stay at the home. “There is a very special bond that we have,” she says. “What we are giving them is the freedom to be out of the prison.” Once or twice a month the children go and see their parents. “They need to understand that their parents have committed crimes because of a lack of education and opportunities,” says Pushpa.

However, the sad thing is that there are 80 children still living inside. But Pushpa says that she was unable to look after them all because of her limited resources. But help is at hand. Pushpa has won the CNN Heroes Award which carries a cash prize of $300,000.

Like Pushpa, Sunil Khandbahale is also making an impact on people’s lives. “My parents were poor and illiterate,” he says. “But they wanted their children to go to school.” And Sunil did so, in the town of  Mahiravani, in Maharashtra, and did well for many years. Thanks to his academic excellence, he was admitted into the Government Polytechnic at Ahmednagar to do engineering course.

“But the course was conducted in English,” he says. “I did not know the language. Everything was going over my head. I felt terrified. In the meanwhile, a couple of students ran away because of this. I also decided to quit and packed my bags. But something stopped me. I saw the innocent faces of my parents. They might be dreaming that their son was going to be an engineer. With that thought in mind, I confessed my agony to a professor.”

The professor asked Sunil whether he had a dictionary.

“I was hearing the word for the first time,” says Sunil. “Somehow, I got a dictionary and learnt how to use it. I started jotting down the words the professor wrote on the blackboard. On returning to the room, I turned the dictionary inside out trying to find out the meaning. But I practised sincerely.”

At the end of the year when the results were announced, only four out of 60 students had passed in all the subjects. “I lost all hope,” he says. “But to everyone’s surprise, and mine, I had topped the class.”

And Sunil came to some important conclusions. “I understood how powerfully my success was connected to my friendship with the dictionary,” he says. “At the same time I thought of those who ran away. Certainly they could have been engineers. And there are millions like them. I felt it was my duty to show them the way.”

Initially, he started distributing photocopy copies of his compiled dictionaries, from English to Marathi to English. Thereafter, he brought out CDs. “I then decided to set up a web site -- -- where all this software could be downloaded for free,” says Sunil. “And it has become popular.”

Now, there are 100 million users across 150 countries. He then decided to use the SMS service of mobile phones. Press a ten digit number, type the word you want and then sent it. And you will get the translation instantly. So far, with the help of associates, he has translated several vernacular languages into English.

“All this may sound awesome, but there is a huge digital divide,” he says. “I realised that my innovations should benefit those who do not have these devices.” So, now, Sunil is cycling to rural villages and remote areas and to the places where most of the technology has not reached. “I want to convert the language barrier into a language bridge,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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