Rumi Sultana, Savita, and Annu Bharti: Journeys with Project Potential and Beyond

ICA spoke with three young women from Kishanganj district of Bihar, to understand challenges faced by rural women. Kishanganj is an an area served by Project Potential, an NGO founded by Zubin Sharma, with a mission to create rural leaders to solve rural India’s problems inclusively and sustainably. Project Potential is creating an ecosystem to attract and develop people, organizations, and resources required for sustainable development in rural Kishanganj district, one of 28 districts in Bihar.

Rumi Sultana is 21 years old. She started working with Project Potential in 2015. Savita is 18 years old, and works closely with Rumi. Annu Bharti is 33 years old.  She is a software engineer working with Mindtree, a multinational company in Bengaluru, as an Android developer.

ICA spoke with Rumi Sultana, Savita, and Annu Bharti.  These are the stories of their journeys to Project Potential and beyond.

Rumi Sultana

ICA: How did you learn about Project Potential?

Rumi: I was in Class 9, attended class and liked it because there were many different activities. I was 14 years old and had never seen a laptop. When I was in Class 7, I thought I would get to use laptops in Class 8. But by the time I got to the Class 8, laptops from the government were used up. It remained a dream. I visited the Project Potential office, and saw new initiatives for teaching.

ICA: Did your family object to your taking part in Project Potential?

Rumi: They did not. The office was only 4 km away. But they did object to places where I had to stay over, residential places. I would go to the office either on the bicycle, or by walking. A government bicycle was allotted to me. People in the village objected: they said the Project Potential people were Americans, Christians. You are Muslim, they want to convert you. I responded no, there was no discussion of religion.

ICA: Tell us about your parents.

Rumi: My father is a businessman, and mother is a housewife. My mother said to me, don’t worry what people say. They trusted me.

ICA: What challenges do rural women face?

Rumi: The girls are taught house work from childhood. They are overwhelmed with house work so they don’t imagine that they could do more in their lives. There are too many home responsibilities: cooking, taking care of animals: cows and goats. Parents can’t afford school, or tuition classes. Also, there are no teachers at the school for many subjects. Children leave after Class 8, because they can’t make progress.

ICA: Do you work with computers?

Rumi: Yes, the TB data is collected and entered into Excel worksheets on computers.

ICA: Are you financially secure?

Rumi: No, I’m not saving money. It has been three years since coming here. During the internship, I was provided room and board. During the fellowship, I received Rs.5500 as incentive. As an employee, I receive Rs. 12,000. I stay in one of the rooms at the office. I have to spend money on food and drink, as well as provide for my brothers and sister since my father died. He had diabetes and heart trouble, and had some gastrointestinal problem. His sugar became very high, then he had a brain hemorrhage and died within 24 hours. This was three months ago. My older sister is now married and is a housewife. I have three younger brothers.

ICA: Tell us about your work at Project Potential.

Rumi: First I was a volunteer, then a fellow. In those roles, I used the theater medium to increase awareness on women’s empowerment. Now I am an employee at Project Potential, and I focus on increasing awareness about tuberculosis. Villagers’ sputum is tested, and they are informed whether the results are positive or negative. If any are positive, Project Potential supports treatment for six months. They motivate them, and encourage them to overcome the disease. In my current work, I have visited more than 20 organizations. I got cash relief for 75 families, about Rs 1.5 lakh. Then with crowdfunding, I got 25,000 rupees and was able to provide rations. With an additional 1.26 lakh rupees obtained by crowdfunding, over 100 families were provided ration relief. I am now well-received in my village. Those who become Tb positive come to my home or call me for help. They have developed trust in me.

Savita

ICA: Tell us about you and your life.

Savita: I am from Thakurganj block of Kishanganj district. Around the time I passed the matriculation exam in 2018, volunteers were being recruited to Project Potential. They wanted intermediate pass individuals to teach children. I wanted to take the exam, and passed the math and the Hindi test. That is when I met Rumi di. I agreed to do the theatre work. As a fellow, I worked for a year on theater, and was also doing my intermediate studies at the same time, so she could teach students in class 3 to 5.

ICA: How did your parents respond?  Did they support you?

Savita: My parents said don’t do anything to dishonor us. I said you must trust me. The neighbors frightened my parents by saying that NGOs take girls away and mistreat them. My father was in Delhi at the time.

ICA: How do you go from village to village?

Savita: By local transport. I do not have a Scooty as my father is a laborer and cannot afford one.  I have five sisters and one brother. Three sisters are married, and so the family has a lot of debt from their weddings. I am the youngest. My older sister is doing a computer course in Bangalore through an NGO. I am now an employee of Project Potential. There are four girls who are employees. They are working on vaccines, and go from village to village. They also educate people about TB symptoms and provide sputum tests. They maintain records on Excel sheets.

Annu Bharti

ICA:  Tell us about your childhood and your family.

Annu: My name is Annu Bharti and I am 33 years old.  I work as a software developer in a multinational company in Bengaluru, Mindtree Ltd, where I have been for the last two years. In Kishanganj, where I am from, there are only a few good English-medium schools. All the kids would go in government schools only, but I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to study at a good school. At that time, when I was a kid, my father’s spice business was running smoothly.  As I grew older, my father became tense and stressed because he has two daughters, my sister and I, and no son.  He was worried about our marriages, and not having enough money to arrange them.

As time went on, my father became unemployed because his business was owned by the whole family and due to family disputes, his brother got separated. So some of my schooling journey was at a time when my father was unemployed and we were financially crushed. Everything was fine before this happened, but when we got into this financial trouble, he was not able to pay my school fees for a while, so we went to some local leaders to ask for some help such as writing a letter so I could get a scholarship. But they said, “If you don’t have money, why are you going to an English-medium school for a good education when you can go to a government school?” But my father said, “I didn’t get to study well so I want my daughters to study well.” He came back home and sold some gold jewelry so he could pay the school fees and we could have the continuity in our studies. I couldn’t do anything to support my family financially in return because I was also not grown up – I was only in class 7 or 8.

Since I was so young, I wasn’t able to take a stand on my father’s behalf, even though what happened with the business was not legally correct. For 3 years my father was unemployed, then my mother stepped up and opened a business near the main market. We weren’t making lots of money from that business, but my mother just wanted my father to go out. If he was home thinking all the time, he would think too much and then he might get sick. All the nearby people appreciated how my mother was efficiently managing the house and business. Other uncles would use her as an example for their wives,. By seeing her hard work, we also got inspired and I started giving tuition to small kids so I could earn money to pay my school fees and whatever tuition fees I had to give.

ICA: How did you start learning to work with computers?

Annu: I completed my studies at that school, and scored good marks but because of the lack of financial stability I wasn’t able to go to a good college. I tried getting a loan from a government program that provides loans to students at a minimum cost but I couldn’t meet the criteria because of my father’s unemployment, so I enrolled in a local college. We didn’t go to that college every day. We would only go when we were giving an exam. Otherwise, we were at home. I wasn’t feeling good being at home. I thought the condition of my family was not very stable so I should do something to support. When I started searching for jobs, I was only getting jobs as a schoolteacher, which was only giving me about Rs. 5,000-6,000 per month. Otherwise, I was only getting a sales girl job, but I said, “Why should I do a sales girl job when I have studied in a good school?” That was not my kind of job, so I explored for more opportunities that I could do while at home. Then I heard about some computer class that was offered by the government and there was no need to pay any money so I thought, “Let’s go there.” I already knew basic computers from my school but rather than sit idle at home, it was better to learn some skill.

ICA: How did you learn about Project Potential?

Annu:  While taking the computer course, I learned about Project Potential as an NGO that was searching for young people who can do an entrepreneurship course. I wasn’t sure about it, but I filled out the form so I would not sit idle at home. Then I got the call from Project Potential saying I was selected for the next term. I went to meet them and they asked me to go to a village for 10 days for the training, but when I came back and told my parents, they would not allow me to go to a village with strangers, as we have had some bad experiences in our area. For my father, it was difficult to let his daughter go with strangers, but somehow I convinced him. A girl from Project Potential came to our home and assured my father that they would take care of me and I would be safe. My father said I could go but he would come there to check on me.

ICA: Tell us about your field work with Project Potential.

Annu: When I was doing my studies, I was sent on a trip. The trip was called “Churning” journey, churning as in Hindi, a word called “manthan.”  I got to see lots of new things happening around the world. I went to Chattisgarh, a tribal area, volunteering for 2 months, and there were about 30 people from around India and abroad who came together to help the tribal area people to address the problems they were facing. I am usually a very disciplined girl who doesn’t do anything against the norm of society, but when I went there, I saw lots of things which I couldn’t even imagine. For example, if I was in my home, they never would have allowed me to go in such tribal places and do some things, but because I was with the NGO, I was able to go and I learned so much. I met lots of different people with their different thoughts and learned lots about menstrual health and lots of topics which I had never heard of.

At the entrepreneurship training, they asked me, “What are your interests? What do you want to do?” I told them about a subject called programming in school that I was enjoying, so they told me that there is an NGO in Delhi, NavGurukul Foundation, that provides a one-year residential programming course and asked if I wanted to go there to pursue this coding skill. I thought I scored an opportunity for me, and I should try it at least. I gave all the interviews there in that village and I was somehow selected.

ICA: Tell us about the coding course.

Annu: When I came back home from the PP training and told my parents that I wanted to go to Delhi now for a year for the coding course, my parents refused, as they were scared to let their a young daughter go from Bihar to Delhi without knowing the NGO people. I persuaded my father to go with me to Delhi to see the place, and that if we felt things were not good or safe, then we would come back.

The campus at the time was a boys’ campus. When I joined, I was the first girl and my father was a little scared. Coming from a village with few facilities, my father was suspicious at the running water and other facilities being provided to students. My father spoke with the parents of some of the other girls who were also admitted to the program, and felt more confident to let me go.

Project Potential introduced me to NavGurukul, and helped me with the interview process.They provided me with a laptop, internet, and facilities for the interview. Throughout my journey, they were there to support me.

ICA: How was your experience at NavGurukul Foundation?

Annu: I started there in 2017. There, I enjoyed learning too much. There were no teachers. There were no seniors. Students managing the whole campus. There were 2 co-founders and the students managing everything. The founders just gave us money and told us to manage the things and whatever stuff we needed, like food, laptop repair, or if someone was giving a donation, we had to go and bring those donations. We were only 8 girls in the initial days, but now there are around 500-600 girls on the girls campus, in just 3 years. I have even sent lots of girls from my own district to that place.

The admissions process is as such so that only underprivileged students got the opportunity. For them, if they did well, this opportunity will change their life and they could enjoy the freedom of being independent. If they didn’t work hard, they would have to go back home and continue the circle of the parents’ way of life. With these thoughts, all of the girls tried their best to get good jobs so they could improve their standard of life.

Because of my experience in the field with Project PotentiaL, when I joined NavGurukul, we were able to freely talk about things topics such as like marital affairs, rape, and open discussions on other topics that would be restricted at home.

ICA: What made you move to Bengaluru?

Annu: In 2018, the campus was shifted to Bengaluru. We started studying in Bengaluru and face lots of difficulty because of language. Kannada was the primary language, then English. Somehow we managed to set up a campus there, too. All the setup work was managed by us students only. When I was studying there, my mother’s health was deteriorating very badly. My father went to all the doctors in Bihar but no doctor were able to rescue her. She was not getting well. All the doctors checked, but her condition was not getting better, so I told them to come to Delhi. After months of trying to get her treatment, I had to go to several hospitals and even the Health Minister to arrange for her care. The treatment went well and I sent them back to my hometown. I went back to NavGurukul in Bangalore for continuing my studies. After two months, I got a call saying my mother was no more. After all those treatments, after I had done everything I could, it was very shocking for me to hear this.

ICA: When did you start working at Mindtree?

Annu: In 2019.  After my mother was no more, my father was not able to run things as smoothly and my sister was all alone at home while my father was at the shop. I told my sister to join NavGurukul after I joined my company and I told my father to come here and be with me. The business was not profitable anymore, so I told him to leave it and come to Bangalore. Before lockdown, he came and we were living together. My sister was in NavGurukul and I took a flat in Bangalore near my office. There, I and my father lived together with a few more friends.