A rose in bloom at the Delhi-Gurgaon border

 

The truth of Digital India will probably be most tested in its last mile connectivity. Kandala Singh, an independent researcher profiles
Amit Kataria, who is both from this forgotten grey area and has addressed this need for computing skills.

Twenty nine year old Amit Kataria’s parents say that their best hope for him was that he grow up to become a tailor. Amit, however, decided to defy expectations: today, he runs a computer academy in his village, which caters to 350-400 students.

Hailing from a farmer’s family in Choma village, near the Delhi-Gurgaon border, he was paralyzed from the waist down. This was due to an incorrectly administered injection by a local doctor, when Amit was two. “From that moment on, I was an over-protected child,” says Amit. “I was always told that I couldn’t do this, I shouldn’t do that…not even be putting up Diwali lights!” After completing class five, he was sent to Delhi, to live and study with a relative, as Choma didn’t have a middle school. His disability meant he couldn’t negotiate the distance to the next village by bicycle.

My entire childhood was confined to a room,” Amit remembers. “I would sit inside my room for hours, inventing games for myself and holding conversations in my head with imaginary friends.” Frustrated and bored, he tapped into his curiosity and taught himself to work the computer. By the time he returned to Choma in the final year of his graduation, he had a burning desire to prove his worth to “all those people who thought I couldn’t do anything in life”.

Amit’s know-how of computers helped him find a job as an instructor, at the NGO Literacy India’s office in Choma. Here, he also discovered his passion for teaching. He had been working for a year, when a friend mentioned Dhriiti’s Inspire training for young entrepreneurs. “I had no idea what it was about, but I went along, hoping to find a place to socialize”, recalls Amit.

The training surprised him. Amit recalls the day they played a selling game: “There were 12 of us, and we all had to sell any product at hand through improvisation. When the trainer noticed that I was simply sitting and watching in the corner, she gave me such a dressing down that I remember it till today.” Smiling at the memory, he continues, “It took me a while to understand that she was scolding me not because she was trying to put me down, but because she believed that I was capable of doing all the things I was holding myself back from attempting. When I realized this, it gave me immense confidence. For the first time in my life, someone believed in me.”

Putting the entrepreneurial skill to use, he identified the lack of computer education for government school children as a service he could provide. In doing this, he could draw on his skill and passion for teaching. Amit aptly chose the name ROSE for his initiative. “Because”, he explains, “I wanted to spread joy in the lives of the children I worked with.”

In August 2007, ROSE Computer Academy was inaugurated in a room, which housed two working computers. The third was a dummy. Sparse furniture had also been borrowed from Amit’s cousin’s office. Within the first month, 65 students enrolled after paying a modest fee of Rs 25 per month. ROSE’s popularity grew rapidly through word of mouth, and within the first year, the number of students swelled to 119.

As the number of students grew, Amit took to spending long hours at the Centre, taking classes from 7 am to 10 pm every day. This was to ensure that every child he tutored got a chance to work on the limited number of computers.  Classes often had to be cancelled due to frequent power cuts. He made up for them, by teaching every day of the week. Due to the modest fee charged, the earnings of the academy were minimal. However, with the help of his mentor from Dhriiti, Amit powered on.

The first sign of encouragement came in 2008, when Amit won the ICT Business Plan Competition. “That first award was extremely encouraging for me”, Amit says, “I felt that if I was being honored at a national level, for my work in communication technology – despite having had no formal training in computers – then I must be doing something right.” Over the years, many other awards and opportunities for exposure followed: Amit participated in the Tata Jagriti Yatra in 2009-10 and won an Asia Pacific Fellowship. Recently, CNBC featured Amit as a success story in their Young Turks series. The cash prize from all the awards Amit has won has been reinvested into ROSE.

Today, ROSE has 350-400 students and 6 teachers, distributed over five centres in Choma and other villages in the Palam Vihar area. These centres offer a range of courses starting from basic training in how to use the internet, MS Word, Excel, Paint, and PowerPoint. To training in software like Tally, Photoshop and Corel Draw. Though Amit has gradually increased the fee of his courses, he continues to enrol students who can’t afford to pay the full amount. By either giving them hefty discounts during festivals or by offering his services gratis, in his spare time.

ROSE’s tremendous impact is evident in the stories of its students. Abhijit shares that when he arrived in Gurgaon from Bihar in 2012, he had no money or means of income. He managed to find a job as a helper in an export company, from which he could earn Rs 4500 a month. “The work was backbreaking as I had to lift heavy cartons all day. I longed to find a better job with a higher salary, but lacked the skills.” When he heard about ROSE, Abhijit met Amit and explained his financial situation to him. “Amit agreed to teach me basic computers, even though I could not afford to pay his fee regularly. He said that I could pay him as and when I earned the money.” Thanks to the training at ROSE, Abhijit was hired by a BPO, then moved on from there to find a job as the Manager of a housing society, where he currently draws a salary of Rs 25,000 a month.

Reflecting on his experiences of teaching a range of students, some of them as old as 81 years, Amit says: “Seeing how much basic computer knowledge can add to people’s quality of life – how happy mothers and senior citizens are when they learn how to connect with their children over Skype, the time housewives save when they are able to pay their bills online, the access to books and newspapers online – all this has convinced me that computer education has a very valuable role to play in everyday life.” As ROSE and its vision has evolved, its name has come to stand for Rural Organization for Social Empowerment. It aims to reach out to the last mile of the population and aid in increasing their access to technology and computer education, in an environmentally conscious way.

For Amit, the journey grew through many thorns and something has come to bloom. “I no longer feel that people define me solely by my disability, so my motivation to work is no longer to prove my worth to others,” he explains, “it’s OK by me if no one remembers who Amit Kataria is, but the work I have set out to do should endure.”

To learn more about ROSE, see http://www.roseeducation.com/

‘Dhriiti: The Courage Within’ is a Delhi-based organization that runs curriculum to mentor social entrepreneurs to build up their enterprises. http://dhriiti.org/#

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