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In Conversation with Rashmi Mishra

Ranjani Saigal

Rashmi Misra is the founder and chairperson of VIDYA (Vidya Integrated Development For Youth and Adults) a well known Indian non-profit organization working towards the empowerment of women and children from urban slum areas in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Goa.

Over 20 years, VIDYA's unique grass-root development programs have proved to be very successful in transforming the lives of many of India's most underprivileged. The organization is known for its ability to develop educated and empowered women and children who in turn become leaders of social change within their communities. This is achieved through a wide range of integrative development programs which include schools, pre-school crèches, health-care clinics, and income generation skill training centers. In addition to the above, VIDYA facilitates micro-enterprise and micro-credit programs aimed at catalyzing entrepreneurship at the grassroots level.


VIDYA is run almost entirely by volunteers. The organization is frequently profiled in the Indian and international media, and its founder has received several prestigious awards. VIDYA was one of only two New Delhi based social development programs featured during Hillary Clinton's state visit to India in 1995. VIDYA works closely with other organizations and corporations including Monsoon & Accessorize (UK), GE India, IIT Bombay, the Rotary Club, and NTPC.


Rashmi Misra, VIDYA's founder, currently lives in Mumbai. She has a degree in History from Lady Sri Ram College (New Delhi). She is also a talented Odissi dancer. In addition to her work with VIDYA, she is involved in many social development programs both in Delhi and Mumbai.


Rashmi Mishra and her husband Dr. Ashok Mishra (Director, IIT Bombay) are former residents of Massachusetts. Dr. Ashok  Mishra did his Master’s and Ph.D from Tufts University and UMASS Amherst. Rashmi Mishra recently visited the Boston are and spoke to Lokvani about her efforts to bring about social change.


What motivated you to leave this country and go back to India?  Was it your passion for bringing about a change in India?


Our return to India was motivated purely by family circumstances. Ashok’s parents were not keeping good health and they needed us to be with them. At that time Odissi was my passion I learnt Odissi from Srinath  Rao. Indrani Rehman was my idol


What was the genesis of Vidya?


When we went back to IIT Delhi in 1977 I used take walks around the campus. There were a lot of laborers who worked on campus projects.  I saw a few girls who were children of these laborers playing during school hours in really dirty water. When I asked them why they were playing in the water instead of going to school they said “girls do not go to school.” I asked them if they would come to my house to learn. They agreed. So I begain to teach them. Later I talked a few other faculty wives into volunteering as well and we were educating a few kids from th slums.


Once on  fifteen August celebrations at IIT I heard a professor give a passionate talk about education and its importance to India. I approached him and said “if you can give me a space on campus I could try to bring that very education to many of the children of the laborers - who live right on the outskits of this very presitigious educational institution and yet do not receive education".  He was supportive and we looked for space on campus.


There was a green room of the open air auditorium used by IIT students to present their plays. But they used it only once or twice a year. It was empty at other times. So I suggested use of that space. The space was transformed into a school for the children of the laborers who lived in the slum on the outskirts of  IIT and that was the beginning of Vidya.


You expanded Vidya into so many other areas beyond education. Why?


Once I started Vidya I was amazed at the support I received. Faculty wives were volunteering their time to teach. People were providing things like food and clothing for the children. This encouraged me to do more.  I also realized that social transformation can only occur if we go about it in a holistic manner.  


We decided to provide skill training to women. There were crèches in the slums run by the women so that someone can take care of the children while mom is going to school. We were able to give them public health education. This enabled them to clean the slums. Once you train women, you will be amazed to see the difference.


We also started a microcredit program. Of course you can never support the women independent of the men.  Once we gave a loan to a very shy muslim woman. She used the money to establish a telephone booth and was very successful. In the microcredit program we insist on giving the loan to the woman directly. Her success made her husband jealous and he decided to cause trouble. So I went and spoke to him and reassured him that the next loan will be given to him so long as he would be as responsible about the money.  He was delighted to receive the loan and he put up another telephone booth and the family income grew. Now they are a happy family. The moral of the story is the holistic development and support is essential.


 ou moved to IIT Bombay as the first lady and in no time you have transformed the place. Has your being the director’s wife been in your favor?


The thing about IIT Bombay is that the people are just wonderful. Ashok is extremely supportive for such causes and hence having him as the director is certainly advantageous. It had been the tradition for the director’s wife at IIT  to head the ladies club. I used that as a venue to reach out to the many wonderful women on campus. We renamed the club as Shakti – a women’s organization that is here to use women power to empower the have-nots.  Shakti has become an amzing organization.

We provide remedial teaching to children who cannot afford it. We have adult education for class three and class four employees who want to get their high school diploma. We also have computer classes.  

We have “Ahar” a kitchen run by the wives of employees that provides nutritious tiffins for IIT employees. The wives of class three and four employees use this service as a mode of income generation and it is run under the supervision of volunteers. We have day care facilities for children of IIT employees.


We also are working on cleaning the environment on campus. Over the years much filth and pollutants have diluted the purity of the on campus lake.We are working on cleaning the lake. . Immersion of Ganesha idols made of non-ecofriendly materials has been a problem in the past. We are educating people, especially the children on the importance of using biodegradable materials. We had a workshop to make such idols and over 95 orders were received last year for Ganesh Chaturthi.


Sanskriti is a very important part of the new initiatives where we have invited leading musicians and dancers to be part of the community so we can impart dance and music education on campus.


 Whether at IIT Delhi or Bombay you seemed have found so many opportunities to help people in communities that one would consider as a elite community. You also have done it on a community basis. Is there an underlying strategy at work here?


Every community has it sets of haves and have-nots. I have found that the haves very often are very willing to help others – all they need is a little guidance. By helping the slums around IIT or even by supporting the under privileged within IIT we are able to make a healthy community around ourselves. A healthy community is a good place to live.


I think social transformation can happen through community connections.  Helping others can be a very learning experience for the helper as well. I was amazed when I watched the cooperation amongst the slum women. Since they get water few hours a day on the one tap that is setup in the area each family got a turn to get water only once a week. Women used to collect the water and share it with their neighbors. Nobody checked the religion of the neighbor. I truly believe that the greatest needs are in the urban slums. If you transform them you can change the face of India.


Any message to our readers?


 I would like to say is what we are doing is making a big difference. While we have done a lot, there is so much more that needs to be done. Finding funds for all our running programs continues to be a challenge. By supporting us financially or otherwise you can help build bridge between the haves and the have-nots. Come join us! We need YOU!


Thank you for your time.


Thank you.


 To learn more about Vidya or to donate to Vidya, please go to www.vidya-india.org.


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