Since the conception of PUNYA in 2009, founder Varun V Singhi has been working with his team of volunteers to provide holistic education services to underprivileged children throughout India. Their pilot project, a notebook distribution in a government school in Chennai, left the team at PUNYA with a sense of fulfillment and a confidence in their ability to make a difference. More importantly, the project helped PUNYA more fully recognize the immense need for improvement in the Indian education system. The need, they found, extended far beyond the classroom to more fundamental issues preventing underprivileged children from receiving education. PUNYA thus adopted a more holistic approach to education, organizing projects that ranged from food distribution to computer donations and infrastructure development, to a mentor/mentee project to track individual students’ progress.
We had a chance to connect with Varun Singhi for an exclusive SocialStory interview to gain a deeper understanding of what PUNYA is all about.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Punya? What was the motivation behind starting it? Well, to be really frank I do not have a story behind my past, where one fine day I had a realization witnessing something apart from the usual that motivated me. Instead, PUNYA was never a day’s realization, rather it was ingrained in me over a very long time. India as a country has an abundance of everything, be it culture, religion, money, people, and along with the people comes poverty, a helpless future of the poor. There is no Indian who has not witnessed all of these. Just like any other Indian I witnessed poverty too, but did not want to stop there at just witnessing. I believe in order to make a difference one has to be part of something that is different from the normal. All human beings have a conscience. We have a desire to improve the environment around us. Something inside us urges us to contribute, to share and help, to do what we can to ameliorate the lives of our fellow beings. However, all too often we give up or postpone these thoughts, not because of money, but due to scarcity of time and lack of focus. This is what motivated me and guided me to envision the creation of PUNYA, an initiative to build a bridge between the socially conscious people, and the people in dire need of help.
One more question that kept hindering me was: do I have to be really rich to make this difference? I think most people believe that the answer is “yes,” and I felt like anyone else who might be reading this interview, who has the same ideology as Punya, but feels that they are unable to do anything about it. It was then that I consulted my family, friends and well-wishers and realized that it was the time to act and do something concrete. With the guidance and support of family and likeminded friends I was able to shape my brainchild, “PUNYA”.
Q: PUNYA seems to take on a wide array of initiatives. How do all of these projects fit in with the mission of PUNYA?
It is simple: PUNYA’s mission is to provide quality education to the deserving individuals who are backward both economically and socially. All the projects that PUNYA takes up are related to the mission of uplifting the not so blessed kids/students who require any type of aid or a helping hand. PUNYA believes that education cannot be defined by a single dimension. Our approach towards education is multi-dimensional. We don’t just sponsor the child’s education, but assign him/her a mentor, who guides the student and tracks their progress. Our aim is to get involved with the student and make him/her feel more responsible in order to have a positive attitude towards life. The mentor and student then keep in touch regularly in order to evaluate the student’s growth.
Q: What are some of your most successful projects?
While Punya intends to make education a reality for the underprivileged, many of the organization’s projects are based on essentials such as ‘food’ and donations for computers, notebooks and stationary for government school students, micro financing for rural entrepreneurs, etc.
I would say the most successful project for PUNYA in the long term would be to make PUNYA reach every child in this country, and to make the four ends meet. This is yet to be achieved, so I cannot say that PUNYA has been totally successful in that long-term project.
In the short term, all our Punyaites including me feel that our scholarship initiative has been one of the most successful projects for PUNYA. We have sponsored about 15 students from 1st grade to College until date and have achieved 100% pass results.
Q: Are projects completely volunteer driven?
I would say 80% of our projects are volunteer driven, and the rest we have tie ups with various non-profits and orphanages across South India who also help us initiate and complete the projects.
Q: How do you recruit these volunteers and what roles do they play within the ogranization?
There is no particular process for recruitment at PUNYA. I think the world is running at a fast pace and every individual is trying to keep up. But a few take time during their busy schedules in order to bring about change, to make a difference. PUNYA believes in taking them on board. Charity, helpful attitude, gratitude, love for humanity etc., these are topics which are not spoon fed, they are just within every individual. These high-spirited individuals from different part of the nation join together to make PUNYA possible.
We in Punya work in different regions, trying to reach our long-term goals that I mentioned. Some of the major roles Punya Volunteers play are:
Q: What have some of your biggest challenges been?
They say that the path that leads to purity and righteousness is never easy. This is something that I can directly relate to myself. Convincing your family / friends is probably the easiest step because you know they will believe in you. But convincing the world at large with your idea is tough. It was a task to convince the Government Officers that my team of volunteers and I were serious about the concept. I didn’t want PUNYA to be like any other organization that sparks for a few days and then vanishes. We had to meet a lot of officers and convince them about the motto and vision of PUNYA, just to get registered and start our operations.
Streamlining PUNYA’s technical infrastructure was another challenge. I believe that with every challenge there comes an opportunity. We approached various organizations like Huddle.com, Verticalresponse.com, 4corearts.com and many Web design companies, and also managed to get some free software to reach donors through the Web.
Q: How do you raise funds?
Every move forward makes me believe that there is a lot of hope in our country and its people. We whole-heartedly thank all the generous hearts. It’s not just individuals who help us with funds to complete our projects, we also get support from corporate professionals who have not just helped us raising funds but also helped us take a step forward towards achieving our goals.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of everything we have achieved at PUNYA in this span of time, but I suppose the mere collection of construction materials does not guarantee that the house to be built will be beautiful. Instead every bit of it has to be constructed with care and devotion. Each and every part of PUNYA is built and still in process of being built. Thus, I will be extremely proud on the day when we as the PUNYA team achieve the goal for which PUNYA was established.
What is your current outreach?
Till date we have benefitted around 1500 rural schools, reaching students through our various social development projects. We have raised $10,000 dollars in funds through in kind contributions, 100% of which has been utilized for the projects.
For the year 2013, we plan to double our outreach by mobilizing our efforts and resources for education specific projects.
Q: What does the future hold for Punya?
There are high drop out rates in municipal and government schools. An extremely poor performance of children prompted us to start our after education scholarship support programme. Our main objective is to enhance student’s performance, contain drop out rates and ensure access to secondary school. In the future, we want to focus on our education outreach programme so that we reach masses and simultaneously focus on micro financing for rural entrepreneurs in the field of vocational traning, energy, sanitation, etc.