A silicon tide lifts many boats

Bangalore_slum

Behind the multi-storeyed IBM House that looms over Bannerghatta Road in Bengaluru is a maze of bylanes that form Sudarshan Layout. Families and their belongings spill out of the tiny one-storey buildings onto the narrow lanes.

Most of the residents in the slums here have not studied beyond primary school and make a living as labourers and domestic helps, but their children are pursuing a life far beyond what their parents ever thought possible.

Take Manikanthan Vellikanan (25), the son of a daily-wage worker, who dreams of working with the big names of the animation industry such as DreamWorks or Moving Picture Company. His friend Renuka (22), the daughter of a sweeper, wants to get a government job. Another young woman from the neighbourhood, Saraswati (27), was forced by her family to take up domestic work after finishing school, but fought with her parents to go to college. “I now work as an IT purchasing officer in a micro-finance company,” she says. She earns Rs. 20,000 a month and dreams of a better paying job in the same sector.

The irony of a technology giant next to this warren of slums is not lost on Saraswati or any of their friends who, until eight years ago, had not even seen a computer. But everything changed in 2008, when two software engineers, Balaji and Senthil, along with other volunteers from the Free Software Movement of Karnataka (FSMK), decided to open a community centre in the area. In the basement of an unused building, children from the slum learnt how to wield a mouse and use open source software to gain skills that would give them a toehold in an arena filled with white-collar employees.

“Have you seen The Jungle Book,” asks Mani, who lost his legs to polio at a young age. He manoeuvres his tri-wheeler through the familiar, narrow lanes with ease. In Jon Favreau’s 3D rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, young Mowgli hurtles through the trees of a lush Indian forest as the wolves keep pace on the ground below. “Most of the animation was done here in Bengaluru,” he says.

Mani commutes on his tri-wheeler to his college in Koramangala, where he is doing his final year of BA in Animation and Visual Effects. He credits the centre, where he learned GIMP, an open-source photo editing software, for his interest and skill in animation.

Renuka, who now works as an assistant to a doctor in a clinic and earns Rs. 8,000 a month, is grateful to the volunteers of the FSMK for helping her complete her education. She holds a degree in Commerce, and is keen on getting a government job in the future. “I was always advised to finish my studies first, even when it became difficult to arrange for fees,” she says.

Almost all the young students give back to the centre, which is still running strong. Renuka volunteers at the computer centre and guides a new batch. “I want to see these kids gain what I did,” she says.

Fresh bunch

The Ambedkar Community Computer Centre is now run by a fresh group of volunteers and community members. It was closed for a few years in between, but reopened last year on the top floor of the same building where Mani and Renuka had studied years ago. Today, former students have become teachers. Children learn on two computers that use open software, and those interested are taught additional skills, including image editing software and Web design.

“These children have to compete with kids from private schools when they get to college levels. We try to give them a chance to be on an equal footing by familiarising them with technology,” says Shijil, a software engineer and FSMK member, who currently teaches at the centre. It’s why the children are also taught Spoken English and general science concepts.

Last year, Renuka and others held a meeting to convince parents to send their children to the centre. Twenty children came on the first day of class, a motley crowd daring to dream big.

(Originally published in The Hindu.)

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