For 13-year-old Ankita Vinod Wajire from the tiny village of Bhod in Maharasthra, the journey to winning India's First Lego League Robotics competition has been literal. "My village is 10 kms away from the school. I had to climb a bus, then walk 3 kilometres to reach the school to prepare for this competition."
Wajire, along with thirteen other girls, won the national level round of India's First Lego League Robotics competition held in February. They won three awards including the overall championship trophy, best teamwork and the best mentor prizes. The victory also secured them a direct spot in the next level of the competition which was to be held in the United States. But only if they could afford to go.
The prestigious robotics tournament where they represent India at the world stage is self-funded.
For the fourteen girls and their coach, Kajala Prakashaj Rajvaidya, the travel to the US so far remains uncertain and they don't have funding yet.
Unlike most of the other contestants in the competition, who come from urban cities of Maharasthra, Wajire's entire team comes from a small village in Maharasthra called Akola. The girls come from under-privileged households, with some living on household incomes as slow as Rs 10,000 for the entire family.
The team was put together by Kajal Prakash Rajvaidya, CEO and founder of KITS developing centers, who turned mentor to these girls aged between 11 to 15.
Rajvaidya, who herself was a passout of the Manutai Kanya school in 2008, came back with a mission: India's villages had talent too.
"Villages in rural areas don't get exposure. Government schools don't have the funding or the bandwidth to teach advanced sciences to the student," says Rajvaidya in an interview to News18. "When I approached the girls, their parents objected and questioned me where the funding would come from?" she says.
"It takes even 5-6 lakhs just to compete in regional or national levels, and even getting to Mumbai. None of them could afford it," explains Rajvaidya. Rajvaidya also offered to assemble the funds necessary for the travel along with the mentoring.
For the girls, it was harder to convince their parents. "My mother was the only earning member, and my dad simply gambled away the money," says Pranjali Pradip Sadanshiv aged 13. Sanika Vijay Kale's tale is similar, "The only income we had was my grandfather's pension, Rs.1000, my father got injured and couldn't work as a farmer anymore."
None of the girls parents approved of them travelling to the school. Apart from financial concerns, many did not want their daughters to travel such distances for robotics. "They wanted us to stay at home and help with household chores," explains Pooja Mahavir Fursule, one of three sisters in her family. The parents had even considered taking the girls out of school, she says.
"But the competition changed everything," explains Aachal Santosh Dabhad. "People who used to mock us for going to a Marathi medium school, now respect us. Even our parents have become a lot more supportive."
Ajvaidya explains that the task wasn't easy and it wasn't just robotics that the girls needed to learn. "They knew almost nothing about technology and had trouble understanding English or Hindi" she sighs. All the levels of the competition involved speaking in English, all participants have to answer the judges questions in English.
"I started to teach them the basics. Most of the girls were involved in stitching and some in writing, I played to these strengths. I divded the work equally, so some got to do the programming bit of it, some got to do the assembling and building part of it. I also taught them basic English sentences, enough to speak and communicate," explains Rajvaidya.
"They worked very well. Their teamwork really paid off. They made, broke, dissembled, the final robot four times before they were sure about it," smiles Rajvaidya, who won best mentor.
However, despite winning the competition, they still cannot afford to go to the global level - they do not have any funds.
A group of parents in another category in the same competition, who met these girls decided to help them raise funds.
Vishwesh Jirgale, a software engineer in Pune, kick-started a fundraiser on Twitter, calling for contributors.
We at Robominds trying to raise funds for this young all girls robotics team from Akola to represent India at First Lego League world festival in Detroit USA. DM me if you are interested in helping. Smallest of help is appreciated 🙏🏻 (1/2) pic.twitter.com/WiRwPRD4aF— Vishwesh ᕙ(⇀‸↼)ᕗ (@vishweshji) February 19, 2020
The competition dates are from 30th to 2nd May, and they need at least 25 lakhs to be able to travel, with airfare, clothing, lodging, food, etc.
"I realized how privileged our kids have," Jirgale tells News18. "We could fund our kids, the parents of these girls can't." Jirgale and other parents too, are contributing to the cause and redirecting sponsors their way. However, they are still drastically short of the goal.
The group's travel to the US isn't just about the competition, it's symbolic. At a time when Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is the slogan of the country, the girls simply want to be the people to put India on the map of world Robotics.
"I'll be the first person in my family to go abroad," says Sayali Nitin Wakode. "Us going and participating will make the world notice that girls, from rural India are also capable of achieving any challenges. We worked very hard to get here, and we deserved a chance to represent India as much as kids from English-medium, urban cities, funded by their parents do. We want to do this for our families, but more importantly, for India."