Every year on 26 January, young achievers from across India are awarded the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar. This time around, 26 winners were chosen out of some 900 applicants. These were all kids under the age of 18, the youngest being a six-year-old, who have made early advances in fields as diverse as culture, science, sports and innovation. In this special report, Priya Singh profiles five of these exceptional wunderkinds.
‘I was 16 at that time”, says Shivangi Pathak, who became the youngest Indian to climb Mount Everest in May last year, for which she was awarded the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar in January.
Talking about the uphill task that her journey was, she says, “I was carrying at least 20kg load on my back, it was really difficult for me to get there but I never lost hope. On such climbs, you are expected to carry your own stuff and this 20kg includes food, oxygen cylinder, harness, water, tent and other equipment. I remember I was accompanied by a guide all the time as I was the youngest in the group.”
It was when she turned 14 that she started dreaming of climbing Mount Everest. “I happened to attend a seminar with my mom around that time. Sessions were being held on what mountaineering is exactly and who all are the known names from this area. Since I was always inclined towards sports, I enjoyed that session and my mum jokingly told me that I should also climb the Mount Everest some day. That really left an impression in my mind. That day, I Googled all about it—about the courses, the famous personalities in this file. I told my parents that I wanted to try my hand at it, and they encouraged me to go ahead.”
In April 2017, she got herself enrolled in a mountaineering course at the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Kashmir. She says, “I scored alpha grade and my mentor told my mum that I was fit to climb the mountains; that I was born to do that. Then I pursued an advanced course from the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering.”
Initially, it was difficult for her to juggle between studies and her training. “I used to wake up and practice from five in the morning to eight and then go to school and sit for exams. It used to dedicate at least six hours a day to training.”
When preparing for the climb, Shivangi was focused on improving her fitness, both physically and mentally. “I had to work a lot on losing weight at that time. I had to cut down on fast food entirely and switch to boiled food. I had to cut off my long hair also, as it was a problem while training. Another thing, it is not just physical fitness that is required before taking on such projects, but mental fitness is also necessary. I used to meditate a lot to gain that mental strength.”
The climb was scheduled for March 2018, and she was to take the Nepal side of the route up Mount Everest. “I remember it was 29 March. I had a flight from Kathmandu for the Mount Everest climb… It took me 41 days to reach the top of the mountain. And when I finally made it to the top, I realised that the dream I had been pursuing from last two years had finally come true. I had our national flag in my hands and I sang our national anthem there. It was a really proud moment for me.”
Speaking about her future plans, Shivangi says, “I do have big plans for the future but since mountaineering is not counted as a sport, it becomes difficult to get proper funding or sponsorship. I am just waiting for the sponsors. After that I will soon be moving on to other similar projects.”
In 2018, Madhav Lavakare, a student of Delhi’s Sanskriti School, astonished his teachers and classmates by his latest invention that he named the Transcribe Glass.
These smart glasses are designed especially for people suffering from different kinds of hearing impairments. “The problem that I am trying to solve with this invention has to do with the communication barrier between the deaf and others in the community,” Madhav tells Guardian 20. “If you want to communicate with a person who has a hearing problem and you don’t know sign language, that’s a big problem for which there is no solution available or accessible in the market.”
Setting himself the challenge of breaking this age-old communication barrier, Madhav came up with the idea of engineering a pair of smart glasses, creating the prototype for which took him three months.
His Transcribe Glasses make use of speech-to-text technology. Meant to be worn by hearing-impaired users, these glasses can be linked up with anyone’s smartphone via Bluetooth. Whatever audio input the smartphone gets is converted to text and displayed on the lens of the smart glasses, so the wearer can read it with ease. The Transcribe Glass smartphone app, also designed by Madhav, can convert any audio input to text within 1.5-2 seconds.
“The current prototype that I have uses Google’s API [Application Programming Interface] and has 120 languages on it right now,” Madhav says. “I am also developing the third prototype of the glasses, testing it on a lot of users and getting feedback on the design and functionality of the product… I am looking forward to building a team that could help me with the manufacturing of this device. I am looking for funding as well.”
Transcribe Glass isn’t the only gadget put together by Madhav, who remains a committed innovator at such a young age. Some time ago, he invented a Home Automation System for his own place, a kind of integrated smart unit that can control a network of lights and electrical appliances. He says, “I always like to build things and solve problems. I built my own home automation system that could switch off all the lights and fans and helps save electricity. This device could detect when a person enters or exists a room and then it works accordingly. With its sensors, it can switch off all the electrical appliances.”
Talking about the challenges he faces as a young innovator, Madhav says, “The innovation ecosystem in India is still developing and it becomes difficult for people like me, who like to make and build gadgets, to find the required facilities, resources and parts.”
As for now, Madhav wants to go commercial with his latest innovation. He wants the Transcribe Glass to be sold in the market. “I have not decided on any price tag for it yet, because it is still a prototype. But the cost of making the second prototype was Rs 2,500 only.”
Clearly, a gifted boy like Madhav has a bright future ahead. Partly in preparation for it, he has even founded his own company, called InterTech Labs. “It will be aiming to develop social-impact products by supporting new technologies,” he says.
Dev Joshi started his acting career at the age of three. “At the age of three,” he tells Guardian 20, “I acted in my first advertisement, of Parle Kidland. It was my first ever performance on screen.”
The acting prodigy is now 18 and has won multiple national and international awards for his work, including most recently the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar.
“I never thought that I would grow up to become an actor. It was just that I was interested in acting and dancing in my free time and I was supported in this by my parents. My mom taught me about performing arts and she is my mentor even today,” Dev says.
In 2012, he garnered instant fame for his role of Ballu in the kids fantasy show Baal Veer. But Dev never let his newfound fame come in the way of his commitment to acting. “Being in the entertainment industry and getting stardom at an early age is quite fun. But there is always the negative side of getting famous. My parents have always made sure to keep me away from the negative energies that come with stardom,” he says.
Balancing studies with acting hasn’t been too much of a task for him. He says, “It has never been complicated for me to do both, as I had constant support of my parents and my school. My mom helped me in studies on the sets while shooting, and my school principal has always supported me in my education so I don’t get over-burdened.”
In the coming years, Dev wants to graduate from acting to filmmaking.
The youngest awardee of the lot, Eiha Dixit is a six-year-old girl from Meerut who won the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar for planting 2,500 saplings in her city, on her fifth birthday in 2018.
Eiha’s unique project was seen as a tribute to the environment. “I really never get tired of planting trees as I love doing it,” she says.
Kuldeep Sharma, Eiha’s father, tells Guardian 20 that he is proud of her daughter’s achievement. “She was just four years and eight months old when she heard a speech by our Prime Minister, a “Mann Ki Baat”, about environment. She became quite inquisitive about the subject after that. She also came across several cartoon shows that had a sketch on pollution and how planting trees can save the environment. It was then that she decided to start planting trees. And she didn’t just stop at one or two. It became a regular thing for her.”
Eiha’s tree-planting drive started at her house. “Then we moved on to the park nearby. We thought that she is just a kid and will eventually forget about it but this was not the case. On her fifth birthday in September, she planted 1,008 saplings in a medical college in the city and won an award from the state government as well. After that, too, she did not stop planting trees. She used to plant saplings on weekends. Kids from different parts of the city would approach us and say that they also wanted to help her plant more trees. So they formed a group called Green Eiha Smile Club. On her birthday last year, they planted 2,500 plants at the Jagriti Nagar Extension where government has allotted a specific area for such plantations. They all go to this place every week, to plant more saplings and water the existing ones,” says Kuldeep Sharma.
Nishant Dhankhar, a 16-year-old Delhi boy from DPS RK Puram, won the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar in the field of scholastics, for his extraordinary grasp of, and stellar achievements in, mathematics.
The teenager has won several prizes in mathematics in India as well as overseas. In 2018, he represented India in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, winning the gold medal for his project on Szemeredi’s theorem.
About the Pittsburgh event, he says, “There were 20 projects that were selected from various categories from across India, including biomedical, computer science and other subjects. It was a greatly enriching experience for me as I met people from all around the world. I came to know there is much more to mathematics that I still need to learn and explore.”
They say that mathematical talent is inborn. But Nishant believes that his mathematical skills are a direct result of his developing passion for the subject. “I grew interested in mathematics when my mom introduced me to it in class eighth. Eventually I started participating in Olympiads and other competitions and realised that I can be good at it. I got more interested in the subject because of her encouragement and moral support.”
With his eyes set on future math Olympiads, the eleventh-standard student is keen on building a career around mathematics. He says, “I am preparing for an international mathematics Olympiad that is to be held this month, and for another one to be held in May… I think I will mostly pursue further studies in mathematics or computer science, or in something that involves both.”