To be a girl…

Modigliani could have painted her. Were she a few inches taller she could have walked the ramp. But little Mahajabi’s mom was born in a poor Muslim family in India a land where little girls are not welcome, a land where they are often done away with, a land where they just go missing.

Their fate if they do survive is no bed of roses. Mahajabi’s mom does not even know her age but seems barely out of her teens, but unlike her peers in well to do homes or other lands, she looks used and abused. She has five children the eldest 5 and the youngest 10 months. She must have been married at a time when girls are normally carefree and got pregnant soon after. Since, her life has been spent being pregnant and breastfeeding while caring for her ever growing family. In her world any form of birth control is sinful and blasphemous. As long as her body is capable of bearing children she will continue doing so. She has no choice. Hers is a life devoid of rights; just a string of duties defined by traditions and mores made and defined by men.

Her husband is a daily wage labourer and barely earns enough for his family. Mahajabi’s heart condition has come as a bolt from the blue and thrown the family out of gear. And yet she is a mother and cannot remain silent so she has moved in with her parents till the child is attended to and healed. With a courage and determination well beyond her years, this woman who does not know her own age, requested her neighbour to accompany her to the hospital as the child was sick. She had dropped by to ask us for some proof she could show the doctors who had earlier refused to attend to the child as they must have thought that this poor family could never gather the required 60 000 Rs.

But they were unaware of the power of a mother’s prayers and the ways of the God of Lesser beings who is beyond religion and faith. Mahajabi will have her operation and will be given a chance to live.

But as one watched them leave, one wondered how long would little girls have to wait before they were given their rightful place in society.

a note of gratitude

I met Mallika on the net a year or so ago. It was a time when we were desperate for funds and I use to knock at every id or site in the hope of getting some help. A common net friend connected us and as luck would have it she came to Delhi and we met.

The next day she came by to visit project why with her parents and her two daughters. It was a blessed moment and since they have supported us in more ways than one.

That was time her first book had been published and even though I was past the age of young motherhood I tried to find a copy of 100 promises, thinking it would be a way of getting to know Mallika better. I must confess that I was utterly surprised by the wisdom and sagacity that permeated this tender book and found myself reading it with intense pleasure, regretting that in our days such books did not exist. Dr Spock or Laurence Pernoud was what we read as we went on learning to be and making innumerable and iretreivable mistakes.

More than a book on motherhood, it was a reflection on life itself and a celebration of the often neglected link between a mother and a child. I saw my mistakes and shortcomings andadmired wondered the depth of understanding of this young mother. Many of the promises were shared with my teachers as maybe I was lucky to have been given a second chance with the project why children. And of all the promises the one that touched me the most was: I will hold you, but never hold on to you.

Imagine my surprise an delight when I received a mail from Mallika where she introduces her new book 100 questions from my child and writes: For this book, I am donating a portion of my proceeds to ProjectWhy, an organization in New Delhi that provides educational programs for underprivileged children.

What makes this gesture special is that project why is about trying to find answers to the innumerable questions that come up when looks at the plight of the children of India. I am sure that once again it will guide me in finding the right answer.

Thank you Mallika.

a precious heart

Her name means beautiful and Mahajavi is undoubtedly beautiful. She is just under one. She was born with a hole in her heart that needs fixing.

The youngest of 5 kids – though her mom looks like a kid herself – she has a right to live a full life but cannot unless her heart is fixed.

You guessed right, Mahajavi is our new inmate at heartfix hotel and we hope to be to fix her heart.

This is how she landed at project why.

Mahajavi is related to the two men who came by my home to do some work last week, probably part of a large plan of the God of Lesser Beings. An answer to a young mother’s prayer or a reminder that in our land every little girl has a right to live? Who knows.

In Delhi little girls are precious even if many do not know it as yet. I read some chilling figures in a recent publication: 25 000 girls go missing every year in this very city. hence it is a matter of celebration that a poor family with 5 children is fighting for little Mahajavi. Before we met them, they had made innumerable visits to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and done what they could. It is divine justice that they found us. Now the ball is in our court and the game has to be won.

To some it may seem pointless to save such a life as they may wonder what her future would be. I chose to leave such souls to their wonderings. A simple glance at her eyes and at her young mother’s eyes is sufficient to know that Mahajavi’s life is as precious as any other little girl’s. As so her future only time will tell..

more project stats

A few posts back we shared some of our achievements with a sense of pride. Today I was given another set of statistics and once again one felt elated.

My mind travelled back almost 10 years when project why began, or rather when the organisation was set up. To me it was a question of paying back a debt but at that time the canvas was blank and our work could have taken on any direction. The first year was spent distributing nutrition to slum children and in the course of that year one set out biscuits in hand on a journey into an unknown world, or rather a world one had been conditioned to view in a particular way. With each biscuit came a lesson and a set of questions or ‘whys’.

The one why that disturbed me the most was: why do children drop out of school? Project why came as our answer to this question and one can say with a some satisfaction that since its inception children who have come our way have remained in school and performed well. This year again we have has our set of toppers in many classes.

The other why that was as disquieting was the alarming number of children in Delhi who are not in school – over 100 000 between the age of 7 and 13 – . So it has also been our effort to try and push children back into mainstream education. This is often a difficult task as one has to motivate parents and bully schools. This year again 6 children were admitted n class VI and 61 in different primary classes.

Cynics may think this is but a drop in he ocean and I agree, but drops create ripples. In a land has huge as ours the only way to be able to bring change is one child at a time, one day at a time and to believe that if one life is changed a real difference has been made.

holding on to dreams

Last week two men came to help us with some work at home. Like many others who eek their living on a day-to-day basis they were picked up from the chowk or road side where they sit from the early hours of the morning in the hope that someone would come by and give them work.

Both had lost their jobs in factories, as many do in Delhi, but had refused to lose hope. Over a cup of tea they shared their story in a dispassionate way. Hazari the elder of the two hails from Bihar and has five children. His wife does not work and it is his measly 3000 rs that keeps them going. All his children go to school and his elder daughter is in class IX. His dream is to ensure that she completes her XIIth.

Hazari belongs to one of the reserved classes but has no idea of what that simple appartenance can get him. He has never heard of reservation and has never availed of any of the sops doled out regularly. His day-to-day survival does not give him the luxury of taking time off to get the required papers ratifying his social or economic status. Yet Hazari refuses to give up his dreams for his children, the very reason he left his home to come to this soulless city.

It was poignant to see that this conversation was happening at the very time when heated debates on reservations are once again dividing the nation and the fate of the creamy layer is being veted. This man like many others in our land was just busy surviving and holding on to his dreams. He is already a winner as he has beaten many odds. In a city where children drop out with alarming regularity, his daughter has held on and made it to class IX.

As I mused on about this innocuous meeting, I came across a news item stating that an IIM alumni body had gone to the Supreme Court questioning the validity of a 56 year old caste-based reservation system. What caught my eye were two quotes of from Jawahar Lal Nehru. The first reminded us of his dream of a ” young and vibrant nation, free from the vices of caste and communal divide“. The other went on to state: ” I dislike any kind of reservation. more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything that leads to inefficiency and second rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second rate we are lost“.

A mere glance at today’s India 60 years after freedom shows that Nehru’s vision has been long forgotten. The debate on the creamy layer is sufficient to show that the very purpose of reservation or affirmative action has been defeated. While the battle rages about the 27% OBC reservation in institutes of higher learning, 6 decades of Independence have not been able to enforce the right to primary education.

It stands to reason to believe that for any affirmative action to be honest, excellence has to begin at the very bottom of the ladder: ie in state run primary schools. Our tiny experience at pwhy has proved beyond doubt that children from underprivileged backgrounds can be stellar performers if given a little help. To cite just one example, Farzana a two times failure in class VII got 83 % at her Xth Boards. Sadly as debates go on, the state of municipal schools in India’s capital city seem to be getting worse by the minute. A mind boggling number of potential aspirants to higher learning drop out of schools because somewhere down the line each one of us has failed them.

The IIM alumni effort is one in the right direction. It is time to define the validity of a reservation policy that seems to be doing more harm than good, as it is fracturing our society with impunity. Any affirmative action has to be time bound. Otherwise it will lead to impairing rather than helping. Alas, as long as such policies provide fodder to vested interest, solutions will be difficult to find.

the orphan and the one eyed child

I had heard the story of the the one-eyed child who lived in a small village and was the butt of cruel jokes and a sad laughing stock. His mother climbed a rocky hill on her knees to reach a shrine where it was said miracles happened. Sometime later her child lost his other eye and turned blind. At first she was unable to understand what had happened till slowly she realised that people had stopped making fun of her child and were often seen helping him and being kind to him.

This story has many explanations and many lessons to be learnt. But it came to my mind as I battled a real life situation today. We have been trying to find alternatives for Babli and Jeetu. Whereas many know Babli’s story, Jeetu belongs to times before one actually became a blogger. He lost his Mom when he was still a tiny baby. Now almost 8 he is tended for by a father who barley eeks a living. The father, like so many others, drinks and becomes abusive and violent. Last week he was seen threatening his son with a tyre that he was about to hurl on him when one of our staff members intervened.

Babli and Jeetu have parents but just in name as in either case these parents have scant time for their progeny. We were hoping to send them to karammarg but were told that a recent decision of their Board was to only take orphans.

Babli and Jeetu are not exceptions. There are many like them who though having parents live a life of abject neglect. They are left to their own devices. Jeetu does not even go to school in spite of all our efforts. Babli is a surrogate mother to her family. Her father even makes take care of the tobacco and cigarette cart he has while he is busy gambling. One year after her heart surgery she has not grown an inch or put on a pound. Having parents who do not care is worse than being orphaned as orphans are quite often taken care of by relatives and treated with kindness.

Jeetu and Babli are muck like the one eyed child, their lives worse than that of the child with no parents. Their homes situation is so hopeless that it becomes impossible to help them in situ. Their only hope is that their family – or what goes by that name – accepts to give them a better chance.

Sometimes decisions are taken in a hurry, one can only hope that they are not irreversible. It is the plight of children like them that made us seed planet why. If not for all the children at least for those who drop by our way.

gift unwrapped

Some of you may remember the very special gift I had sought this year for my b’day. Yesterday was unwrapping time as team project why gathered for a day long workshop and everyone read their essays ( for want of a better word). I must confess that I was really thrilled as everyone, even those who were illiterate had made the effort to produce a page.

When I began the workshop by asking each one to read what they had written I was met with a volley of giggles, exclamations and no ways! But I held on and soon everyone settled and one by one they read what they had written. Some in barely audible voices, some with theatrical aplomb, and some amidst giggles. I wish i had done this exercise before as those few paragraphs were a deep insight into each and everyone. Having known most of them for many years now, I could validate much of what I had till then just felt intuitively.

They had been asked to write about how the years in pwhy had transformed them, it at all, and why should anyone one ‘love’ them. Some felt is necessary to eulogise pwhy and ma’am. Others were bold enough to state that they should be loved for this or that reason. Some went back to their school days and their relationship with their own teachers. There were even one or two who delivered a passionate speech on the state of the country.

There were however some heartwarming and even poignant common threads: new found self confidence, ability to talk to foreigners, realisation that they could achieve what once seemed impossible. All in all it was a great experience and one that met my secret agenda: that of getting each one of them to take on the running of their own centre. I explained to them that i wanted each one of them to feel responsible for the work they were doing, to make its budget, to list its assets, to maintain daily accounts and above all to state its relevance.

There were raised eyebrows, incredulous looks and much whispering. But step one had been taken towards a change in roles and I knew that this was a great moment for all of us at pwhy.

(to be continued….)

sunshine smile

Whenever one feels low or a tad dejected a miracle drops by to lift one’s spirits in a nano second.

This week’s miracle was a visit by little Anisha and her sunshine smile. All woes and bad thoughts were whisked away as she entered the room in her mother’s arms and greeted us with her dazzling smile. Was this the same child who just a few months back could barely breathe?

She regaled us with her new antics and one could not resist puling her now plump cheeks. Anisha who was barely surviving with numerous holes in her heart, was today alive! And we at pwhy granted ourselves the right to celebrate our sunshine girl.

project stats – budget 2006

Our new budget for 2007 – 2008 is on line. Normally a budget is not something you blog on. However project why has reached a stage where in a case of force majeure it has become necessary to review and reinvent.

The Damocles sword of the now (in)famous sealing laws hangs on our head. The not so elusive year 2010 is just round the corner and it would be foolish to think that slums will remain where they are. On the other hand the promise of building flats for slum dwellers in situ is at best only for a chosen few, if not a another political sop. The likelihood of slums being once again pushed to the edge of the city seems more like a reality waiting to happen.

Thinking that project why could remain as it is for years to come is unwise. The sensible option is to start planning for the future while keeping within the spirit of project why.

We now have 10 working modules in 7 locations. Our first step would be to empower the staff in each of these 10 module to take on their management. Hence we have asked them to prepare individual budgets and maintain daily accounts. We know that we will have to hold their hand for some time but in the ultimate analysis they will one day be able to handle their work independently and thus run their programmes in whatever location they find themwelves in. Pwhy then becomes the validating organisation that would seek funds. It would also have a training and monitoring role.

On the other hand we still have some children and adults that would need us on a lifelong basis. These are not those we sought but those that landed in our existence. Planet why is what we have considered as a viable option as it would also enable us to raise on our funds in the future. This is also a imperative as we cannot expect funders to support us for ever.

Budget 2006 includes a new programme that we have called community outreach. This was done as it was felt that education alone could not bring about the kind of change we dreamt of. Awareness on issues like RTI and environment (water, plastic menace etc) are important factors that need to be taught to both parents and children. Moreover the need for health and hygiene awareness needs also to be addressed. We are happy to share that after 7 gruelling years we have finally been accepted by the community and approached by local doctors and other community leaders for joint programmes. This is a major breakthrough in our effort to bridge the gap between various sections of the community. Moreove this programe will also try and address various social issues that plague the community.

2007 looks like being a year of transformation and remodeling. We are awre that it will throw up many new challenges but we hope to meet them with success.

admission woes

Some of you know Kiran. She has been part of pwhy since its very inception. She was actually born the day we began our work in Giri Nagar.

Kiran is a lovely child in more ways than one, and she is an extremely sensitive and humane person. Her favourite place at pwhy is the special section where she often spends time helping the teachers with their work and interacts with each and every child. The picture you see is when she lent her face for a make up class and sat a long time while Neha, Rinky and Shaheeda set to task.

Her family has always wanted the best for her and dreamt of putting her in a nice school. They were willing to pay a reasonable amount and had saved for it. When she was ready for class I they set about finding a school but soon found it was not so simple. Kiran had been to a playschool where she excelled but that was not enough. Tests ensued and the dreaded rejection that this intelligent child could not understand.

Her admission became a topic of daily conversations in her little home till the day one well wisher (or so called) stepped in and said he could get her a seat in a school. Kiran sat for the entrance test and got in. Her fees and other expenses – a whooping 15 K – were paid as everyone scrapped the barrel. Last week in her new uniform little Kiran set off to school. The same afternoon the well wisher – a true Shylock – asked his pound of flesh: 20 K commission!

Kiran’s story is shared here to underline a larger issue. What many do not realise is that this is the trend not the exception. More and more parents from what we like to call the underprivileged class are wanting to send their children to good schools. This is because the government run schools, particularly at the primary level are in an appalling state. Parents who are now second generation migrants to Delhi and respectable citizens with voting rights, are aware of this reality. The private schools or rather teaching shops that proliferate in slum areas have also been exposed as a costly and poor option. Parents want a good +2 school.

We have witnessed in the past years many parents from slums trying to get an admission for their children. This is often the case when one parent is educated. For many the search is futile and the child sent to a private unrecognised school, for others like Kiran things look possible till the hammer falls.

The child is now in school. If the money is not paid there is a likelihood of her being poorly treated or even dismissed. If the racket is exposed then the child will be ill treated for sure and finding another school is almost impossible. Paying the money is not an option as not only does the family not have the resources, but they are reluctant to walk this road.

Kiran’s story is the story of many children in today’s reality. I am a die hard believer in the common school system where children from many walks of life will learn together. But the writing on the wall points in a different direction as one hears more disturbing trends on privatisation of schools. Many do not realise that it will ring the death knell for a large chunk of India’s young population.