have we given up…

It was almost 10 days or more ago that Radhey my auto rickshaw driver informed me in a matter fact way that a barrage had breached in Nepal and that floods in his village were imminent. It was just a matter of days. I could not at that time fathom the magnitude of the disaster in waiting. Every morning in a matter of fact way I would enquire about the flood and he would answer that the waters were coming. I must admit I did not see the urgency. How could I. Even the press did not report much. By the time India woke up it was very late: over 3 million people had been rendered homeless, a major river had changes its course, villages had been swept away, lovingly built homes obliterated from the face of the earth.

In a popular TV debate aired a few days back the anchor asked the disturbing and startling question: Does India care about Bihar? And the uncomfortable answer that made us squirm in our chairs was: No! Bihar simply seems to have fallen off the map. We just want to wish it away. The news from the ground gets grimmer by the day and no respite is in the offing. The figures are alarming millions of people have lost their homes and livelihood.

Almost every year Bihar suffers the fury of floods. Some years are worse than the other and lead to large scale migration. It was in 1985 that Radhey fled his village and came to Delhi to build a new life. Like many others he sent money regularly to his village to repair the house, build a new one, buy the much needed farm implement. Today everything is gone. The members of his family have fled the raging waters and taken shelter with relatives. Some have even come all the way to Delhi and will swell the ranks of the staggering migratory population of this choking city. Many pwhy children’s families have similar stories. What is saddening and infuriating is the calm with which they share their plight, as if they too have given up.

It took a long while for India to waken up, or has it really as in spite of the magnitude of the calamity there is no palpable urgency: no dramatic headlines, no continuous coverage… It is as if floods in Bihar are regular occurrences. Bihar once a vibrant state of India, the seat of the Maghadh Empire, of Licchavi the first known republic, of Buddhism the religion of tolerance is today neglected and derided. It is today equated to corruption, hooliganism, gang and caste wars and considered an aberration. Yet it is home to millions of people who bravely fight all odds.

The picture you see dropped in my inbox with an appeal for help.It took me some time to figure out that what looked like a mosaic pattern where actually people left stranded on a washed away road. Imagine the number of children who today instead of setting out for school are living in the open, hungry and wondering where all their dreams have fled. Imagine the number of people deprived of all the facilities we take for granted: water, food. medicine, shelter. Imagine the pain of seeing your life come to naught. Where does one pluck the courage to begin all over again.

Have we given up on Bihar. I do not know. All I know is the contempt with which the word Bihari is used. All I know is the baffled look on people’s faces when I tell them I too am a Bihari. All I know is that today I feel the need to reach out to those in need, casting aside the cliches and commonplace utterances one will be subjected to. Yes we know of the corruption that is rampant during all relief operations but does that absolve us of the duty to do something. Certainly not. As with the tsunami we will wait a little and when the initial wave of help dies down we will try and see how we can help some children reclaim their lost dreams.

loss of innocence

It is fifteen years since the golden summer of 1991 when we lost our innocence wrote Gurcharan Das in a recent article. He was of course referring to our new affair with the the free economy and our expansion as a growing economy. I am no economist and do not understand market forces and the likes of it. I simply see what is around me and draw comparisons with was was an what is.

Last week we celebrated or let us say commemorated 61 years of Independence. All leading magazines had special issues and one must admit no one had anything glorious to share. Even Vinod Mehta who always proffers some light relief on his last page candidly states: I’m looking to offer you some humour. Alas, there’s none to offer. A quick read of the Independence day issue of this or any other magazine does not make happy reading. A leit motiv seems to appear almost with obsessive regularity is the fact that our brave walk on the free economy path has further alienated the poor of the rich. The rich have their schools, their hospitals, their habitat, their markets, their just about everything whereas the infrastructure of the poor is growing from bad to worse.

One of the articles that caught my attention was the one on gated Communities aptly titled Free from India.
The proliferation of gated communities is undoubtedly a world wide phenomena and its Indian avatar larger than life. An article in the New York Times reflects the sad reality of gated communities in our capital region. If one India lives a life of luxury inside the walls, the other survives at its very gates. The raison d’etre of these communities is best defined by a resident himself who states: Everyone understands that there are things outside that you don’t want to expose your children to. The idea is to have the area sealed and sanitised. The apartment costs are huge, but it’s worth it to protect yourself from the violence and crime outsideWhen I leave these gates I am bang slap in modern India. I can’t say that I don’t like India; it’s my country. But if I can avoid exposing myself to it, why not?

The above statement is to say the least perplexing and saddening. Are we simply giving up on India? is creating comfortable and yet visible cocoons the real way out. Did we really lose our innocence when we decided to walk the free trade path and open India’s doors? I cannot say. But if an Indian says that he or she does not want to expose his or her child to things outside, outside being the real India then something is terribly wrong. As citizens of India are we not responsible for that very outside.

from email to webpage

It was exactly one year ago almost to the day that a mail dropped into my inbox. My name is Willy and I am very interested in becoming involved in Project Why. I run a small NGO in America called the Omprakash Foundation. Those words were the beginning of a beautiful journey of mutual discovery, a journey were the key words were love, compassion, respect and trust.

Yesterday another mail dropped in my inbox. It simply said: check out”featured partner” on the omprakash homepage.…. A click on the page and there we were: Project Why as this Season’s featured partner with a special page on us that described our activities and our needs in beautiful and simple words. It was indeed some journey from email to webpage!

Over the past almost ten years I have come across wonderful people who have reached out to help us and each one of them have made pwhy possible. When Willy and his friends landed in Delhi a few months back it was truly a special moment as such kids are one of a kind. They brought with them all that makes today’s world still bearable.

But let us go back a little. Before we met Willy and I use to exchange long emails and I found myself sharing my deepest thoughts with him quite unabashedly. It never came to my mind that more than 4 decades of life on this planet separated on us. He simply became the friend I needed in moments of doubts, pain and joy. He always had the right words and often gave my sagging moral the fillip it needed. Somewhere along the way he shared his dream of bringing books to the lives of children all over India and though it was in no way up our sleeve, there was not an iota in doubt in my mind when I decided to jump on the wagon and make it a success. Today over 200 000 books have found their way into the remotest part of our land and are brightening up the lives of many children. Project Why children too are busy discovering the magic of the written word. And what better proof of success of this venture than the fact that some books did surreptitiously find their way into children’s homes!

As the omprakash story enfolded it was as if a remote dream of mine was coming to life albeit in a land thousands of miles from mine. I have always prayed to see the day when young Indians would be touched by compassion and would reach out to less fortunate people and share some of what they have:time, resources, love… as this is what omprakash is all about. A bunch of kids backpack through India and other lands. On the way they stop by to volunteer in a few organisations and somewhere along the way they decided to do something. And the something is for all to see!

What makes Willy, Gordon, Ashely, Lilly, Steve, Nick, Elliot tick? I do not know. Or to use a Hindi expressions: of what mater are they made. I guess the very same one we are made of. But the difference lies in their ability to see with their heart. And what does it take to make young successful people see with their heart is for me a zillion dollar question? I must confess that when I started project why one of the head fake or indirect learning (to use Randy Pausch’s expression) objective was to try and sensitize young Indians and show them how to see with their hearts. Sadly it was not to be.

The journey from email to webpage has been a exhilarating and rewarding one. To the uninitiated it can be quantified by the generous resources we have received and that we are truly grateful for. But for this old lady it has been much more: a renewal of faith and trust, a validation of ideals that many found preposterous and absurd, a ray of sunshine in a sometimes grey world and much more that remains tacit.

I truly hope and pray that all the omprakash foundation reaches unknown heights and realises all the hopes and aspirations of the wonderful hearts that steer it. And I know that this will happen as more than anyone else a wonderful old man, who touched the lives of these kids many summers ago and whose name is the one they chose for their organisation, blesses them as he simply litstens to his radio in a remore part of India’s capital city.

Huge eyes in a scarred face

As I was leaving the women centre yesterday I was as usual greeted by loud good morning maam’s (notwithstanding the time of day) from the gang of kids that live in thee vicinity and often play in front of the centre. I stopped as I normally do. Amongst them was a new face. Huge melting eyes in the middle of a tiny badly scalded face. A closer look reveals burn scars on the body, arms and a badly maimed hand. I stop in my tracks, my heart pounding and am suddenly taken back to the fateful day in March 2003 when I first laid eyes on the little scalded Utpal.

The little girl standing in front of me is about 2. Her scars look almost as old. I look around for answers to my silent questions. After a few long seconds an older girl offers some insight: the little girl was burnt when she was just a baby. She was sleeping in a mosquito net, the kind you find in all markets and that look like a huge bell. There was an oil lamp burning in the vicinity and the net made of cheap nylon caught fire. The baby too!

She survived. But unlike Utpal whose face had got spared, hers got badly scalded. Two huge almost identical scars mar her little cheeks. But somehow her impish smile and lovely eyes are endearing and make you forget the ugliness of her scars. To me she was just a child, with the same dreams, aspirations and hopes in spite of her scars and maimed hand. My mind is choking with questions and emotions. What will the future hold for her? What can we do? How can we ease her morrows? How do her peers treat her? Why is God sometimes so unkind?

Just like Utpal’s, her family too shifted only recently to a house almost adjacent to our women centre. Is there some hidden Jungian synchronicity? Some hidden message? Is it once again the God of Lesser Beings at his best?

I do not what the future holds. As I write these words I dot even know her name let alone anything about her. All I know is that I cannot and will not be a silent spectator. A maimed girl has no morrow in a land like ours where the future of any girl child lies in her ability to find a good match. Her family is poor and will not be able to make up for the scars and the maimed hand by providing her a handsome dowry. I do not know whether medical wizardry can be of help and even it it is at what cost it will come. I know that a good education and sound income generating skills are the only hope she has.

I will go back to the centre today and set the ball rolling by seeing that she is enrolled in our creche. I will call up all the men in white I know, browse the net and connect with anyone one i think can be of help. I will do everything I can to ensure that the huge eyes in the scarred face remain filled with trust and hope and never have to suffer the indignity and stigma that is often the fate of those like her.

time out

Last week end was truly special. It was a long one – Independence day, raksha bandhan, Sunday – and was also little Komal’s second birthday. And to crown it all Utpal was at home too. So I decided to put my life on hold for these 3 days, get off the spinning wheel, shelf all worries and work and do what I almost never do: take time off and follow the kids.

Raksha bandhan, the festival when brothers and sisters renew their bond was touching as Kiran and Utpal are soul siblings. Utpal went to Kiran and Komal’s home and got his two precious Rakhees. Kiran was barely two when a scalded Utpal landed in our lives, and though she may have at first resented all the attention he got, she soon understood what was happening and became his little caretaker and helped look after him in every way possible. As they both grew they were inseparable and attended the same play school. She was heart broken when he left for boarding school and since has never missed a single of his PTMs and looks forward to his holidays. After the rituals it was time to go shopping. Toiletries that Utpal needed to take back to school and Komal’s birthday present. The kids knew that there would be goodies for them too, all they needed to do was look at me with their huge pleading eyes. I must say they were very reasonable!

In the evening, Utpal regaled us with his latest choreography: a 4 minute dance performance to the hit from the film Taare Zameen Par with song and sound effects. He did not miss a step or falter. It was amazing and I realised how much a child can learn through dance: coordination, rhythm and above all self confidence. I wish we could do the same at pwhy but lack of space, time and above all the reticence of parents to any form of creative pursuits are obstacles not easy to overcome.

Sunday was Komal’s birthday and it had been decided that we would take the children to the mall. Me at the mall was unheard of but had I not come off the spinning wheel of reason. WE set out early as we knew that a holiday week end meant more footfalls at malls. We also did not quite know how little Komal ,whose two little years have been spent between the cooped up space of her tiny home and the overcrowded space of the pwhy creche with a few forays into the local markets, would react. To say that she was to the manor, or should I say mall born would be an understatement. She took to the place like a fish to water. She ventured in all directions imbibing all she saw: the long brightly lit corridors, the shop and their gleaming windows. Her little face was beaming and her tiny feet busy.

We set out looking for the kid’s corner and soon found it tucked away on the second floor. It was paltry compared to the rest of the mall, as if children were not really important. And to the dismay of Kiran and Utpal, the kid zone of this mall seemed geared to toddlers and did not have much for children their age. I wonder why! We soon discovered that to be able to ride the plastic Noddy car or sit in the Barbie house you had to shell out Rs 150 per child for an hour even if the child decided to spend a few minutes. But it being treat time the appropriate amount was shelled out and the kids had their moment of fun. As we sat on the bench watching them many families passed by, some with numerous children and in spite of loud pleas and even wails, most parents were not willing to pay and just their dragged their progeny away. 150 rs per child when you have 4 children was way above many budgets. Kids play areas in malls were just like multiplexes: too expensive for the common man.

After the play area it was time for the food court and then the candy store! By the time the mall treat was over a whopping amount of money had been spent. But this was time off for the kids and their happy faces were worth every penny spent.

You can share some moments of this very special week end here:


a perplexing reality check

After a long time I decided to check the site traffic on both the website and the blog. To say that I was in for a surprise would be the understatement of the year! I would have liked to believe that something was wrong, that the code was not correct, that the programme was not running properly. But that was not the case. All seemed in order except the flat line that greeted me instead of the pikes and curves. No one had dropped by in a long long time. I was staggered. I had been posting regular entries and nothing seemed to have changed.

Many questions crowded my mind: what had happened? what was I doing differently? what needed to be done? was there a hidden message? and each begged for an answer. True there was a time when over and above posting on the blog, one wrote mails to all friends and supporters with regularity, sharing news or begging for help. The last such onslaught had been at the beginning of the year when we were looking for help to buy our land. The land was bought and somehow unknowingly we had entered a new phase of our existence. Gone were the days when we simply needed enough support to survive month after month. We were now in another league. And perhaps this unconscious shift changed things surreptitiously.

The flat line that greeted me this morning was a harsh reality check. Something was wrong. Was it a case of out of sight, out of mind. A simple lack of visibility. I cannot tell. True we have not been in the media for long and true that direct communication has been far and few but things on the ground have not changed. We are very much alive and need all the help we can muster. We are still dependent on individual help and conscious of the fact that till date most of it has come via the net and blogging. So a flat line is akin to a death knell.

Had I sunk into a strange comfort zone where I thought that simply posting blogs would be enough to garner support. I must confess that there was a time when I did network much more actively. Was I content with the occasional comment posted on some bogs and felt secure? Maybe. But the flat line was a rude wake up call and I guess a much needed one.

We are alive and much of what we were earlier. We still reached out of over 600 kids and reach out to anyone in need of help. Our kids still bring us a 100% result and we had some excellent results in the Boards. Our women’s programme has grown remarkably and our new residential inclusive outreach is doing exceptionally well and is a great learning experience and a sound testing ground for planet why. We still need all the help we can get and have in no way grown a big head!

I confess to have been a little slack in my ways and promise to make huge amends as the life hopes and aspirations of many depend on it.

three generations of freedom

The UNICEF report of the state of Asia Pacific’s children 2008 was published just a few days ago. According to this report 20% children under five who die every year are from India. The figures is staggering: 2 million. the report goes on to state: Unless India achieves major improvements in health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, gender equality and child protection, global efforts to reach the MDGs will fail…as more services within countries are privatized and the government share of health budgets diminishes, public facilities become more run down and health workers leave for better paid jobs in the private sector or outside the country. The divide between rich and poor is rising at a troubling rate within sub regions of Asia-Pacific, leaving vast numbers of mothers and children at risk of increasing relative poverty and continued exclusion from quality primary health-care services.

It is a sad reflection of a country that celebrates three generations of freedom.

Our real achievement seems to have been a staggering increase of the gap between the rich and the poor. India is far from shining. The children of India are still waiting for an elusive Bill that will give them their constitutional right to Education. And while a city is gearing up to meet world standards to host an international sporting event, children are withering away in dark holes in a city that has forsaken its poor.

Can any society worthy of its name claim to be shining if its most vulnerable group remains neglected? I wonder. Children have no voice, and are not vote banks. Yet they need the maximum care and protection. It is not so in India today. Child labour is rampant, child abuse of all shade and hue unbridled and though politically correct statements are made by one and all, they are rarely translated into action.

Two million children below the age of 5 die quietly every year in India. Is anyone hearing.

Only time will tell

A dear friend commented on my recent post way to go India. He wrote: I read with joy your latest blog post. 2 messages in particular struck a chord: One, how Project Why stood firm against institutional considerations and put the needs of the children as top priority. Having worked in the Education Ministry of Singapore and probably carrying on a career making education policies in future, I realized this is a dilemma most middle-tier leader face. As a young intern and observing how the current leaders go about formulating policies and making decisions, I was convinced the paramount factor is what’s best for the children – and their teachers, without whom education is impossible too, and any other administrative glitches can be ironed out. Two, the motivation and vibrancy of youth. The older I grow, the more I feel I lose this tendency to initiate things, and more importantly sustain them.

I sat a long time mulling these words and their relevance particularly in a week where we celebrate 61 years of Independence and the first individual Olympic gold ever won. And instead of elation and euphoria I am filled with despondency and sadness. Is one medal in a land of a billion and counting, reason to celebrate. I cannot tell. What stares at me are the eyes of millions of potential medal winners who will never be able to do so because we have collectively failed them in every which way possible.

A tiny and unobtrusive news item must passed unnoticed by many. The Right to Education Bill was not taken up by Parliament but sent to another committee for review as vote bank politics is far more important than sending 200 million children to school. It is in 2002 that the children of India got the fundamental Right to Education. A bill was drafted in 2005 and still waits to be passed or killed! A sad state of affairs when Bills on salary raises for members of parliament are passed in a jiffy. The writing is on the wall. No one is truly concerned about the plight of the children of India and with every delay a large number of children miss their chance to be educated. It is true that the Bill threatens many bastions and social divides as one of its clause is reservation of 25% of seats in the best schools for kids from across the street and hence everyone is up in arms: how can the drivers or washer man’s kid study with mine! In all this the children are forgotten and cast aside.

The lofty idea that education would promote equality and social integration across class, caste and gender is not something we are comfortable with. True it makes great conversations pieces as well as excellent copy for campaigns and ads but when it comes too close it is simply rejected. It was way back in 1966 that the Kothari Commission had mooted the idea of a common school and though many feel that this would be an answer to education for all, it has remain a dead letter for almost half a century. The CSS (common school system) is not something we truly want.

Generations of children have been sacrificed to the alters of greed, vote bank policies, dubious lobbies are more of the same and in those lost years the divide between the rich and the poor has grown unabashedly in all walks of life, even schools who now look more like spas than places of learning. No one is truly concerned about what is best for children or should I say best for all children. The reason being that children do not have a voice and are not a vote bank! Debates will continue, it is politically correct to do so. What makes me seethe with anger is that political parties are not able to bury their differences and come together to pass such a Bill, and unless they do so no Bill that aims at inclusiveness can ever see the light of day.

In this 61st year of Independence and in the euphoria of a gold medal can one hope that things will change. I doubt it unless each one of us, particularly those who were lucky to be born on the right side of the fence, come out of our torpor and do something before we lose our ability and motivation to do so.

Will be able to do so? Only time will tell.

women power

If change is to truly come about, it has to be routed through women. This is something I have firmly believed and yet something that has remained elusive. When project why began almost a decade ago, one of the first things we tried to set up was a self help group for women only. The idea was to get women together around an economic activity and then try and raise awareness about burning social issues in the hope of making the group an agent of change.

My mother who was in many ways an avant-garde feminist of sorts had always held women responsible for their own plight. She reveled in pointing out that most of the crime against women was perpetrated by women themselves. The most glaring example being that of the mother-in-law daughter-in-law relationship. And she went to add that it was women alone that could free themselves and bring about change.

A two day old bay girl was found in a plastic bag near a garbage dump in Delhi last week. We seem to be the capital of abandoned baby girls. Needless to say that it is far to often women who commit this abomination: a desperate girl not wanting to hear any more taunting, or one wanting to spare another a life of ignominy or perhaps a kind soul hoping the child would find a better life. What is shocking is that this is happening in India’s capital city! The reality is indubitable: little girls are not welcome. And it is also true that women alone can make them feel wanted.

Our erstwhile women’s group failed to bring about the results we wanted. Our efforts to get women to start a small unit making healthy snacks for school children – in lieu of the few rupees given to children to buy dubious eatables – failed miserably. In hindsight there were many reasons for the failure. Women were not willing to go out and market their ware. They wanted to make the snacks for a salary. This was probably due to the fact that their husbands prompted them to do so as everyone felt that NGOs have loads of money to spare. Or maybe it was because everyone who comes to the city feels he or she has a right to a job. Hard work is a prerogative of the village. Or perhaps it was due to our lack of experience in the field. Whatever the cause the attempt failed miserably and the idea was shelved.

When we seeded our women centre it was primarily to give refuge to women shunned by society and help them rebuild their lives. But right from the very first day we felt the need to reach out to local women in the hope that some day we would be able to revive old dreams and get our women’s group going. The challenge was to be able to have them review their lives and make appropriate changes. The ploy was to first gather home around an innocuous activity like stitching. Then as time went by and bonds were created we moved on to weekly meetings around a variety of subjects and cups of hot tea! Then a series of unforeseen circumstances slowed down the momentum but some time back Rani and Shamika took on the challenge and revived the process.

Now every Thursday over a dozen women come to discuss and debate several issues and share their views and dreams. And perhaps in days to come we will be able to revive our women’s group around a new activity that all would have decided upon. It is a first step in the right direction. I hope it does live up to our expectations: that of helping women set themselves free!