they cannot wait….

Yesterday, in the course of a conversation, a friend shared his concern about an eminent social activist having changed tracks and moved from education to rights activism. The person he was referring to had started and successfully steered a very dynamic education support network till he decided to move away. My friend seemed a little disturbed at this. At the time I let it pass and we moved on to other matters.

It is only much later that I pondered about the whole matter and wondered why someone would make such a change. I guess the answer is simply because activism has greater impact and is more visible. Or is because working on the field makes you more aware of wrongs that need to be righted? Be it the skewed education system or the non-existent child protection laws. Or one is tempted to go even further: the possibility to change social systems. It is true that when you are engaged in imparting education to a handful of children, as no matter how many you reach it out, it only remains a handful in a land as large as ours, your vision is limited and your scope restricted. And its is also true that when you have done this for years, your desire to redress torts becomes more acute. So for many the time comes to move on to a place where you feel you can make a real difference. And the sphere of activism beckons you.

I wondered whether after 10 years of battling grass root issues I too could one day be so tempted. The answer was a loud and clear NO! I have my reasons and the one that stands foremost in my mind is that children cannot wait and need to be helped now as they sadly do not have time on their side. For them tomorrow is already too late. So no matter how small the handful, for them you are the only chance they have and for me each and every child has a right to that chance.

the very elusive english teacher

For the past few weeks we have been on a mission: find 2 good English teachers for our new focus on quality programme scheduled to begin on April 1st. To be on the safer side and ensure that all goes according to plan, we decided to begin our search way earlier and try out potential candidates so as to be ready on the given day.

Finding a teacher to teach spoken English to class 2 to 5 kids did not at first seem a very daunting task. We would soon find out how wrong we were! We first took the easy road – word to mouth – and spoke to everyone we knew. The result was negative, no one came forward. I was a little saddened as I had hoped that some one would come forward. We then decided to place an ad in the leading newspapers. We did get flooded with calls but the moment the word slum was mentioned, the potential candidate backed out. In some cases we were the ones who beat a hasty retreat as astronomical salaries were asked ( 30 and 40 K)! However we did have a tiny handful of people who accepted to come for an interview.

We finally selected two on trial: one with no teaching experience but a pleasing personality and a good command on the language, and the other with some teaching experience, a fair command on the language but a slightly reserved personality. Whereas the former worked out like a dream and now teaches at the women centre, the later was a sad reflection on the reality that is India. Both ladies belonged to the middle class, but whereas one had an open mind the other was closed and set in her ways. When she realised that her colleagues at Okhla were from an inferior social strata, she shut them out choosing to isolate herself. She did not even sit with them at lunch time. One would have looked over that aberration has she bonded with the kids, but here again she kept them at bay. She never smiled or laughed with them but chided and scolded that all the time. It was a nightmare that has to be ended and we thanked her and asked her to leave. What really shocked us all was when she said: If you expect me to take a child on my lap like the volunteers do, I will never do it! Well said ma’am, and yes we expect you to do that but we understand your reluctance but do not and cannot accept it.

So the hunt began again and we found a person who had taught for 14 years in an English speaking school in a small town in India. We called her for an interview. We asked her the usual questions and were a little perplexed when all we got as answers were one words: No, Yes, I can.. She was unable to form a single complete sentence. The poor lady was simply a reflection on the state of education in the country. We of course rejected her and as I write these words the search is still on.

It is sad but true that some realities permeate every aspect of our lives. The innocuous search for a simple teacher shows the abysmal state of our education and reflects the depth of our social stigmas making us want to scream once again: all is not well in India!

They had a … ball!

Over the past years I have come to realise that it is our special kids who have truly amstered the art of having a ball! It is in this class that I have, more than once, experienced pured unadulterated joy and it takes practically nothing to get them going: a few tins and bottled to beat on, or paint to splash with.

Yesterday they were gifted a bounce ball and though they had never seen one before, it did not take them time to figure it out and get going, and everyone had her or his turn. It did not matter if you could walk or hear, you indeed could bounce. And bounce they did! And for a few minutes time again stood still, everything was forgotten as they bounced to their hearts content.

These precious and unique moments were caught on camera by our photographer volunteer Lorraine. So come bounce with them and have a .. ball!

www.flickr.com

Hello, we are project why…

When Peter sat down to draft a leaflet to highlight project why’s work, young Naomi, age 11, asked whether she too could make one. Naomi has never been to project why as she lives in Cranfield in the UK. Her vision of our work comes from what she has heard and interpreted with the wisdom only children have. For them dreams and reality coalesce and the yet impossible becomes very real. Or is it that they have the gift of seeing in the future? I do not know. To me Naomi’s words are blessed; perhaps a message from my friends the God of small beings at a time when I needed to be reassured.

Below is a transcription of Naomi’s leaflet..

Hello, we are project why the charity that helps children In India.

Did you know that over 11 million children are homeless in India. Did you also know that families of 6-7 live in slums which are not much bigger than the back of a small van.

How we help

When a poor child can walk they are sent to beg on the streets until they reach the age of six when they are sent to school where most pupils would have learnt to write because they had gone to private kindergarten school. For those who are poor and cannot afford kindergarten do not understand school as they have not learnt the basics. So we at project why started running free kindergartens and have also been helping children with their homework.

Once they finish school they come and work at the new hotel we have built and when they are ready we move them to work in other hotels. So children can have a good start in life. The children of India need project why and we need money to help them...

school admissions… where are we heading

Once again I take my virtual pen to vent my fury over the sad state of education in India, the land that has finally deigned give its children the right to free and equitable education. It took the so called rulers over 60 years to loosen their purse strings and do that. These are the same rulers who take but a day to vote an increase in their own salaries! And let me set the record straight: the right to education bill has been passed, but its implementation is still a long way coming.

But let us talk of the ground reality and here I am not talking about the underprivileged child. Nursery admissions in up market schools have just closed and once again an innumerable number of children are left in the lurch as they have not made it! In a land where education is a right, children are rejected at the tender age of three. You see they do not live on the right street, or have parents who have not been to the right school, or are the wrong gender, or have no siblings. Maybe they need to petition to God to give them the right credentials before they are sent to be born in a land called India!

Oops I forgot to add one thing: their parents do not have the right bank balance as this year again slammed doors could be opened if a fat cheque was handed out. I know of one case where a parent was asked 10 lacs (on million) by a well known school! In many cases a real mission impossible.

The writing is on the wall: there are too many children and not enough schools, an ideal situation for commercial enterprise and a quick buck. But hold on. If you look around the city, in every nook and corner you will find what is know as a sarkari school (government run school). Prime space that far too often houses a ramshackle single storied building. Imagine if each of these could be transformed into a state of the art multi storied building that was run to perfection. Utopia? Not quite. Actually the real answer to education woes. However there is one small hitch. The likes of us would have to accept to have one’s child rub shoulders and share benches with the children of a lesser God.

It may not happen willingly but maybe as force majeure. When there are no more up market schools to take our kids or when the money needed becomes far beyond our shrinking pockets. Is the common neighborhood school slowly becoming an inevitable reality?

permission to continue…

They tell me that “Project Why” is different because they are not trying to shock us, they are simply asking for permission to continue their work were the words that dropped in my mailbox this morning. They were from a friend and supporter who conveyed the feelings of someone who had just discovered us.

I sat a long while pondering over them. How true they were. In my now almost ten years of soliciting and panhandling I have never wanted to shock anyone. I remember how upset I always felt when anyone dared suggest that we use sad pictures to showcase our work. I was anathema to me. Pwhy could and would never be a sad place. It is true that people tend to loosen their purse strings more easily when faced with pathos but that was never the way we wanted to go. We were in the business of crafting smiles and creating joy and that is what we always sought to share with one and all and what we asked was help to continue to do so!

I would, I must admit, never have thought of using the words permission to continue our work but come to think about it that is exactly what it amounted to. Every time we requested help in any form it was simply to allow us to carry on what we were doing: ensuring that one more batch of students complete their studies or move into the next class, ensuring that a group of little souls are able to acquire the skills needed to enter the portals of a school, ensuring that a bunch of very special kids spend one more day of their lives in laughter and joy. Simple things that should ordinarily happen without much ado, but that often come at a price for children of a lesser God. Every penny we sought and continue to seek is to do just that. No more, no less.

as easy an exit as it had an entrance

Heaven grant that the burden you carry may have as easy an exit as it had an entrance wrote Erasmus. A graceful exit and the appropriate time is undoubtedly something we all aspire and hope for. And yet when we charge into an open door we seldom think of how we will exit it when the need arises. New doors beckon us with promises of news and uncharted journeys and far too often follow our heart and sink deeper into unknown land. This is what happened to me exactly 10 years ago. The door in question was the one that had project why written on it.

I must admit that it was a lot like Alice in her Wonderland. One road led to another. And as I stepped into each one of them wonders greeted me and engulfed me. Soon I found myself surrounded by little souls egging me to act and fulfill their hopes. I did to the best of my ability. And as time passed, I found myself in the middle of a complex labyrinth from where the entrance door was no more visible. In the initial years that was not important as optimism and passion clouded all rational vision. But then slowly I found myself looking for that elusive exit door. It could of course not be the one I entered through as that would mean going back and I knew that that was no more an option. I had to find one that allowed a graceful exit, one that would ensure that all that I had been lovingly and patiently crafter remained intact and even thrived after I had quietly tiptoed away.

For the past few months I have been looking for that exit door. There have been many I knocked on but then had to abandon as they lead to nowhere. But then one day a tiny door beckoned me: it had the words planet why written on it. I opened it hesitantly and was awestruck. What met my eye seemed far too colossal for me to fathom. How could I make what I was seeing ever happen? And yet as I looked deeper I saw a tiny door marked Exit at the other side. To reach it I knew I had to make planet why happen.

Note: Planet Why is our sustainability vision. It is a guest house the proceeds of which would enable us to continue the work we have been engaged in for the past ten years

road to freedom

Only the educated are free wrote Epictetus in 100 AD.

Today young Yash and little Meher took their first step towards real freedom. They are to sit for their admission test for boarding school and if all goes well join five other children of a lesser God: Utpal, Babli, Nikhil, Vicky and Aditya. For Yash and Meher this is a red letter day!

Yash and Meher both have incredible stories. Yash came to us when he was barely six weeks old. He came into this world for all the wrong reasons. No one had a road map for him. We decided to craft him one. Easier said than done and I must confess there were many setbacks. We had first thought of finding him a new home but that was not to be. Legal tangles and uncaring hearts ensured it did not happen. The little boy weathered every storm with patience and grit. He spent the first few years in our creche and then moved to a little neighborhood school. We knew that something needed to be done. Only education could save him and give him a future. He needed boundaries and proper care. That is when we decided to send him to boarding school.

Meher came into our lives one fine day, quite perchance. But as soon as we lay eyes on her beautiful scarred face we knew she had come to stay and that the God of lesser beings had a road map for her. Her morrows would be safe. Thanks to a wonderful network of caring souls her life changed: plastic surgery repaired her scalded scalsp and maimed hands and soon this spirited child was ready to taken on the world. We knew that she too needed an education and the only place she would get that was in boarding school.

If all goes well, and why should it not as we are on hallowed ground, both Meher and Yash will begin school in April. A small miracle indeed!

whose right is it anyway…

Komal may not be able to join her sister in school and that for no fault of hers. Her family filled up the forms in time and completed all the required formalities. As per the stipulated nursery admission procedure Komal should have got the needed points: she is a girl child, she has a sibling in school and she lives close to the school, albeit in a slum! And yet she did not make it to the final list.

One wonders why?

Is it that her address was not swanky enough, or that her father’s job – he is our senior secondary teacher and has been solely responsible for ensuring that no pwhy student has ever failed a Board exam – is not upmarket and thus not exploitable, or is it that her mom is a simple housewife! Never mind if the government recently mandated that schools were not to consider parents qualifications and profession were not to come in the way of accepting or denying admission to a child. The fact is that for no fault of hers, this little girl did not make the list!

Once again we are faced with admission woes and one again innocent kids are caught in the incomprehensible nursery admission drama. Two friends just called to tell me that their children had not made it to the 19 schools they had applied in. In the case of one of them, a boy and an only child, he did not make it because he had no siblings in school, was not a girl, and his parents were both brought up and educated in another city. The entire admission list of the said schools was made up of siblings and/or alumni children. Where does a only boy child go! Something is definitely terrible wrong. The only ones who make a killing are schools who accept innumerable admission forms sold at a whopping profit. A recent survey revealed that in Delhi alone good public schools earned revenues by selling prospectus to an extent of Rs.5,000 crore.

So where do harrowed parents go! And here again the tale is sordid. We had a taste of it last year when Kiran needed admission. Things can always happen if you are willing to pay. We did exposed the matter last year and little Kiran got admission in another school and truly . We were relieved and believed that things would be simpler when her sister’s turn came. How wrong we were or I guess should I say how gullible we were. Shylock always seeks his pound of flesh.

Little Komal only applies in one school, the one that had her sibling. When she did not make it, despair made us want to know why she had been rejected. I guess most parents just walk away dejected but hers did not. Upon seeing the keen interest they displayed, they were told to come back next week and meet the Chairperson. They did. They pleaded and pleaded and were thrilled when the said person finally acceded to their request. They were given a slip and sent to the accountant. The man perused the slip and asked them if they had brought the needful. They were perplexed. The man said money as he handed them a slip with a figure scribbled on it. The figure was for a whopping 35 K: admission fees and I guess a donation. He was quick to add that this was to be paid in cash, after that payments could be made by cheque.

How would the little family come up with this amount, and yet this amount held the key to the little girl’s future. And this was no time for sting operations and whistle blowing, two little innocent girls morrows were at stake. The parents will find the money. They will beg, borrow, steal but will get their child admitted. At least she has secured admission!

This is what is happening in in a country where children now have a constitutional right to free
and compulsory education. Should one just again say: Oh darling yeh hai India!

Note: many government schools give admission on a lottery basis. Wonder if that is fairer! But the question remains: what happens to those who do not make it. When will we have a common neighborhood school for all our children.