bottles in, grains out!

I recently read an article entitled ‘eating disorder‘! This one was not about a lifestyle condition of page 3 aspirants. Far from that. This one was about the 1.2 million severely malnourished children of Madhya Pradesh, this was about under one year olds who are fed one roti smeared with chillies per day. The chillies ensure that the stomach is numbed and hunger vanishes. Water will fill the tiny tummies till the next day, the next roti with chillies. According to a UNESCO study, over 71% of tribal children are severely malnourished.

It was on the very same day that TV channels aired a story about how state granaries were used to house liquor while food grains worth millions rotted in the open. The next harvest was on its way and one wondered where the new grain would be stored. The weak defense put up by the granary officials did not hold any water. The reality was that umpteen crates of upmarket liquor brands were stuffed into the safe granaries, while sacks of grains were seen rotting in the open.

One wondered why the grains could not by some miracle reach the little hungry mouths instead of moldering away. But that is wishful thinking. The situation is Dantean. Children are hungry, farmers are hungry. Only middle men and traders smile. Something is terribly wrong. Our planning seems to have gone awry.

A solution has to be found. Food cannot be fed to rats when millions starve in the country. Everyone has a right to be free from hunger claim activists. Having even one hungry child negates all achievements and feats. Having millions should make us hang our head in shame. But once again we seem to have become inured. We waste food with impunity. Just look at the morning after any wedding. Food wastage almost seems to have become a status symbol. Bless my mom for having put an end once for all to my food wasting habit. I must have been 6 or 7, and had begun leaving food on my plate. No amount of cajoling or counseling helped. Mom had to bring out the ultimate weapon. She did. My half filled plate of food was simply put in the refrigerator and brought out at each subsequent meal. The deal was that I would not get any fresh food unless I first finished the congealed plate. It was a battle of wits and it lasted 2 days. The hunger pangs were unbearable and I capitulated. The congealed food was eaten and that was the last time till date that I ever left food on my plate. Parenting is not always easy!

It is true that there is a new found freedom sometimes bordering on arrogance that we see around us. It is visible in the gleaming motorcycles that have replaced the erstwhile bicycles, in the TV and DVD players that adorn every shanty, in the umpteen empty pouches that are strewn all over the slums, pouches of upmarket products duly advertised on TV channels and appropriately packaged for the poor @ of 1 or 2 Rs! It is also seen in the quantity of food thrown helter-skelter. Back home in the village it would have been fed to the animals. Urban values have prevailed on one and all. Wasting food is one of them.

How will it all end. I do not know. What I know is that children are not meant to eat rotis laced with chillies. I also know it is time we woke up and did something.

a dangerous decree

I would like to emphasize that while opening new schools, we should insist that adequate open grounds be provided for playing fields”decreed the Sports Minister in a recent letter to the Education Minister. Some years back I would have jumped with joy and said: way to go! But that was a few years back, before project why, before the many reality checks that came my way, when I held that private schools, specially the ones for the poor were just teaching shops and nothing short of an aberration, when I believed that only a common neighborhood school was the panacea we needed. I remember how I blogged passionately about these issues: be it the admission nightmare, the blood money sought, the lucrative education business, the arrogance of public schools, the pitiable state of state run schools and so on.

And then slowly things changed, surreptitiously I must admit. Even I did not realise how and when it happened. My diatribe against private schools became less vehement and my crusade for the more and more elusive common school became less strident. And lo and behold there came the day not so long ago, where I found myself writing a blog almost in favour of what I had once contemptuously called teaching shops. How did that happen?

The answer is complex and cannot be summed up in a single phrase. What did change things for me was James Toole’s book: The Beautiful Tree A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. The book is an apology for small private schools and, I must admit, sets you thinking. In Tooley’s book the tiny private schools tucked away in sordid slums are the means for the poor to claim ownership of the education of their children, as it is their money that made such schools possible. The result is for all to see. The products of these schools fared a great deal better than their counterparts in state run schools. They are not an aberration but stem out of a very real need. It is in no way an ideal situation I agree, but it is a workable option.

Children cannot wait for laws to be enacted, for convoluted and dubious projects to see the light of day. They need immediate solutions or it may be too late. And therefore little schools mushroom at every nook and corner. Often in small cramped spaces. Many of these manage to get the recognition tag which gives them an edge. You see even the poor and illiterate knows the value of a recognised school! Cynics may say that these tags are got through shady means, and I may have been one of them in times gone by, but today I accept the fact quietly. Every such school is a place where children study and learn. Who am I to criticise or pontificate? Specially today when the new laws decree that no child will be failed till class VIII. I shudder to think what will happen to children who are in state run schools where there is scant teaching. They are better off in the cramped premises of a small private school where some teaching does happen. And yes, they do not have open grounds for playing fields.

So if the Minister’s decree is accepted, no new private schools for the poor will come into being. In a city where every square inch comes at a whopping price, finding space for playing fields is impossible for such schools. I hope better sense will prevail.

the curious case of child labour

In a recent blog I had mentioned the story of the young boy who always came late to school because he supported his family by selling boiled eggs at the local watering hole well past midnight. He was the sole bread earner of his family.

Our house is being repaired and we have a band of workers. Among them a young boy who I think is 13 or so. When asked his age he is quick to mumble sixteen and a half as he has been told to as the child labour laws make employment of anyone under 14 illegal. Of course he has nothing to prove the fact. There was a time, way before pwhy, where I would have raised a hue and cry, summoned the contractor and insisted the boy was sent home. Today I just kept shut and allowed the boy to carry on. I knew that if I did send him home his family may not have eaten at night. You see he may too be the sole bread earner in his home. I have learnt many lessons in the past decade: one is to never act in haste and the other is to never act without having a better alternative to offer. In this case I had none.

Some time back I had visited the Child Welfare Committee’s zonal office to sort Utpal’s vacation guardianship issue, while waiting for our turn to appear before the Committee, we were privy to some of the ways the laws are applied in the case of child labour. The CWC premises have a holding area, a sort of jail, where children are brought after raids. The families are then informed and have to provide proof of the child’s age. This can take several days and till then the young ones are locked up. What is the offense? I wonder. If the parents get the proof the child is released if not a case is registered. I again say what is the offense? Who is guilty: the employer, the parents or the child? Questions that need answers. And then what does happen to the child, often a teenager, when he is released? Does he just find another job? Does he simply hang out in the street as there is no way he can be mainstreamed or educated? Is he sent back to his village and if so what does he do there, wait for the next opportune moment to once again board a train to the big city?

The laws that concern child labour are complex and nebulous. It is surprising that the Child Labour Act of 1986 seeks only to prohibit children from working in some sectors and simply ‘regulates’ child labour in others. That means that even after 4o years of independence, child labour was found to be ‘acceptable’. Think about this.

The National Policy on Child Labour of 1987 is the first step towards addressing the issue and talks of general development programmes to help the family and a project based action plan with special schools and so on. That is not what we saw at the CWC. Far from that. It seemed a case of a child being guilty and harassed parents left with the onus of proving that he was not. There was no development programme or project base action.

I am sure there are a lot of well drafted and great sounding projects and pots of money that has been released for the same. Sadly I am also sure that much of the money has never truly benefited any child. Like all issues concerning children, child labour is Gordian in nature. It has to be addressed with sensitivity and understanding.

Why does a child work? Certainly not because he really wants to. Often it is economic necessity that compels parents to send their young ones to work and there are enough predators around in search of cheap and innocent labour. Sometimes it is a simple fight or argument that makes a child run away from home in a fit of anger and take the train to the big city. More predators lie in wait. These children are unaware of their rights and become easy prey. What is shocking is that often it is people like us, who are aware of laws and rights, who employ children in their homes as a child is again less demanding, easier to handle etc.

Children now have the right to education though many will grow into adults before this right is truly implemented. A few raids will not put an end to child labour. In a recent interview the Chief Minister of Delhi was asked: Why are you allowing child labour at Commonwealth Games-related sites? Her answer was perplexing: I entirely agree that there should be no child labour, but these children were abandoned by the states they come from and also by their parents. They have moved to a bigger city only to get jobs that pay. But come to think about it is it really perplexing or is it the reality and the CM was aware of the magnitude of the problem and that paucity of available options.

A friend who is privy to the inside functioning of the powers that be, told me that she had once been told, quite candidly, by labour officers and social workers that they often turn a blind eye when faced with cases of 14 or 15 years old working. They simply ascertained that the child was well treated. This seemingly incomprehensible and ‘illegal’ action stemmed out of the fact that they knew that they had no better option to offer. To my mind they acted with sensitivity and understanding.

Laws need to be humane and need to address core issues. Child Labour is not an offense like murder. It stems out of need, hunger, desperation and is a means of survival. If we want to put an end to what we call consider an aberration, then we need to come up with valid alternatives that work.

No instruction book came with it…

Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it wrote Buckminster Fuller. Spaceship Earth, I like the term! I like Mother Nature too! Today as I write these words millions around the world are stranded as volcanic ash clouds have claimed full right to the sky, not willing to share it with our tiny Spaceships. There is no alternative but too wait for the clouds to pass.

Nature often calls us to order, but we rarely listen. We always find a way to wriggle out of the situation. This time it did look different though there are now pressures from commercial interests to once again not listen. You see too much money is at stake. As we all know for the past many days flights have been grounded the world over leaving people stranded and lost. All carefully conceived plans went awry, our supposedly reliable flying machines became unsafe, the sky we had thought was ours to conquer was reclaimed by its rightful master. Nature had rapped us on our knuckles and we just had to listen. Man’s hubris was suddenly shaken, albeit for a short time.

As I write these words many are looking for that non-existent instruction book in the hope to find a solution that would restore man’s supremacy on everything: land, water, sky, space. But till then we just have to wait.

There is a lesson to be learnt: patience. Something we have forgotten. The clouds will pass and things will come back to what we call normal till the next warning. Sadly it is a foregone conclusion that we will again not mend our ways and continue our frenzy to master all with the sole objective of earning more wealth. We will continue to build on flood plains, to expand our concrete jungle, to cut trees, to rape Nature. We will insist on writing our own and faulty instruction book, one that suits our petty and pathetic interests and doggedly follow it.

Where will it all end? No one knows. Prophets of doom and cynics have their own interpretation. I am still looking mine.

The heat is on

The heat is on. Boy it is hot. 44 Celsius and climbing and it is only the ides of April! I should be complaining but I am not. Wonder why? Please read on…

I decided to get my old rambling and falling apart house repaired this year after almost 2 decades. The idea was to begin in April and have all finished by May when the heat is really on. Little did I know that this year Nature had another plan. And as usual even with supposedly sound planning and the best of intentions of doing things in an organised way floor by floor, room by room, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a construction site with workers everywhere. You see the plumber had finished his work on floor 1 so needed to move to floor 2 and so on. Within the batting of an eyelid the whole house was under wraps and we were banished to two rooms. The cooler was of course out of commission, hot air blew from open doors and windows and my resolve to never use ACs in the day to limit my carbon foot print resulted in a fans only situation, and that also when the electrician had not cut the power!

Sunday then should have turned out to be a miserable day. Quite the contrary. It was a huge reality check. As it was terribly hot, I was unable to stay put in one place so I ambled all over the house watching the workers. There were many, of all ages, each one of them busy in their work, some on the terrace under the scorching sun, some carrying loads, some hung on the terrifying rope basket painters use in India for painting outside walls. They were busy with their work, chatting, laughing, fighting when needed! Sometimes one of them would run down to the kitchen to get bottles of cold water. But there was no complain about the heat. Heat or no heat they had to work. Most of them were daily wagers, and work meant food in the evening. It was as I said a huge reality check and somehow it did not seem so hot!

I remember another reality check I had last year when I had reacted rather unreasonably to the amount of kids that were packed in the creche in the hot summer. I had not realised that our seemingly hot classroom was far better than a tiny jhuggi with a tin roof!

So this year I for one am not complaining about the heat!

a tale of forgotten biscuits

The sight of beggar children is something that has always upset and pained me. It is the perhaps the most deafening and loudest why that came my way, and one that sadly I could never find an answer to. And yet, though many many not know it, it is the very first why project why set out to address way back in 1998. Sadly it is the one we could not find a suitable answer to though in some ways project why came to be, because of an encounter with a beggar who became the spirit and strength of project why our very own Manu!

I still get disturbed by children begging and have often tried and shared my views for anyone to hear. How can I ever forget that one of the first person who told me how important it was to look with you heart was a beggar woman! And it is not surprising that our first valiant and very naive venture into the charity bizmess was to try and do something about children who become beggars. We tried and failed and life moved on. Then why am I writing about beggars today. The answer is simple: in its frenzy to spruce up Delhi for the CW games, our Government has evolved plans to address the situation in its own bizarre ways. (This was brought to my notice in a passionate note of FB.) The first one was a diktat to the states: Take back your beggars! Squads have been formed, and zero tolerance zones identified. You see there are places where beggars just cannot be seen. I guess those are the ones the CWG guests will visit! After the British who criminalised nomadic tribes, it is now our own government who is criminalising beggars. But what we forget is that beggars are either forced into beggary to survive and are often educated and unemployed – entrepreneurs of a special kind – or part of organised mafias – lucrative business-! And yes though we need to rehabilitate them, programmes and projects that aim at feeding them or teaching them some inane trade like basket weaving is not the answer.

It takes two to tango, we all know that. Beggars survive and earn because we give them the coin they seek. And we here is you and me and the whole civil society. The day beggary becomes a non-lucrative business it has to die a natural death and people will find other ways of earning a living. There are very few real beggars like the old lady of my yore years. The majority are part of mafias that kidnap children, maim them and so on.

You must be wondering why this post is entitled a tale of nutritive biscuits. This was our valiant and naive answer to the beggar problem. Way back in 1998 when I was still looking for a cause to defend, I had zeroed in on the beggar child as that was somehow the most visible aberration for all to see. The idea that we came up with was to find a way to stop the giving of money and give nutrition instead. Each time a beggar knocked at your car window just hand two nutritive biscuits. And I must confess, albeit sheepishly, that to me it seemed a Eureka idea so we went at it full swing: stickers on cars and vehicles, biscuits that would be sold in a reusable box that could fit on your car dashboard, and we dreamed on: biscuits that could be bought at petrol stations. We were on cloud nine! But the cloud burst before we knew it. People were not taken in by the idea, or perhaps we were unable to market it well enough. We set sail on another road and the deafening why remained unanswered.

The biscuits will remain forgotten I presume. But what I am trying to say is that unless we as civil society stop giving even if it is so much easier to roll down the window and cast a coin without even looking at the child or woman, beggary will endure, as any lucrative business does. Till then beggars will be hidden by the powers that be each time it is necessary. And my question to you is are WE ready to try and put an end to this evil.

Note: The mafias that control beggars are very powerful and dangerous. I am not thinking of Slumdog Millionaire but of our own brush with them. Some years back we tried to begin a one hour outreach programme for the beggar children under the Nehru Place flyover. In spite of our best efforts we were not allowed to though we were flexible on time. The reason of course was that any such effort would result in the handlers losing control. I know some people have managed to break the mould. More power to them till we all wake up.

I am just a housewife

For the past few months I have been receiving annoying calls from my bank each time we receive a donation, even a tiny one. The caller fires questions like: what is the money for? who is it from? (even of the said person has been sending money for years)? what does donation for Meher mean? and so on. And each time such a call comes, you are filled with silent rage as you try at best to find suitable answers knowing that if you do not, your MNC Bank will send your donation back. This was not the case a year ago.

For a long time it is true that each time I am asked by someone new – thank heavens this is not the case often as I have limited if not stopped socialising – what do you do? and I have to mumble, albeit reluctantly, I run an NGO, I am met with raised eyebrows and strange looks. The acronym NGO seems to conjure: impropriety, dishonesty and more of the same. You are suddenly branded and no one is willing to hear what you do or even give you a chance to vindicate yourself. At best you are one of the society biddies who do charity as it seems the done thing, at worst you are into some dirty money game. never mind if you have saved lives, educated children, created jobs, empowered women, no one cares a hoot! Once you have been given that knowing look your only option is to retreat into your corner and hope no one asks you what you do for the rest of the evening and you find yourself swearing that next time you are asked that question you will remember to say: I am a housewife. That is your safest option.

Running an honest charity is no easy task, believe you me. Sometimes I do feel like giving myself a silent pat in the back for having survived and hot landed in a loony bin! So even though I was shocked and riled when I heard on the news that the IPL (Indian Premier League) was a charitable organisation registered under the same Act as us, I cannot say I was really surprised. I am sure that many of the team owners do engage in some fashionable charitable activity – it makes good copy, good PR and good promotional visuals – but for God’s sake is it really necessary to put us all in the same basket and force small fish like us to swim in the same waters? Now you know why I will say: I am just a housewife!

what is on my bucket list

What’s on my bucket list? I must admit that till a few days I did not quite know what a bucket list was. Like everyone else I know what a bucket is – don’t we all:) -, had heard the song there is a hole in my bucket and the expression kick the bucket. I actually came across the expression bucket list on FB recently and deciding to do some digging. While doing so I stumbled upon a light hearted website that asks with impunity the bold questions: what is on your bucket list? And then goes on to add that if you have not yet begun one it is because of some serious reasons:

you’ve probably never taken the time to figure out who you really are, let alone ponder why you’re here.
you’ve even avoided doing what really matters to you because you didn’t want to admit to everyone that you’ve got a hole in your blessed bucket;
– maybe you’ve just convinced yourself that, by some miracle afforded by the fountain of youth, you’ll never have gray hair or lose it, or ever have to “kick the bucket“.

Or is it just because one has been to busy, to scared to find the list in a waste bucket. The website goes on on a lighter vein and you may enjoy reading it, but I stopped and decided to create that elusive bucket list even if the hair is getting grayer by the day and the years fewer, no matter how ridiculous I would look or how ludicrous the exercise.

As I sat pondering at what I would write on that my bucket list, I realised that I actually have already begun one surreptitiously and that it has one big item looming large and named: Planet Why whose bye line should be: ensure that my work of ten years does not go waste and secure the lives of those God in his wisdom dropped my way. Whether Planet Why will be the green haven that will house my wards, or a cold bank deposit that will pay its monthly deposits, or something still unknown I do not know. All I know is that this is the most important thing on my bucket list. I could expand it in many ways: see that Manu his pals live with dignity till their last breath, see Utpal and his pals graduate with honours and become worthy citizens, ensure that as long as God permits hundred of children are given the skills and education needed to break the circle of poverty they are locked in and so on. Ambitious maybe, but a matter of life and death for me.

I would also have a small personal and somewhat selfish list: see my daughter settled and happy, write at least another book, see my grandson grow, take that long due holiday with my life partner, heal all unnecessary hurts, be healthy and brimming with energy and exit with a smile.

Too much to ask? I leave it to the god of lesser beings to decide. I will just end by quoting a poem by George Bernard Shaw that sums up what I feel:

True Joy of Life

This is the true joy of life.
The being used for a purpose
Recognized by yourself as a mighty one.
The being a force of nature
Instead of a feverish, selfish
Little clod of ailments and grievances
Complaining that the world will not
Devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life
Belongs to the whole community
And as long as I live,
It is my privilege to do for it
Whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly
Used up when I die,
For the harder I work the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no brief candle to me.
It is a sort of splendid torch
Which I’ve got hold of
For the moment
And I want to make it burn
As brightly as possible before
Handling it on to future generations.

through her lens

Lorianne is a young photographer from France who came to volunteer for a few weeks. It is amazing how everyone sees project why through different eyes, and Lorianne saw it through her heart. She captured some very unique moments that are a pure delight.

You see she saw the project through her heart and ferreted some very special moments that we are too inured to see: children sleeping in the creche, or simply enjoying a private moment; things on the wall or shoes lined up neatly; children having a ball and teachers joining in. All snapshots of the spirit and vibrancy of project why.

Thank you Lorianne for this treat and I urge all to take a few moments and browse through these lovely cameos of life at project why

education from 6 to 14

I have been perplexed, angry, confused, bewildered and even apoplectic at some of the aberrations of the much awaited, much delayed and still far from being implemented Right to Education Bill. The bill has many aberrations. And to the uninitiated they may seem incomprehensible. Why only from 6 to 14? What about preschool which is so important? And is 14 is the right time to be freed of compulsory schooling? Many can also question the wisdom of no failing till class VIII particularly keeping in mind the state of education in schools today. And there are many more questions…

I cannot answer these as I am neither competent nor privy to the hidden agendas of that steer such legislation. I can only share some of my experiences and observations gathered over the years, from the time I decided to dirty my hands educating the poor. Our dream and objective to start a children centre where children would come and reclaim their usurped childhood and spent time doing what children do after school rather than aimlessly hanging on the streets (read boy) or being overwhelmed by house work (read girls). But when we saw that children studying in class III and IV could barely recognise their alphabets, even though at that time no law stipulated that children were not to be failed, and this was probably because stakeholders wanted to look good and field workers shirk their work, we had to put our dreams and goals on hold and bridge the gap. We thus became what is normally called a tuition centre, something I abhor. Now with the new law I do not see us retrieving our dreams in a hurry.

But before I go one let me share an incident that happened just yesterday. A friend who is also an eminent CA had dropped by to discuss some legal matters. In the course of our conversation I discovered that his wife was a Government school Principal and that she too seemed to share some of my views and musings. He told us a story that had happened recently in her school which is located in slum area. A young boy, all of 13, came one hour late to school every single day. In spite of much reprimanding by his teacher he never changed his ways, and never gave a reason for his lateness but retreated in sullen silence his eyes smoldering with anger. He was, as is always the case, hauled up to the Principal for further action. She asked him the question again and was met with the same taciturnity. She then asked the teacher to leave, sat the child down on a chair and gently repeated the question. The boy revealed that he sold eggs every night near the local watering hole till 1 am. After some more gentle prompting he said that he was the sole bread earner of the family as is dad was a drunk and his mom did not work.

The Principal did not call child labour activists or officers. She just told the boy to try and wind up shop and hour earlier and get some sleep and come to school in time as education was the best way to better help his family even if it was selling eggs! You see unlike insensitive and uncaring law makers she understood the plight of the child and the importance of finding a middle path. Laws for children are often made in haste, to look good, to get international kudos, to meet world standards and in that haste the stark reality of survival is too often forgotten. It seems though that some like this kind Principal apply the laws with sagacity and humanity. Thank God for that!

Sorry for the digression but I had to share this story. I must admit that it also opened my eyes in some way. But let us get back to where we began. The 6 to 14. Now imagine the scenario I child gets into school in class I at age 6 and leaves in class VIII at age 14. During these years there are no Board examinations that are externally assessed and by law (s)he is not allowed to fail. Now in a good school this is not and issue. Honest assessments and internal examinations will ensure that (s)he learns what (s)he is meant to. But in the kind of school where our kids go this will not be the case. Even if there are examinations – as stipulated – the answers will be written on the Board and diligently copied. This happens with impunity. The 14 year old will come out of school as illiterate as ever and nothing will have changed. Had their been had of at least one final Board exam. things would have been wonderful. Wonder why our eminent law makers forgot that? Call me a cynic but my answer is that no one really wants education for the poor, it is part of a hidden agenda. Our 14 year old class VII will just join the teeming millions he was born in.

Is this the right to Education that the children of India deserve? Where is the elusive common school? Why waste money in another futile exercise? And finally how many more generations will the children of India have to wait for a real Right to Education?