poor = criminal!

I am livid, hurt, upset and totally speechless. Yesterday night a news item was aired on a TV channel stating that an upmarket school in Bangalore labelled poor children as criminals. This aberration was stated in a circular sent to parents in the wake of the new Right to Education Act, which stipulates that all private schools have to admit 25% children from underprivileged backgrounds. The said circular referred to this and proclaimed that admitting poor students into the school will be detrimental to the psyche of those that are already studying there. It even added that such children beat up your child, smoke on the campus, misbehave with a girl or a teacher!

This is scary. First of all let us remember that the Act stipulates that children will be admitted in class I and thus I am at a total loss to even begin to comprehend what the school is trying to say. Do 6 year old children smoke or misbehave with girls? Wonder where. But that is not the real issue. The reality is it that this attitude though politically incorrect, is one that pervades the very fabric of our society. I have often mentioned it whenever I have talked of the elusive common school. My son cannot study in the same class as my driver’s child. Period! This is where the truth lies. We are feudal in our beliefs and will remain so. The 25% reservation was a sort of a back door entry into inclusive education and a semblance of a common school. The circular of the Bethany school just brings out in the open what many think but dare not express. In a way it is good this has come out in the open before the real implementation of the reservation policy. It shows how such back door and half hearted efforts are doomed to fail. Inclusion has to come the other way if it is to succeed. The so called school for the poor has to become a centre of excellence that will attract the so called rich and become a viable alternative to expensive private schools. You cannot make poor children second class citizens in their own country. They are full fledged citizens protected by the same Constitution and having the same right to Education than any child born on the other side of the invisible divide.

Now let us address the aberration of equating poor children to criminals. I urge you to look at the picture above. These 8 kids are form the most deprived homes you can imagine. They have been studying in an upmarket school for 2 years now. They are the pride of their school as they have excellent results, each topping its respective class, and are extremely well behaved. they do not misbehave with teachers, do not smoke or beta other kids. Need I say more.

loos @ of one crore; 3 loos for a planet!

Apologies to be harping about the Commonwealth games again but then every time you step out of your home the common mess hits you in the face and your mind goes into overdrive. Yesterday I passed one of the 50 luxury loos being built for the Games. This is one is a horrendous structure in coloured glass and is tucked away in the corner of a park of a not so upmarket shopping centre in South Delhi, one that I doubt any visitor to the games would drop by. The structure is big by loo standard but actually the size of let us say a drawing room. And quite ugly too! Now @ 1 crore a piece (10 million) it seems obscene. Come to think about it what we are desperately trying to raise to make pwhy sustainable is the cost of 3 loos! (cost of building planet why: a guest house + a children’s centre).

Something is terribly wrong. The Games are under the scanner of all vigilance agencies of the land as corruption seems rampant. As I had written earlier it seems that these Games are an opportunity for all to line their bottomless pockets. So what if the work is shoddy, the material used sub standard and the infrastructure shaky. As long as some become richer, all is well! But as if that was not enough now a UK agency is investigating a dubious money transfer whereby large sums of Indian tax payer’s hard earned money has been given to a shady individual who runs a one man show in London where he provides portable loos, cars, security screens and also hold your breath, consultancy for costume design @ 25 000 pounds a month! This is getting as Alice would say curiouser and curiouser. It is also making the blood of the likes of me boil!

When questioned those in power are quick to either pass the buck or try to appeal to the pride of the country excuse. What pride! One would, as a proud Indian like to wish the whole thing away if that could be done. Stadia are not ready and even if they are they may fall on our heads, the city is a holy mess and only a miracle can salvage things. Maybe we as Indians can be proud of the fact that we have mastered the art of corruption!

Did we need such a useless and mindless extravaganza to acquire pride? What pride is there when people have lost their homes, their livelihood? In all this hullabaloo one seems to have forgotten the people who have lost everything courtesy the Games! It makes me physically sick! These zillions of rupees could have been put to better use. In our very country, the one that is busy trying to acquire misplaced pride, children die of hunger every dayand people are still desperately trying to master the art of surviving. But that is one end of the spectrum. At the other they are mastering the art of corruption. And somewhere in between we are watching helpless.

House in order

For some time now, courtesy creaking bones and aching back, I have come to realise that the courting and honeymoon days of pwhy are over and that it is time to set the house in order. Sounds cryptic? Let me elucidate. For the past ten years I have been trying to answers many deafening whys and I must admit with a sense of pride that we had done quite well. Be it arresting the school drop outs, securing the morrows of the most wretched or empowering those no one believed in, we have done it all. Today over 500 school going children study in our various centres, over 100 toddlers and young souls are off the street and spend the day in a dafe environment, about 20 special children and young adults are learning to live with dignity and 3 of them even have a home and 8 children whose future was in jeopardy now study in a boarding school and who knows may one day take over the reins of pwhy!

But this can only happen if pwhy lives on or in other words if I can put my house in order. Can I, is the question I ask myself over and over again, a question that frightens me and keeps me awake many a night. Planet Why was the solution we came up with but one that is not an easy one as it requires a huge shot of funds before it can see the light of day. We have been working on it and still hope for the best. We have to remain optimists till the very end. Or so I thought till yesterday.

A phone call received yesterday almost brought the house crashing. Let me explain. Even at the worst moments, when accounts are empty and promises few, I have never thought of giving up. Yet, I almost did yesterday! The call was one of many that have been coming our way for the past few months from our bankers! Each ask an inane question, one that had been answered ad nauseum earlier and yet does not seem to register. Who is this donor? What is the money for? is this donor Indian? and so on. And each time one asks why these queries, pat comes the answer: a government requirement. When one seeks a written answer one gets an elusive reply. Mails remain unacknowledged. Everything is on done on phone, making us that much more vulnerable. How can I forget the terrible day when the same bank shut our accounts for no fault of ours: that day David took on Goliath.

To set the record straight we are an organisation that fulfils all Government stipulations and requirements. It is not easy to run a charitable organisation in India. But we do it with application and honesty and our work is there for all to see. Till recently all seemed to be on even keel. But the past months and the prying and almost humiliating questioning by small bank officials has been unbearable and this after the same bank did a due diligence on us recently in the name of new Government regulations! Then why the constant harassing with no reason given? Donations are sent back without informing us, and the pound continues mercilessly. For all these days I have been taking it with patience and restraint answering everything as best I could. How could I forget that hundreds of little souls depended on my endurance. But yesterday something snapped inside me and I was a breath away from throwing the gauntlet down and giving up. I had done enough in the past ten years, more than any and had earned my place in the sun. What no one else could so a large corporate bank had done! They had killed my spirit.

I must admit that it takes a lot to bring my new persona (post pwhy) down. I have battled authorities, slumlords and others and never batted an eyelid but somehow this constant pestering by small and petty bank officials hit me below the belt. It was nothing short of humiliating as you knew they did not have a clue about what was at stake. I was left wondering whether this was the due of anyone wanting to take the road less travelled. What made it worse was that I had made a trip to the bank last week and explained all. I was given the sleek and glib welcome you expect from huge multinational banks, with the expected ‘we will get back to you’ for every query asked. Needless to say they never got back!

As I write these words, I am trying to pick the pieces up and try and weave them together again hoping that no cracks will remain.

Enemy no 1

A young man came by recently. His dream: to make a difference. His vision: to help eradicate hunger by feeding the poor. His reason: hunger hampers every aspect of growth and development. One could only but agree. In the recent report on the Commonwealth Games, published by Habitat International Coalition and aptly entitled whose wealth- whose commons, we find some startling data: 40 % of the world’s starvation-affected people live in India, 76% families (840 million) people do not get their daily required calories, 55 % of India’s women are malnourished, 46% of India’s children are malnourished, more than 320 million people in India are unable to manage three square meals a day and the most startling one: more than 5,000 children die every day from malnourishment. So hunger is a huge issue and needs to be addressed.

And yet when the passionate young man came to me, I found myself trying to almost dissuade him from his mission, or at least temper it. When we began, a decade ago, we too had a nutrition component in our programme. I remember the bananas and porridge we doled out every day. But after a some time we found that these were often being thrown away by the children who maybe got bored of these items. And how can I forget the irate mother who came screaming that the banana given to her child was rotten! Anyway, we soon stopped the programme seeing that it was getting nowhere.

In spite of the stark reality and need of addressing the hunger issue, feeding the poor is no easy task. We simply zeroed in on education knowing somehow intuitively that this was the way to go.

I have often written about the wastage of food I have seen in the slums of Delhi. It is almost as if throwing food was a way to prove that you had arrived! And yet as I said earlier hunger is a sad reality and needs to be addressed. No child should be allowed to die of hunger in any self respecting society. 5000 do. Yet, if all was well, this should not be happening. In 1975, India launched the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). It was heralded as India’s response to the challenge of providing pre-school education on one hand and breaking the vicious cycle of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality on the other and was to reach all the children in India. Huge funds were disbursed and had the programme worked no child should have been hungry. But that was not to be. As all else in India, the funds were hijacked along the way with impunity to line pockets of politicians and bureaucrats. Come to think of it India is replete with fabulous social schemes that could make all the difference but never do as they simply become ways of enriching wily individuals. I have always held that even if these schemes had been half successful, India would be a different land.

Even today a shocking story was aired on national television. Food meant for children is being eaten by dogs! The reason: lack of storage facility. 50 million people in the state need the food, but bad planning has meant that dogs will eat it! I wonder why sufficient silos and storage facilities cannot be built, it would be better use of public money than beautifying cities for games extravaganzas! But then existent silos are used for stocking, hold your breath, booze!

One can open soup kitchens galore but they will never bring about the change we seek. Change will only come when we break free of the vicious cycle of corruption in which we are all held. Media helps, activism helps but these are simply band-aid remedies. We need to stem the rot and that can only happen when the poor are give a voice. And education is the only answer. Today the beneficiaries of social programmes are unaware of their existence or see them not as a right but as an act of largesse handed out by a local politico. You see we are still a feudal society where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the devious politician and the scheming official.

Change will only come when every beneficiary will be empowered enough to ask for his due and seek accountability, and the key is education. But that is the one thing the powers that be do not want. No, don’t be surprised and read on.

Public education is in shambles and the princely pass percentage of 33%, prescribed by the State makes sure that no one from the lower end of the scale gets any proper education. Let me share an incident that occurred a few years back. At that time we use to teach in a reclaimed pig park under a huge tent.One fine morning a posse of officials came and told us to vacate the park. We soon found out that the authorities had decided to build a toilet block in what was once a children’s park. We decided to protest and went to see the local Municipal Councilor. He is semi literate. He brandished a paper shouting that it was not a toilet block that was coming up there but a community centre. Raju, one of our class XI students looked at the paper and pointed out that it said public conveniences and that this meant toilets. You see Raju could reach English and the Councilor could not. From that day on I was branded enemy no 1 (apt title for a Bollywood blockbuster). The reason: I was committing the cardinal sin of empowering the poor and giving them a voice. In today’s India you did not do that. The poor had to remain where they were.

But only if we do empower the poor can we bring about the change we seek. That was the message I was trying to give my young friend!

loos and behold….

Courtesy the Commonwealth Games, Delhi India’s capital city is going to have 300 Heritage Toilets, whatever that means. Each will cost 1 crore (10 million) rupees. Of course, the municipal corporation is quick to add that these loos will be seven star and better than those in any five star hotel.

A recent article in a leading weekly highlights the abysmal state of public toilets in India. There are still places where women have to walk miles in the dark to relieve themselves. Girls drop out of schools because of the lack of toilets, and women from all walks of life master the art of holding on. I remember doing that too many a time. The article goes on to say that girls are now are making toilets an essential demand to a marriage proposal. I wonder how many no star loos could have been built with ten million times three hundred!

The Commonwealth Games seems to be the playground of the rich. The poor, even if they are over 50% of the population, are not welcome. A leading NGO has published a report on the games. I urge you to read it (available as PDF at the bottom of the link). The Games seem to have violated every right enshrined in our Constitution. Over 200 000 people – men, women and children have already been evicted and as I write these words, 44 slums will be demolished and 40 000 families rendered homeless to beautify the city!

Need I say more!

a perfect day

You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you wrote John Wooden. Yesterday was one such day. We were taking Manisha to boarding school. Manisha had spent the night at the foster care and was ready early morning, her little bag in tow. She was quiet though a little perplexed. I wondered what was going on in her little mind.

We were a little late and had to set off in a hurry. There were four adults and the tiny tiny girl. She sat in silence throughout the journey. When we reached school she followed in silence and sat in the office waiting for the next step. Soon it was time to write her entrance test and she did to the best of her ability. You must remember that this little girl’s world was till now restricted to a tiny hovel in a slum and to project why. And here she was today in a strange place, one larger than anything she had ever seen, one filled with strangers: enough to rattle anyone, let alone a little girl. But she did us proud and soon it was time to take the little bag and move to the hostel. She still sat in silence but when it was time to bid farewell, a few silent tears rolled on her little cheek. I sat bravely knowing that this day would change the tiny soul’s life and was a blessed one. The tears were just a small price we all had to pay.

Once Manisha was settled in what was to become her home for years to come, we set out looking for our little gang. The bell had just rung for morning refreshment and the children were gathering in the playground. Someone was sent out to gather the brood and soon we saw them all: Utpal, Babli, Nikhil, Aditya, Vicky, Meher and Yash. They all wore huge smiles on their faces . After a short photo session it was time to catch up, we knew we only had a few minutes till the end of recess bell rang. We also were aware of the fact that these were stolen moments as parents were not meant to be in school!

It was a perfect moment with each child trying to tell us something and frankly I must admit sheepishly that I cannot quite remember what was said. I just imbibed the mood, the joy, the smiles and laughter, the kid speak: all small ways in which these wonderful children were telling me that all was well and that they were happy. I felt blessed and rewarded beyond words. In their own inimitable way my incredible seven had repaid me for everything.

Enjoy some pictures of that perfect day


from five to eight

We have gone from famous five, to incredible seven and now to exceptional eight. Yes little Manisha will be joining Utpal, Vicky, Nikhil, Aditya, Babli, Yash and Meher. Manisha’s story is heart rendering and I guess once again the God of small things decided to intervene. I must admit that after Yash and Mehar I had decided to put a stop ( at least a temporary one) to the boarding school saga, one that is quite extraordinary to say the least. A simple walk down memory lane brought me to a blog I had written almost 4 years ago, where I had shared what seemed at that time an impossible dream. Like all dreams it was promptly tucked away and almost forgotten. But then the God of small things (GST) decided otherwise. When things looked bleak and almost hopeless, out from the blue came a messenger who revived all dreams, even the wildest ones. It all seemed to good to be true and over and above my cherished dream of planet why, this messenger wanted to change lives of children and we set out to do just that with hope in our hearts. But then the incomprehensible happened. The messenger backed out: the dream seemed too fragile to invest in and I was left holding on to it alone.

In my shaky lap lay not only the future of Manu and his friends, but that of 4 little kids who had been taken away from their homes with the promise of a bright morrow. In hindsight I think the erstwhile messenger was simply God’s way of bringing me back to order. I knew that nothing would ever come easy but come it would! No matter how impossible. And miracles came our way, tiny ones perhaps, but blessed nonetheless. Manu was home safe and happy and soon the little children packed their bags and entered the portals of almost hallowed ground: the boarding school. I heaved a sigh of relief. It has been a long haul but one that was worth it. Who knows one day these very kids would become doctors, engineers, stars! Nothing was impossible. I wondered however whether I would be still around to see them.

Five kids in boarding school was more than enough. We still had 10 long years to go. But my friend the GST had other plans in store. Five soon became seven with Yash and Meher joining the gang of five and of course all my resolutions and resolves went for a six. It is true that when I first laid eyes on little Meher, I knew that this kid had no future. Her little face was scarred making her poor wedding material and her tiny hands maimed making her access to skills very limited and yet her joie de vivre was infectious. When a kind soul offered to repair her body I immediately added a caveat: if we did then we also had to give her a way to break the circle of extreme poverty in which she was imprisoned. Meher belonged to a very poor family where the men lived in the city and worked as house painters, the women stayed in the village and the kids played in the nearby graveyard that was the best playground available. It was a stroke of luck, or rather the GST’s ploy that she had been in the city the day I first met her!

So six it would be, or so I thought. But then what would happen to the little boy who had almost been adopted by some fancy outsiders and then dropped like a hot potato when they found a ‘better’ child! You see six had to become seven. And when a kind gentleman absolutely wanted to sponsor the school of another child, another masterstroke ensured that Manisha would be the chosen one! Seven had become eight!

In a few hours little Manisha will be joining her new friends in boarding school. She spent the night at the foster care so that she could be ready on time. We were a little concerned about how she would feel but to our utter surprise she spent the evening quietly watching TV and telling the housemother about her life. Children like Manisha are born survivors. They sense intuitively what is good for them and hold on to it with their heart and soul. I first saw this in little Utpal long ago.

It is a spirit I for one salute. Chapeau Bas! God bless them all!

a matter of (fasle) pride

Last week’s torrential rains made even the most optimist soul wonder whether we would be ready for the much heralded Commonwealth games! Just an hour or so of good monsoon showers threw the city in total disarray: water logging everywhere and traffic snarls that lasted for hours. Even our quiet and placid backstreet was choker block with traffic and a friend parked outside my gate could not leave for over two hours. Now monsoon rains are predictable and every self respecting city should be prepared for them but you see with the CWG round the corner, our city is undergoing the mother of all face lift with every single road dug up.

The wisdom of hosting such games is debatable. I would urge you to read an article on this issue written by our former Sports Minister. The article may seem a tad rabid but it comes from a responsible person and quotes very trustworthy sources.

Those of you who read by blogs regularly know how I feel about the Games and how I have reacted every time some aberration or the other has taken place. But even I was shocked by some of the facts highlighted in this article and wondered at why our Government was so keen on hosting this 10 day extravaganza. Well I guess it is a matter of misplaced prestige by people who seem to have conveniently forgotten the realities that plague our land. So what began as an acceptable show soon became a free for all. Every good pavement dug up to make place for a new one was a simple means to line some pocket or the other and as everyone wanted its share of the pie, no road has been left undug, even the one on the tiny road I take every morning to reach work, one that no esteemed visitor to the CWG would ever drop by!

As an Indian I am in a fix. Much as I despise the whole Games saga and am appalled and upset at the way the poor of this city have been treated, I guess one would not like them to bring dishonour to the country as they say the show must go on and must go on well. It is a matter of pride however misplaced or false. But I also wonder why the press that has been so vocal on many issues of public interest has remained silent till date. Maybe they too are waiting for the Games to be over. I do hope they take up the issue after the last medal is won and the last guest seen off. As the article rigthly says: the only good that will come out of the Commonwealth Games would be a decision to never again bid for such games until every Indian child gets a minimum to eat, an assured basic education and a playground with trained coaches to discover the sportsperson in himself or herself. I second that!

a gentler way

The Commonwealth games claim one more victim, the tongas! The death knell has sounded for the age old horse drawn carriages that were part of Delhi’s heritage. True only a few remained, 200 or so, but the clack of their hooves and the sound of their bells were an intrinsic part of old Delhi, and added to its old time charm. In a few days they will all be laid to rest. I guess the day had to come but what is terrible is the way in which it all happened and is happening. The past should be allowed to fade out gently and gracefully. But that was not to be. You see the Commonwealth games are coming and someone had decreed that all that is not modern has to be sanitised: smells, sounds and sights: so street food is banned, street vendors are evicted, beggars are hidden, slums raised and tongas taken off the roads. Strangely the common denominator seems to be the poor! They simply have to be wished away.

Yet all that is thought ungainly, ugly and apparently un-modern and thus not worthy of the Game is also part and parcel of this city. They are what gives Delhi its soul and thus need to be handled with care and sensitivity. This so called cosmetic modernisation is unacceptable and yet we watch it helpless and hurting.

I know tongas would have had to go one day. But the way in which it has been done is nothing short of inhuman. The 200 odd tonga owners find their livelihood snatched from them overnight. They were promised a space with hawking rights. They were promised covered stalls, all that is being handed out to them is a pavement along a busy road, miles away from the place they called home. Some have been promised three wheelers or rickshaws but the author ties are still working out the rehabilitation plan! God knows how long it will take! Most of the tonga owners are old and have never done anything else but tend to their animals and drive their carriage. Asking them to become hawkers overnight is nothing short of inhuman. They all plan to sell their horses to a state across the border and then try and reinvent themselves.
Street vendors or horse carriages have never upset any foreign visitor, on the contrary they were part of every picture a tourist took and every memory they carried back. Modernisation does not mean dealing a fatal blow to tradition.

I am sure there were more humane ways of phasing out the 200 odd tongas left in this city. Maybe they could have been spruced up and made a tourist attraction as is the case in many cities the world over. My heart goes out to the tonga drivers today as they set out finding new ways to feed their families.

another sunshine tale

PWhy’s blog sometimes makes me sad, sometimes happy. This is a lovely story, so today is a happy day wrote a dear friend after reading Project Why, Namaste. So thought I would write another sunshine tale today, one I must sheepishly admit I should have written long ago! But sometimes there are people who like remaining away from the lime light and Mithu is one such person.

Just like Preeti, Mithu got struck by polio when we was very young and just like her by the time he came to us it was too late for calipers and other such aids! But unlike Preeti, Mithu was a boy and restrictions did not apply at home so Mithu learnt to survive and thrive legs or no legs. He moved at remarkable speed with the help of his hands, climbed trees, played cricket where he bowled a mean ball and lived life to its fullest. When I suggested we get him a wheel chair, the young teenager looked at me with bewilderment and stated: I want to stand on my own feet! Needless to say I felt very small.

Mithu joined as a student in class IX but he had only one fascination and love: computers. Classes were a simple excuse to access our computers. Very soon he became savvy in every aspect of computer learning and we decided to ’employ’ him as a teacher’s aid in our main computer centre. He learnt fast and was soon taking independent classes. When one of our teachers left Mithu quietly walked into his shoes.

When we opened our Okhla computer centre it was a foregone decision that our own Mithu would head it and today he is the ‘in charge’ of that centre. He still walks on his hands, but we would like him to have a motorised tricycle that would enable him to move around with dignity!