Right to Education.. passing the buck

In what is called a landmark judgement the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of the right to education (RTE) act. Actually what was being challenged by petitioners was the constitutional validity of the RTE law that requires private schools to earmark 25 percent seats for poorer students. The petitioners were, needless to say, public and private schools. The judgement is being lauded by many activists as a historical one. Wow now children from underprivileged homes will be able to access the best of schools. What an achievement! Or is it?

Let us not celebrate to soon. I would like to share some of my concerns which are in fact quite disturbing. The Right to Education Act provides for free and compulsory education of equitable quality to all children of the age of six to fourteen years.This right is now enshrined in the Constitution and thus it becomes the duty to the state to provide free and compulsory education of equitable quality to all children in India privileged and underprivileged. In an ideal situation the state should run schools that provide free education of equitable quality in every neighbourhood across the land.

Now the new RTE Act with is rather absurd reservation of 25% seats in all schools has been heralded as the panacea for all ills. However in a state like Delhi around 9000 poor children will benefit from this, for the rest the poorly run Government schools will have to do as nothing pertains to their up gradation in the new bill. In all the euphoria following the ‘landmark’ judgement one tends to forget the dissenting order of one of the judges. Justice Radhakrishnan said the duty was entirely on the government to establish sufficient number of neighbourhood schools. Sadly his voice went unheard.

So according to this new RET Bill a handful of students will enter the hallowed ground of goes by the name of public schools in India and encompasses the uber rich school with its AC classes and marble hallways to the small local public school that barely has a ground for the children to play in. The fees of these schools range from a paltry 500 Rs to a whopping 10K per month! It is true that schools with limited facilities have been told to up grade them in a given span of time or face derecognition and/or closure. What we may actually see is the closure of many such schools and thus less privileged seats for the under privileged.Oops I forgot to mention that the government would pay private schools a monthly amount for the poor children ranging from 500 to 1500Rs. Needless to say the schools are up in arms and wondering where the missing numbers would come from. The option that jumps to mind is the increase of fees thus passing the burden to parents of ‘rich’ children. This is terribly unfair as many middle class parents scrap the barel to send their children to a good school.

I was amazed and shocked at the suggestions proffered by our Minister in a recent interview. When questionned on the issue of funds for the disadvantaged children pat came the answer: If they have their surpluses or reserves, may be part of that can be spent here. But if not that then you have many corporations who are committed to corporate social responsibilities with 2 per cent of their entire turn over for corporate responsibility. So now profit making schools stand be in line with NGOs to seek corporate funding. The whole interview is subject for a Marx movie. Do read it. The gem is: the government is in no financial position, to ensure high quality education to all our children in government school alone. We have a right to equitable education but the government is shirking from its duty to give every child this right.

Anyway let us carry on and put this whole nightmare into context. In India 20% children go to private school, the remaining 80 attend government schools or not school at all. The Bill does not do much fro the 80% except offering them 25% seats in the schools the 20% go to. Mind boggling to say the least. Try and work out the maths. I can’t! Anyway the 25 of 20% are supposedly open to all the 80%. To put this in perspective a school in Delhi received 1500 applications fro 20 reserved seats. So 1480 kids who should have got good education will have no option go to a government school. Now let us for the sake of argument imagine the school life of little Mina, one of the 20! Her parents live in a one room slum tenement, a room shared by her parents and 4 siblings. Mina is a bright kid but her parents are illiterate. She goes to a swanky school but comes home to a hell hole. Now who will help her with her homework, her school projects etc. Her classmates have access to parents, tutors, Internet et al. She does not even have a table to study on. Now let us say she overcomes every hurdle – a miracle in itself – and reaches the age of 14, what happens to her? Who pays her fees? I cannot even begin to imagine the options.

Now the remaining 1480 kids will have to go to a government school. I would like to share some data that brings to light the sad reality of the state of education in our country, and thus the options open to our 1480 kids:

Only 53% of habitation have a primary school.
Only 20% of habitation have a secondary school.
On an average an upper primary school is 3 km away in 22% of areas under habitations.
In nearly 60% of schools, there are less than two teachers to teach Classes I to V.
On an average, there are less than three teachers per primary school. They have to manage classes from I to V every day.
1 in 40, primary school in India is conducted in open spaces or tents, let alone furniture or fans..

This is a reality, and not just in remote villages but in our very own city. Even furniture, if any, is not the right size. This is what the Government has to offer in the name of equitable education. A sad joke played on voiceless children. With the State passing the buck for some and giving up on others, the right to equitable education seems nothing short of a chimera.

It is not that the State is incapable of running a good educational institution. Look at the Central Schools or the Navyug schools. They are wonderful and enabling centres of learning. This is what every government  school  should strive to be. The half baked education on offer is not acceptable. Once again the Government has proved that they thrive on reservation policies and are masters at conjuring new ‘castes’ for want of a better word. Now poor children will not only have a religion and a social caste but will acquire the new label of being or not being in a private school. And this division is unique as it may even apply to the same family! I am flabbergasted at hearing the Minister call this approach an inclusive one. Why then is inclusion reserved to a small minority of underprivileged children.

Coming back to how the private schools will manage the financials of having to accommodate 25% underprivileged children  and whether they would pass the burden to the parents, our Minister retorted  90 per cent can give 10 times the fee that they are paying. I think he was referring to the uber rich. Or perhaps our Minister has not got his facts right. There are many parents who scrape the barrel to put their children in good public schools. Many underprivileged parents also put their children in smaller public schools by tightening their belt till it hurts. I do not know which 90% the minister is referring to.

The RTE in its present form will not bring about equitable education to all the children of India. It is only when the Government finds itself in the financial position to upgrade all school to the required level that the children of India can hope to be educated.

The spectre of malnutrition

The case of a severely undernourished three year old abandoned by her grandmother in a hospital  brings up the spectre of malnutrition. One can never repeat enough the ignominious statistic that should make us hang our heads in shame: 5013 children die every day of malnutrition related causes. Every day, that is 3 children every minute. While we sip our morning tea 3 children would have died. Just take a minute to ponder about this. Each time I do I get goose bumps and my blood runs cold. Every single day: 5000 children that is more than 5 times the number of children in project why!

What prompted to right this post was a recent expose in Tehelka magazine entitled: The raja who stole from the poor. Do read it! It is nothing short of shocking. What was stolen is food meant for the poor. The loot was conservatively estimated at 200 000 crores. One crore is 10 million rupees! It is mind boggling to say the least. The spoils were shared by the usual nexus: politicians and bureaucrats. The grains meant for the poor are sold on the open market or smuggled to neighbouring countries. We all know corruption exists in our country and exists big time but the idea of food for the poor being hijacked in this manner is nothing short of galling. And yet even with the cat out of the bag we all know nothing is going to happen. Maybe a lull in nefarious activities till the dust settles and new ways of plundering are devised.

I guess for things to change it is civil society that will have to take up the cudgels and move from its present catatonia. But will we. The children who die are too remote for us to be truly touched. All the programmes meant to alleviate hunger are far too often hijacked. That is the sad reality in India. We have great programmes but poor implementation. Programmes  become means to line pockets. Had the ICDS (integrated child development scheme) worked, no one below 30 would have been malnourished, but just visit any balwadis (creche) run under its ageis in the city and you will know that it has been set up not for the benefit of children but as a moneymaking and political gratification tool.

Let me once again share some statistics as I feel that it is only by repeating ad nauseum the stark reality that we may perhaps give up our immobility and act: 43.5% of children are underweight; 50% of children’s death are attributed to malnutrition, 46 per cent of all children below the age of three are too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and at least 16 per cent are wasted;  anaemia affects 74 per cent of children under the age of three, more than 90 per cent of adolescent girls and 50 per cent of women; non availability of food seems to be the major cause of malnutrition. In India more than 5 million children die every year as a direct or indirect result of malnutrition. That translates into one child death every 10 seconds. ONE CHILD EVERY 10 SECONDS. Do we realise what this means. Ten seconds is the time taken to type 3 words, take a sip of tea, walk a few steps. And each time we do any of these one child dies quietly, just another statistic.

On the other side of the invisible wall dustbins and garbage dumps are filled with edible stuff, plates are unfinished in parties and eating places. And that is not all: every year food grain rots in the open for want of storage space. What is even sadder is that eve in slums food is thrown with impunity as if throwing food was an essential step in social mobility. I always shudder at the amount of food that lies on the streets after the regular religious feeding frenzies that dot the year.

Our Prime Minister called malnutrition deaths a national shame. I guess it was only lip service as nothing seems to have changed. 5000 children still die everyday. What will it take to change things?

Enough is enough – Project Y

Enough is enough. It is time to set the record straight and teach the basics of genetics to men in India and maybe elsewhere too! It is time to put a stop at the suffering of women accused of the impossible and blamed for not having sons. It is time people learnt the facts of X and Y! I mean chromosomes. A woman was strangled to death for giving birth to a daughter. She was strangled by her husband of 10 years because she had yet again produced a daughter. It is time this bloke and others like him been told that actually HE was responsible for the child’s gender, he and he alone. His poor wife did not have what is needed to make the child a son. The required Y!

It is time Governments the world over, organisations and family planning programmes launched Project Y. One cannot begin to imagine women are abused, slandered, vilified, taunted, repudiated and now even murdered for not giving birth to a son, as if they had they were responsible for the same. Let us not forget the millions of little girls who are killed before they are born and after. Little Afreen is just a poignant reminder of this cruel and horrific fact. What makes it all more incomprehensible and puzzling is that this happens in the very land that celebrates Goddesses with alacrity and misplaced fervor.

And don’t live under the false impression that such behaviour is only seen in villages or urban slums. It is all pervading though the taunts may be subtler as one moves up the social echelon. Girl foeticide is rampant is middle class India where money easily subverts loose laws. There are sufficient medical practitioners willing to perform sex determinations tests for the right amount of gold. And what is worse is the absolute denial of genetic laws by so called educated people. I remember an instance when an educated person whose son had produced a second daughter and who I was trying to ‘educate’ promptly retorted: My son can do no wrong! Read ‘wrong’ as be responsible for the gender of his child. Come on! On what planet are we living. And what is it that makes us hate girls so much. It seems like we have lost our bearings completely. Would strongly recommend you see Manish Jha’s disturbing film Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women to visualise this reality. The film won many international awards but needless to say barely ran in Indian theaters. I guess no one wants to see reality when it is thrown at us, it is just too disquieting.

I still wonder why the X/Y story is not screamed for every rooftop. It should be. As were it to be many women would be freed from age long pain and distress and men would see themselves in another light. If men were to understand that they are the ones responsible for determining the sex of a child would they still kill their daughters? It is a million dollar question but one worth addressing.

requiem for a dream

I have been putting off writing this post for a long time but it is time I do, as much for myself as for all those who shared my dream and supported it. Sadly this dream did not become reality. I am talking of Planet Why, the guest house with a difference that would have allowed project why attain sustainability. Many of you do not know how far we went in our dream.

Planet Why was to be a green guest house with 23 rooms. Solar energy, recycled water, geothermal cooling and heating, you name it, we had it. A beautiful building in red bricks – no need of yearly painting just a good scrub needed – designed in Laurie Baker’s  inimitable style and sound principles, made it a delight for the senses and the heart. Juxtaposed to the guest house and separated by an open air amphitheatre was the children centre a haven for differently abled persons and women in critical situations. The centre also had the capacity to house a foray of activities for children of local deprived communities. Planet why would have also been a training ground for project why alumni in a wide range of skills.

 We dared to dream and dream big. The Fates did seem to be on our side. True there were some small hiccups but we were able to find and purchase a lovely plot of land. In spite of our lack of business acumen we came up with a plan that was validated by internationally renowned professionals. We meticulously budgeted for all our needs to the smallest spoon or saucer. A beautiful architectural model was designed by an eminent architect. All that was needed were the funds and even here we seemed to be on track as an investor promised us the needed amount. Even the most sceptics amongst us were on cloud nine! The dream was bound to become reality!

Alas that was not to be. The investor backed out suddenly about a year ago. I knew at that moment that the dream was dead but held on hoping against hope that a miracle would happen. But as days became months I knew the miracle was not to be. Planet Why would not happen and it was time to lay it to rest serenely and stop looking back.

However the failure of such a sound and beautiful project has left me quite disturbed. I cannot stop beating myself and wondering if and where I did go wrong. I cannot hide myself behind investors who reneged. The bottom line is that I was unable to raise the needed funds. From day one, fund raising has been my responsibility and I was unable to fulfill it at the most crucial juncture of project why. Perhaps it is because of my having chosen to become a social recluse for reasons I once found sound. Had I continued being the good spouse and accompanied my better half to the innumerable soirees he is invited to, I may have met more people with heavy wallets who could have extended help. So many ‘mays’ and coulds’ make one wonder if that was really the way to go. Given the past record of such individuals when approached for tiny sums, I do not think my pleas, however impassioned, would have made them loosen their purse strings. Perhaps my failure comes from my not having been pro active enough and depended on others. There may be some truth in this and I do not have much to say in my defence and anyway the harm is done and one cannot turn the clock back. I will have to bear the cross of this failure for times to come as I know that we will never have a sustainability option as wondrous as planet why.

Before I end this post allow me to dream a little and share with you what Planet Why was meant to be.

The building on the left side of the picture above is the Planet Why Guest house. It has 23 rooms, each one being decorated in a minimalist and functional style reflecting the rich heritage of India. Each room is wheel chair friendly. The building is eco friendly and has very little carbon emission. On the ground floor is the reception manned by Preeti, a physically challenged young girl who has a smile to die for. A small lounge and coffee shop would serves wholesome organic breakfast to the guests and meals can be ordered in advance. Airport pick up is ensured and handled by well trained project why alumni who double up as enthusiastic guided ready to make you discover the real India. An efficient housekeeping team consisting of challenged persons, project why alumni and local residents under the watchful eye of seasoned professionals ensures that the place is spotless.

The right side building is what we call the ‘children and women centre’. It is home to Preeti and many of her physically and mentally challenged friends. A place where they work, laugh, and live together. It is also home to women in distress who come for a short or longer time to rebuild their broken lives. But that is not all. The centre offers a host of activities for local children and women based on the successful project why model: after school support, computer classes, creative activities, tailoring, beauty classes and more. It is always buzzing with activity. Special workshops are also held for project why alumni in order to get them ready for the outside world. 

In the kitchen professionals and trainees are busy preparing meals for the residents. They also make mouth watering pastries and delicious breads they have learnt from a French baker during a workshop. These are sold to regular clients across the city as a means of supplementary income.

. Guests can also learn Hindi and Bollywood dancing.

Planet Why is a no profit organisation that support project why activities.

That is what Planet Why was meant to be. You can imagine how difficult is is to let go of the dream.

If you are born a girl…. requiem for Afreen

If you are born a girl in India nothing can prepare you for what you may endure. You see no one wants girls. So in the very first months of your life, instead of hearing soothing lullabies and being rocked to sleep, instead of tender caresses and loving words you may be burnt, bitten, bashed, smothered and even killed. Ask little Afreen just 3 months old who succumbed to the ignominious treatment metered to her by very one who gave her life. Her crime: to be born a girl. The perpetrator: her own father. The motive: his desire for a son. No one wants little girls. If they are not killed in the womb itself they are likely to be brutalised, abandoned, unwanted, ill treated, abused, traded and always reminded of the fact that they are a burden.

But another tragedy counterpoints Afreen’s. The silence of her mother who watched her baby being tortured by her husband for three long months. Afreen’s mom is just 19 and in a country where women are too swiftly shifted from their parental homes to the husband’s with a one way ticket the options were few, silence being the easiest. The alternative was unthinkable. Where would she go? It  is only when the child was almost moribund that she found her voice. But it was too late for Afreen.

The plight of little girls in India is disturbing. Last week we were ‘treated’ to three shocking cases in a single news item: a baby girl left at a busy bus stop, she was barely 3 days old; a severely malnourished 3 year old girl abandoned in a hospital and a custody battle for a girl child born in a hospital but not accepted by her own mother! This is the tip of the iceberg, the few cased that have made it to the headlines. Little girls are unwanted. They are more likely to die then their male counterparts. A girl child aged between 1 and 5 years in our country is 75% more likely to die than a boy. A girl child does not get fed the same way as her male sibling, does not get the same support for education. She is often a second class citizen in her own home. Little girls are unwanted. That is the sad reality in a land where Goddesses are revered and worshiped. Little girls are not.

 It is time we did something. Simply watching such news items and clucking sympathetically is not enough. I wonder if such news items make it to page 3 parties. I do not think so. And the reason is that these little unwanted girls are born on the other side of the fence. How can we be so heartless? These little girls are voiceless and need us to lend them our voice, to take up the cudgels for them, to fight for their right to LIVE with dignity and love. What is the use of our so called education if we cannot find compassion?As long as we remain silent such aberrations will continue. It is time many mindsets were straightened the first one being the fact that women are responsible for gender determination. You will be surprised by the number of people, even supposedly educated ones,  who believe that men have no role in determining the sex of the child. Millions of women are repudiated for the simple fact that they are unable to bear sons. But women do not have the much sought after X chromosome. I wonder why family planning programmes never highlight this reality. Were they to do so, many women would be freed from terrible pain. It is also time that the importance of girls in society is given prominence. I find it impossible to understand why little girls are not viewed as potential wives and thus mothers. The very men who hurt little girls have mothers.

Come to think of it the real problem is as always money. Our society has instituted a form of marriage where the girl’s family bears the brunt of all expense from the dowry to the actual marriage festivities. Were we to turn the situation on its head and have the boy’s family bear the financial burden would little boys be done away with? But jokes apart maybe it is time to bring some balance in wedding celebrations that have become not only outrageous but galling. Why can marriages not be simple affairs and not business transactions where the boy and girl becomes commodities. Maybe we as educated people should take the lead. But will we?

Will the death of little Afreen open our eyes? Or have we mastered the art of looking away to perfection? Only time will tell.

what a birthday

gifts of the heart

It is said that your 60th birthday is a special event. I do not know what this really means but mine was truly an exceptional and unforgettable one! Would you believe me if I told you that it dawned with the news of the passing away of the father of a dear friend. Many would say it was a bad augur. But quite the contrary. The demise in question was excepted and the true crowning of a well lived and happy life. It was a beautiful death. It was also a gentle reminder of its inevitability and of the indubitable fact that our time is limited and hence we would be wiser to spend it in gratitude and not waste it in unnecessary pursuits. So the morning began by paying respect to the departed soul. It was an intense moment but a powerful one.

Then it was party time. And what a party! It began with a visit of the office where the staff had decided to celebrate big: balloons (yes for the old biddy) and streamers and when I sat on my chair and the fan was switched on petals fell on me. Wow I had never been showered with flowers. Then a cake, home made and delicious and my first set of gifts. Before I go on I would like a little aside to unravel the mystery of the picture you see on this blog. These are my most precious gifts. In front you can see a strange contraption with an old picture of Utpal. Well that is gift that Utpal made for me before he left for school. Utpal loves makings things from anything he finds so this is an assembly of an old CD, some thermacol box, a lot of glitter and an old picture of his. It is a pure marvel as he spent hours finding things, putting them together, breaking and remaking it till he was satisfied. And then before he left he brought it to my office and gave it to me with a huge hug. Needless to say it occupies centerstage in my office. The bouquet is not one bought from a flower vendor. It is the gift from the Okhla kids and each flower has been painstakingly hand made. I do not know how long it took, but I am overwhelmed by the gesture. The cards are precious too: one was made by the special kids and everyone of them signed it and the other by the tiny tots of the creche.

But where was I? I think at the first cake of the day as there was one more shared with the special children where we had more flowers and heartwarming hugs. The next stop was the women centre was there was yet another cake. It was here that I also had a mind blowing experience. I was distributing sweets to the children when I asked the tiny class I and II ones what they thought my age was. Fifteen said one! I shook my head with a smile and promptly another one who thought his pal had been politically incorrect jumped up and said ten! I laughed and told them I was sixty. You should have seen their faces, somehow sixty seemed too far fetched and one of the boys put both his hand on his face and said Bap re bap which I guess is best translated as Oh my God! I guess to them sixty was way beyond their imagination and belief!

After all the project why festivities and all the wonderful gifts I came home. Shamika and Rani had planned a party for the evening and the kitchen was out of bounds to me. Now this was a new situation as I am quite the control freak when it comes to parties in my home. Feeling a little lost I decided to treat myself to some retail therapy. It was nice to spend time just ambling around. Not finding anything I came home and decided to open my computer and answer some mails. Here again another surprise. Hundreds of birthday messages on FB. For one who has been an only child growing up in nomadic manner and having few friends it was a joy. People from the world over finding time to write such nice words to someone who has always been private and now almost a social recluse it was indeed a wow moment. I was overwhelmed. I realised with a smile that I was at least not a virtual troglodyte.

Evening came and I spent more time than usual getting ready. I knew some of the people that were coming but the girls had another one up their sleeve. They had managed to shepherd the whole project why Board, even the ones that lives thousands of miles away. Could I have asked for more! The meal was out of this world and I was speechless. A beautiful table, food to die for. Shamika and Rani had surpassed even me! Time to retire old girl! The night ended in laughter, reminiscences and plans for the future. For that blessed moment everything seemed possible.

It took me long to get to sleep. Too many sensations to process. When I woke up I knew everything would be allright.

Thank you for the best day in my life.

Oh and how can I forget the special song via skype that my darling grandson had composed for me and the most unexpected phone call from Utpal who had managed to convince his warden to allow him to wish me a happy birthday.

I could not have been a better birthday.

sixty, serendipity and serenity

 OK so I turn sixty in a day! I go to sleep Tuesday and on Wednesday morning I enter a new decade. Well this has happened many times in the past but this one is loaded. I am supposed to become a senior citizen and if I am to go by an article in the front page of today’s newspaper I become part of they grey brigade where women are supposed to take the lead. What awaits me if I am to go by the article is a host of terrible things ranging from depression, to fractures, to hypertension, to loss of hearing and God only knows what else. I somehow refuse to accept all these labels. I am no spring chicken but I am no doddering fool either. I am just one year older.

I must confess that the body has been sending messages now and then: the bones creak a little and the gait has slowed down but the mind is as agile as ever, even more so as it imbibes new things every minute. I still read three books a week, having even mastered the art of reading in a moving auto rickshaw – you should try it as it makes the ride less nerve wrecking – and above all run my project 24/7. So all this talk of senior citizenship leaves me cold. I am who I was yesterday and who I will be tomorrow.

But six zero is a nice round figure to perhaps take stock of one’s life, give one’s self the well deserved pat on the back or rap on the knuckles before moving on. It still gives you time to correct your errors and make amends. So let me get off the spinning wheel for a bit and look back at the twenty one thousand nine hundred days I have walked this earth. If I were to think of one word to sum my existence I would chose the word serendipity. My life has been full of good fortune and happy coincidences. Be it the years spent with doting parents as a child or the years growing up in different places soaking various cultures and flavours, be it the years spent at my mom’s knee learning about the land of my ancestors or those shared with a passionate father absorbing foreign traditions and ways. I was fortunate enough to treat all my senses to the widest and wildest feast imaginable counterpointed by unforgettable lessons in humility and compassion. That did give me a head start.

The ensuing years were again serendipitous. Be it love or career it all worked perfectly. True there were some hiccups but they were all part of the game. Everything seemed on course. Lovely children, more travels, what more could I hope for. But there was more though it came at a price. The loss of my parents left me rudderless and lost. For a few years I locked myself and lost the key but then serendipity struck again and a fortuitous encounter transformed my existence. Manu seared my soul and gave meaning to a life that till that moment has seemed plentiful. My learning was still incomplete, actually come to think of if, it appeared rather paltry. It was time to put everything to test. Would I pass the test life was throwing my way.

I did give it my best shot. The outcome was the setting up and nurturing of project why. When I look back at the last decade of my life I feel humbled and elated at the same time. My life wich seemed at the brink of despair following the loss of my parents acquired a whole new meaning. Loneliness that had threatened to devour me was replaced by abundant love that came my way by sheer magic. With it also came new challenges and responsibilities. In the eyes of Manu and all the other children he brought into my life I saw immense love but also hope and dreams, dreams that looked impossible, dreams I had to conjure. Every day henceforth saw the realisation of these dreams, tiny ones at first: meals and a bed for Manu, report cards with good grades, exams passed with flying colours. I do not know when the dreams became mine and thus more ambitious: a home for Manu, more report cards and successful exams, a home for women in distress. Was I becoming hubristic. I do not know. Nothing seemed impossible.

So we embarked on an expansion mission 40 kids became 100, 400.. there was a brief moment when we touched 1000! Thank heaven we had a guardian angel who brought us back in line courtesy a few gentle and not so gentle blows. Those were hard times: the labour court, backstabbing and slandering, encounters with political and slum lords. But we survived, a little bruised but somewhat wiser. Slowly all the dreams seem to actualise as we opened our women centre and our residential programme for disabled children.

Along the way came more challenges. Our first open heart surgery case. But the Gods were smiling and we managed to repair 18 broken hearts. And how can I forget Utpal and Mehar, two little Angels whose destiny necessitated a cruel baptism by fire. Today their bodies are healed and they are busy making up for lost time and reclaiming their childhood. And with them six other extremely deprived children are learning at the speed of light in a little boarding school.

It all seemed perfect as we moved from day to day feeling almost invincible. But the future loomed large and one had to start thinking of project why without me at the helm. We came up with the idea of planet why – a guest house with a difference! It seemed perfect: it would bring in funds and free us from the daily panhandling, it would allow our alumni to learn skills and above all it would be a home for Manu.

 A few hiccups later we had our land and a sound validated business plan. I was on cloud nine as we even had a potential donor. But then the house of cards came tumbling down. Manu left this world leaving me stunned and the donor vanished. Our further attempts came to nought. In normal circumstances I would have been devastated but somehow this time I took the blow standing.

A new word had surreptitiously entered my life, one that I could have never appropriated earlier: serenity! I had never found myself using this word earlier but did, while answering a question from a dear friend. When she asked me how things were, I answered: serene. That is when I realised I had matured and mellowed. Gone were the hysterics and histrionics, the obsessive drive that characterised me till then. In its place acceptance of reality and the need to review, ponder and come up with another solution, one that need not be over the top or dazzling. This where I stand now and that is perhaps the only new adjective I am willing to add to my life as I enter a new decade.

I know it will be serene.

A visit to the CWC

Today I went to the CWC aka Child Welfare Committee aka the Children’s Court. These committees were set up post 2000. They have the final authority to dispose of cases for the care, protection, treatment, development and rehabilitation of  children as well as to provide for their basic needs and human rights. That it took independent India over sixty years to enact legislation to protect children speaks for itself. The CWC came into our lives when we sought help to get Utpal freed from the clutches of his greedy and uncaring family. After long deliberations the CWC in its wisdom decided that Utpal would be under the care of the boarding school during school times and under my care during the holidays. I was declared person deemed fit to look after his interest. A wearisome procedure was set in place: a letter had to be produced by us before each school break and then the CWC issued an order allowing Utpal to stay at home, then the child had to be produced in court each and every time and finally a letter had to be given after the child had been dropped to school. This is done 4 to 5 times a year. For us it is just an irksome bit of extra paper work but for Utpal it is quite stressing and unpleasant. Poor boy hates it.

I almost thought of trying to plead with the CWC to waive this appearance but then decided not to because come to think about it they are just protecting the child, and every child in India needs protection. Were I not to have Utpal appear in court once I had the necessary papers what stopped me from withdrawing him for school and having him work at home. The papers are replete of cases of minors working in homes of educated people. The latest case being that of a 13 year old being locked in a flat while her employers, both doctors, went holidaying in Bangkok. But that is not all: the child was made to do gruelling work and was beaten and abused if she faltered. They even had a CCTV to keep check on her! This inhumane treatment had been going on for two years. The child was just 11 when she began working for these monsters. It appears that the child was just fed twice a day. One would have thought that educated persons would behave otherwise but sadly that is not the case. What is worse is that all the sectiosn mentioned in the FIR are bailable and the monster couple is likely to get away with this as is always the case. Another case made it to the newspapers last week: it was about yet another child employed by yet another doctor and abused with impunity.

Children are meant to be precious yet we have mastered the art of ill treating them. Little Pari was abandoned in a train. The impish child is now in an orphanage waiting for a  new life. And how can we forget little Falak who suffered the worst kind of abuse and finally died after battling for over two months. And these are not exceptions. Every day children are kidnapped, traded, used, used and abused. True it does not happen to OUR children so we do not give a hoot. Yet these are not invisible children. A conservative estimate of child labour is 14 million children under the age of 14. How many of us would take the cudgels for a child? Not many is the sad answer. We see children begging at traffic lights, children working in tea shops and even children working in neighbours and friends homes. But we remain mute spectators or worst roll out our window and hand over a coin. It is time we did something. There are laws in place. It is time we saw they were implemented.

The CWC acts on information that comes their way. In spite of our apathetic and cynical attitude to institutions they actually work. Utpal’s case is ample proof. Children are reunited with their families, rescued from nightmarish conditions and above all protected.

So I will stop grumbling about Utpal’s court appearances. I know it if for his own good.