Through their eyes

Till date, I have shared the on goings of Project Why based on what I saw, or what my staff shared or what well wishers, supporters and funders wrote in reports, blogs or on social networks. Some how it never cross my mind to get the children to share their thoughts. And yet they are the ones who should have been given that opportunity. So I was delighted when the coordinator of our women centre decided to give pen and paper to students and ask them to write what they felt. All teachers were asked to leave the premise and the security guard and housekeeper where the ones supervising the exercise.

I was given a report and I would like to share with you Project Why through the eyes of those who matter most. The children participating were from class III to IX.

One child thought that Pwhy was great because it has toilets, drinking water and free education. Another one was touched by the fact that the organisation helped her parents when they had lost their jobs and were desperate and also because many volunteers come to the Project and she can talk to them in English and improve her knowledge. A young class V girl likes Project Why because it does not make a difference between boys and girls and she loves the Sunday classes when all kids come together. A little girl likes the Saturday hand washing and  a young boy likes the fact that there are no more than 15 students per class. For some students what makes Pwhy special is the dancing, singing and art activities, for others it is the fact that teachers are patient and do not beat children. Some like the fact that there is a big library with good books and that there are spoken English classes. And many simply felt that pwhy gave them an enabling environment to study in all seasons.

Some kids like the camaraderie that exists in the Project Why and that all children are treated equally, irrespective of their caste or creed. One class IX student candidly admits that when he came to Pwhy he was not good at studies but that now he has improved a lot. A class VII student appreciated the photography workshop and the fact that he and his friends are given cameras to take pictures regularly.

Many students appreciated the fact that they were not chastised for their bad habits. On the contrary teachers took time to understand their problems and help them get over their bad habit. Teachers were more like friends and mentors and went out of their way to help students.

And a class VII student simply said that Project Why is like her family.

To many, all these statements may seem innocuous and commonplace, simple ramblings of students wanting to say the right thing. But it is not so. When I read them I felt overwhelmed and humbled. These seemingly anodyne words actually reveal the reality of children who are not understood and appreciated by the adults in their world, be it their parents or school teachers and for whom pwhy is the support they so need. A place where they are considered as individuals who matter. The words also reveal how things that are taken for granted by the likes of us, are luxury to urban slum kids be it a clean toilet, drinking water or the pleasure of washing one’s hands. The thoughts shared by these children go along way in proving that we have failed as a society in ensuring that all children what is rightfully theirs.

The question I ask myself is: are we doing enough?

The only true crime… the journey of an ordinance

Two months ago, India was on its feet expressing its outrage at the barbaric rape and subsequent murder of a young woman in a Delhi bus. We were angry and ashamed and swore to not give up the fight till justice was done. We decided to wear black bands and keep up the fight. The media was replete with stories on women’s safety. Brought to its knees the state constituted a committee meant to look at women related issues and the said committee worked relentlessly to bring about a report many of us were thrilled out. For the first time, issues that are normally brushed under carpets were highlighted. We were all on a high. But then surreptitiously, the dark forces set to work. A hurried ordinance which diluted many of the main issues was promulgated leaving us all perplexed. Why the hurry? In the mean time, the media found greener pastures (the death and beheading of soldiers, the much awaited hanging of a terrorist, the curious case of a Party President, and now blasts in a southern city) and even the tiny news item that informed us of the daily hearings of the case of the accused in the Delhi rape, stopped. Our black bands faded and I wonder how many of us replaced them.

But atrocities against women did not stop. Rapes continued with alacrity and seeming impunity. But we remain silent. The Delhi rape is undoubtedly horrific but what about the recent rape of 3 little sisters in Bhandara. Why have we not felt outraged as we did a few months ago? Is it because these 3 little souls belong to a social background we cannot identify with? Imagine three little girls, between the age of 5 and 11, waking up in the morning as they do each school day, wearing their uniforms, hurriedly gulping a breakfast lovingly prepared by their mother, picking up their bags and setting off for school. Only on that day they never came home. A predator was lurking on the way; he may have enticed them with some treat or the other and then hijacked and destroyed their dreams in a flash. I shudder to imagine what  their last moments on earth were like. The confusion, the bewilderment, the helplessness, the pain and the realisation that it was all over. Their journey from home to school ended in a dark well. Were they still alive when they were pushed in? And imagine the plight of the mother, widowed a few years back and who  now loses her children. No amount of compensation can begin to heal her agony.

What is worse is that the police did nothing for two days. The investigation was shoddy and truly began only after the enraged villagers resorted to violent protest. According to the latest news the Principal of the school they studied in has been suspended for not having reported that the girls were missing. The question that begs to be answered is whether the police would have acted had the principal reported the incident? Sadly this is not the only incident. Rapes have been committed with alacrity and impunity every single day since the terrible Delhi rape. But we seem to have lost our voice yet again.

The Delhi case has resulted in an ordinance that needs to be passed by Parliament but trends indicate that though it seemed that everyone once agreed, it may lapse for want of time! And there is more. It also seems that some of our esteemed politicians have raised some doubts. One of these seems to be that if stalking is included then it could be misused. Others objections have been against voyeurism and even sexual harassment at the work place. All this augurs well for the Government who can then allow the ordinance to lapse. The existing laws will remain and nothing would have changed.

What is frightening is that the ‘doubts’ expressed reek of patriarchy and seem to condone the conspiracy of silence that has prevailed. It seems that the only true ‘crime’ against women that all are willing to address and condemn is rape. But rape is the culmination of a series of albeit smaller crimes that embolden perpetrators. Perpetrators are often misguided youth who begin their descent with crimes like teasing, stalking, groping etc. If these will be smiled upon benignly by a patriarchal society that considers women as second class beings, possessions and objects then women will never get justice. Men will never understand the rage and hurt felt by a woman who is leered at or groped. In every way it is a violation of her being. If crime against women is to be addressed then every from of crime has to come under the ambit of law. By objecting to stalking, voyeurism and any form of harassment, men want to retain the right of indulging in such low games with impunity. Diluting any law is as good as discarding it.

Is there no hope then. One would be tempted to say yes. Since time immemorial women have learnt to live with such aberrations and build defenses. The Delhi rape did shake us out of our immobility and we would have liked to believe that our rage would bring about change. But the enemy is wily and strong. It will require subtle tactics and a long war. Delhi was just the first battle and we still have not won it. The Bhandara culprits roam free. The Suryanelli survivor has still not got justice even after 17 long years. To bring about change we need to raise our voices in each and every case; we need to convey our outrage each time a crime is committed against women and children. We need to refuse to accept aberrations and stop building defenses. But will we? Every day children and are abused within the so called safety of their homes but no one says a word. If the child garners the courage to share her/his hurt with an elder, (s)he is sworn to the code of silence, a code meant to protect the patriarchal equilibrium. A girl his told not to talk about sexual assault she may have incurred because it ‘may ruin her chances on the marriage market’. What is this society where the victim is criminalised and the perpetrator roams free. I am sure than men who may be guilty of stalking or groping asre still good marriage market material.

True men need to be sensitized, but more than them, it is we women who have to be freed from patriarcal mindsets and learn to respect ourselves and other women. When will that day dawn?

They are back…..

They are back! Wonder who? The Worman’s!  They are back their prodigious smiles that never seem to need time off and can lift the worse case of blues; with their bag of tricks (new ones included) and their humongous bubbles that makes the grimmest soul become a child again. They came to us a little over two years ago and disproved once for all the adage that says; rarely is love instant. With Alan and Em you fall in love in the blink of an eye.

When they were here last they taught us, and me personally many lessons, the most important one being to trust human nature implicitly. With them we rediscovered a new vocabulary that we often seem to forget:joy, delight, fun, gaiety, laughter, giggles and so much more. When they enter your lives they bring in sunshine and when they leave they do not take it away. They leave you enough to last till they pop back again to replenish your sagging batteries. So for the past week we have been imbibing the Worman magic, knowing that they will soon leave and that we need to fill up the tanks!

Alan and Em are two big kids who somehow refuse to grow up as they see to know that adulthood brings too many hassles, most of them self created. When they are around we all become kids!

For the past and the next week Alan and Em are thrilling the children with stories spiced with strange gadgets like a remote controlled mouse or a rubber chicken, with magic tricks that leave even adults open-mouthed and with bubbles that are larger than you could ever imagine. The centres where they land are filled with cried of joy and loud laughter. As long as they are there all negativity vanishes.

Em and Alan are also the most generous souls that I have ever met and their brand of generosity is uplifting and humbling.

Knowing them has not only been been an honour and privilege but has in many ways made me a better person. I for one know that my last words to them before they leave will be : When are you coning back?

Some uplifting stats and some disturbing musings

Sometimes one is asked to provide statistics to show what we are up to. At times it is donors who want to know but most of the times it is some government agency or the other who demands facts and figures. I guess there is comfort in numbers. Anyway we were asked to provide numbers recently and so an exercise of assessing numbers of students, boy/girl ratio, social profile etc was undertaken. We also decided to find out how many students had cleared their XIIth Boards with the help of project why and how many of them had topped their respective schools. Our first batch of class XII was in 2005. Since then 175 students have cleared their Boards and 13 were toppers in their school. One of our students got 99% in maths! Some may say that 175 kids is not great shakes. But to us it is a number to be proud of, more so because many of these kids were not doing great when they came to us and some were even failures. That they could overcome their failings is in itself a huge achievement. Some of our children even got awards for their scholastic performance and that is certainly something to be proud of. According to their teacher, the class of 2013 is set to bring in more laurels.

That was the uplifting part, now let us get to the disturbing one. These days I rarely get the chance of interacting with all the staff. This is because of my decision of slowly withdrawing from the day-to-day running of the project as the mantle has to be passed on, but maybe I should review the decision. Anyway, quite perchance I spent some time with Naresh, our stellar senior secondary teacher, who has  ensured that every child cleared the dreaded Board Examinations . The conversation began with my asking him how things were after the rather radical changes in the education system. I refer to the introduction of the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation system and the optional class X. What he told me made my blood run cold. Apparently the new system is nothing short of a disaster in Government run schools. Whereas private schools have evolved their own assessment system, the State run schools have simply taken the easy way out. Prior to the introduction if the CCE, it is was difficult for s child to remain in school after class VI, as she/he needed to perform to be eligible for the next class. Now with the new no fail policy and with a little help from the teacher you can go all the way to class X and even get a certificate without much knowledge. Let me elucidate with a couple of examples. R dropped out of school in class VI.  He was a poor student and unable to keep up. Come the CCE, he got readmitted in class IX after four years. The readmission was done after paying the teacher the sum of 10K rupees. As it is the teacher who marks all papers R has and will get ‘good’ marks and even pass his Xth though he can barely read! There is another student like R. His claim to success is that he washes the teacher’s car.

Some Government school kids are bright and would like to opt for the State class X Board Examination  but they are vehemently discouraged by their teachers. I had written a piece on education which talked about the quality of teachers. The new system seems tailor made for them as it requires very little work. Would you believe me if I told you that in a secondary school in the neighborhood, children who make it to class XI are urged to join project why as the teachers admit their incapacity to teach mathematics. The reality is that without tuition no one can make it, and tuition is expensive, project why however is free!

But it does end here. The Government has instituted a cash reward for teachers whose pupils get 90% or more in their XIIth. Many of our kids have done so and the teachers who did nothing have accepted the kudos and the cash reward. In the case of V who had 90% in many subjects the reward story is unbelievable. Teachers came to his home very early in the morning and told him to accompany them to a function held quite far from his home. He barely got time to brush his teeth. The ceremony was held, the rewards pocketed and V was left like to find way home on his own. Thank heavens he had the sagacity of bringing 50 Rs with him!

The new education changes have widened the gap between the rich and the poor. It is nothing less than shameful and should be condemned in the loudest way possible.

Of laws, ordinances,programmes and more

Last week the Government promulgated a new Ordinance on sexual assault. This was done in the wake of the recent brutal rape of a young girl and the subsequent report of the Verma Committee. The said Ordinance was passed hurriedly in spite of objections from women’s groups. One wonders why the Government did not wait for the impeding parliament session that could have discussed the recommendations of the report in toto. Some eminent jurists have noted that the expeditious drafting of the said ordinance makes it weak and open to misinterpretation by clever defence lawyers. Many feel that this ordinance has short changed women and blunted the teeth of the Verma Committee recommendations.

However this post is not meant to be an apologia for the report or the ordinance. It is meant to highlight the way laws, ordinances and programmes are implemented in our country. As an eminent jurist recently said on television in a debate on the new ordinance on sexual assault: it is useless to put a better engine on a car with flat tyres. No law, however perfect can be properly implemented unless those who are meant to put it into effect are up to the mark: the police and the judicial system. You can cry out ad infinitum for more fast track courts but unless you have sufficient judges and courtrooms it is all in vain. You can set out the most humane protocol for rape victims at police station, it will never see the light of day unless you are able to change the cops mindsets. We still have law enforcers who refsue to register an FIR in the case of a six month baby who was sexually assaulted, their first reaction being that: the injury to the girl’s private part was caused by a rat bite. And how can you trust a police force that stand mute why a kangaroo court delivers a ludicrous punishment to a sexual assaulter. What happens to the laws.

I am also surprised at the fact that the media which normally at the front of all debates for change are still using the terms ‘eve teasing’ and ‘outrage to modesty’ when these are meant to have been banned by the proposed ordinance!

We have the best Constitution but are our constitutional right truly guaranteed? Not quite as we all know! We have a plethora of laudable and empowering rights for each and every section of society; a profusion of laws which maybe antiquated but still work if properly implemented, an abundance of social programmes that can and should have transformed our society till now. One of the schemes I have oft quoted is the ICDS (Intergrated Child Development Scheme), heralded with great fanfare in 1975. At it worked as envisaged then every Indian under the age of 38, irrespective of her/his caste, creed, economic status etc would have been well nourished, fully immunized and got pre school education. I do not think I need say anything on the issue but simply once again reiterate the shocking fact that one child dies every 3.5 minute of malnutrition.

The exampled are abundant. Let us take the debate of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000. It has a lot of positive in it as children can be reformed but that necessitates well run reform homed with a humane approach, counsellors, therapists etc. The state of the reform homes in India is shocking to say the least. Even this morning a news item highlighted the plight of a child who was repeatedly sexually assaulted in the very home meant to care for him. I so wish we started finding our voices to counter these atrocities meted to innocent souls. But we remain mute. It is not our child that is silently suffering inside the dark walls of such homes.

Simply google for social welfare schemes in India. You will find a surfeit of schemes for one and all with fancy acronyms. If these worked then everyone from women, to children, to tribals, to the disabled  and so one should be thriving. That is not the case at all.

More laws, or more schemes or more ordinances will change nothing unless mindsets change in those who have the responsibility of implementing them, Nothing will change unless those in charge stop looking at these as ways to line their already heavy pockets.

So whether the new ordinance has teeth or not is secondary. It is time for reforms in the law enforcement agencies. It is time everyone found the conscience it has so conveniently mislaid.

Where has all the music gone

In free India an all girl’s rock band receives a fatwa from the Grand Mufti of Kashmir stating that  music is bad for the society and women must be under a veil at all times. The Mufti  goes on to say that he urges women in the country to wear the veil at all times and states that women performing in public is the reason for increasing number of sexual assaults. So one cleric urges us to make brothers out of potential rapists to save ourselves, and the other goes on step further by urging us to wear a veil at all time. The police on the other hand suggested we go straight home from school, college, work or whatever activity we pursue. Why not just issue a diktat that says that all women from 9 to 90 should just stay at home to and hence solve all sexual assaults once for all. Somehow the fact that we live in a democracy and have rights enshrined and guaranteed by the Constitution seems to be forgotten.

Sadly the bold brave girls of Kashmir have decided to call it quits: they have decided to quit singing and music. My heart goes out to them. Young school girls with a love for music and loads of talent. Something to applaud and be proud of not be crushed by inane and incomprehensible logic. What harm can little girls do. Once again bigots have hijacked all our constitutional rights. I was all choked up whenI heard the little teenagers say on TV that they had disbanded their band because the Grand Mufti had ordained that music was ‘haram’ and against Islam. Like all children they submitted to the adult, as they always do. Is that not that tragedy of children in India. But try to imagine what was going on in their mind. Here were three young girls blessed with talent and a passion for music, who must have worked and practiced so hard to reach the competition they participated in, heard the applause and appreciation and then the thrill of winning. How happy they must have been when they shared their joy with their friends on the social networks. And then imagine their horror when abusive messages started pouring in and then a few days later the dikta of the Grand Mufti. And the crashing of all their dreams and their little voices shut for ever. As one of the girls poignantly said: I will now sing for myself. Children are meant to sing, dance and express themselves in every way possible. They should be heard, applauded and encouraged by one and all. What right does any one have to curb their creativity in the name of religion, creed or whatever else they can come up with. And above all these so called protectors of faith are no one to take away anyone’s constitutional rights. What is shocking is to see the State pander again and again to such people and groups. An Iranian girl’s band performing in Delhi was shocked by the fatwa on the Kashmiri band. Wonder what the Grand Mufti would have to say.

In recent days we have see some disturbing occurrences have taken place across the country. There was of course the ban of Kamal Hasan’s film and the FIR against an eminent sociologist. But that is not all. Recently a young painter was forced to take down some of his paintings from an exhibition because it had ‘offended’ one visitor. What is really disturbing is that the police who normally take forever to register cases, seemed to be on call. Last week in the capital another exhibition became the target of violence. Thankfully the exhibition is still on.

All this is frightening to say the least. Tomorrow someone can walk into a book shop and object to the presence of a book on the shelf and go to the police and object! Where is our freedom of speech. Can we allow it to be hijacked by zealots and so called guardians of morality. We need to raise our voices and counter this dangerous trend.

Affirmative Action

Life is full of synchronicity. Three totally unrelated events occurred almost simultaneously. Whilst reading Chetan Bhagat’s What Young India Wants  I stumbled upon his take on the 3 traits that are responsible for all that is wrong in our country. Servility that is taught at school, numbness to injustice that comes from our environment and divisiveness that sadly comes from our home. The second event was a news item that flashed on the TV screen. In UP, that was till recently rule by a Dalit woman, children refused to eat their midday meal because it is cooked by a Dalit. And the third unrelated event was a list of the staff of the women centre stating their social profile. I must admit that I had never till date asked for such information as to me it is totally irrelevant, but was recently asked for a project profile that needed to be submitted to the authorities and where we needed to highlight our ‘achievements’. I must say that I was thrilled to see that ALL the staff of the women from top to bottom centre belonged to what goes as Reserved categories (SC, ST, OBC etc).

I must admit that I have always felt uncomfortable with any reservation policy. To me anything that divides society is not only wrong but can only spell disaster. I think recent history has proved that. It is true that affirmative action has been a way to deal with discrimination. India chose this way to ‘help’ its oppressed castes by establishing a system of quotas. This was meant to last a decade post independence, a time by which if all had gone as envisaged everyone would have been on a level playing field. But over six decades down the line this system continues and far from acting as a leveler, has in fact been the most divisive factor. Today, reservationsin some states has gone way above 50%, thereby defeating the very purpose it was created for. Today it has become a political a great political tool. Today the situation is such that a third generation learner having been to the best educational institutions can avail of the quota system while the poor son of a illiterate high caste individual has to compete with the creme de la creme. I remember the argument I once had with the daughter of a senior official who was a Oxford alumni and my class fellow, when she applied for the civil services examination on a quota as her father belonged to a backward community. I personally felt that she had the competence to succeed in an open examination and could not understand why she preferred to be ‘branded’. To me the success of any affirmative action policy should be to ensure that after a given time,      every one should be able to compete equally.

Apologies for this digression. To come back to the 3 events, it is sad, that even after 60+ years of Independence, caste remains such a divisive factor. The children who refused to eat a meal cooked by a Dalit are the product of the divisiveness Chetan Bhagat’s mentions, one that is taught in the homes and as long as this continues, no affirmative action or reservation policy is going to fulfill its purpose. What is needed is to have an inclusive approach based on talent and aptitude. Give people a chance to prove themselves and believe me they will surprise you. Give all the support that is needed at the starting block: schools. Extra classes, extra nutrition, extra everything to ensure that the underprivileged child catches up with her peers and competes on an equal footing. Sadly that is not the case at all.

In the case of the children refusing to eat the food made by a Dalit, the fault lies with the families where one learns about differences, about those who are not good as ‘us’. Children’s minds are impressionable.  I remember once when I was quite young hearing my father tell my mother how Japan (I think it was Japan) had voted against India in some UN meet. Though the conversations was not meant for me, I recorded the fact and stop talking to two of my class mates who were Japanese. I would have carried on, had not things been set right by my mom when at my next birthday, I told her that I was not inviting  Yoko and her sister. She was quite surprised and asked me why. On hearing the reason she laughed and set matters right. It is time we stopped this.

When we decided to set up our women centre, we chose the best person for the job. Quite frankly his cate or creed was of no consequence. I was looking for someone I could trust, someone who was sensitive to the needs of the people we worked with, someone who was hard working and so on. Over the years, from the time we decided to employ staff from within the community, these have been the criteria we look for. Never did it cross our mind to find out social profiles. Today it is with great pride that I look at my incredible team. That they belonged to what is know as reserved categories vindicates my stand. What we need is to provide an even playing field and then sit back and watch. This is the kind of Affirmative Action that is needed to change India.