Making memories

One of the reasons I decided to write Dear Popples was because I felt the need to ‘make memories‘ for my darling Popples. I wanted him to know about his early years however difficult and dark they were, and also to know how many people loved him and stood by him. Now he is a bog boy and does not need Maam’ji to craft him memories. He is busy making his own. Memories and their importance as well as there fugacious nature came to my mind today as I stumbled upon a quote that stated: Once you’re dead, no one else will remember your memories. If you take a moment and think about these innocuous words, you will realise how many of our memories die with us. So maybe, on our bucket list we need to give some attention to memories that we feel need to be shared by our loved ones or by others if we so wish. Not everyone is a writer or has the time to sift through boxes and boxes of yellowed pictures and either scan and caption them or write something at the back for our kids to read when we are gone. This is more for people my age who were kids and young ones in times where digital photography did not exist.

Many months or maybe even longer ago I began to write Dear Popples II – the Project Why Story – because I felt that so much of its trials and tribulations – particularly in early times – were inside my head that were I not to put them on paper, they would die with me, and some precious and unique moments would be lost forever. So I did begin to write and must have written over 100 pages before my life stopped when I heard about my husband’s cancer. I never found the right moment to pick up the story again till today when I read this quote and remembered the half written story. Serendipity one could say. Anyway I hope to be able to pick up the threads and remove the cobwebs from my tired brain to resume from the point I left.

After that is done, maybe I will think of the personal memories I would want my children to have after I am gone and write another book. One more item on the bucket list: making memories. Making here does not mean inventing them, but simply giving them form and a vehicle that would transcend my demise.

Saturday musings

Saturday is my version of Temple Run. I dutifully visit three temples. The first is the Bhairon Temple in front of the Kalkaji bus depot; the second is the Shani Temple in Govindpuri and the third is Mataji’s temple in Giri Nagar. Normally if we do not leave on time, we run late and into crowds. This morning as soon as we hit the main road from our colony road I knew something was amiss. A police picket greeted us at the end of our colony road and as we drove on the main road heading to the temple, we saw men in uniforms of all shades and hue and also armed in all sizes. The road looked eerie and it took me a few seconds to realise that the sidewalks had been cleared of all hawkers, beggars and were squeaky clean. You guessed right: a VIP was expected. He would be zipping through this part of the city to attend a meeting of sorts. Even the beggars who sleep under the over bridge and who normally are waking up at this time, some brushing their teeth, others cooking the daily meal were absent. It was after a long time that no smiling kid came to seek a few coins. They too had been hidden away. This part of the city was looking unreal.

The roads were empty and we zipped through and reached the Temple which was also unrecognisable from outside. No car, bikes, scooters, three wheelers, buses were parked on the road side as they normally are on a Saturday morning and the Temple was also less crowded. There were no flower and other offering vendors at the gate and no beggars with their recipient waiting for their morning hooch.   Bhairav is a God who is propitiated with whisky, beer, and any sort of alcohol and the ‘prashad’ is gathered in huge vats and is a heady cocktail of all sort of alcohols that is given to the beggars aligned outside. Today no beggar will get his morning shot. No flower lady will make earn her mornings share’s people tend to come to temples in the morning and hawkers too will have to forgo part of their daily earnings.

I wonder why the city authorities felt the need to clean and spruce up the route the PM would be taking to get to his destination. Was the city as it is everyday, buzzing with activity and day-to-day chores too dirty for the VIP to see. Would it not have been better for him to see how his people live, the ones who voted him in and reposed their faith in him. Maybe if he had a glimpse of the filth and the squalor, if that were possible in a zipping BMW, then he may have done something more permanent than this artificial sanitisation that happens too often. The one thing it does prove is that the very people who are supposed to ensure that civic amenities work are themselves aware of the fact that much remains to be done, then why not of it.

In yore times rulers use to visit their fiefdoms incognito, dressed in rags if need be, to feel the pulse of the ones they ruled. I guess the press and media have now become the eyes and ears of the rulers, though they sometimes present a warped view. One also wonders whether these rulers actually read and view things or a given a sanitised and cropped version of it.

I admire José Alberto “Pepe” Mujica Cordano the present President of Uruguay who lives on an austere farm and donates 90% of his salary to benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs, yes the very people who were so carefully hidden today! Pepe is known as the poorest President in the world.  A person worthy of our admiration. He has no palace, no motorcade and waits in queues just like his fellow countrymen. It is time our politicians learnt a few lessons.

I still feel galled at the number of police personal detailed for any VIP movement though I guess it is par to the course in our day and age, but to feel the need to dislodge people who earn their living even in disturbing ways like begging is simply unacceptable. It is part of what we are of have become courtesy the political choices we have made over the years. By ‘hiding’ children who beg, you do not solve the problem. And if it is something you have accepted as inevitable then why ‘hide’ them. On the other hand if it something you find disturbing then it is time everyone saw it and maybe did something to put an end to such abhorrent practises.

If each time a VIP has to cross the city to attend some function or the other, the whole city has to be ‘made’ momentarily presentable, then why not do to once for all in a humane and sensitive manner. Everyone on the sidewalks you so mercilessly expurgated is there for a economic purpose, be it the beggar who earns a living or the water cart man who quenches the thirst of passersby or the snack cart that makes waiting for the bus easier, or even the cobbler who saves you when your shoe gives up en route . They are all small entrepreneurs with a keen market sense as they meet the demands of the market. Regularise them but do not cast them away as they not only fulfil our needs but feed their families. They are no danger to the VIP that whizzes by and are very much a part of the electorate that voted him in.

Needless to say, everyone was back in place as soon as the caravan passed. Good for them. I hope they made up for the lost time.

We are no one’s Trojan horse

NGOs are in the news and for all the wrong reasons. A recent article entitled It Is The Pot Calling The Kettle Black examines the two sides of the coin quite pertinently. The author states: not all NGOs are neo-liberal Trojan horses furthering a subversive agenda, while the number of actual good Samaritans working for change is also not particularly very high. I guess we belong to the later category. However what is rather disturbing is the last lines of the article that state: The establishment may be over-exerting itself to hijack the mojo of the well-meaning NGOs, but it is for the latter to fight their case. So the onus falls on us to defend our work, integrity and honesty. One has to prove that one is not furthering a subversive agenda and then go on to show that one is well meaning. Tough task in a space where each time you mutter the word NGO, you are looked at suspiciously even if it is the almost imperceptible raise of an eyebrow. So how does one go about convincing one and all that we are ‘well meaning’! Let us take it from the top.

The little girl in the blue cap leading her class in the picture above is the same one in the picture on the left in her yellow top. That is how much we have grown. Kiran, as that is what she is named and rightfully so as she is a ray of sunshine, is now in class VIII in a public school. That her life would have been different had we not landed in her home in the year 2000 when she was born, she most likely would have gone to the local government school but as her aunt Rani joined the project team as a teenager and now leads it with aplomb and confidence, she also set about changing the lives of her family members and the one thing she did was ensure that all the children of the family go to a good school. I do not know what Kiran will become as the world is wide open for her, all I know is that she will fulfil her dreams. We are in the business of fulfilling dreams of children who did not dare to dream. One of our bye lines was: where children dare to dream. If it is subversive to fulfil dreams, then we are subversive and fulfilling dreams is our agenda, an agenda we do not hide but flaunt with pride.

So what dreams have we fulfilled? A young gypsy lad that now walks the ramps for the designers in Paris. I guess that is our show stopper and his God given good looks were a head start, but in the past 14 years we have given over 1000 children the opportunity to finish school and aspire to better morrows. This may seem paltry to some but believe me if they had been left on their own, they would have most certainly dropped out. Let me tell you why. In Government schools in Delhi there is practically no teaching. This is due to many reasons: no fail policy till class VIII, overcrowded classes – 120 in some cases,  and 35 minute periods, disinterested teachers who have no fear of losing their jobs,  one the one hand, and illiterate parents who cannot afford private tuition which is essential, cramped rooms where it is a Herculean task to study on the other. Project Why provides them the enabling environment they need to study and fills in the gaps which are enormous. If providing an enabling environment to children is subversive then we are just that.

What is under the scanner is foreign contribution and the famous FCRA! We have one as without it we would be dead and gone. Our donors are not big agencies, Foreign Governments or international foundations. Our donors are small people like us who give small amounts often because they have come and seen what we do or sometimes because they read these blogs and feel that we are real and down to earth and trustworthy. They are of all age and hues and come from all the corner of our planet thanks to the magic of the Internet. They have no hidden agendas but want to help one woman who decided to get up and walk!

I would not have needed an FCRA had my fellow country men found their hearts and dug into their deep pockets. We cost a pittance. Were the amount spent on what is called a normal wedding placed into an account, we could run perennially with the interest. Our annual budget is less than the price of a fancy watch, pen, or such luxury items owned in multiples by many. Sadly donations from India cover less than 10% of our needs so we knock at doors outside our frontiers not by choice but by necessity.

When we got our precious FCRA it was supposed to be for the life of the NGO but I just got an email from a friend and donor who informed me that now our FCRA will come up for renewal next year and henceforth will have to be renewed every five years. I do not know whether we will meet the conditions and also do not know how many renewals I will witness in my lifetime. I remember how long to took for us to get our FCRA specially of you want to do it in a kosher manner.

Another article on the same topic begins with these doomsday words: The Hindu nationalist. The neo-liberal. The grassroots activist. The Leftist. Everybody, it seems, has a reason to hate NGOs! Some have been charged of “de-Hinduising India” whatever that means. Some are accused of hijacking the left agendas and displacing and destroying organised Leftist movements by co-opting intellectual strategists and organisational leaders. And in the present situation when growth has been promised at all costs the Intelligence Bureau report is a welcome one. Add to this a delhi High Court order that observes that most private-run so-called philanthropic organisations do not understand their social responsibilities. 99 percent of the existing NGOs are fraud (sic) and simply moneymaking devices. Only one out of every hundred NGOs serve the purpose they are set up for. Scary! The onus lies on us tiny NGOs to prove that we are the 1% that accepts our responsibilities.

There is more. According to the same article most NGOs are top-heavy, with little connect to the cause or individuals they work with, resulting in very little of the budget actually finding its way to field work. We can most certainly beat this one as we are none of the above. More than 80% of our budget goes to the beneficiary and the only top we have, if any is me and I cost zilch! The rest of the team belongs to the target group we work with.

The task that awaits me is haunting. I hope I can put my best foot forward and overcome all obstacles. So help me God!

No sex please. We are Indians!

On his website, our new health Minister has stated that sex education in schools should be BANNED! This of course made headline news! This is part of his ‘vision’ Document for Delhi schools and is item 5 of section B – Curriculum Development – . It says: So-called “sex education” to be banned. Yoga to be made compulsory. I wonder what so called sex education means. Sex education is Sex education and cannot be called otherwise. It is time we started calling things by their names and not by silly synonym. Before I state my views on the sex bit, and yes I have no problem saying or writing the 3 letters S.E.X. , I was also taken aback by item 8 which defines our new Minister’s, who we must remember was a strong contender for the Chief Minister’s post of Delhi, ‘four pillars of education’ namely: patriotism, health care, social consciousness and spirituality. No comments here! But I much prefer Delors’s Four Pillars namely: Learning to Know; Learning to Do; Learning to Live Together and Learning to Be. This is what we have been trying to follow at Project Why for more than a decade. There are some pertinent suggestions in his vision paper as well as lacunae but maybe I shall write another blog on the issue. Let us get back to the three letters that need to be banned.

First of all, I would like to tell the Minister that sex education is in no way a Kama Sutra position based education or education about sexual activity. Far from that. It is an education that is meant to protect children from being abused and raped within their homes or when they step outside. There is no guarantee that the little girl lying in the safest haven on earth, or so one would like to believe, her mama’s lap, is not likely to be sexually abused by a member of the family or a ‘kind’ neighbour. And should the perpetrator be a family member then in all likelihood, the same lap may turn against her as family honour takes precedence on a child’s pain. These are the values we are taught and as long as they are not rejected, sex education as we understand it, is not only needed but critical. The so called sex education teaches little girls what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch is and should the touch be ‘bad’ then it teaches the child to say NO and go and tell her mother or teacher or anyone the child feels safe with. I would like to know our honourable Minister’s view on this.

Sex education is above all age appropriate and should start as early as possible, specially in a country where tiny children are raped. What is horrifying is that even babies are raped before one can even begin to warn them. The so called sex education would also address young boys before they turn into potential rapists. Statistics talk for better than words so here are some. A woman – and here we should say a female as rape victims range from of a few months of age to 6 decades and plus – is raped every 22 minutes: that is 65 rapes a day! In 2013 ~ 25 000 rape cases were reported and 24 470 were committed by a relative or a neighbour. That is ~98%. In a country where honour stands on the top of the value range, I cannot begin to imagine how many cases went unreported. And even if they are reported as happened in the case of one of our students aged 6 when she was raped by her neighbour, the perpetrator was convicted and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment and now roams free cleared of all stigmas, whilst the victim was branded and the family had to move. You see it is always the girls’ fault. Sex education would address this issue too!

The little girls in the pictures above are all doing what little girls do: one is finishing her ice cream cup, the other is about to open a packet of chips while the one on the left is trying to imitate her brother who loves sitting on this wall. In Delhi today all these little girls are potential sexual abuse victims. The so called sex education teaches them how to protect themselves. I wonder what our Minister has to say to that. The number of unreported cases is alarming: between 70 and 90%. If appropriate sex education is imparted girls will know how to protect themselves. Sex education is about learning to say NO! It is about not going alone with anyone, not being lured by any treat proffered. It is about learning about your body and how it changes. It is about understanding what is age appropriate and what is not. It is about replacing the shame and the ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’ tags with normal ones.

Sex education as activists rightly say is also about instilling essential information about conception and contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. It is the role of parents but also teachers more so in a society where parents often shy of doing so.  Yet today more than ever. sex education is needed as children are turn ally sexually mature faster and subjected to an overdose of sexual information thanks to technology and of course the good old TV that is in almost every home. This abundance of information needs to be put in perspective as early as possible. Not having sex education is a folly. Sex education should not be on any agenda but should be considered an essential element of any sane education curriculum.

Stop playing with their lives

There is a battle raging in our capital city. It concerns the debate between the three year BA course versus the four year one introduced last year. It seems that one is set to revert to the good old 3 year BA course we all passed! One wonders why the controversial four year programme was ever launched. What is worrying is that those who sit in close offices and come up with such drastic changes do not realise that they are playing with young lives where a year can mean a lifetime and a percentile can make all the difference between pursuing your dream or giving it up altogether. It does seem a bit absurd that a mere 1% in a unrelated subject is what it could take to make you a doctor or a vet! I must admit that I have not been following thus polemic as I am more concerned about the percentile in school that can open or a shut a door.

Call is synchronicity or serendipity but I was forwarded a mail by a friend who ‘introduced’ me to the horror of the state run school system when I was a greenhorn and is herself a great educationist with her heart at the right place. This mail is written by the principal of a known public school and addressed to the Board of Secondary Education, the supreme body who decides what the curricula should or should not include. ( I am pasting the letter below my rants for those who would want to get first hand knowledge of how those in power play with the lives of voiceless children.)

The letter is about the sporadic changes that occur in the curriculum and its effects of students and teachers. I was particularly concerned by this sentence: Most disturbing of all these changes is the habit lately in the CBSE to introduce changes in the middle and even late into the academic year. The letter outlines the absurdity of the whole approach that seems to be the bane of our land, where we are always putting the cart before the horse! But here the story is far more perilous because adults re playing with children’s dreams and aspirations. Sitting in the comfort of an air conditioned conference room, men and women whose combined degrees and certificates would fill umpteen walls and whose combined ages would run into centuries, decide the fate of millions of children as different as chalk and cheese: some belong to erudite homes and have been fed books with bottles, others to educated ones and yet others to homes where the only written word is the label on a purchased item. And that is not all, the decisions this hallowed men and women make has to be implemented but teachers as varied as the one who hold several degrees in education from Ivy colleges while others have failed the basic teacher tests conducted in the country. But you do not have to be a rocket scientist to understand the absurdity of introducing changes in the middle or even the end of the academic year, something that you will realise, if you read the letter pasted below, seems to have become the rule rather than the exception. Any change needs to be piloted, fine-tuned, retested and then fully implemented. When you change the curricula you need to first, if not discuss it with stakeholders, train those who will need to teach the changed curricula.

It seems that a ‘novel’ was withdrawn in October 2013 for the exam in March 2014! The most controversial issue seems to be the PSA (not the prostate test) – Problem Solving Assessment and the Open Text Book Assessment! The letter explains these points in a pertinent manner but just the names of these Assessments send chills down my spine when I think of my project why children and their Government school teachers. To change from learning by rote underlined answers that you barely comprehend, I cannot begin to imagine what you would do in an open book exam or a problem solving assignment. I cannot visualise the teachers doing it, let alone the poor kids.

The question one has to ask is whether the curriculum is for every child born in this land or for the chosen few! Another tale of two Indias I guess or a clever way of keeping a large chunk of kids, those born on the wrong side of the divide, away from higher education and plum jobs.

True I would be the first one to hail these changes were they brought about in the right manner: pilots and training the trainees. What would happen though is that most of the trainees would fail!

If you take time to read the letter copied below you will see the absurdity of how curricula are thrown out of a magician’s hat to dazzle god knows who, but are not connected to the reality of the situation on the ground. So you come up with an open book examination option not thinking of the child in a slum who goes to an overcrowded school where teachers wield the rod with impunity and have no time to ‘impart’ knowledge. They problem solving is the use of their voice or their stick. Maybe before thinking of any change at all, those in the air conditioned rooms should have a good look at every nook and corner of education.

But again maybe this is all part of some devious agendas or hidden policies where poverty and illiteracy have a critical role to play.

I would simply urge those in power to STOP PLAYING WITH THE LIVES OF INNOCENT CHILDREN.

Maybe our new Minister will hear this deafening cry!

The Chairman,
Central Board of Secondary Education
Preet Vihar
New Delhi

Dear Mr. Joshi,

 Thank you so much for agreeing to meet me. In this letter to you I would particularly like to bring up some path changing innovations that the CBSE has introduced in the last six years or so that have long been a matter of concern to educators.  Most disturbing of all these changes is the habit lately in the CBSE to introduce changes in the middle and even late into the academic year.

 The CCE is a prime example of a mid year introduction, other examples being the time of introduction of the PSA and the OTBA. Apart from these a) the novel for class xii English Course A was withdrawn in Oct of 2013 for the exam to be taken in March 2014. b) the examination specification for present class x English Course – A paper has been changed in June 2014 for the exam to be held in march 2015. c) the text book for Functional English  for examination 2015 is yet to come out.

 I think it is important to say at the outset that the CCE, Problem Solving Assessment and the Open Text Book Assessment are excellent ideas in themselves; it is the modality of introduction, understanding and grading of the two that is being raised for discussion here.

 Below point wise are areas in the PSA that are controversial and need to be immediately addressed.

 A.1. In the normal practice a curriculum is announced at least a year, if not two, before the commencement of the session. Alterations to the curriculum are not done in the middle of the implementation of the curriculum. 

The Problem Solving Assessment (PSA) was announced by the CBSE for classes IX & XI in August and was implemented in January, 2013 of the academic year 2012-13. The introduction of Problem Solving assessment was done after the curriculum was announced in the middle of the session in August of 2012.

A.2 Even though the paper was made up of three parts Language Conventions, Quantitative reasoning and Qualitative reasoning, marks were given to students in four subjects, English / Hindi, 
Science, Mathematics and Social Science. There apparently seems to be little logical or scientific basis for this.

 A.3. A single score was awarded for PSA and schools were instructed through your various circular (latest dated  3rd Feb 2014)  to replace the FA4 scores  with the PSA score. As you know Formative 
assessment includes a variety of evaluation methods such as unit tests, quizzes, debates, assignments, projects etc. These various points and methods of assessment, which is the hallmark of CCE, attempt to evaluate students holistically and continually. The PSA being a single examination with 60 questions can in no way be a meaningful substitute for the FA4. PSA is neither tuned to FA nor academically or logically can be tuned to the same, as the cognitive and decision-making skills required for them are more relevant to Summative assessment. Inclusion of PSA as a substitute to the FA4 in class 9 is basically against the core philosophy of the CCE.

 A.4 The decision to carry over the marks of the performance of class IX in PSA to class X is unscientific. In terms of space, learning experiences, the situations are entirely different and super imposing the same has no logical basis. The performance profile of the students in class 
10 will be totally different if taken again. Thus repeating marks obtained in class IX in class X lacks a sense of relevance, proportionality and context.

 A.5.The questions on Quantitative reasoning in the PSA paper have to be answered even by those students who are differentially abled and have been given exemption from mathematics. There is neither exemption nor any alternative for them. Thus, they are put into an unfair assessment. The injustice is doubled by the fact that the same marks are repeated over two years in their report card. This decision of CBSE puts back reforms for inclusion, done to facilitate these students, by over a 

 A.6. Any change in curriculum or assessment patterns are implemented only after the stakeholders in the system are briefed adequately and trained fully so that the spirit of such a change is meaningful and effective. Introduction of changes without training of the teachers affects a generation of students. In the introduction of PSA, since the schools were not informed early enough the teachers were not appropriately trained .  

 A.7.The curriculum has three important components – content, pedagogy and assessment. It is a holistic domain and any piecemeal alternations in one without addressing the other parts leads to confusion. The introduction of PSA called for appropriate pedagogical interventions in the classroom so that the shift in areas of assessment could be internalized. This was especially relevant since both teachers and students are conditioned with years of content-based assessment. In this case, neither teachers nor students were exposed to, nor given adequate resources, nor time and wherewithal to understand or appreciate the introduction of PSA.

 A.8. PSA calls for relevant analytical and critical thinking skills. The solutions to a given problem have to be uniform, credible, valid and reliable. It should not lead to answers which could be based on perceptions and which would not be considered reliable. Many questions in the PSA paper given in early 2013, and whose marks figure in the report card of 2014 batch of class x, can have multiple answers thereby challenging the validity and reliability of the paper.

 A.9. The whole edifice of the PSA appears to have been designed keeping the students of urban and high profile schools, where students have a wider exposure to interdisciplinary skills. Thus it creates an in built disparity between urban and rural children.

We strongly believe that the PSA cannot be a substitute to FA4, which must be conducted separately in both classes. The PSA exam may be conducted additionally and the score may be recorded in the CCE report card as PSA instead of the current practice of correlating the score with the various subjects.  Students of class x (2014) cannot be given grades in subjects when they haven’t been tested for the same. They cannot be tested for one thing and given grades for something else. They cannot be given grades that are not a reflection of their ability in that subject.The Board should defer continuation of PSA until such time there is clarity, better awareness, appropriate pedagogy in place, teachers/schools are in a position to prepare their students to meet the newer challenges and the needs of the differentially abled have been taken into consideration in the scheme of examinations with regard to PSA.

Given below are some of our observations regarding OTBA

 B. 1. In a similar manner, the CBSE announced, mid-term that students of classes ix and xi will be required to take an Open Text Book Assessment. The examination was to be a case study, which would replace 20 marks of each subject paper. This has subsequently been reduced to 10 marks. Since then the CBSE has  sent out case studies for all four subjects for class ix and for selected         subjects in class xi. Schools have been asked to print and give them to the children both before for study and again during the examination.

 B.2. Please refer to your circular of 31st May 2013 on the OTBA. The circular claims that the OTBA will have questions based on higher order thinking skills, while in actuality it is just another comprehension paper.

B.3. 10 marks of all main subjects have been replaced with the OTBA score.  Students are now required to study the OTBA passages given. No part of the existing syllabus has been reduced to accommodate this extra work.

B.4. Extra time has been given for the OTB so that the duration of the examination now stands at 3.5-4 hours.  Children who are differently abled usually get an hour of extra time. Consequently the time duration of children with special needs to complete a paper will be approximately 5 hours. This as you will agree is not a desirable situation.

C.1. Under the CCE a student is allowed to transfer points that he/she has got to another subject where she/he would like an improvement. The CBSE requirement to transfer points accrued in non-scholastic areas to scholastic areas is a matter of concern. While it is laudable that CBSE would like to give the co-scholastic areas greater importance, the transfer of points accrued under non scholastic to marks in scholastic lacks validity and reliability and has led to lowering of the high standards set by the CBSE.

 I would be grateful sir, if you could address the points raised in a manner so as to bring relief to not just children of this country but also to the confused teaching community.

Up for adoption

up for adoption
She is up for adoption! But who is she you ask and rightly so. She is a blend of the old woman who lived in a shoe and Mother Courage. You remember the nursery rhyme that says: 
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do!

I guess you  also remember Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children . I somewhat get reminded of it at my darkest moments with visions of pulling a cart with not much left and in happier moments I am the old woman living in a shoe with all my project why children. You guessed right: the one up for adoption is me:)

Almost a decade and a half ago I moved from the comfort of my home to the proverbial old woman’s shoe, that in my case went from a red plastic stool on the roadside, to a small table in a mud hut adjacent to a slum pig slaughtering house; to a bench in a patch of dirt, to a mat under a tree, and finally to a table in a third floor room with a tin roof. With every move there were more children till we reached a century and now a thousand or so. Force Majeure made me have to physically leave my shoe, but I carry all of them in my heart and know that I carry their fragile dreams too.

For the past decade I have been aware of the fact that just like the little Prince and his Rose, I am responsible for all these little souls and unlike the Little prince who simply has to give up his body to reach his Rose, when I give up mine, the precious dreams will be orphaned unless I secure their moorings against all storms.

I can see with utmost honesty that I have tried many options but each one failed, some because they did not make good business sense, as even dreams require money to be fulfilled. The one option that made good business sense, namely Planet Why, did not find any takers for the seed money. The amount required had too many zeroes attached to it!

The past year has been difficult. Almost exactly a year ago my life stopped for an intense moment. My husband had cancer! For a few seconds I felt life ebbing out me and a sense of utter loss. But in that nano instant I knew that only I could set the tone for the days to come and if I was to save everything dear to me, I had to keep my chin up even if I was breaking inside. I did and one year down the line the husband is back on his feet and everyone except me seem to have forgotten where we came from. Only I live with the constant fear of the crab crawling back into our lives.

During this year that I had to place in parenthesises, I had a lot of time to think of all the not so nice things that sat on my bucket list, as the illness of your partner highlights your own vulnerability. The only image that haunted me was that of my project why children and team. The existence of this vibrant project was tenuous and depended on the now tired shoulders of a woman whose spirit was on the wane.

I know I will not give up. I never do! But sometimes I really get mad and frustrated when people who have deep pockets are willing to throw their money on good looking projects that will win them awards and media kudos but will not change anything on the ground and will not listen to reason as they always know better.

I wish someone took pity on me and reached out to us. I really am up for adoption but come with my bunch of kids in a shoe or in cart depending on the mood I am in.

the buffalo and the jackfruit

The buffalo and the jackfruit. Sounds like a Panchatantra tale or a La Fontaine fable. Not quite. One could call it a tale of a fable but not of yore times but of India today! In February the entire police force of a district of biggest State in India went into a tizzy. The reason: seven buffaloes belonging to a political bigwig were apparently missing. Within minutes of the theft being reported, the whole police hierarchy sprung into action. Even sniffer dogs joined the search. The more the merrier! The buffaloes were found seven months later.

Yesterday or is it the day before it was the turn of two jackfruits were ‘stolen’ from the Delhi residence of a Member of Parliament. As soon as the call was received, a police posse with a team of the finger print bureau arrived in a jiffy. It aspired that two jackfruits were missing from the jackfruit tree. There were nine at night and seven in the morning. I guess the politician counts his fruit every night. Unlike buffaloes, jackfruit can be chipped and eaten in no time and probably have turned into poop by now. No one would keep them rotting for the cops to find and anyway being jackfruit season how on earth can you identify one from another. I wonder how the police will solve this one. They are waiting for forensic results and the poor staff must be under the scanner.

The two stories made headline news of course. Oh darling this is India! And the jackfruit story is nowhere ended. I hope some poor kid is not nabbed so that the case can be closed. As I write these words a police team is on the job.

These stories raise many issues. In a country where so many crimes remain unsolved because of the paucity of police personnel, where a city like Delhi has one cop for 671 citizens, it is absurd that more than ten cops are busy looking for two miserly jackfruit that are surely digested by now. They should just hand the MP two jackfruits and be done with it, but the man is a Shylock and will want his pound of flesh in the form of a culprit to punish I guess. Why did the man just not let this go. the fruits must have been stolen to be eaten by someone who must have been hungry. Now the whole affair has been given a security angle and this is serious matter. But I ask, what about the security of the common man who gets you elected and puts you in a sprawling bungalow in a city when many live in black holes!

This is again a case of two Indias where in one children go missing and the Police refuses to file an FIR and another India where two humble jackpots have all the sleuths on their toes. Sadly this is a reality we have learnt to live with and even accept. I wonder how ‘we’ react at a news item such as this. Smile! Sneer! Or simply move on without a thought. Actually we are the so called educated have turned into tortoises who conveniently slink in our carcasses when we are most needed. That two darned jackfruits should create such a shindy is unacceptable in a country where girls are raped, thousands of children die of malnutrition and millions sleep hungry. It is probably a bunch of kids who scaled the wall of the bereaved MP and stole them. Maybe they were hungry. Maybe they could not bear their mother’s despair, or maybe simply being children they felt like eating JACKFRUIT! I remember sneaking into the neighbour’s house with my cousins to ‘steal’ a mango or two. My nana’s garden had its own mango tree but somehow the forbidden one tasted better.

Is it not time we found her voices and raised our concern over such perry matters. Come to think of it all the salaries of all the men on khaki examining foot and fingerprints are paid with our damn money and if I have no objection in them spending time looking for a rapist or a kidnapper, I certainly am livid when they spend my hard earned money looking for a piece of crap, as those two jackfruits have by nod turned into shit.

And talking of human excreta, I found a delightful story while researching for this blog that should make us sing the praises of the JACKFRUIT! Did you know that the biggest contribution of this underrated fruit is, guess what, to the Indian Railways. It was because of this humble fruit that toilets were introduced on trains in India. This is recorded history. Don’t believe me then click here!

Poo(p) story

For the past week I have been knee deep – figuratively – in poo! It all started when some time back a wannabe philanthropist who landed in my life via the pristine greens of the Delhi Golf Course courtesy the husband, informed me of his desire to bring about what would be called at best a poo revolution. He wanted to build 5* toilets across the land, specially for women. It is true toilets and women have of late been connected for the worst reasons possible: rape, following the horrific rape of two teen age cousins. So every one wants to build loos. I second that whole heartedly and hope that the dream of every home in India having access to a toilet become reality and keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem the more the merrier.

In a brillant Ted Talk, Rose George talks about crap seriously. I urge you find 14 minutes to listen to this talk. The figure are staggering and shocking for the likes of us who take a clean, flushable and modern toilet for granted. More than 40% of the world population defecate in the open. 620 million in India still defecate in the open. And it is not simply a women safety issue, the consequences of this open defecation is mind boggling. 50 known diseases travel in human shit. Open defecation is one of the important contributors to malnutrition, and malnutrition, as my regular followers should know by now, is the cause of 5000 children under 5 dying EVERY DAY. So toilets suddenly acquire a whole new momentousness. In a recent study, UNICEF suggest that open defecation is an important threat to human capital of developing countries and a sanitation programme which includes hand washing can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent. Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India. So talking of poop becomes serious business.

But let us come back to my philanthropist whom I met last week and his vision of toilets. Like many he has good intentions but scant knowledge of the reality on the ground. I was somewhat like that 15 decades ago when I started pwhy but was saved by the intuitive decision of only surrounding myself with people from within the community pwhy worked with. I also saw the good sense of listening to them and quickly and quietly burying my highfalutin ideas! Probably the one sensible decision I took.   Had I gone my way, pwhy would have been dead and buried by now. But let us get back on track. The ‘vision’ that was revealed to me over sips of single malt, was over the top and doomed to fail were it to begin. I listened patiently to the man who told me he had done a study and selected the best ‘model’ and wanted women to have a 5* loo experience. We are of course talking of urban slum and rural women who defecate in the open. The model was the one that had got the first price in a recent competition organised by known philanthropists. I heard him patiently and at the end of it all I thought I would share my lifetime sensible decision with him, hoping he would accept it. I simply asked him if he had even been to an urban slum and talked to actual and potential users. I thought I had exceeded my ‘brief’ but was relieved and excited when he accepted and promptly took down my number. I must admit I though he would never call, but call he did.

Yesterday afternoon, under a blistering sun we drove in a swanky car to our Okhla centre where in spite of it being past school time, the staff and some children were waiting for us. After a quick visit to our centre that was sizzling under its tin roof but where students and teachers including a volunteer from the US were busy learning, I asked my staff to take him for a pooh walk. It meant visiting ‘homes’ and whatever toilet facility existed in the area. David, our very own Boston volunteer, decided to take him to visit one his student’s home. The ‘home’ in question was a sunk in space barely 20sq feet with a tin roof where 6 people lived! There was noway in the world one could place a toilet in this ‘home’, let alone a starred one!

Next stop the communal toilet block built by the Municipal Corporation. When we had begun our work some 8 years back this block was built but locked. We badgered the local politicos and the block was made functional. This block cater to 4  camps or 1500 people. It has about 10 toilet cubicles for mean and 10 for women. At any given time at least 2 to 4 are unusable because of being blocked. There is poop everywhere and the smell is nauseating. Users have to pay 1 to 2 rupees per use. In a large family it makes a substantial amount per month! In the evening and night women feel unsafe as the place is then surrounded by drunks and anyway at 10pm the place is closed. The maintenance is sub contracted and the contract often given by the local politician to one of his sidekicks. He in turn ’employs’ someone who collects the usage money as salary! The place is ‘cleaned’ by water only. When there is no water the place is simply closed!

I need not say more for you to realise that a large number of these 1500 citizens of this city are forced to defecate in the open. One of the favoured place is the railway line you see in the picture. This poop tour that had begun in a somewhat light mood suddenly become another deafening scream and a grim reality check. I found myself in a time warp, and was again standing on a road in the blistering summer of 2000 where Manu let out his heart wrenching cry that seared my soul and changed my life. I was never the same again.

David and the Okhla girls

Seeing the abysmal and unacceptable state of the public toilet located a stone’s throw from my very own centre was a rude wake up call. Had I sunk into such a comfort zone that I had become impervious to the needs of my children? Was it sufficient to gloat over glowing report cards and beaming smiles? I felt very small. Why had I never asked myself how these wonderful children who have made me so proud and brought indescribable joy into my life survived day after day, where they went to the loo at night, where they bathed. The questions are endless and as each one comes into my mind I feel that much smaller. I felt the old Anou come alive again.

I had thought that there would be no more poop tourism. Far from that. The next day another call from the same gentleman and more visits to the loos of Delhi. You can get inured to many things in this land of ours but the state of the toilets in the Khader Resettlement Colony and the Govindpuri slums were horrific and vile. I do not think there are sufficient adjectives to define the experience. In one of the books at Madanpur Khader JJ Resettlement Colony there were three community toilets: the first was locked but the stench was nauseating to say the least, and the reason for it being locked was that the person in charge had gone to lunch. Quite understandable as no one whose sense of smell is alive could eat in that place. The second one was locked and a peek into it showed us that it has been locked for years and completely plundered of every and anything possible. What remained was a carcass!

The last toilet block was in use. It was the pits. Many toilets were clogged, the stench of urine and poop was foul, there was poop all over the place and more where they should be none. In that filth a woman stood in silence with three young children. I do not know how she could bear the stench but I guess humans are tough birds and get used to the worst if it is a matter of survival. I discovered later that she was the wife of the man who had been given the ‘charge’ of maintaining the public conveniences. These toilets were apparently built before the arrival of the resettlement colony inhabitants. Many of these are from the Nehru Place and Alaknanda slums. They were given between 20 and 12 square yards of land upon producing a token that had been distributed in the V.P. Singh regime and paying 7000 Rs. The state of the community loos was such that in spite of the minuscule plot of land, most of the residents built a ‘toilet’ some on the roof that you accede via a precarious staircase and making you wonder how old or disabled people poop. It is also evident that it is only the poorest people who cannot afford to build a toilet that have to visit the communal loos.

It is no wonder that the maintenance is so poor. We met the man in ‘charge’. A tired looking thin man who seemed to carry the burden of the world on his frail shoulders. In seems that the blocks are built on a supposedly and ludicrous sustainable model as the in charge only gets to keep the money collected from usage 1 to 2 rupees. In that he has not only to feed hid family but keep the loos clean. He is given nothing: no broom, no pail, no disinfectant, no floor cleaner, no soap- nothing! Normally it is a jet of water, if water there is, that is meant to do the job. No only that, not all people pay. Some get so violent that the poor man has been beaten more than once. A woman goon even slaps him every night as he refused to pay her a 20 rs a day commission. On a good day he makes 150 rupees.

No wonder the loos are in such a bad shape!

The Govindpuri slums were worse. Two blocks located outside the slums as there is no space inside. The state of the loos was unmentionable and poor Dharmendra had to forego hind lunch and dinner as he was the ‘chosen’ one to go in and take pictures. These slums have five blocks fro A to E and each has an average of 500 homes. @ of 5 people per home it means 2500 persons have access to 2 blocks. Come evenings and no one can venture there as the watering holes are close and the drunks a plenty. Wonder where people go.

The question that comes to mind is what is the solution and that is where one is lost. Giving people toilets does not in anyway ensure that these will be kept cleaned and used in a responsible manner. This has been amply proved by now. So upgrading facilities makes no sense if one does not run aggressive awareness campaigns and hope that the penny drops.

In her Ted Talk, Rose George shares an experiment that worked in villages in India. Two identical plates were place at a short distance: one was filled with good food and the other with human excreta!  People sat around and watched. Soon flies appeared and merely went from one plate to the other, as flies cannot differentiate between poop and food. As the flies executed their dance, people looked mesmerised till the penny dropped. There is crap everywhere and open food carts in proximity so what I may be eating is someone else’s shit! That was a big no no! Toilets were made pronto.

So what is needed is a campaign where one can make people aware of defecating in the open and this can only been done with everyone on board. In a city it means the local biggies, the women, men and children of course but also the goons and drunks! No easy task. Needs to be tried otherwise you could  build the best loos in the world. In no time they would become unusable.

But it needs to be done if we want the 5000 deaths a day to stop.

Education for ALL

One thing that the a appointment of a young, feisty, articulate and gutsy woman as our Education Minister has done is given many the motivation to share their views on how to heal our moribund education system. Almost every day one sees articles, opinions, columns, edits and more with suggestions on how to improve education in India. Recently I read one such article entitled the The educated illiterate! An oxymoron many would say. But not quite and I speak with experience as for the past decade and a half I have successfully run project why which such educated illeterates. But this is not the subject of this post.

The subject I guess would be my adding my two penny worth in the debate. I must admit I am a little disturbed by the content of the articles and even the suggestions emanating from the corridors of power. It seems that every one is ‘hung’ up on higher education, creating new IIMs and IITs, allowing Ivy league and other universities of standing to set up campuses in India. A little bird has also let out that our new Minister is contemplating revising text books.

The article I mention poses a pertinent question and gives the required answer: Does she want more graduates or does she want better skills? If she wants Narendra Modi’s promise to Young India to be fulfilled, she will have to create a regime for apprenticeships and on-the-job training to improve employability. This is something I have been debating for long: the need of introducing skill imparting courses that are in sync with the employment market as early as class VIII. The French model of Bac en alternance is a good one. A child who is not incline towards academics can chose this option where s/he attends school for 3 days and works as an apprentice for the other 3. The jobs one can think of are: tailors, hairdressers, beauticians, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, salespersons in malls and supermarkets, repairing refrigerators, air conditioners etc. Finding teachers would not be a problem if one is willing to overlook formal education. I hope our Minister would.

I also agree with the author when she says that we should increase the number of doctors that graduate each year. I was shocked to learn that whereas 1.5 million engineers graduate a year but only 35,000 doctors do so. So maybe we need more medical colleges than IITs!

But let us get back to my concern. Everyone seems to be talking about higher education but in the present situation higher education of the kind mentioned is only available to the privileged few who have money and intellectual ability. For me education is Education for ALL and in the present situation higher education is a pipe dream for millions and millions of children in India.

To ensure that every child who has the intellectual ability –  you cannot begin to imagine how many do – all state and government run schools should impart quality education akin to the one imparted in Central schools also run by the state government for children of parents employed in government institutions. What is the good for the goose in not for the gander!

Education for ALL means that every child born in this country should be given the enabling environment to aspire to any higher education institution whatever her/his caste, faith, social profile. This is what we do at project why with very limited resources and quite successfully. Rohit came to us when he was 9! In July they will be joining college. No big deal, many would say, but that is not the case at all. Rohit is a student of our Okhla centre, a centre we erected in a reclaimed garbage dump, in an area where the closest school is miles away, parents work long hours and children were easy prey for drug pedlars and thieving gangs. Had we not decided to set up this centre in spite of the initial resentment of the local mafias and borne their slings and arrows, Rohit would have been one of the 90% of children of the area that do not complete high school. He may have become a gang leader, like many boys like him. Yet all it took to ‘save’ him was a handful of committed educated illeterates, 4 bamboos and a blue plastic sheet to make all the difference.

So what do we do under the blue plastic sheet and the 4 bamboos? No rocket science. We just do what all schools should do: create an enabling environment for the child to blossom, teach the curriculum that is not taught in schools as it should, smother the child with love and understanding, believe in her/him and try and find her/his abilities and open the world to her/him with creative activities and contact with persons from different part of the world. No big deal! All you need is a heart.

Rohit may not have made it to an IIM or IIT but he certainly has broken the circle of poverty in which he was born with a little help from his project why friends.

This could be a reality for every child if schools ran as they should. Everyone feels that one of the problems is bad teachers. I disagree with them as all the people who make my Team would qualify as ‘bad’ teachers in normal circumstances. Yet year after year they have ensured that ALL project why children finish school. I am sure that all the so called bad teachers can be turned to ‘good’ teachers if one taught them to see with their hearts. True we need ‘good’ teachers but here again the definition of ‘good’ should not be based on certificate and degrees but on a desire to learn and teach.

I remember having joined the French Department of JNU at the age of 22 as Assistant Professor and having done all my education in French was handed over MA students and given the courses no one else wanted: Medieval Literature and Scientific Translation. Some of my students were older than me and some were very leftist in their thought. I was put to test on the first day when one of them asked me a question he knew I did not know. I smiled and told him that I did not know the answer and would find it by the next time – not an easy task in  BG ( before Google) days! I knew I had passed the test and from that day onwards I never had a problem with my students. I had simply been honest!

To circumvent the bad teacher problem and give kids ‘better teachers’ the author of the article suggest technology. She writes: The finest minds have been working on the dissemination of $30 tablets that can be distributed far and wide if there is a will. Can she succeed where Sibal failed? Tech star Vivek Wadhwa believes accelerating the pace of technology adoption is the only solution because teachers cannot be trained and put into place fast enough. On line curriculum can be created and tablets pre-loaded with instructions and video conferencing capabilities can be rolled out within months. Irani, he believes, should give every child a tablet within a year.

I do not quite agree as what looks good on paper does not always work on the field. My first reaction is more on the negative side but am willing to give it a thought.

What I would like our Minister to do is take some simple measures even of they are not in sync with policies and educationists. I would first of all like to see the pass percentage across the Board raised to 50%, the no fail till class VII policy abolished and free education extended from 14 years to 18. This would make a world of difference to the underprivileged and poor children. Before I explain why let me just inform you that the poorest of the poor children have no other option than the local state run school. When the Right to Education was made law, instead of going for the option of improving the and upgrading existing state run schools, the policy makers came up with the absurd 25% reservation for economically weaker sections in all public schools. I do not when we will free ourselves from the shackles of ‘reservation’, an idea mooted with good intent but hijacked by political parties to suit their wily ends. A government that would do away with reservation in all categories would truly free India. The only reservation that is acceptable is the one for economically weak sections irrespective of their caste, creed etc and that too for one generation. Give weaker children extra support in all ways imaginable in school but allow them to fight their further battles on a level playing ground.

I would like someone to do an audit of the children who have benefited from the EWS category in public schools. They will be surprised to see that there few if any really poor children. This reservation had been hijacked by the middle class who are manipulative and can forge all documents needed to meet the requirements of the reservation. The poor children still attend overcrowded state run schools if at all. Unless these schools are improved education in the true sense will remain a dream for those who aspire to be doctors or engineers. You cannot imagine how many bright little faces promptly answer: doctor when asked what they would like to be. I am sure they would make doctors Hippocrates would be proud of.

Today with the no fail till class VIII policy you have children who can barely read or write after sitting year after year in overcrowded classes. We have had such kids come to us and believe you me, within a year of regular support they make up for all true lost years and even become toppers. The no fail policy may work well in public schools that have their own system of internal evaluation and where teachers are held responsible for the performance of the children in their classes, government school teachers who are paid much better salaries but also have connections in the right places, know that they will not lose their jobs easily. Should there be a complaint – a rare occurrence when most of the parents are literate or at best semi literate – they get away with a transfer or a few days suspension. The no fail policy makes them even more lackadaisical and they do not feel the need to teach. Remember 33% is all it needs. I had one senior secondary school principal tell me that they never teach more than 40% of the syllabus. A nice way of slamming all doors shut for these children. One really needs to review these policies in the light of the actual situation on the field.

Lastly I think it is also time we changed the the 6 to 14 free education policy. Education should be till the end of school and that is 18.

Will any one listen.

The holiday homework saga

Come May and Maam’ji starts dreading the holiday homework saga. It is a biannual epic in numerous acts with two main protagonists: Utpal and his Maam’ji a.k.a me! It has many props: copybooks, charts, all kinds of stationery ware and more. The two yearly performances are unpredictable and can go from dramatic to melodramatic and even tragic. It is a surprise package that the unwilling spectators – people living under my roof – are compelled to witness.

Holiday homework in Indian schools is always voluminous and sometimes quite inane making one wonder how it helps children better themselves. I am often amused at the opening paragraph of holiday homework sheets that extols the ‘virtues’ of holiday homework as something fun while also highlighting the importance of visiting other places. Now you are supposed to do all of it. I wonder if the teachers who plan the homework have actually sat down and done it to see how much time it takes, keeping in mind that the child on vacation and at home is not the compliant kid within the precinct of a school.

I remember one year when Utpal had to make Roman Numeral Charts from I to C with matchsticks. It was a nightmare as even I was not able to do it. We had to dip into the pwhy pool of skills to be able to finally make them. Now holiday home work looks something like this in all subjects: revised chapters X to Y;  prepare worksheets for unit test X; make x number of charts,  x number of models; do x number of experiments; write a page each day; cut newspapers articles; visit x shop and write your experience etc. Tires me even reading it and let me tell you no child under 12 can do it by himself.

This time Utpal stayed in school for a study camp and I was hoping against hope that most of the homework would have been completed in the 5 weeks camp. I even sled his academic in charge who informed me that most of it would be done. So my stress levels were lower till the day he arrived with the homework and lo and behold though he seemed to have done the revision and copy work, all the rest was waiting or me. How could our saga not be enacted in its summer 2014 version and how could my summer be complete without the homework epic.

It turned out harder than ever as this time, Utpal having come home later Agastya was already here! Last year I had been able to use the Agastya handle to push Utpal as he too wanted to be free for Agastya and version 2013 turned out to be a good stress buster for me!

Version 2014 is quite the opposite. The mercury is soaring and the heat is on in more ways than one. My nerves have been ‘on test’ since many months and are on edge. Utpal feels he has earned his holiday after an extra five weeks at school and he is spot on. Yet the homework looms on our head and it is a bataille royale every morning and evening. I have prepared all the material but only Utpal can write what needs to be written.

Over the years I have remarked that Utpal uses the holiday homework to test me and he does believe me. This time as we had to meet his psychiatrist as we are hoping to taper out his medication, I shared this problem with him. He just smiled and told me that this would happen as I was the only constant in his life and he needed to reassert his place in my heart. Children being clever, he had found my Achilles tendon. This would continue till he grew up in his head and felt safe without the need of having recourse to challenging behaviour. Dr G told me to find a strategy and that I could even resort to incentives if that worked. It is only when Utpal feels secure that he will stop.

Dr G went on to explain that every meaningful relationship needs to be put to the test and we constantly do so in life, often without realising it. Come to think of it this is very true and almost surreptitious.

Most of us have several meaningful family relationships whereas Utpal has just one. I will just have to play along.

So this version of the saga will be done as patiently and indulgently as possible and I hope we both survive it with a smile.