Not a fairy tale

Let me begin by telling you a story:
There was a little boy, say 8 year old or even tinier. He lived in a remote village with his family and not a care in the world. He knows he does not have much, but for him it is more than enough as he has his family. One day a man comes to the village and talks at length with his parents. Some time later he is told to pack his bag as he will be leaving with this man for a nicer place, where food will be plenty and he will even have friends his age. Though he does not want to go, he does as he is told because it seems to make his parents happy. The few tears he sheds will be seen by no one. He follows the man quietly and boards a train. Like all little boys the train journey seems exciting. Maybe his parents had made the right decision. 

Fast forward one year later.

It is early morning. The little boy is asleep in spite of his aching back and burnt hands. A  loud voice and then a sharp kick in his ribs. It is time to wake up. The master is angry. In no time he is huddled with many little boys like him painstakingly gluing pieces of glass onto brightly coloured bangles. These bangles are the only colours he and his pals see. It has been eons since he saw daylight. The room where he works from dawn to dusk and where he sleeps are dark and damp. Another working day has begun.

This is not a fairy tale nor a horror story! It is the stark reality of thousands of small children ‘sold’ by their poor parents for a paltry few thousands of rupees and used as cheap labour in bangles and other cottage industries. A handful of them were ‘rescued’ yesterday.

The images that were aired on TV made my blood run cold. These boys were barely older than my grandson. They toil day after day and are not allow to rest, let alone play. The chemicals used cause burns that are barely treated. They live in unhygienic conditions and are barely fed. CCTV cameras are fitted in these salubrious surrounding to keep a check on them. Their spirit has been killed. They have become automatons too scared to break any rule for fear of punishment.

I have not been able to sleep since I saw this report.

In the report it was said that 5000 children are sold every month just in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They are then sent to faraway states to work in horrific sweatshops. This happens across India in cottage industries, brick kilns, incense making units and ever firecracker making ones where accidents occur time and again. Child labour is alive and kicking! And it is not always invisible. Children work in tea stalls and shops. They work in neighbours and even friends homes. The tragedy is that even when we see them we remain mute and frozen.

It is time we asked ourselves why we do so. Is it because we do not want to ‘offend’ said friend or neighbour? Is it because we feel it does not concern us? Is it because we do not want to get involved in legal and such matters? Or is it because these are not our children and can never be so we simply do not care.

But these are children. Children who should be playing and attending school; children who should be laughing. These are children who have no voice and hope that someone will raise theirs. We all applauded Kailash Satyarthi when he received his Nobel Prize for his fight against child labour. For a a few days ‘child labour’ became the flavour of the moment, the talk at page 3 parties when everyone made the appropriate clucks till a new flavour took over.

There are people working relentlessly to help eradicate child labour but they are few and even with the best intentions cannot win this war alone. Each one of us has to take up the cudgels against child labour in our own way. All that is needed is to pick up your cellphone and dial the child help line or the Child Welfare Committee of your area, should you come across a child working. They will do the rest. You need not reveal your name should you wish to keep your ‘reputation’ intact.

Some will want to lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the parents. Come on, are they not the ones who ‘sell’ their children. How many of us have lived in villages and experienced abject poverty, the kind that makes you feed your child chillies so that she drinks enough water to keep her belly full. How many of us have had to pat a hungry child to sleep? If we had done so, we would understand how easy it is to fall prey to the well oiled seduction spiel of the middle men of mafias that handle child labour. Those five thousand rupees that we spend easily on a meal in a restaurant, mean the world to the hungry and probably indebted family. And then there is the promise of a paltry thousand or so every month.

There are laws, but again these are the kind that cannot be implemented without the help of each and everyone of us. Maybe the first thing we should do is stop giving money to children who beg. That would be a first step in the right direction.

Next let us ask ourselves why is there child labour in a country where there are so many adults on the job market. The answer is simple. It is so well exemplified in our constant need to haggle for everything and want everything cheaper. If you do your maths conscientiously you would realise that the price you are quoting cannot cover the cost of the good, if all laws are respected. The minimum wage in India is around 150 Rs a day for 8 hours. The children rescued were paid 1500 rs a month for 12 hours work. That is a meagre 50 rupees a day. And this tiny labour is not only cheap but docile and easily tamed with a few slaps or kicks. It is a win-win situation for the employer.

The law makers have a role to play too. It is pointless to have toothless laws or laws that have large loopholes. Maybe it is time that every thing manufactured bore labels stating that no child labour was employed and it is also time that we accepted to pay a higher price.

And what about the Right to Education. It is certainly not made for the rich and educated who will send their children to school law or no law. It is for those very children who run the risk of falling into the hands of child labour mafias. And I say it again it is the like of us who can help them and rescue them.

I wonder what happens no ‘rescued’ children. Are they truly rescued? How does one deal with the traumas they have suffered? How does one ensure that they go back to their family and are not sold again? How does one ensure that they get an education if it is not too late for them? How does one give them back their usurped childhood.

How does one make sure that they laugh again?

So that they can continue to laugh, run, learn and fulfil their dreams

My bête noire and also my most rewarding challenge is and has been garnering funds for project why. I call it my bête noire because I have or at least had till age 50, found it infra-dig to talk money, let alone solicit for it. So when I was handed over the task of fund raising for project why, and knew that I and only I had to do it, it was a serious challenge. This was not a matter of writing off one of the innumerable loans I have handed out with alacrity. This was to keep project why going. I never knew what a hydra headed monster it would turn out to be and how it would test my very spirit and soul. Over the years I have discovered to my chagrin that it is easier to get donations for tangible projects that show immediate results or to get them for individual cases rather than a multitude of beneficiaries. It has been unbelievably easy to raise funds for let us say a open heart surgery, but raising the same sum to run a class for a month is a herculean task. Project Why works with education in all hues and education is long haul.

Once again I am faced with trying to conjure from my invisible hat, a ‘rabbit’ that would ensure that my children can continue their journey with us till they have grown wings to fly on their own. So I ask myself the question: what is it that I am asking money for. I thought it would be hard to find an answer, but it came to my mind in a brightly lit flash. I am soliciting support so that Munna can continue laughing and little Ashu can continue enjoying his chocolate in the messiest of manners. Munna is a mentally challenged young man who has been with us for almost a decade and who would spend the his days wandering the streets of the slums and become an easy pray to all kinds of predators. And Sneha would roam unsafe and filthy lanes with danger lurking at every corner. Munna and Sneha need to be safe and happy long haul. But that is not all. If Munna did not have the project why family then he too could be one day brutally beaten as was the case yesterday in Calcutta when a handicapped beggar was brutally thrashed. As for Sneha, her coming to project why may ensure that  she gets enrolled in a school and gets a proper education. After all let us not forget, she is just a girl.

But that is not all. I am asking money so that my children can run in green parks and get drenched in sunlight something that never enter their dark and tiny airless homes. So that they can play and compete against each other and of course laugh till they cry. The lives of slum children is not easy. They have to deal with violence in school as well as at home. Playing is not an easy option for them. We try our best to give them back a part of their usurped childhood. Playing is again long haul, is it not? So yes, I beg for money so that my kids can run and play to their hearts delight.

And above all the money I need helps children get a sound education. In Delhi today state run schools are in a poor conditions and in site of promised made with now tiring regularity nothing much changes on the ground. Children pass from class to class with little knowledge. We have students who have spent years on school benches and who can barely read. Parents are not able to afford private tuition and even if they do, it is often for the boys and rarely for the girls. The hours our children spend at project why enable them not only to learn, but also to top their classes and win scholarships and contest. However, learning again is a long term process and how can one possibly leave them in the lurch midway. They keep their side of the deal by presenting me with glowing report cards regularly; then how can I not keep mine by ensuring that our doors remain open.

Then there are dreams. Dreams that need to be fulfilled. Dreams of breaking the cycle of poverty in which most of my kids are born. Dreams to work in a big and brightly lit office and not have to push a vegetable cart in the scorching summer or freezing winter. Dreams of becoming a teacher or a computer engineer. And for those dreams I need to ask for more to be able to run skill imparting classes, computer centres, beautician training courses and even sponsoring singing, dance or art classes. Today many of our kids have fulfilled their aspirations and are working in the very offices they sought. Two of our alumni have opened their own beauty parlour and another has his own dance academy. Project why is about making dreams come true and what I ask is help to do just that!

Right to shelter

The party that ruled India for most of its seven decades as an independent nation, and has ruled this city for the past 15 years, launched its election pitch by announcing a right to shelter for the poor. The  right to shelter however seems to have been enshrined in our Constitution as a right to life as guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution. It seems tragic that even after 68 years of Independence, the right to shelter should be an election issue potent enough to seduce a seizable vote bank. But this is the reality. Delhi has over 4 million of slum dwellers and many live in ‘homes’ like the one in this picture. The conditions in such slums are abysmal to say the least.

Promises of regularisation of slums and of building proper housing for slum dwellers are regurgitated at every election by political parties of all shade and hues. I have been witness to this for the past 15 years. More than two decade ago, I had met Geeta Dewan Verma, an urban planner and author of Slumming India. According to her the root cause of urban slumming lies not in urban poverty but in urban greed. And to feed this ever growing greed, politicians keep the issue of housing for the poor on the back burner and resuscitate it at every election to garner votes. Master plans that earmarked land for the poor are redrafted over and over again to benefit industrialists and the rich and famous. In an interview Verma says: This is happening because of the moral bankruptcy facing our intellectuals, activists and celebrities. They are allowing our cities to die rather than taking steps to the contrary. To cite a few examples, if sprawling farmhouses for a handful are allowed to occupy prime space, then the poor will be forced to huddle in huts, as there is just so much urban land to go around. If fancy malls, used by a few, are allowed to occupy a lot of space, then shops catering to the needs of the majority will come up on the roadside. If only a few industrial houses are given prime sites, then smaller factories needing propinquity to ancillary establishments will come up in residential areas. I guess anyone residing in Delhi will get the picture.

Maybe, and let us continue to be cynical, there is a hidden agenda, just like the one in an education system that stubbornly refuses to hike the pass percentage from a paltry 33% to a respectable 50 so as to keep a large chunk of society illiterate and thus an easily manipulated vote bank. Promising housing to the poor is a good election plank! And when the bulldozers ultimately land up at their doorstep, then all the politicians are conveniently AWOL. I have seen this with own eyes time ands again. Election version 2015 is yet another repeat performance of a jaded script. Every party is wowing the poor. I guess they know that wooing the rich is of no avail.

One party has even come up with a Draft Bill aptly entitled “Delhi Right to Housing, Shelter and Property (rights) to Slum Dwellers Bill 2015.” It will of course be shelved well out of sight once elections are over to be dusted and resold five years down the line. What can one say.

It is difficult for those of us who live in proper homes, to fathom what living in a hole is. If you look at this picture carefully you will realise that you have to crawl into the ‘home’ in this picture and cannot stand once you are in it. And yet many live in such places and hope for the day the promises made to them will turn into reality. They promise makers however are still busy making drafts bills and spouting empty promises. It is time they stopped and began walking the talk. As of now all political parties are projecting  themselves as messiahs for the poor, the very poor that will forgotten once the votes are counted and the new dispensation is in place. The right to shelter is a basic human right. It is time we understood this.

The inspiration for this donation

This year my little grandson decided to forgo all toys for his birthday and to ask all his friends to send the money to Project Why instead. This was conveyed to me some in all seriousness some days back via Skype. Today is his birthday celebration and this morning I got a mail in my inbox informing me that a donation has been made. The message said: our friend Agastya in St. Louis is the inspiration for this donation. Thank you for all you do for the children’s education and betterment in India. I am sure you can imagine the range of emotions that choked me. I was and am still overwhelmed.

Agastya and the Project Why creche have along association. He was just over a year when he began spending a few hours at our creche each and every time he was in Delhi. And as you can see in the picture he loved being there. Now he has moved thousands of miles away, but he has not forgotten his friends.

The toys he will not receive this year will metamorphose into school bags, pencil cases and lunch boxes for his less privileged friends as some of them will be graduating from the creche and going to regular school just like Agastya. I know they will be thrilled and so will he.

Sharing and compassion are values that need to be taught to children at an early age. I am proud and humbled to see that Agastya’s parents have done so. I wish all parents understood how important this is.

I could blot have been who I am, if my parents had to found it necessary to teach me the right values. I will always remain indebted to them and hope to be able to always live to their expectations.

However a grandma is a grandma! Guess who is going to receive a box filled with toys verysoon.

Happy Birthday Agastya and thank you for being such an inspiration.

Nothing has changed

The Tenth Annual Status of Education Report – ASER 2014 is out. It is once again sad reflection on the state of primary education in India. Nothing has really changed. According to the report  about 25 per cent of India’s children in class 8 cannot read text prescribed for class 2, and math remains a serious challenge across classes! What is so terribly tragic is that it is not the fault of the children, but of the system that seems to be frozen in some time warp, a system that seems to have its own cover and dubious agenda. We have been working with children that come from underprivileged and disadvantaged homes and I can tell you with utmost confidence that it takes very little to get them to excel. So to me a class 8 student that cannot read a class 2 text or do a class 2 sum is absolutely shocking. For the past 15 years now our children have been doing well, often topping their class and even school. True there maybe the odd slow learner as is always the case in any society, but the majority of our children across all classes are above average.

The figures of the report are really troubling, more so in these election times when everyone is tom-tomming about grandiose plans for our capital city and for India. How cleverly politicians hide realities is frightening. If one were to believe them, all is hunky dory and we are ready to become a world class nation.

This morning I got a mail from an activist organisation. It was a copy of a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of one of our States bringing to his attention the state of education in a district of his State.

India has prided itself of its ICDS programme that was launched many decades ago to address the problems of children between the ages 0 to 5. One of the tenets of this well conceived programme were the setting up of anganwadis (creches)in every block. The letter I received this morning describes what an anganwadis looks like: The two rooms allotted to the Anganwadi serve the dual purpose of store-room and class-room/child-care centre.  Lot of space in both the rooms was occupied by wheat bags. Both the rooms were dark. There was no electric connection.
Tender-aged children were sitting on a mat made of plastic rags stitched together. The surface of the same was chilling cold. Two small kids were cleaning the room with brooms in their hands in the presence of Anganwadi workers. The utensils which the children had brought for mid-day meal were unclean. One of these kids was having a school bag with him and when the same was opened, bits of a torn book were found. How can children grow and thrive!

There was more. This time about the primary school in the same village. About 200-250 children are enrolled in the two primary schools. There were no boundary wall, no electricity-connection, no chairs, no drinking water-arrangement and no toilet in either of the two primary schools. Cattle could be seen tied down in the vicinity of the school building.

Need I say more? Maybe just a small added bit of first hand information: the anganwadis in the Delhi slums are clones of the one described above.

Instead of all the grandiose blah-blah one is hearing, I would so like one candidate to say that he or she would audit all existing social problems, and there are many and each one is sound if implemented with a modicum of honesty, and ensure that they work. India would be transformed.

I know that each and every child has the potential to grow and succeed. It is for us as a society to give them the enabling environment to do so.

I’m explaining a few things

I often borrow the title of the famous Neruda poem: I’m explaining a few things, to share my thoughts when things need to be explained. Today the need arose because of the comments on FB to my last post. The post was prompted by an incident that happened in Pune, where a child who sold balloons was thrown out of Mc Donald’s simply because he was poor. Never mind that he was accompanied by one who was ‘rich’. I had recalled the visit of some of our kids to a Mc D’s and the fact that they were well treated. The Pune incident simply validated my theory of the 2 Indias. Had our kids been treated like this, I would have brought the roof down!

The comments of course pertained to the wisdom of taking our kids to a such a place. Let me say unequivocally that I am against it for all the reasons stated in the comments and many more. But on the other hand I will not accept that a child be denied entry into any place because of his or her being poor.

Now, if you have read the comments, you will see that the choice was made by some of the teachers in spite of our lovely supporter who would have preferred taking them to a local eatery where they would have got real and not plastic food. It is difficult for many to comprehend this. Let me tell you it took me a long time to do so. I will try and explain it to the best of my ability.

As you may be knowing, all project why staff comes from underprivileged homes. Many of them would have remained in their homes, cleaning other people’s homes had we not landed in their street one fateful day.

Over the years I have seen many of them slowly and sometimes imperceptibly climb the social ladder. It could be seen in their dressing, in their acquiring new gadgets, in their desire to question and so on. It could also be seen in their falling prey to the seduction of commercials on TV that made them feel empowered should they follow them. They became house proud, often so proud that you would have all lights on and two TV sets running even if a room was empty. It was a sense of having reached!

The game spoiler and party pooper was me and my ilk who talked endlessly of saving energy, not using plastic bags, not wasting water, not eating all the foods endorsed on the box by their favourite Bollywood stars. I soon realised that there was almost a sense of bewildered resentment as these were things they had just begun to enjoy, things we had enjoyed before we realised their true value. Mc D’s is one of the most prominent commercial.

Now I am a true tartar when it comes to these matters and no one would dare suggest taking the kids to Mc D’s but when they see a tiny window of opportunity then they jump at it.

I guess it will take time for them to understand things and we need to tread slowly. It takes a generation for a migrant to come to a city and be in a position to acquire things. A generation of hard work, of living in abysmal conditions, of barely surviving before being able to enjoy the fruit of their labour.

They will learn. We just need to give them time.

But once again, whether Mc D is good for you or not, it cannot deny entry to anyone based on his or her social status.

Some Bama

You better be there on 26th. I will call you and tell you the time. It will be such fun. And Maam’ji I will enter the dance competition and will win!” These were the words an excited Utpal told me as he left for boarding school last week after a month at home. He was so looking forward to the fair. Last year he was new in school and did not know about the yearly Republic day fair teeming with rides and yummy food stalls and even a DJ and dance competition. Since January 26th 2014, Utpal had been looking forward to 26 January 2015 when he had hoped that we would come and enjoy the fair with him.

Yesterday evening a very forlorn Utpal informed me on the phone that there would be no fair this year because of ‘some bama’! You see the fair has been cancelled because of the Obama visit. I wonder how a Fun Fair located in a remote place a good 20 km away from the Obama show is a security threat. At best, the rides could have been removed one day later.

So for Utpal and his almost 2000 pals it will be no joy rides, no yummy food, no dance competition that you could win! And win he could have as he attended one whole month of hip hop classes during his holidays and did so diligently come rain or cold. I guess the day scholars will stay at home and the boarders will have to content themselves roaming the empty and silent ground that should have been filled with fun and laughter.

Has the cancellation of such a fair been an over reaction by our security wizards or is there a logical reason. Even my fertile imagination cannot find one. At best it would be the difficulty in carting material across a city that is soon going to be locked down. Anyway, I and other citizens of India cannot go to India Gate for a week because of the Obama visit.

Terrorists strike almost at will. There are countless examples of this. Even the latest Paris attack was done by people who were on a watch list.

Many questions come to mind. The first is how do explain this to children. Is it not a sad reflection on our society and our world that terror has become an integral part of child’s knowledge bank. A few months back I was saddened to read the letter that my grandson’s school sent to all parents at the time of the Ferguson verdict. Here is an extract: If necessary, we will go to a shelter-in-place or lockdown mode at impacted schools. Shelter-in-place indicates that all exits to school are closed and no one is allowed in or out of the building. Lockdown indicates the same, with the added precaution of interior doors also being locked and all staff and students remaining in their room or another safe location. You will be notified via Bright Arrow if either of these are activated and notified again when it is safe to pick up your child(ren) at school. Heads of School will determine what level of security to activate at their individual school. 

My Agastya is 6. Mercifully nothing untoward happened but the fact that things have come to this is so terribly sad.

The second question that comes to mind is: how far will all this go and is this the right approach. Today it is only part of the city that is partially locked down but there may be a day when the visit of another Mr Bama will entail all of to be told to remain in our homes.

Is it not time to take the bull by its horns and find out how to contain and eventually stop these acts of terror. Find out the reasons that have allowed terror to take such proportions and above all to be willing to accept that maybe we are in some way also responsible. But that is not easy. Sure it has taken time for matters to reach this point and will take time to unravel the web, but we need to begin or else our children will grow in a world with no fairs and dance competitions. Is that what we want.

The two Indias – crossing the Rubicon

I have often written about the two Indias that exist, separated by an invisible yet impregnable wall. The picture above is my creche kids, all slum dwellers, enjoying a Happy Meal at Md Donald’s Kalkaji. Yes I know fast food is bad for your health and am not one tom-tom its values. Far from that! But the kids had been taken out for an outing by a dear friend and this was a treat. And maybe also a cheeky way pf crossing that impregnable wall, armed with all the ammo needed should anyone have objected. The staff of this outlet was gracious and kind and the kids enjoyed the Happy meal. I guess they loved the toy more than the bland burger but who cares. It was our moment in the sun.

But last week a little boy in Pune had a horrific experience. The little boy was selling balloons outside the outlet when a young woman decided to give him a treat and buy him a float. A security staff immediately intervened and pushed the poor kid allegedly stating:” These kind of people are not allowed here.“The young woman shared this incident on the social network and the it seems the errant staff has been suspended.

This incident is not an isolated one. It is actually a telling reflection of the two Indias I often refer to. I have experienced it time and again. How can I forget how shocked a bunch of ladies from the other side of the wall were when I told them that we had eight kids from extremely deprived homes studying in a ‘upmarket’ boarding school. To them it was unacceptable. And what about the owner of again an ‘upmarket’ pre-school who wanted me to take the child of one of her employees in my creche. Could she not have just admitted the child in her own institution. I would give her the benefit of the doubt as probably it was blot her, but the parents of her ‘upmarket’ children who would have objected.

Needless to say that the kids who are enjoying the mandatory 25% reservation in all schools do not come from the most deprived homes. This reservation seems to have been God sent to middle class parents who are clever enough to fulfil all the paper work, even if it means bending the rules, and get their kids admitted to fancy school for free. What a win-win situation. The schools would not have liked having awkward looking kids in their mist, would they?

In spite of all their, efforts activists in favour of a common school failed miserably, though in my opinion that would be the real game changer in India and a real win-win situation. The reason is simple: how can my driver/maid/gardener’s kid share a bench with my kid! It is blasphemy! And as long as this mindset persists, some kids will be thrown out of Mc Donald’s and their clones.

Before sending our children to boarding school, we ran a one year residential programme for the where they attended a pre-school and then were groomed by us. We did not want them to be lost when we pushed them across the invisible wall. So we thought them to sit at table and eat with a fork and knife; we took them to Mc D and Pizza joints and introduced them to the toys and games that ‘upmarket’ kids play with. And when the moment arrived, they took to the school like a fish to water and never looked back. Many of them are doing exceedingly well and they are just like the other kids, if not a tad better.

The Rubicon has to be crossed, sooner rather than later.

I hope and pray that one day, it will dawn on our so called rulers to bring down the walls once for all.
But I know I am a dreamer.

What next.. Anjali

A dear friend and supporter who lives in Paris sent me an email today. Like all Parisians he is still under the shock of last week’s tragic events. He, like all else in that city and probably the world over, are asking the deafening question: what next. I do not want to be world-weary or pessimistic but how many times have we asked ourselves this question, collectively and individually. After 9/11, 26/11, the 16 Decembers 2014 Peshawar slaughter of children, the December 16 2012 gang rape in Delhi, the umpteen beheading by ISIS, the unaccountable rapes of children, the honour killings, the Boko Haram massacre, the 8 year old little girl turned into a human bomb. The list is endless. And each time we ask ourselves what next? But the question remains a question. And we remain mute and catatonic. How many more horrors will have to be committed before we are jolted out of our inertia and garner the courage to read the writing on the wall and look within ourselves to see what we have done wrong to allow our world to reach where it has! Our holier than thou attitude has to change. But when!

You may be wondering why I added the name Anjali to the title of this blog and why the picture I have chosen illustrate this blog is blurred. Anjali is a little girl I met two days ago, but Anjali is also the face of those we have conveniently been forgotten and blurred out of our hearts, minds and lives.

I met Anjali on Tuesday January 13th 2015 after I completed my vow at the Kalkaji temple. She was eating a plate of food at a hawker’s cart. She had a beautiful face and endearing eyes, though the colour of her hair and her puny size were glaring and disturbing proof of her being malnourished. I do not know what made me stop and ask her her name and hesitantly if she went to school. She proudly answered that she was in class IV of the Government Primary School in B Block Kalkaji. Knowing the reality of how school functions and how useless education is without support, I asked her if she went for tuition and the answer was: no.

I did not ask Anjali what her parents did. They could be the professional beggars that earn a living in all temples across the land or one of the hawkers that proliferate in such places. What mattered was that in her case, her parents had sent her to school. This was priceless. I asked her if there many like her who lived in the temple vicinity and went to school and did not go for tuition and the answer was yes. I decided that we needed to do something and enquired from the food stall owner if they could find space for us to help these kids. Come on if we have the space all that was needed was a teacher. The process, you guessed right, has begun.

This morning Dharmendra met food stall owner and was shown a room that lay empty in the day as the inmates of this space only came back in the evening. The room was perfect to hold classes for 30 children or so but that was the least of the problem. In the course of the conversation with the hawker, it transpired that most of the children in the area were to put it as best I can, free spirits, and would not be easily amenable to serious studying. Some did go to school, lured by the midday meal and the fact that nothing really happened in class. You could easily slumber your way through. What we were offering meant work, and work was anathema to them. Dharmendra, the ever wise one, suggested that  we needed to come up with an altogether different approach. They had to be ‘seduced’ into learning. No mean task.

You may be wondering how and why Anjali fits in my what next story.

It takes two to tango and no extremist group can ever survive if they do not have hands to do their dirty work. And where do they find these hands? In vulnerable and abandoned children like Anjali who can be seduced easily; children that have been forsaken or at best treated like second or nth class citizens by society. They exist every where and if we do look within us with a modicum of honesty we realise that the one thing that has happened is the widening of the gap between the haves and have nots. But unlike yonder times where feudal ways ruled the roost and every one had their stations in life well defined, today the dream machine that is communication and television to name just two, has crossed the invisible barriers and the erstwhile dreams of a few, are now the dreams of all. What a perfect target for all those with wily and venal agendas. You just have to become a merchant of dreams and then when your prey is seduced, anything is possible.

I am not saying that this is the only reason for all the ills we are seeing, but it is certainly one.

The other would be undoubtedly the fact that we have allowed religion to cross the threshold of our homes and be hijacked by politicians and megalomaniacs. The cocktail is heady and terrifying. We have ample proof of that fact.

You wonder why I have said that we need to look at ourselves. That is because not only has the gap between rich and poor widened, but the former have perfected the art of looking away. Compassion is no more one of the virtues we follow; neither is tolerance.

As I have often said, and will continue saying: we have to learn to look with our hearts.

Standing on a diving board

As I opened my mailbox today, I saw a mail entitled: India’s education policy needs a complete overhaul! I opened it and found a link to an article bearing the same title. The author is an eminent educationalist. The opening paragraph is spot on: I was glad I did not know the boy standing on the high diving board, hesitating to take the leap. As I walked past, I realised it was the perfect analogy for India and her education issues. We still have to take that leap. It is known that the waters will be chill for a while, there will be shock; it will take some courage to take the leap, but it must be done. Standing up on the diving board only exposes oneself to fear and vulnerability; it won’t get us to a place where we can at least join the race, forget about winning it. These are exactly my thoughts and feelings. It is high time India took that leap, no matter how scary or shocking. Waiting is no more an option.

I read the article with interest. The big leap, as the author says, is different thinking. One was hoping that the new dispensation would address primary education head on, but it seems to be frozen on that diving board. A few cosmetic changes prompted by ideologies or other factors will do more harm than good. The author suggests that education should not be viewed as pouring money into a dark hole but as an investment. She goes on to say that education should also be viewed as essential infrastructure, influence and inspiration.

I agree with most of what is proposed but also realise that such mind shifts will take time and the one thing that education does not have is time, and while these ideas are accepted and then made into policy many will have missed the boat.

What we also need is bridge options that would benefit those in school today. In a small way that is what we try and do at project why. It may not be the ideal solution, but is better than nothing. As the author says, there are 12 million people entering the work force every year so let us say the new policy takes 5 years to be implemented 60 million will have moved on.

In the fifteen years I have been associated with education at the lowest end of the spectrum I have witnessed first hand the nitty gritty of education as it is imparted in state run schools. To sum it up in a word: pathetic! Overcrowded classes, disinterested teachers, scant teaching, poor infrastructure. The fact that 33% is the pass percentage, what you get at end of the line is poor quality. Maybe the first step that should be taken if anyone is interested in quality education, is to raise the pass percentage to 50%. It is a simple an easy step, provided you are truly interested in educating children across the board.

Then the sum of our education is rote learning of things you barely comprehend and regurgitate at every exam and as you need a mere 33% to pass, the writing is on the wall.

I am not an educationist or an expert in policy making. My wisdom, if I may call it so, comes from the fifteen long years I have spent with the very children that are been talked about. All is well I presume on the other side of the fence as the lapses and shortcoming of our existing system is taken care of by the support of the family ably aided by a myriad of things ranging from tutors, to learning material, access to knowledge banks virtual and others laced with love and understanding.

However, on the other side of the fence, education is often limited to what the school imparts, and in some cases with the addition of what organisations like ours give.

When I began this journey, I was deeply impressed by the four pillars of education as enunciated by Jacques Delors. These are: learning to know (the development of knowledge and skills that are needed to function in the world. These skills include literacy, numeracy and critical thinking), learning to do (involves the acquisition of skills that are often linked to occupational success, such as computer training, managerial training and apprenticeships), learning to live together (involves the development of social skills and values such as respect and concern for others, social and inter-personal skills and an appreciation of the diversity) and learning to be ( involves activities that foster personal development (body, mind and spirit and contribute to creativity, personal discovery and an appreciation of the inherent value provided by these pursuits). If these were to be the canons of education across the board, the changes we all aspire for would become reality.

Actually education today is barely the first pillar: at best literacy and numeracy!

If I could be a change maker I would revisit the education system and makes changes in sync with the  realities on the ground ands the first thing I would do is ensure that all the four pillars mentioned above find their place all along. Keeping in mind the 12 million that enter the workforce every year it is crucial to impart skills that meet the market demands and these can be imparted as early as class VI or VII.

Not every child is destined to be a doctor or a nuclear scientist. Academically inclined children would pursue academics. For those who are less inclined, it would be judicious to try and assess their preferences and guide them in the right direction by providing them skill training and apprenticeships  while they are still in school. To this one would add the others pillars of learning to live together and learning to be.

If we are indeed standing on the diving board and waiting to jump, then we must have the courage and guts to make radical and not cosmetic changes to the existing education system, the courage to dare to jump in the void without a parachute and see whether we have the wings needed to fly.