Damyanti (w)rites for Project Why #

Project Why has taught me two values often forgotten: compassion and gratitude. If one is the art of giving, the other is that of receiving. When we talk of giving, our minds tend to veer towards money; often charity is equated to funds and undoubtedly it is a huge part of any charitable venture. Yet the kind of giving I am talking about here is not at all about money.

I write this post to convey my deepest gratitude to a wonderful soul who has never stopped giving to Project Why.  I am talking of Damyanti Gosh of Damyanti (w)rites! From the very instant she came into Project Why’s orbit and adopted us as a preferred child, she began giving. This was before she even met any of us in person! Damyanti has always been there for Project Why. She has helped us in every way possible and is still doing so by giving us her time, her knowledge, her counsel, her advice, her love, and even funds when needed most.

Today she is helping us put our house in order and take our first steps on the road to sustainability by giving Project Why a much needed makeover.

When I first met her I was bowled over by her incredible smile that can light up the darkest hour; probably that is the biggest gift of all for me personally. I do not feel alone anymore.

I thank this beautiful soul for a very precious gift. For any writer, creativity is a very personal space you do not want to share with anyone. It is your personal happy place, the bubble you hide in when you want to be just you and one that you jealously guard. Imagine my absolute delight when she told me that she would ‘give’ that space for one whole month to Project Why as part of her A to Z challenge.

For the past 26 days every story in Damyanti’s blog has been a Project Why chronicle, each crafted with love and tenderness. She evokes every aspect of Project Why, be it the people or the causes, with  restrained and dainty strokes that make you want to know more. And that is what she has set out to do: take Project Why to the world even if it meant sharing her own personal world.

No words can express the feeling of gratitude that overwhelms me.  It is a privilege and honour to know Damyanti. There must be some higher force at work here.

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Gypsy Souls #ThrowbackThursday

If we exist then He exists; if we do not then how can He!
(on the existence God)
Tau Head of the Rana Pratap Lohar Camp

“Have you ever met someone for the first time, but in your heart you feel as if you’ve met them before?” wrote JoAnne Kendrick.  This is exactly the feeling Project Why had when it first saw the Lohars of Rana Pratap camp.

The Lohars are a nomadic Indian tribe of ironsmiths. They hail from Rajasthan (Chittorgarh) where they accompanied the ruler in battle to repair arms and shoe horses. When Maharana Pratap Singh lost the battle of Haldigath in 1576 and went into exile, the Gadia Lohars swore to wander and never settle. And they have been wandering ever since.  After independence in 1947, about 100 clans came to Delhi and settled in different parts of the city, along roadsides where they continued to practice their trades and live under the sky. One such camp was located close to Project Why.

It was in 2005 that Project Why first saw the children of the camp and was completely bowled over. These were bright kids with sparkling, eager eyes and smiles to die for. Unlike other children they seemed fearless and eager to connect. Here was another Why that needed to be answered but there was a hitch: convince Tau, the Head of the Clan.

It took a few minutes for Anou to succumb to the wisdom and kindness of this gentle soul. An unlikely yet real friendship was born between them. For the 5 years the camp remained standing, Anou would often go missing to be found sipping tea and in deep conversation with Tau.

Life in these makeshift camps in not easy. The camp is located next to a red light where cars rev and the air is foul. And yet over 100 people, old and young lived there with utmost dignity. They never stopped smiling. Never mind if water had to be carried across a busy road; never mind if every so often the authorities came and destroyed the camp in a cat and mouse game that had its own rules; never mind the bitter cold or scorching heat that entered their flimsy homes. Life was a celebration and who better than gypsies to celebrate life to its fullest.

If the men beat the iron it is left to the women to sell the wares. The money collected would determine what would be eaten in the evening.

Project Why ran a creche and a primary centre for the children of this camp and it was a joy to teach these eager beavers.

That is not where it ends. The plight of these people and the discovery that there were promises made to them- as validated by the few scraps of official papers that had survived the many destructions of the camp- led Project Why to taken on its first activist challenge. A PIL (public interest litigation) was filed in the High Court. Sadly nothing came of it.

The Lohars of Rana Pratap camp survived many destructions but the Commonwealth Games in 2010 would be their nemesis, as the camp would be destroyed and the 30 odd families scattered across the city.

The stretch of road where they lived that was such a vibrant and happy place is now a stretch of sidewalk. Each time one drives past, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of loss and sadness. The Lohars are missed dearly by all at Project Why.

Nomads always move on, don’t they

You can share some glimpses of their lives in these images.

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Mercury Rising #GivingTuesday

waiting for water

This picture was taken near the Project Why Okhla Centre at the time when the tanker delivers water for an entire community. This is when children dash out of class to reach the tanker in time, having already placed their buckets or cans well in advance. This is also when we do not interfere, as Project Why is no match for WATER!

In most slums in Delhi taps run dry in summer and water is supplied through tankers. You have to fill enough water for all household chores until the next tanker arrives. For those of us who have access to tap water and the means to create sufficient back up, it is impossible to imagine what it means to survive with a few pans of water.

The heat is on and the mercury is rising. It touched 44 C a few days back. A few moments in this scorching heat is enough to send your head spinning and make you long for an air conditioned room. Some of us have that luxury, but for those living in slums the story is different.

Many of the homes in the slums have corrugated iron or asbestos roofs and ceilings that are so low an adult cannot stand. The only opening is the door. There are no windows or any form of ventilation. The tiny space is often shared by five or six people.

In the day these tenements turn into ovens, making it impossible to sit inside them. This is when women sit outside their doors, the men simply go out, the children run around in the sun. The sky is better than an asbestos sheet.

Project Why is a place where children can come to stay cool. The space is large; we have fans and coolers to provide respite and a place to study. That is one of the reasons why from day one, Project Why decided to remain open during the summer holidays as that is a time when children need us most. Boys and girls come together and as many have gone to the villages, we are able to accommodate the ones who stayed behind.

Summer is another moment which requires the survival tactics of those who have so little. Complaints are few if any and smiles are ever present.

a house in the slum

Durga’s home

welcome drink

cooling in the park

Ice cream man

orange juice to the rescue

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Project Why’s Women centre # Throwback Thursday

The Project Why Women and Children Centre saw the light of day to answer yet another deafening why.  It was 2006 and we had two women in a desperate state who needed help. One woman was ready to get out of rehab and needed a safe place to stay, a kind of midway home. The other needed financial assistance for a hip surgery, but more than that, needed a place where she could stay during her recovery. And here began the story of the Project Why Women and Children Centre, one that grew organically like all else at Project Why.

The first hurdle was to find a place for these two women to stay. Easier said than done. In India women from the lower strata who drink and suffer from mental conditions or women who are HIV+ are not welcome anywhere, and in a land where nothing remains a secret you cannot hide reality for long. In the span of a few months we had to move three times! This could not continue. Our two ladies still needed help and a solution was critical.

After much thought we decided to alter the approach and expand the scope of our intervention. The only way to be accepted in a community was to answer a need and often children were the ones who helped get acceptance. The rest is history.

A quaint building was found where one wing was perfect for a residential programme and the other was ideal for a children’s centre akin to the ones Project Why already ran. It worked.

When the two ladies were ready to take leave and resume their lives, Project Why decided to again alter the women’s outreach and use the space vacated to run vocational programmes. Stitching and Beautician Training were the two skills Project Why chose, as they enabled women to work either outside or within their homes, as many come from traditional families.

For the children Project Why ran an after school programme.

The Project Why Women and Children Centre is a no-frills affair. Space is used judiciously and the terrace has been turned into a space where multiple classes are held simultaneously. On the children’s request computer classes were started and the computer section is also a big hit with some of the ladies.

The Project Why Women and Children Centre is a vibrant and spirited place where women and children are busy transforming their lives.

The Project Why Women Centre is a large family of 300 children, 150 women and 15 staff members under the patient but firm direction of Dharmendra.

Enjoy some glimpses of the Project Why Women and Children Centre.

Dharmendra in charge

Classroom being set up

Class in session

Class in session
Computer Class

Stitching Class

Learning to repair the sewing machine


Women’s meeting

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India’s shadow education cont #GivingTuesday #India # Education

Recently some of our secondary Govindpuri children informed us that they may have to stop coming. Why?

These were some of the brightest of the lot who attend government school. The reason they gave was shocking. Their school teacher had told them that unless they attend the tuition classes he gives, they would not pass in the subject. This of course costs 1000 Rs a month. The children are devastated and so are we. 1000 Rs multiplied by the large number of students in a state-run school classroom is good money.

And this too seems to be an accepted norm as we were told that in another government school 80% of the class failed a particular subject and were told that if they wanted to pass the supplementary examination at the end of the summer holiday the students HAD to attend the tuition the teacher would be giving during the holidays. The less said the better.

This shadow education is a true reflection of the social strata of India and hence it goes from über expensive teachers that come to über rich homes to expensive tuition given in the tutors’ home, to group tuitions in air conditioned swanky classrooms to spaces like Project Why.  Every one has a commensurate price tag of course.

Children as young as 6 ‘go for tuition’ everyday, often to a local tutor. The price tag for such support is around 600 to 1000 Rs a month and if you have more than one child then it is often the boy who is sent and the girl kept back. As the child grows the tag becomes costlier as then you are charged per subject at a rate of 1000 or more Rs for 3 sessions a week.

What is worrying is that this ‘shadow’ system seems to be here to stay. The very basis on which it stands is faulty as it presumes that the hours spent in school are not sufficient if one wants to succeed. The hard day school hours are its cornerstone.

Education does not stop at academics but with this dual schooling there does not seem to be much time left for anything else. When does the child play, read books, meets friends or relax?All these are essential for wholesome growth.

One hopes that decision makers will look at this aspect when the next reforms are envisaged.

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Project Why’s Neverland #ThrowbackThursday

A toddler tied up to a charpoy with a scarf: a sign of love and also one of desperation. This image was one of the first resounding WHYs Project Why encountered and we responded by creating the creche.

We realised this was a daily routine: the mother would pull the charpoy outside the family’s jhuggi, lock the door, tie the toddler, kiss him fondly and leave. A few hours later she was back and would smother the baby with kisses as she untied him and carried him away. Something did not fit. The violence of the action (as we perceived it) did not match the love this young mum seemed to have for her child. There had to be a reason.

The mother worked and there was no safe place to leave her child.  Any childcare cost more than her meagre salary and government-sponsored education only begins when the child is six. The mother had to find a solution and this was the best she had. It had its own logic. Tying the child with a scarf long enough for him to move around ensured that he would not stray away on busy streets. Placing the cot outside meant the child was watched as this was a street where people mostly live outside and there is always someone around. Hugging and kissing him was her way of showing him she cared.

What would you have done?

Needless to say this one incident was sufficient for Project Why to begin its early education programme and, like all else, the creche began with makeshift resources. The tiny space in front of the office where staff convened was emptied and turned into the first creche. A few mats, a few toys garnered from friends and a young local woman who was willing  to teach:  that was all we needed.

The creche would move to a tent, to a space that looked like a box (meant to be a shop), to a corral like enclosure, to a room on the third floor, and then finally to space in Govindpuri where Project Why owned its first building. The babies were the first to find a home.
It is a happy place and as you climb the stairs to the little class you hear laughter and joy. These kids come from very deprived homes and if they did not have Project Why to come to, would be left to their own device in dangerous surroundings, easy prey to predators lurking around.

At Project Why they are safe. They are fetched in the morning an dropped back in the evening in transports that have evolved with time and resources.

Whatever the ride, the children love it. In class it is time to learn. Learning comes early in India by the time a child is in class I she had to master two alphabets, numbers upto 100 and even begin reading simple words. Children from better homes attend pre-school from the age of 2+ and the learning begins then. Underprivileged children who are unable to go to pre-school are at a disadvantage. Project Why bridges that gap with care and love. They learn and but also are given a chance to explore their creativity and be kids.

Afternoon is siesta time enjoyed by both the young and the not so young as the classroom turns into a rest room in the afternoons. But that is not all it also becomes an auditorium for bubble shows, story telling and much more!

Children are also taken on outings and that is a very special moment for all. 

The Project Why creche is a wonderful place;  even father Xmas knows that!

Over the years many children have “graduated” from the Project Why creche and entered school. Many come to one of our centres for after-school support. We feel a sense of pride at seeing all these little children ready to take on their future but at the same time feel sad because there are so many children who are not able to aspire to education and a better future. We wish we could do more.

The creche is Project Why’s Neverland. The children are eternally tiny and the moment any adults steps into the classroom, they too become children, filled by the laughter and joy the children share. It is the world of Peter Pan where smiles abound and laughter is ever-present.

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India’s Shadow Education Centre #GivingTuesday

 Why is Project Why even necessary?

Sadly, this is a question we often get. There are many reasons, but the main reason is to provide shadow education to underprivileged children, an education that has become sine-qua-non to success in India.

Shadow education is a term coined to encompass all private coaching and tuition outside of but parallel to the mainstream education. The statistics are mind-boggling: over 71 million students take some form of outside coaching in India today, which comes at a staggering cost. The main reason given during a survey was to ‘augment basic education.’ Both rich and poor parents estimated that education given in school was not adequate. Supplementary education has become a requirement.

Parents from poorer homes are aware of the poor quality of education imparted by government schools with overcrowded classes and few resources. But not all are able to pay for supplementary education, which comes at a steep price. Very often boys are sent to private tuitions and girls are not. Education for girls is not considered important.

Project Why provides this supplementary education for free and, yes, this is extremely relevant and needed for slum communities. Children come to Project Why outside school hours and teachers ensure that they are taught everything that needs to be learnt. At Project Why, children are taught in small groups and the teachers make sure they understand and comprehend what they are learning. Project Why teachers are patient, caring and students feel confident and loved.

Interventions like Project Why are crucial. This is demonstrated by cases like a young class V student who could barely read or write when she came to us. This same girl topped her class VII.

In India education is marks-oriented and thus performing well makes all the difference in getting access to higher education.  Private institutions of higher learning have proliferated in recent years but these come at a high cost and are not an option for slum children. Admission to state-run colleges is based on marks. The option available to underprivileged students if they do not meet the required cut offs are evening colleges or distance learning institutes. Not the ideal.

We need education reform that would introduce vocational skills in high school that would make entry into the job market easier. Till then all children, rich and poor, have to compete on a level playing field to get into University. The problem is, this level field doesn’t extend to the quality of primary and secondary education. Project Why allows our students to have a chance at succeeding.

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Project Why’s very special class #ThrowbackThursday

This is Project Why’s special class as it is today. And here is how it looked in earlier times.

To be disabled in India is a misfortune but to be disabled and poor in India is a tragedy. If you are a girl it is further compounded. So, when a lady came with four special kids to Project Why in our early days and told us that the school they attended had been shut, we told her that we had a special section just for them. And then we created one. 
The Special Section is the most joyful place you can imagine. If you have a touch of the blues, a few minutes with these wonderful souls is all you need. If you look carefully you will see that some of the children are still with us and have grown into adults. But do not be taken in by the happy faces; theirs is not an easy life. For many, Project Why is the only place where they can laugh, dance, shout, play and be themselves. Wonder why?
We did not then have a class but one look at the trusting little faces was enough to ensure that the Project Why Special Section would become a reality. But what do you do when you have no space, no resources, no money? 
The first ‘classroom’ for the special kids was the pavement opposite the tiny jhuggi that was all of Project Why in 2001.

That was the beginning. Since the Special Section has moved to several places, but no matter where the classroom went, it carried its own special touch. From the pictures above it is evident that the children are not all the same though some have stayed with us from day one!
Some students left for a better place, leaving us lost and bewildered. The one person we miss every day is Manu. He was the very reason why Project Why began. His smile lingers on in the Project Why Special Section and reminds us that no life is worthless and that every soul comes with her or his destiny
Then there is Sayeeda whose demise we could never comprehend. She had everything going her way and yet it took a simple fever to take her away from us. How can we not miss her incredible smile
And little Nanhe whose indomitable spirit and will to live defied so many odds till at least his ravaged body gave up. He never stopped smiling
But some have stayed with is all along the way like the formidable friends Munna and Umesh
And then there are some who left for reasons beyond our control, making us realise that there is a lot to be done before society accepts that people with special needs have rights and should be treated equally. 
We had big dreams for Preeti and Radha but they were hijacked, leaving us lost and bewildered again. Both these girls could not walk, one having lost the use of her legs to polio and the other to osteogenesis imperfecta. They were the most graceful and beautiful dancers.
You be the judge
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Project Why’s water warriors #GivingTuesday

(All pictures in this post were taken by project why children during a workshop on Respect under the section Respect for Water!)

Did you know that 5,000 children die everyday from water related diseases?

There is an odd phenomenon at Project Why where children, often girls, get up in the middle of a class and leave in a rush. Our teachers finally why and the answer they received was: “it is time for the water to come.”  In many slums, water comes in a communal tank for a fixed amount of time so all abled bodied people- children included- are needed to fill as many receptacles a possible.

Different containers for different needs: drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, etc. In some areas water comes on alternate days and so the need of keeping water clean is imperative. Sadly, the water does not often remain clean and that reason why so many children under the age of 5 die of water related disease.

A common sight in slums are dripping taps. Another is water overflowing from water tankers. To make children understand how much water is lost we carried out an experiment of placing a bottle under a dripping tap and seeing how long it took for it to fill. The results were an eye opener. 

This is a reality that awaits us all if you do not act now. Water comes easy and we tend to forget that it is not a perennial source. A friend and mentor once told us that if we still had to manually pump water or walk miles to access it, we would learn to respect its value. There is a village in Madhya Pradesh where young men are finding it difficult to find a bride. The reason is the scarcity of water which means that women have to walk miles to fetch water. Some men are waiting over five years!
 The time has come to respect water and think twice before throwing it away. Project Why initiated a recycling activity we call Once is Not Enough. The idea is to think twice before throwing any water away.  We ask ourselves can it be reused?
One of our goals at Project Why has been to make our children aware of their responsibilities as global citizens so we asked the children to photograph water usage in their communities. Most of them told us that they had not realised how much water was actually wasted. 
The Project Why Water Warriors were born.
What are some ways YOU are saving water? 
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