will it; won’t it

The will it; won’t it game that has now been played for years at end came to a final closure for the Lohar camp next to the Kalkaji bus depot. Yesterday the small basti of thirty odd tenements was finally raised to the ground to make way for the much awaited metro.

This basti has been in existence for over thirty years and has withstood many a demolition drive, as each time a few hard earned rupees bought the inabitants the right to rebuild their ramshackle homes. Whereas other slums managed to once again get a one year reprieve from demolition as a pre-election sop, this basti did not as the metro is part of the 2010 target when our capital city needs to shine for the much heralded sports fiesta.

What was destroyed yesterday was not just thirty rickety structures but the hopes and dreams of over 200 souls. This basti has tiny babies, school going children, men and women who earn their living within the area and old people who wait for another morrow. Like all nomadic tribes they too were promised permanent homes after India acceded to Independence and they gave up their roaming lives in the hope of seeing that pledge fulfilled. These 1000 odd families have been residents of Delhi for more than 50 years and though millions who came after them are today settled, they still live on the edges of roads and amidst the fumes of the growing vehicle population.

Thanks to greedy and wily politicians they have got ration cards and voter’s identity cards and their illegal structures even had a postal address making them true citizens of the capital. But yesterday their tiny vote bank was outweighed by larger interests and they were left to fend for themselves in a city that had suddenly become hostile.

They will survive I know it, as nomadic tribes have a spirit of their own but this little unit will now be probably be scattered across town and we will lose the lovely children who we taught for over 7 years now. And learn they did as tow of our most committed teachers – sanjay and Vicky – are from this very basti! Wonder whether they will still be able to come to pwhy.

The destruction of the Lohar basti of Kalkaji brings forth once again the burning issue of habitat for the poor. There is seems to be no real policy in this matter and ad hocism reigns. One has seen the multitude of recent scams where land for slum dwellers has been hijacked with impunity by mafia type operations. Slums that have been in existence for decades due to corrupt minions now face the danger of being demolished but there seems to be no alternative offered. Just short reprieves doled out to meet political agendas.

One wonders how it will it all end.

All one can say today is that we will miss our Lohar friends.

another miracle

Our lohar friends have always held a special place in our hearts. We have known them for over 7 years and have been impressed by their wise ways and their humane qualities more than once.

In the last few months we saw a sharp decile in the number of children attending pwhy classes. True that many had graduated to secondary school but even then the drop seemed bewildering. We held counselling sessions with both children and their parents, coaxed and cajoled and even chided them. But to no avail.

Then it struck us that maybe 6 years of the same repetitive pattern had taken its toll on their free wandering nomadic spirit. It was time for a change. Our formidable administrative duo of R and S came up with a brilliant idea: evening classes. And boy it worked!

From 5 to 7pm our little blue tent is filled to the brim with little heads, both boys and girls, and the once unruly and rowdy lot have turned into a bunch of serious students. Sometimes it takes just a tiny to change to achieve miracles.

another tale of two Indias

Two young ladies age 6 and 11 visited project why last week. Their mom a high executive in the hospitality industry had brought them along as she felt it would be a good experience for them.

We went hopped from one part of pwhy to the other: from a building in a narrow lane, to a tiny shack in side a crowded slum, to the class in the garbage dump via the broken lohar camp to our smart computer centre.

The girls kept silent as they imbibed what they saw. As we bid good bye I could asked the younger one whether she would like to come and teach her peer group all the songs she learnt in her fancy school. her eyes lit up as she looked eagerly at her mom before nodding her head. Her elder sibling remained silent.

Later I asked my friend what the reactions of the girls had been and was not surprised when she told me that the little one was eager to come back while the older one had not said much barring the fact that it had made her sad.

Once again the two Indias were evident. The yet candid and unspoilt little one had immediately felt at ease and one with other kids her age as social and economic origins meant nothing to her, she was a child amongst other kids. The older one had more to deal with as she felt apart and different yet sensitive enough to feel sad!

Once again this vindicated my view of the necessity of a common school to bridge the now glaring gap between the two Indias.

Where the mind is without fear

Yesterday I dropped by my Lohar (gypsy)friends. My conditioned being expected to be greeted by long and sad faces as their homes had been raised to the ground just a few hours before that.

My heart did miss a beat as I alighted from my three wheeler and saw them all sitting in front of their erstwhile homes, their belongings strews all over. However as they saw me their faces lit up in the customary huge smile as many ladies came and hugged me

As we walked towards the space where our classroom was, I was amazed to see that in front of each ‘home’ the fire was lit, the tools laid out and men and women at work. Every faced smiled and someone ran to get the two new members of the clan: little Tania (3 months) and tiny Sagar (1month). The class was as full as ever and every child eager to show off. It seemed that barring the fact that roof and walls had gone, life was still on!

This has been the place where these 30 odd families have lived for over 25 years. I wonder what our reaction would be if someone broke the walls of our home and took our roof off! Gypsies are known for their resilience but what I saw today was more than that, it was a free spirit that refused to give up, a mind where fear had no place. They had perfected the art of zen survival.

As I walked back I was reminded of Tagore poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Here where a bunch of people who held their head high, we are the ones who let them down.

Note: there are 1000 odd gadiya lohar familes who have lived in Delhi since the fifties. they were promised relocation that they never got. They however were given voter’s ID cards.

helter shelter

A class is in progress in the Lohar camp. The camp has over 40 shanties along a main road. It has been in existence for over 25 years and even has a name and postal address. Most of its 250 odd inhabitants, all gadiya lohars – iron smith gypsies – have voter ID cards. It is reasonable to say that they have a civic identity. There are over 90 such camps across the city some in existence for more than 50 years.

These 1000 odd families stopped wandering and settled in Delhi over half a century ago. Their abode remained shanties along side roads where one often sees them beating the iron and selling their ware.

We began our classes in this camp more than five years ago.Since we have witnessed many a demolition that seem to take place with regularity. The next day the shanties are rebuilt after a few palms are greased.

Nomadic tribes were promised relocation at the time of India’s Independence. We even found some official looking papers to prove that some semblance of resettlement had been initiated. WE helped the lohars file a writ petition in the high court and brought the plight of these lesser citizens to the NHRC. But as proceedings dragged the lohars got weary and lost interest or sunk back into the legendary resilience of nomads.

A few hours after this picture was taken the camp again demolished. This time the authorities did not spare us either but left with the usual: kal phir banalena – you can rebuild it tomorrow-! But we know that this cat and mouse game cannot continue for much longer as this camp comes in the way of the Delhi Metro project and the day is not far when our lohars will lose their shelter.

The future of these proud people we have learnt to love and admire is in danger. More than any of the migrants who have been given shelter or relocated over the years, these 1000 families need to have their basic constitutional rights restored in a city the made theirs much before others. However we fear that once again they will remain invisible and their voices unheard.

The picture above was one of the class yesterday; this is the same class today

Note: this camp has been in existence in this very place for over 25 years! Our classes began five years ago

the right to be a child

There are laws and declarations, organisations and institutions and more all seeking to protect children’s rights to be children. Conferences are held and debates too..

But if I were to tell you that the right to be a child lies hidden in every child rich or poor waiting for the opportune moment to spring up and claim its place?

Yesterday our star friend gave pwhy kids a treat: a movie and all the add ons that make a movie show worthwhile, the fizzy drink, the popcorn bag, the burger and the scoop of ice cream. Never mind which side of the city you belong to and whether the goodies carry a label or not, you do not need laws and conferences to savour them. They just have to be there and little eyes light up, hands are held out and the thrill is palpable.

It was a motley bund of children of all caste, class and creed. Some had never been to the movies in a hall, specially our little lohars (gypsies). And even those who had never got the whole lot of goodies.

They wore their Sunday best, never mind the jarring colours and the ungainly cap a worried mother has insisted upon. Nothing could and would spoil their day. Today they had claimed their right to be kids for the duration of the outing. They knew that they had to go back to their dark world, to chores and jibes and even blows, yet for now they were kids and we all needed to understand and respect that.

click on the picture to share this special moment


the rule of law…

that is the end of the rule of law and the breakdown of democracy were the harsh words the Chief Justice of India used yesterday while haring the pathetic excuses of a government caught red handed!

Thanks heaven for the rule of law, no matter how tardy, it ultimately catches up and sets things right.

As the Supreme court verdict enfolded, it was pathetic to see that no one truly understood what was at stake. Everyone was busy protecting his own tiny reality be it the traders, the politicians or the administrators. I am no judge but even I find the arguments put forward laughable and almost contemptuous. An elected government that confesses it cannot handle law and order, an angry trader community that decides to oppose the law, and petty politicians looking at ways to further their hidden agendas.

What one would have liked to see is all concerned accept part of the responsibility and put forward a concrete option whereby everyone gave up a little. maybe the courts would have lent a more lenient view.

Laws exist from time immemorial when human beings decided to give up their solitary living to form a social group. What we have been witnessing over the past years is an absolute disregard for laws and a proliferation of news ways to break them. I was appalled when a trader friend explained to me the difference between having a shutter and a gate, the former being commercial, the later within the law, never mind if the activity within the gate/shutter is the same.

The government has done nothing for crucial urban issues like habitat for the poor. An example is the Lohar – nomadic – community of Delhi, who has been promised resettlement for the past 25 years and not got any. They still live in shanties along the main arteries of our society. But hold on, the shanties have a postal address, its occupants a voter ID.

Migrate to India’s capital city and two years down the line you become a voter; try and get a caste certificate to be able to qualify to the innumerable schemes and you are asked to prove that your family resides in this city since 1951!

The situation that we face has taken years of corruption, and law breaking to come to what it is today. And the law has been broken with great impunity. Wonder why?

I guess it is because our moral and social fibre has been corrupted and we are we have turned into a selfish bunch of people. We are appalled by the slums and are willing to defend sari shops and branded good stores.

Never mind if the former is because we just forgot that the poor needed proper habitat, though we continue to use greedily all the services they offer and the later, the later our own kind so deserve our support. Only, as we are above all selfish, we are willing to withdraw our sympathy when their acts irk us – namely we cannot go shopping, send our children to school and go for our kitty party, or simply commute.

The government has tracts of land available, wonder why everyone does not for once give up their petty agendas and sit around a table and work out a resettlement plan that could then humbly be presented to a court. I was aghast to read in the press that politicians of the ruling party are busy inventing new band-aid fixes that range beyond the gate/shutter one: divide the shop between brothers so that it comes within the limits, wall the facade till a solution is found, shift your ware to your house etc

Driving this morning to pwhy – as we are open – was an eerie experience as the hustle bustle of the roads was no there to greet one and reassure us that all was well. There were no children in their sparkling uniforms rushing to school. A city is held to ransom because someone someday had broken a law and no one was there to stop him.

reminds of the story of the boy walking to the gallows who tells his weeping mother: why didn’t you slap me the first time I broke the law!

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and the twain shall meet… of hidden agendas

One was born in a place that has acquired a generic name in north india – madrassi – and the others were born on a polluted road side waiting for unfulfilled promises of an uncaring administration.. one traces its ancestry to one of the 12 rishis, the others to the lost battle of haldighat and hurriedly taken wows that made them nomads.. and yet in the scorching heat of last week they met… part of an hidden agenda, one that has not been worded or scripted but kept as a close guarded secret..

pwhy has been built on many dreams, some visible and some not quite so. if pwhy began with the determination of giving all children a safe environment to acquire a meaningful education and skills, it also has a flip side, one that addresses itself to the other side of the spectrum: the big children who have already obtained it.

The stubborn refusal to accept any funding that looked impersonal, the obsessive campaign for the yet elusive 1 rupee a day , the endless hours pecking at a computer keyboard were all part of the jealously guarded hidden agenda: that of making the two ends of the spectrum meet and not only get to lknow each other but learn from each other..

Over the past months the toiling hours have paid of and many beautiful connections made and last week when K who works for a software giant in the land of the chosen (or so it is said) spent time with little lohar kids, I am sure he learnt many lessons: that you could learn in scorching heat and breathing fumes, that you could smile and be happy even if you had nothing.

For me India will only change when the twain meet and connect, be it in on the school benches of the elusive common school, or as it happened, through bonds created through invisible networks..

they put their dancing shoes on..


It was party time on planet why thanks to a little girl who lives far away in England. Dhanya had decided to give a very special gift to pwhy a xmas party.

We had two parties one for the big kids with DJ and coffee machine and one for the tiny tots and special kids. The common denominator: everyone had their dancing shoes on..

They danced with abandon and grace. There were the little ones and the big ones, the lohars, the special kids, the guests and the staff. It was touching to see that everyone no matter how little they had, no matter how tiny and dark their home, everyone had made the effort to be beautiful. You could see the younger girls with hurriedly applied make up, the high heels that made one wobble a little, the bright coloured shirts the boys doned with new found confidence, the hair pasted with gel in the latest style.

As the DJ belted out favourites, squeals of joy could be heard as the dance floor filled with would be stars trying to match the steps seen on the ever present TV screen. The energy was palpable, the mood upbeat and the party a success.

Even the little ones the next day, some not quite three, took to the floor with the same aplomb. And everyone, big or small enjoyed the food. But the proverbial clock would strike midnight and the party had to end before the magic weared out. The coachmen of the night – radhey, tuntun and sitaram – were there to see everyone safely home.

What was truly remarkable was the impeccable behavior of these often misunderstood children. No food was wasted, no fight occured, no one was teased or laughed at and to my utter surprise nothing littered the floor after everyone had left. Every plate, cup and napkin had been placed in the right bins..

A lesson for all…

when words play tragic games


the following story – a true one- would have made you smile, if it did not affect a child’s life.

pawan is a class III student that comes to our Lohar Camp Primary programme. he is a bright boy and an eager learner. He comes from a very poor family: his father pulls a rickshaw and hos mother cleans home.

All seems well with this young fellow except a slight limp, and unsteady gait, and sudden falls. When you look closely at his ankle that is still not healed, you can see a huge gap.

Almost a year back, an asbestos sheet fell on little pawan’s foot in the municpal school he attends. After a couple of days of home remedies, his parents took him to safdarjung hospital as the pain was excruciating and the ankle swollen. pawan was kept in hospital for many weeks but the anke did not seem to be getting better.

One day a doctor came and told the family that their son needed support. The bewildered family not quite comprehending what was meant and too frightened to ask, simply thought that what was needed was the support of of some important person. They simply took their son home.

When Gita, our teacher came to us with pawan’s story we tried to make sense of what had happened and to our horror understood that what the doctor meant was that pawan’s ankle needed some form of prosthetic support!

pawan will soon be taken back to hospital and we hope to be bale to get him the care he needs.