reservation imbroglio- whose in whose out

Tuesday morning some French friends set out from our home to board a train to Rajasthan. They were on a three week holiday and were hoping to be able to visit as many places as possible. As they were leaving, I told them rather casually to get in touch in case there was any problem. It was almost a redundant statement as so many friends had boarded trains to Rajastan and come back safely their eyes and mind filled with lifelong memories.

Imagine my astonishment when a few hours a later I got a panicked call informing me that their train had been stuck for hours and asking me what was happening and above all what were they to do. having been at work all day, I had not seen the news and did not know what had hit them. I just told them to hold on and that i would get back to them shortly.

I quickly turned the TV and was assailed by images of buses burning amidst a sea of people and tried to figure out what had happened. Slowly reality sunk in as I realised that once again the hydra headed monster of reservation has struck in a new way.

The friends have altered their holiday plans and set out for the hills but for the last few days I have been watching in stunned silence the horrific drama that is unfolding in front of our eyes. This is the reservation nightmare revisited but in another avatar altogether. Here it is not a question of the upper caste resisting an increase in reservation. What we are witnessing is far more insidious and dangerous as it defeats the very essence of what reservation is meant to stand for.

What was meant to be an affirmative action to help those who had been let down by society for generations, what was meant to be a help for the underprivileged sections has now turned out to be a battle to save one’s spoils. The Gujjar community is seeking scheduled tribe status, something that can be defended as this is a backward community of herdsmen. What is scaring is that over and above the political issue, resistance to this is not from upper castes but from another ST section, namely the Meena who are apparently the only recognised Tribals in Rajasthan. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see that all this is a far cry from affirmative action for the underprivileged. A new entrant entails having to share the spoils which include government jobs, political assignments, etc..

One would have thought that brethren were to be supported and helped but that is not the case as reservation is no more viewed as a time bound support to the have nots to ensure their mainstreaming, but as an easy way of getting favours and once again the monster of reservation has proved to be stronger than the administrative machinery as it is replete with causes to espouse for many hungry politicos.

How this will end I do not know. The confrontation has turned into a caste struggle that is turning ugly and a vindication of the fear that of the polarisation and fragmentation of our already fragile social fabric and a proof of the failure of the reservation policy as it has been imagined by its authors.

holding on to dreams

Last week two men came to help us with some work at home. Like many others who eek their living on a day-to-day basis they were picked up from the chowk or road side where they sit from the early hours of the morning in the hope that someone would come by and give them work.

Both had lost their jobs in factories, as many do in Delhi, but had refused to lose hope. Over a cup of tea they shared their story in a dispassionate way. Hazari the elder of the two hails from Bihar and has five children. His wife does not work and it is his measly 3000 rs that keeps them going. All his children go to school and his elder daughter is in class IX. His dream is to ensure that she completes her XIIth.

Hazari belongs to one of the reserved classes but has no idea of what that simple appartenance can get him. He has never heard of reservation and has never availed of any of the sops doled out regularly. His day-to-day survival does not give him the luxury of taking time off to get the required papers ratifying his social or economic status. Yet Hazari refuses to give up his dreams for his children, the very reason he left his home to come to this soulless city.

It was poignant to see that this conversation was happening at the very time when heated debates on reservations are once again dividing the nation and the fate of the creamy layer is being veted. This man like many others in our land was just busy surviving and holding on to his dreams. He is already a winner as he has beaten many odds. In a city where children drop out with alarming regularity, his daughter has held on and made it to class IX.

As I mused on about this innocuous meeting, I came across a news item stating that an IIM alumni body had gone to the Supreme Court questioning the validity of a 56 year old caste-based reservation system. What caught my eye were two quotes of from Jawahar Lal Nehru. The first reminded us of his dream of a ” young and vibrant nation, free from the vices of caste and communal divide“. The other went on to state: ” I dislike any kind of reservation. more particularly in services. I react strongly against anything that leads to inefficiency and second rate standards. I want my country to be a first class country in everything. The moment we encourage the second rate we are lost“.

A mere glance at today’s India 60 years after freedom shows that Nehru’s vision has been long forgotten. The debate on the creamy layer is sufficient to show that the very purpose of reservation or affirmative action has been defeated. While the battle rages about the 27% OBC reservation in institutes of higher learning, 6 decades of Independence have not been able to enforce the right to primary education.

It stands to reason to believe that for any affirmative action to be honest, excellence has to begin at the very bottom of the ladder: ie in state run primary schools. Our tiny experience at pwhy has proved beyond doubt that children from underprivileged backgrounds can be stellar performers if given a little help. To cite just one example, Farzana a two times failure in class VII got 83 % at her Xth Boards. Sadly as debates go on, the state of municipal schools in India’s capital city seem to be getting worse by the minute. A mind boggling number of potential aspirants to higher learning drop out of schools because somewhere down the line each one of us has failed them.

The IIM alumni effort is one in the right direction. It is time to define the validity of a reservation policy that seems to be doing more harm than good, as it is fracturing our society with impunity. Any affirmative action has to be time bound. Otherwise it will lead to impairing rather than helping. Alas, as long as such policies provide fodder to vested interest, solutions will be difficult to find.

India at 60 – the plight of children

It took a shocking story to get the Government to look into the matter of burial sites for little children in India’s capital city. Politicians ignore Nithari in the run up to the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, as the families of the dead children are simple migrants and hence do not have votes. The Ghaziabad Girls are lost in administrative and judicial quagmire. Children are beaten in schools. The drop out rates are mind boggling. Child labour is rampant. Orphanages are cramped and unsafe.

Something is terribly wrong…

We are talking about the millions of children in free India, the third or fourth generation after Independence. We are talking about children who see the day of light in a democracy that professes to give them a host of fundamental rights: from education to shelter, from freedom of speech to freedom of faith. And yet a cursory glance and the plight of many of them is enough to prove that each right has been denied, usurped or hijacked.

It is not that we have done things wrong. A passing glance at the multitude of child related programmes is sufficient to see that children have occupied a place of pride in our planning, and on paper many of the proposed projects are excellent.

Let us just talk of the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) to substantiate our point. This programme was conceived and launched in 1975. Its objectives were as follows:

  1. to improve the nutritional and health status of pre-school children in the age-group of 0-6 years;
  2. to lay the foundation of proper psychological development of the child;
  3. to reduce the incidence of mortality, morbidity, malnutrition and school drop-out;
  4. to achieve effective coordination of policy and implementation amongst the various departments to promote child development; and
  5. to enhance the capability of the mother to look after the normal health and nutritional needs of the child through proper nutrition and health education.

What a great programme. Had it worked all other child related programmes should have worked too! But the reality is quite different. In 2007 – 32 years after the programme was launched – an ICDS creche in India’s capital city often runs from a space the rent of which cannot exceed Rs 500! In actual terms this means a tiny airless room devoid of what is deemed essential as per the programme: running water, toilet facilities, open space for children to play.

The state of municipal schools is another reflection of the place children have in free India. After sixty years many schools in our capital still do not have proper buildings, let alone other facilities! There are some exceptions, but these are often dependent on the commitment of a handful of honest individuals.

On the other hand, politicians are busy framing reservation policies to higher institutions of learning and the ensuing debates make us wonder who these places in he sun are for. Certainly not for the potential drop out. Somehow no one seems to be bothered about the state of primary education, though poor parents are slowly seeing the writing on the wall and are now often seen sending their children to private institutions that are now mushrooming in our city and are often of poor quality. Yes in India at sixty we have the private school for the poor with names like SK convent, Mother Sundari English Medium School etc, and they come at a heavy price!

My detractors will be quick to point that it is allright to criticise but what about possible solutions. Many do come to mind but what stands out is the necessity of bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, of striking a balance, of reaching out and doig our ‘bit’! What is needed is to raise awareness. What is needed is to stop for an instant and ask oneself a simple question: where are we going? What is needed is to understand that the plight of the other India will one day affect us in more ways than one.

How can a city not have proper habitat for the poor within it? One cannot just wish them away and hope they will remain invisible. How can a city have schools that do not run, privatising them is again not a solution, they have to be strengthened and improved. The judiciary or the media should not have to intervene each time things go wrong.

Ultimately it all comes down to striking a proper balance between our rights and our duties as citizens, something we seem to have conveniently forgotten.

How many more generations of children will have to be born and become adults before we realise this!

The debate continues…

The supreme court order staying the OBC reservation issue has leashed out a series of reactions across the land. This time I kept my pend in check waiting before adding my two penny bit.

Last summer was one of discontent as many young students took to the streets to protest: each each side having its protagonists. Students sat on hunger strike, gandhigiri made the journey from screen to street. No one really heard as the powers that be huddled together and got what they wanted or so they thought.

Institutional heads were roped in and some wishy-washy formula was evolved. Quietly petitions were filed in the highest court but the hubris was such that it would even take on the Gods!

Then came the supreme court stay order, a rude wake up call that sent everyone into a flurry. bandhs were called, protests abounded a new cause was found to defend setting the dreaded caste and social divide into motion. Passionate debates were aired on TV and strangely every voice of reason was shouted down by those with extreme positions.

As if no one wanted to find a solution. A retired Professor echoed my thoughts as I tried desperately but in vain to highlight the sad reality about the abysmal state of primary schools. His effort to steer the debate in that direction was countered by a venomous retort branding him as an enemy, validating the point that I have often made about the conscious effort of the powers that be to ensure that a large segment of the population remain illiterate and hence a vote bank easily manipulated.

As the debate carried on one realised that no one was actually interested in the plight of the little Ramus and Jyotis who may have been born in the right caste but who will remain illiterate and whose only hope will be little efforts like project why that ensure that they do not drop out of the gaping holes of the education net.

Last week I went to the Greater Kailash outlet of Cafe Coffee Day. To my utmost surprise a beaming young man in his smart red uniform came to my table and said: Ma’am don’t you recognise me, I am Shiv and was a student at project why! I was taken aback as I remembered him 5 years ago still a shy adolescent who barely spoke.

I must say he was not standing at the portals of an IIT or IIM, but somehow he had stepped on the other side of the fence on his own merit, without reservation with just a little help because someone had believed in him.

The reservation issue will never die as no one will allow it to. It is to good a cause for politicians and for what is now known as the creamy layer. For those who barely survive nothing will change; no one wants it to.

a slap in lieu of a result

Final exams are just little over a month away and all pwhy kids are busy revising. Government schools held their usual end of term exams in December and we all waited for the results to help us structure our revision programme.

When no result was forthcoming by mid January, we asked the children to find out from their class teachers when these would be available. The next day, little Jyoti from our Govindpuri section came back telling us that she had been slapped by her teacher for having dared ask! We were ready to go and meet the teacher in question but were stopped by the children. Their scared eyes spoke volumes. They knew that our visit would result in more unwarranted abuse.

In another school, children were told that the papers had not been checked as schools had been closed for a few days because of the severe cold. In yet another school, answer sheet lay strewn on the floor at the mercy of rodents.

All in all, we could only gather half of the results.

This is but another example of the state of municipal and government schools. It is a cause of worry as marks of each terminal exam are included in the finals. We were also told that if a child has 75% attendance he automatically passes into the nest class. No wonder than that there are kids in class V who are unable to read or write. They will swell the ranks of drop outs as they reach class VI!

Almost everyday one can find some news item or the other about the abysmal state of government schools in the capital: no toilets, no drinking water, no classrooms, no teachers…One of the reasons for this deplorable situation is undoubtedly the lack of a literate and empowered parents’ group. With the proliferation of shady small teaching shops a.k.a. public schools, only the poorest of the poor land in municipal schools. They simply sit on the benches – or floor – marking time till they exit the school in class V. many will never make it further.

There is something extremely lopsided or insidious about the various policies for the poor. One startling example is the reservation policy in higher education. With the present state of primary education no deserving candidate can ever make it to the portals of an engineering college or medical school. It is only when we clean up the state of primary education that a tangible change can begin to happen.

happy republic day


All over India celebrations are on today. Flag hoisting and parades, people cheering and waving flags everything is on cue to mark the 57th anniversary of our Republic. How many of us are truly aware of the meaning of this day?

Somehow the essence of the constitution got lost along the years and what remained is the pomp and display associated with it.

Of all our centre there is one that never fails in its celebrations of our republic our Independence days. Every 26/1 and 15/8 the children of the Okhla centre organise a show. They hoist the flag, sing the national anthem and some patriotic songs and then delight us with the never to be missed bollywood numbers. This year they even had a play and their on gandhiji!

It is with pride and a tinge of sadness that I watch these children. As they remember the day that saw our constitution come into force, I cannot but think about how little of what was promised to them 57 years ago, has actually come their way. It seems as one part of India was conveniently cast aside along the way.

Most of these kids belong to some reserved category or the other but none is aware of what reservation means. They go to poorly run schools from where many drop out. They die for want of medical care. Their morrows are often hijacked by some predator or the other and they soon find themselves on the wrong side of the law. And often they go to sleep hungry.

And yet on these special days all is forgotten as they celebrate being Indians.

This year the President chose to mention crime against children in his R Day address. He was of course referring to cases like Nithari. But there is a more insidious crime tat we are all guilty of, one that is invisible and almost intangible. That of having let down a whole slice of India denying them the basic rights that were meant to be for all Indians.

The children of Okhla did not forget the importance of this day; in their eyes lies a question that needs to be answered: why have they been forgotten them.

corporator for a day

Bharti Dhondge is a name that rings no bells and yet she will go down in history as the woman who became corporator for a day in the Municipal Corporation of Bombay! It took this woman five years to fight and win a legal battle whereby she challenged the validity of the caste certificate of her opponent. She won a day before new elections were declared, hence the one-day-crown. She now hopes to get a ticket from her party but that is another story.

To may this might seem a irrelevant incident but in fact it is not as it questions the whole matter of caste certificates. In a recent socio economic survey of pwhy we realised that over 80% of our kids belong to some reserved categories or the other. Needless to say not one has the required document to prove it and most of them are actually embarrassed and even aggressive when asked to spell out their caste.

Something is not wrong in a land where the politics of reservation has been heralded as pro poor and held as harbinger of justice for all. It does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that its success depends on ensuring that each and everyone falling within the category should be in possession of the required proof of his or her identity. It would seem logical that the onus of giving id proofs should lie with the law makers and enforcers themselves.

Nothing is farther away from reality as we discovered lately. Obtaining a simple caste certificate is a herculean task. Actually it s an impossible one. The powers that be have ensured that. No simple, unconnected, poor individual can meet the complex prerequisites. Where will the poor should find two class I gazetted officers willing to sign his form?

On the other hand, getting a fake certificate seems to be much easier as is proved by the Bharti Dhonge case. All you need is to know the right person and have sufficient funds to pay the price.

For the policy like the reservation policy to be relevant, the sine qua non condition has to be the issuance of documentary evidence by the state to each and every person falling within that category. Anything short of that is suspect.

One can now understand why our political masters insist upon not excluding the creamy layer. Were that to be, there would be no takers left for the reservations goodies!

Once again this brings to fore the fact that to redress many of the problems that plague our society, it is necessary to take the bull by the horns. In this case rather than demonstrate on the streets and only give more fuel to the politicians to divide society, maybe one should start a campaign to ensure that caste and class identity are issued to each and every one and empower the have nots to stand in line for every benefit doled out.

for a handful of spinach…

Have you ever wondered how much a handful of spinach costs? A few coins on a market place, a little more in a fancy store… and a few leaves picked up in a field would not be missed by its owner.

Not quite. In a remote village in the state of Bihar a little 10 year old girl lost three fingers as she dared to pick a few spinach leaves from a field. Before you express indignation let me simply add that the little Khushboo is a dalit and the owner belongs to a higher caste! And if that was not enough the girl and her father are too scared to open their mouths.

At times like these I am left speechless as nothing one can say can even begin to explain this horrific equation: a few leaves of spinach = three little fingers! I hang my head in shame as I try and look for the beginning of an answer that would explain this..

One has heard ad nauseum about the reservation issue that is threatening to destroy our social fabric. One is led to believe that the creamy layer of the so called lower castes will hog up all our place in the sun. But nothing can make up for the three tiny fingers cut off in a fit of rage for a few leaves that may have just wilted and rotten had they not been plucked.

Why did little Khushboo commit that offence? Was it to ensure that her family would not go hungry, was it because she could not bear to see her mom beaten by a defeated and helpless father, was it because it had been so long since she had tasted the freshness of a green vegetable. This is something no one will know as the little girl will keep her secret locked away inside her.

When someone decided to divide human beings into what is known as castes, I am sure that the reason was not to give one caste the licence to snip off fingers. So we before we battle about the right of one caste to accede to higher learning, maybe we would address the question of Khushboo’s finger and take on the responsibility of their loss. Khushboo’s fingers, Priyanka’s life are just two examples of the countless tragedies that some of our own suffer because they were born in the wrong caste.

It is not reservation or affirmative action that will right his wrong. Neither is it the few fleeting expression of indignation that cross our minds as we see or hear such stories. We need to go deep within ourselves and to see what made us lose our human compassion down the line, what hubristic demon took possession of us and made us lose all sense of reality. What gave us the right to treat another fellow being in such a barbaric manner.

Khushoo’s fingers will heal and her father may have to pay a few more rupees to find a man for this child. The perpetrator may or may not be caught. At best he will spend a few days in jail as all he took away were three little fingers. And all of us will move on with our lives till the next tale of horror jolts us back into momentary compassion.

a very special xmas gift


Xmas has always been a time of joy and giving, of cheer and even miracles. As you grow up you stop believing in Santa, but there is always the anticipation of finding out what the little packets around the tree contain.

My xmas gift came a day earlier and in the most unexpected way. I had gone to fetch Utpal from his boarding school and attend his PTA! His teacher handed me his result and as I read it I realised that this was undoubtedly the most beautiful Xmas present one could get.

57/60 were he marks he got and an appreciation that included the word ‘excellent’. To some, my reaction would seem silly as Utpal is only 4+, but those who know him and have followed the journey of his life, this piece of paper is much more.

What a story of survival it has been. Barely 9 months ago Utpal had lost everything that makes a child secure and safe to the demon of alcohol. He had no home, no mom, no extended family and no support. Previous to that fateful day in April 2006, he had survived third degree burns and lived a life where each evening meal and night’s sleep depended on whether his mom had tippled nor not. Strange visitors, descents by cops and drunken brawls were usual occurrences.

When we found a school that would take him, there was an initial resistance: Utpal did not fit any mold, did not have the appropriate labels and social origins. But a young director took on the challenge and we waited with bated breath.

Six months and two school terms later, Utpal showed us what survivors are made of: he has a great support network in school ranging from the gently forbidding gatekeeper, to the class XII students and includes the hostel staff, the kitchen staff and even the principal. He still had one more point to prove, the one that rebuffs all the divisive policies that are kept on the boiler by dubious agendas and bear names like reservations or affirmative action. In the right environment, and with a peer group that cut across social and economic backgrounds, little Utpal topped his class in an English medium boarding school.

I have always said that the answer to India’s is a common school where children of all origins would learn together and from each other. Then each child just like little Utpal, will have the ability to make his place in the sun. It is not by creating a parallel school system, or by handing out a few seats and a few grace marks to humbler children that we will solve the now suspect education for all dream.

Utpal was an ideal candidate for begging at a red light. Drunk parents, a nicely scalded body and yet and incredibly beautiful face, and endearing ways. A little help from Mr God , and lots of help from friends who held on to our dream with us, made it possible for little Utpal to vindicate project why.

As I hold his result sheet in my hand, I stand very tall and believe in miracles!

merry xmas to all!

of quotas, castes and reservations

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We just have completed a socio-economic survey of all the pwhy children. Among the questions asked were the place of origin, education of parents and caste. We wanted to validate what we knew intuitively: more than 80% of our kids belonged to some reserved category or the other and none of the families had any certificate proving the same nor any knowledge of the now (in)famous reservation policy.

I write this post on the day the day the OBC reservation bill will be tabled in its original form despite the recommendation of the committee on keeping out the creamy layer, or at least giving them preference. Needless to say that none of our children belong to any creamy layer!

Many questions come to mind, but the one thing that stands out is that these kids can never get to any of the reserved seats. There are many reasons for that. First and foremost the likelihood of their finishing school is bleak. Even if they do, they will never get the certificate required to prove their social origin as the administrative requirements are impossible to meet. To name just one: forms need to be attested by two class I gazetted officer. I wonder how my poor parents would find one let alone two!

But something even deeper came to light while the survey was being one. People were very reluctant to reveal their caste and almost ashamed. Many hide behind generics like chaudhury and others append a high caste to their trade so we had rajput nais (barbers).

We spent time telling them about reservations and other benefits and finally did manage to get the information. Needless to say they were all eager to know how they could get a certificate and more than willing to do so. Some even said that if what we said was true, then they needed to pay more attention to the education of their kids..

I had begun this post saying that the reservation bill would be tabled today. Imagine my surprise when I heard that it had already been passed. Gone were the dissenting voices, the left and right issues all political parties had united to protect their vote banks. Foolish me to have felt surprised, every one was acting their part. Never mind the violence that might ensue, the deepaks that will lie in hospital unattended as young Indians take to the street..

A few weeks back a TV channel had canned a programme where many pwhy parents were caught on camera expressing their total ignorance of reservation policies. Somehow the story was never aired.. In it I had said that no young Indian with a heart and conscience would grudge reservation if it went to poor and disadvantaged children. What they resented was when those having had the same if not a better education and life got seats on a preferred system.

I still stand by that. Sadly that is not to be as the creamy layer has been included. The only way to fight this is for civil society to take a pro-active role and start a movement whereby all those who fall into reserved categories get the required certificates as a right and not a favour, and that their children get quality education so that they can stand in line for the seats that have been kept for them. A kind of a jail bharo movement where the numbers are so staggering that the administration and law makers are forced to think of alternatives.

If the powers that be want to divide India, then before we unite it again, maybe division has to be taken to an absurd end so that law makers realise that it is in their own interest to see unite it again.

This may seem ludicrous today, but give it a thought, it is just a matter of bringing things full circle