The bucket baby #India

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India celebrates Children’s Day today. There will be celebrations across the land. But for some, like the little fellow in the picture we now fondly call the ‘bucket baby’ it will be a day like any other.

This little fellow was born around the time Project WHY launched its pilot project for the Kalka Temple beggars’ kids. It was and is our strongest belief that education and EDUCATION only can help these kids break the shackles they are born with. The reason we began this project was because some parents had already realised the power of education and were sending their kids to school. We knew that the school alone would not make any difference. What was needed was a sprinkle of the Project WHY magic.

Today around 30 children come to the women’s night shelter in the afternoon where we run a class.

Sharing space with a handful of beggar women, often women abandoned by their families, is a rewarding experience that has not only shattered many misconceptions but compelled us to look at a world we once shunned with new eyes and newfound respect.

Today being children’s day, we share a little story  that we hope will bring a smile to your face.

The women’ shelter is a large high roofed room where a handful of women live. It is often the space pregnant women come to to deliver their babies. We have seen four deliveries in the last 3 months. The shelter has rules like no beds or furniture etc and though there is water and even a clean bathroom, there is no way to heat water as no cooking is allowed hence no stove!

Beggar mommies are proud mommies who just like all mommies want the best for their babies and want to keep baby clean. So baths are a must. So they have found a solution. Water is poured into a bucket and then the bucket is kept in the sun, if sun there is. When mummy feels that the water is warm enough then baby is dunked in and washed with soap then quickly taken out and wrapped in a towel and hugged tight. What you see in the picture is baby’s bath time!

Happy children’s day!

 

The PT exam question #GivingTuesday#India

project why
project why

PT as we all know or at least presume stands Physical Training and is a high school ‘subject’ in India. It would be reasonable to again presume that it means playing games, training for individual and team sports etc. Not quite so in the Chacha Nehru Hindi High School, Bhiwandi. There you also have written exams! In the annual exam for class IX this year, the students were gobsmacked when the came across one the questions: Who is Virat Kohli’s girlfriend? For the uninitiated he is India’s Cricket team Captain. This was a multiple choice question and three known actresses were the  choices given.

Does one laugh or cry?

This was  a question out the prescribed syllabus. If one peruses the NCERT syllabus for the said subject, one learns that its aim is to :  provide the required theoretical and practical inputs in order to provide an integrated
and holistic understanding and developing positive attitudes, values, skills and behaviour related to health and physical education at the primary, secondary and senior secondary levels.

A somewhat obscure definition but still one wonders how the knowledge of who is the current love interest of a cricket star does not meet the guidelines in any which way.

So one wonders why the question was included by the teacher who set the paper. Was is just for fun and popularity to be the ‘cool’ teacher? But what about those who have no interest in cricket and even less in the love life of the players. The question are endless but none seems to be satisfactory and acceptable. Parents are worried that their kids may have not known the answer as it was ‘out of syllabus’?

It is true that cricket is a passion and that many young people are totally aware of facts and trivia but not everyone. In a country were education is primarily by rote, even the brightest student may not have known the answer.

But it does not end there. Many deeper questions come to mind. The first one is about the seriousness and competence of the teacher. If one were to play the Devil’s Advocate one could say that the teacher was trying to test the student’s interest in other matters: did s/he read the newspaper, watch the news etc. But this does no stand ground as everyone knows that in the present system even half a point can make the difference between college or no college and hence you do not play around with the syllabus in an exam question paper.

This is indeed a very small matter but it does once again shed light on the critical importance of the need of an complete overhaul of our education and marking system, so that children can be freed from the stranglehold of impossible marks.

Project Why is very conscious of this anomaly and strives to take education outside books and walls.

 

Another form of gender bias #GivingTuesday#India

girlphoneAn interesting article appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently. It is entitled: Why the Vast Majority of Women in India Will Never Own a Smartphone. The emerging new middle class will purchase all sorts of things ranging from washing machines to even air conditioners but would not buy a smart phoneA for their daughters. The fear is a love marriage, something unacceptable to many families. Patriarchy supersedes technology.

Statistics are glaring: 114 million more men own cellphones than women. Once again women are denied the benefit of one of the greatest technological leap of our times. Smartphones are not just love machines; they have become an essential tool in our day and age and more than that are a great social leveller. They can help learn, increase skills, communicate better and above all increase their safety when they are out of the homes. But the fear is so deep seated that in rural areas village councils bar unmarried girls from possessing a cellphone.

The whole matter lies on the skewed view of placing the family’s honour on the tender shoulders of the girl child. An aberration!

Even those meant to protect us are quick to blame the woman for crimes like rape and even the ubiquitous cellphone as was the case a few years ago. when a police officer said: western culture, mobile phones and lack of entertainment as reasons for rape. Still trying to decipher the meaning of these words.

The question that begs to be asked is why is no one willing to address the cause and take measures to eradicate it. The bandaid solutions that are too often proffered are always steeped in gender bias. It takes two to tango, but in these cases only one is reprimanded.

From the day she is born, the girl child is treated differently at every step. She has one reason to celebrate at least she is not one that was killed in the womb as is sometimes the case. From the day she is born her life is decided by the men of the families she will ‘belong’ to: father, brother, husband and in her twilight years son and so are her choices.

Today it is the smartphone. God knows what it will be tomorrow.

In 2005 a letter was written to a girl who died in the in the womb. It ended wit these words:

Who are you: a statistic in the records of the hospital, a pain in the heart of many that will slowly fade away, a regret, a topic of discussions with its share of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’… I do not know..

To me you are the little girl who refused to be born in a world that she felt was not worthy of her… a child who took her one and only independent decision..

And we abide by it…

 

 

 

 

The seven vegetable pizza #GivingTuesday#India

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Way back in December 2007 we celebrated Xmas at the women centre. One of our resident at the women shelter was Christian and she told us about the cakes her mom made and we ordered many for the party. Sophie one of our volunteers wanted a full scale celebration so there was a Xmas tree and all other decorations as well as pictures of Santa and gifts of course.

The children however were not Christians but mostly Muslims with a scattering of Hindus and it was left to me to make the link that would make sense to the kids. The kids got it as they always do: treats! Ladoos on Hindu days, vermicelli pudding on Muslim day and cakes at Xmas. As simple as that.

Festivals are about food.

Recently I was shown another side of the religious food story courtesy a wonderful volunteer of Indian origin who has always lived away from this land but whose family has followed traditions by simply adapting them. In their community you eat seven vegetables on Diwali. The hitch is that no one really likes a vegetable curry. What do you do? You take your kids’ favourite food and adapt it: enter the seven vegetable pizza, the family’s answer to traditions.

To me it was more than a ‘story’ that brings a huge smile to one’s face. This pizza held the true essence of the Hinduism I was brought up in and which embraces all and adapts to any situation.

Maybe we will have a seven vegetable pizza for Diwali this year!

Thank you Viren!

What Bob Dylan meant to our generation #ThrowbackThursday

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The news of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature was one of the best news coming my way in a long time. For those of us who were young and impressionable in the sixties Bob Dylan was an intrinsic part of our lives.

I write this slightly personal note today as I want young people to know how deeply we were influenced by song and poetry and how important it was to us. Let us call it serendipity, but a few hours before I heard the news I was telling a young man how ‘dating’ in our time meant sitting in a park reading poetry or singing Dylan songs. In those days music was heard on turntables and the more you liked a record, the more scratched it became but who cared. Those vinyls in their soon tattered covers were our prize possessions.

Dylan was more than a song to listen. His poignant and hard hitting words use to lead to heated debates that moulded  our pliable minds and the adults we became were definitely influenced by this incredible poet.

What is amazing though is that hearing his words today, half a century later are still as meaningful as they were then.

In those days we believed we could remake the world into a happy and peaceful and it was the age of the flower children and the hippies on a soul journey. That did not happen.

Today the world is the antithesis of what we had dreamt. And never before have Dylan’s words rung more true.

 

 

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Bob Dylan 1963

 

 

Warriors of Air #GivingTuesday#India

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Don’t go by the picture! These kids are the luckiest as they live on the bank of the river in the middle of green vegetable patches and breathe good clean air, or at least the best available in our capital city.

For the others the invisible bars of polluted air are slowly appearing and will soon incarcerate us all for the months to come.

You guessed right! Air pollution is on its way. WHO has  just confirmed that Delhi’s air is the worst of all megacities. Fine particulate matter is already four times more than what is acceptable.

That the situation is critical is obvious but to put matter in perspective here is a fact: India’s capital was the only megacity to record a PM10 level above 200 µg/m³, exceeding the WHO air quality standard of 20 µg/m³ by more than 900 per cent.

The monsoons have gone and with it blue sky and breathable air. For the past few days a grey lid covers the city and no, its is not rain clouds. In some areas farmers have begun to set harvested fields on fire, construction sites are thriving  and in a few days festive celebrations will begin and firecrackers will burst with impunity. And then as winter comes small fires will be lit to keep warm, more fields will be set on fire, cars will rev in the traffic and the smoke of industrial chimneys will add to the toxic cocktail. And we will be breathing this air as we have no choice.

Or do we?

We all know that the air is polluted, that water is scarce and so on but how many of us take any remedial measures. The rich will buy air purifiers and soon the poor will too as  prices are coming done. Market forces!

Is it not time to stop looking for bad aid solutions and do something for mother Nature.

Easier said than done as the fight is somewhat skewed. Talk of firecrackers and it is all brought down to mores and tradition, and what about the fire to warm yourself. When you live on the street then that is the only way you can beat the biting cold. For farmers it is easier to set fire on the land than painstakingly pullout old roots.

Air pollution has dangerous effects on humans, animals and plants. It leads to heart and lung disease, global warming, acid rain and more. Children are the most affected. Children from urban slums suffer the most as they rarely take a break and get to breathe clean air.

The problem with the solutions are that they require life style changes that many are not willing to adopt: take the bus or the metro instead of your car, switch off lights and appliances you are not using.

Some measures are impossible because of no availability of safe infrastructure. One would love to walk but where are the pedestrian walks, one could cycle to work but where are the cycle tracks. It is said that if water is sprayed regularly on roads and construction sites there would be a change in the air quality, but this again is Catch 22 itself as water is scarce and precious.

Most of these solutions are not in our hand as they involve government and administration.

At Project Why we believe that the first thing is to make children aware of the critical situation that exists and then inform them about the ways to curb air pollution so that even if they cannot do things they can become Warriors of Air.

Some of the steps they can participate in are: segregation of garbage. asking their families not to take motorbikes for short distance errands, learn to recycle and reuse, convert garbage into compost, switch off lights, etc.

Let us not forget that it is children who suffer the most. 4.4 million children in Delhi already have irreversible lung damage. So if not for us we have to think of the children and their tomorrow.

It is only when we ALL accept to become Warriors of Air that things will change.

 

Learning to…#GivingTuesday#India

dscn2565Two weeks ago, two class XII students murdered their teacher. The reason: he expelled one of them for poor attendance. Rage, anger, frustration? Nothing can condone violence of this kind and the boys will face the law.

The question that begs to be asked, though few will, is: who is responsible for this brutality and the answer may not be as easy as one would like to believe.

This extreme action should compel us to look at reality in the face. The two boys were school going and had studied hard enough to reach class XII. They were not one of the (ill)famed dropouts.

That any child would resort to such abhorrent violence must lead us to look at the present education system and social environment our young live in particularly in urban slums. This post is not meant to justify the act but prevent it in days to come as violence and aggression are an intrinsic part of the DNA of underprivileged children.

Education is undoubtedly the one tool that shapes mind and thus life. School should be an enabling environment where every child blooms according to her or his capabilities and talent. Education goes far beyond three Rs.

At Project Why we have always believed in Jacques Delors definition of education, namely his four pillars of learning: learning to learn, to do, to be and to live with others. Sadly education as we know it stops at the first.

One of the reasons of setting up Project Why was to address a unnatural reality: the half day school system whereby boys go to school post lunch. The school is for girls in the morning. Boys are left to their own device as their homes are tiny and so the street becomes their realm. With no quality parental control they are left to themselves. Bunking school becomes easy and as they grow the transformation between child and bad element is bound to happen. What we forget is that we are a part of the terrible mutation.

That they should be aggressive and even violent is again to be expected. Child physical abuse is rampant in both homes and school and becomes the only tool they know. No one talks to them or asks them their point of view. Communication is one-way from adult to child and they have no voice. So where do they learn to be and live with others.

We once asked a group of secondary students who were regularly beaten in their school what was the one thing they would change if given a chance and ALL of us would have bet our bottom dollar that the answer would be physical abuse. We were astounded when they told us that they would give the child a chance to explain himself before beating him. Beating was par to the course. What they wanted his a voice.

Children need to be heard. Children need to be recognised as individuals. Children need to be respected. Their talents need to be discovered and honed. They need to be given means to vent their anger and emotions. If the two boys who now will spend years in a brutal jail had been taught better then three lives would have been saved.

It is time we took responsibility and acted. Education reforms are needed but again they have to be the right ones, the kind that helps every child to grow to her or his full potential.

 

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? #GivingTuesday#India

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? wrote Nicholas Johnson.

Television is the most ubiquitous object as it breaks all social barriers and finds its way in every nook and corner of the land. Satellite dishes dot the most unlikely roof tops from crowded slums to the thatch homes of the agricultural labour tending to vegetable fields.

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SONY DSC
SONY DSC

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No matter how poor you are, TV is always something you will find money for. Nicholas Johnson is right in saying that all TV is educational but then what does it teach today?

In the times of 24 hours and innumerable channels there is a lot on offer. In tiny homes with a sole TV there is not much scope for parental or any kind of control. The preferred programmes are undoubtedly the plethora of soap operas that seem to have taken the place of the weekly movie outing that was once affordable. Today the big cinema halls with different ticket rates have been replaced by multiplexes where you pay the same for front or back row.

In yore years the back row was for the dating couples and the front row for what was know as the whistling viewers. Post movie day there was a week of processing what you had seen. And in yore years again Bollywood movies did have a social message. Gone are the days of tear jerkers!

Soap operas are family dramas that are a far cry from the reality of those who view them in slums. Nothing resembles the harsh reality of survival. They do provide a much needed escape but where escape is good once in a while, it can be nefarious when resorted to constantly.

Then there are cartoons that are often seen by children after much negotiation and even violent arguments. Some are innocuous but others can be violent.

There are  movie  channels, reality shows, music channels and even educational channels. Common to each is the clever interspersion of ads. No wonder that you find the most upmarket products in the poorest of homes as these are available in affordable pouches.

Many young slum kids learn their dancing and dress sense from the box. Not a bad thing some would say.

But too much of anything can be dangerous and when there is no control of any kind danger lurks in every image.

At Project Why we try and put things in perspective. The only means to do so is to give every child that comes to us the freedom to share her/his thoughts and desires with us allowing us to help her process it rationally. It is all about open communication.

TV or for that matter any information source is educational provided it is backed by processing and understanding.

 

Requiem for an invisible child #GivingTuesday#India

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You may be wondering why the illustration for this post is an ultrasound plate. The reason is that there exists no picture of the child whose story we tell.

Little Sonny was born a month or so ago to a beggar woman of the Kalka Temple. This was the mother’s 4th child, the eldest way in her late teens. Two of her children are special needs children and the husband passed away before Sonny was born. When the baby arrived and it was a boy, the mother was elated.

However one look at the child was enough to realise that the baby was born with Down Syndrome. No one had the heart to tell the mother. Would she have believed this? Perhaps not as Sonny was the ray of sunshine she held on to.

A few weeks later Sonny passed away. The reason given was an insect bite at night. He had gone to sleep alive and woke up dead. Maybe it was all for the best as a child like him had a very bleak future.

Had he been from a well-to-do family that a scan like the one above may have resulted in his being aborted.

He could also have been born in a caring family that would have done everything possible to make his life the best or to a family where he would have been shunned. But that was not the case.

Sonny is one of children born in India but never claimed by the land. They remain wandering souls that have fallen off the net and when they pass they often fade from the memories of those who gave them life as they are too busy in simply surviving.

 

Late by 50 years #GivingTuesday#India

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A recent UNESCO report states that India could be late by half a century in achieving its global education commitments. It would need to make fundamental changes in the education policy if it were to meet the 2030 goals. At present India is expected to achieve universal primary education in 2050, universal lower secondary education in 2060 and universal upper secondary education in 2085. 

That education is the one and only road to transformation is indubitable. Education helps break the poverty cycle and hence should be given centre stage. But that is not the case; hence the delays un meeting the millennium goals.

If we are to go with the stated report then it will take another 34 years for ALL children in India to acceded to primary education.

Let us leave statistics alone and look at the human factor. What this means is that for many millions of children today primary education remains a dream. The reasons are many. From poorly run schools, to lack of teachers, to lack of motivation, to gender bias, to access to schools, to inclusiveness, to poverty etc. Each of this is redressable.

But time is a crucial factor and time is something that children do not have. They grow every minute and before even planning can be done, they have missed the coach.

It is imperative that immediate solutions are found and implemented.

One such solution is Project Why.

Education does not simply mean enrolment in a school. Only if the education is of quality will it help transform a life. In todays education scenario going to school alone does not suffice. What has come to be know as ‘shadow education’ – after school tuition, coaching, extra classes – is a essential to success. This comes at a price the poor cannot pay. This is further compounded by the fact that poor children often have illiterate parents who cannot provide any support.

It is over 1000 children that Project Why helps at no cost for the past 16 years. The fact that the problem is not only real but calamitous is amply demonstrated by the large number of children who have come to Project Why after 3, 4, 5 and even more years of sitting on a school bench and who could barely read or write. Such children drop out often by the end of primary school or when they face their first real exam.

The flip side is that the same child who would have dropped out and been considered a failure needs only a little help to make up for lost years and reach the top of her class. We have many such children. That is what makes the situation so tragic.

Project Why is a minuscule effort but one that bears fruits. At least for these 1000 children education is a reality.