Monday, June 15, 2015

To the manor born

I do not know at what age I had my first party, the one where you incited boys too! Though I am a child of the sixties and a rebellious one for that, my rather older  and a tad traditional doting parents did not quite warm up to the idea and I must have been in my late teens when I was finally allowed to have a party at home. As far as I remember my girls had their first part when they entered their teens. Yesterday Utpal had his 'first' party and sleepover. Actually it turned out to be in two parts as the boys arrived late and the sole girl had to leave early. Believe it or not, the one who enjoyed the experience the most was yours truly! Organising parties for my girls was always trying as most of them happened when we were in Prague or Paris and with scant help at home  from the planning to executing via shopping and cleaning was on my to do list. Not so this time as I sat back and enjoyed it all.

For the past week, my house has been in party mode. When Utpal asked me some time back if we could invite few pals for lunch during his summer back, I not only agreed but was thrilled as in his earlier school he had made no friends. What I told him was that he was the one who had to plan and execute everything menu, shopping, picking up and activities. My little man took it all in his stride. First he needed to confirm it all so my phone was requested many time and rang many times for him. Then as a great organiser he got a diary and made a menu with Shamika's help then found out all that was needed to be bought and went on many shopping expeditions. Finally the day dawned and he was up early, all dressed up and his room was spick and span. Oops I forgot to share that during the week he had made many plans on paper on how he would set up his room. There were many discussion sessions with Shamika who was the ideal mentor for the occasion.

Utpa, is a perfect host and has always been so. I can never forget how I was invited to tea almost 10 years ago by him 10 years ago! So this time too Utpal behaved impeccably even pulling the dining room chair for his lady friend whom he seems to have a crush on, and making sure everyone ate and drank to their hearts' content. After dropping the young girl it was all boys but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well behaved everyone. There was not a sound as they all played and chatted in his room.

The lunch turned into a sleepover as 3 boys stayed back and once again they were a dream to have as guests.

Actually I always said: Utpal is to the manor born!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

To better manipulate you my child

Look at these kids. They are kids just like yours and mine born in the same country, protected by the same Constitution and having the same rights. But that is all on paper. These kids have no rights, are not protected by any laws and come to think of it do not even exist as they appear on no enumeration.These are our Yamuna project kids. Their parents are agricultural labourers who grow vegetables on the banks of the river and till recently had never held a pencil let alone see a school. Their days were spent helping their parents in the fields, tending to siblings or helping at home if you can call 'home' a thatched hut that has practically nothing inside. In between and whenever they could find a moment they did what every child does: play!

Today we run a small project for them and they are the most eager learners what can ever find. If you ask them what they like best pat comes the answer in unison: STUDY! If you prod a little more you may hear 'cricket' but that is all. As they do not go to school, we run a proper school like activity with a warm midday meal and subject classes including art. Were hope to add more extra curricular activities and sports! Given a little help I am sure that each one of them has to potential to become every and any thing.

But this may not happen as the powers that be in their extreme wisdom are on the verge of amending the child labour law to legitimise use of children under 14 years as labour in family enterprises and though they add after school and during vacation we all know which way these caveats will go. Anyway, what about kids like these who do not go to school. With one stroke of the pen they are condemned to the family enterprise: agricultural labourer! Voila. End of dreams. So who says the cast system  is dead. I has had just been  surreptitiously reinvented, repackaged and ready to be marketed. Father cobbler: son cobbler. Daughter married to cobbler. And so on.

I am sick and tired of the empty and supposedly politically correct ramblings that purport to end social ills; the pro poor discourses, the Messiah like pandering. No one is interested in the ending poverty. Why should they. It is such a great political platform with innumerable causes to espouse. Deprived of the  poor how would politic as we know it survive. Gosh where would they find an alternative were every child educated and empowered. I get reminded of the Little Riding Hood where the wolf would say to defend such an abhorring amendment: to better manipulate my child.

I would like to meet the individuals who actually came up with these amendments. How can any right minded human being can accept to see any child under 14 work and forget the family enterprise as in this case it is not a swanky one. The family businesses we are talking for can be just about anything from domestic work to begging with everything else along the way.

And yet these kids who are condemned to grow vegetables could be anything they want with just a little help from society. But therein lies the problem. Over the past decades I have witnessed the degradation of a society that once was caring with values and morals to one that has lost its heart totally. Come on let us look at ourselves. We drive past a beggar child without getting outraged. We see a child toiling in  a friend's home without batting an eyelid. We see statistics of children dying in thousands every day and do not get disturbed. I could go on and on. The reason is they are NOT our kids, they are someone else's kids. They belong to another planet. Now the government you get is a reflection of the society. So if we do not care, why should they.

I wonder what and whose interest this proposed amendment serves. I guess we all know.

It is time each one of us went looking for the heart we have conveniently lost or sacrificed to the alter of some supposed Good that we all should be ashamed of.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Mom! What a wondrous word and more than a word a fuzzy feeling no matter which language or abbreviation you use. Mom is the place real or virtual you seek when you are hurt or in need of comfort. It is the one you call when is despair or the one you remember in your happy moments. It is the lap you run to when your graze your knee and the arms you seek when life does not treat you kind. Mom is where you feel safe. I became a Mom at 23 and then again at 29. I thought that would be it. Two beautiful girls! What more could you wish. But I was in for a surprise or should I say many as when I decided to give life to another family, I never thought I would become Mom again. The family I am referring to is Project Why!

Over the years my Mom persona has acquired many children some quite grown up. I must say that I love them all unconditionally just as a Mom should. But there is one little chap who landed in my lap 12 years ago scalded and moribund and walked into my heart in a space I was totally at a loss to define. I was 50 when he was born. As he slowly healed from his terrible wounds and caught up with all his milestones he decided to call me Maam'ji when he learnt to talk and it worked as Mam'ji could be anything as it defied age-based  and non-conventional relationships. I forgot to mention that in my opinion, the heart of a Mom is expendable and fits anyone who needs love.

We carried on for 12 years through all the problems and challenges and met them head on and with success though there were some that were really scary. To the question: who is she to you? the answer always was Maam'ji.

But then a few days ago Maam'ji fell short as the child, now a teenager was faced with a difficult decision and choice and the need of a safe haven was critical. The young boy changed his answer to the question:who is she to you? Without batting an eyelid he said: Mom.

This happened in a rather austere environment where I could neither jump up and hug him, nor allow tears of joy to shed. I just held on to the moment in my heart.

So here I am, Mom again. With it comes the job description. Come to think of it there is none. You just have to conjure one as you go along. No second chances, just one and you better get it right. Children do not come with an instruction book.

Am off to making mine!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

On cloud nine

Yesterday the recluse was forced out of her hole. It happened like this. Some people were meant to visit the women centre and Yamuna Project to initiate an adult literacy programme that would be taught by our senior students. They were to swing by place first and I blissfully thought that we would have a chat and a cuppa and I would then send them with Dharmendra and would crawl back in my hole. However things did not happen the way I had planned as the gentlemen in question practically dragged me out. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was squeezed in the back seat of a car and we took off. The traffic being light we were soon at the Yamuna Project. It was rather crowded as it was also the first PTM day. I headed straight for the kids and was again amazed at the palpable energy that emanated from them. They were all keen to show me their work. Copybooks were thrust my way with complicated sums solved correctly. I decided to have some fun and told them I was very bad in maths and needed them to teach me. They first looked a little perplexed but when I told them i had forgotten my table barring 2 and 5, they all decided to test my knowledge with the table of 7. I pretended to falter after 3x7 and they were amused as they recited the table and watched me dutifully repeat it. It was a unique experience with these free spirited kids who have no issue in handling any situation even that of an old biddy who decides she wants a math lesson. You want a math lesson, well you get one.

From maths we went on to the subject of teaching moms and all the kids were ticked pick at the thought of they teaching their moms. I wish the serious posse that accompanied me had realised how this could be a great project, but as all people tied to organisations and their protocols did not warm up to my idea as they had specific requirements. I wish programmes were flexible. Imagine these kids turning teachers. How empowered they would feel. Never mind the staid programmes I would conjure my own and put it to test. The few moms that were present were also quite kicked at the idea. It can only be a win win one!

It was soon time to leave and I realised a tad sheepishly I good I felt outside my hole in the company of these incredible kids. Must air the old biddy more often.

We then went to the women centre where five of our class X kids were waiting for instructions about the adult literacy programme. I was still in my happy bubble and let the adults talk. I think some programme was initiated. While the parleys were on I feasted my eyes on my class X kids who had all passed their Boards and was filled with immense pride, more so because these incredible kids were spending their vacation working at project why! Some were helping Meher do her homework. Others were teaching the weaker primary kids and our in-house artist Aman is the Art teacher of the Yamuna Project and even plans to continue teaching after school reopens.

I was truly on cloud none, my batteries recharged and ready to take on the world.

It was really the feel good shot I needed. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Somethings are just WRONG!

You can't regulate child labour; you can't regulate slavery. Somethings are just wrong wrote Michael Moore. And yet our Government has 'tweaked' the child labour law and now children under 14 can 'work' in family enterprises and the entertainment industry! To give itself good conscience the said Government proffers some weak caveats: provided the work is not hazardous; provided it is after school etc. I wonder what made these amendment necessary. Child labour of any kind is wrong and exploitative and a law such as this one is open to all kind of misinterpretations. Actually it simply legalises what has been happening and will make interventions to stop child labour quasi impossible. A child working in a tea shop will be termed as 'family', more so in a land where the definition of family is boundless. The child who may have been 'sold' or brought from the village as cheap labour, will now become family.

What is nothing short of abhorrent is that this law applies only to the poor; to the very children who need to be freed of all shackles that hijack their childhood. But now, with he stroke of a pen, the morrows of millions of children have been shattered. The surreptitious message that is being sent is: the farmer's on will remain a farmer, the cobbler's son a cobbler and so on. An image such as this one will be 'legal' as evidently these children's parents must be construction worker which can now be termed 'family business'. Yes I know there is the 'hazardous' caveat but then who decides what is hazardous work. I remember once seeing a three year old left by her mother in front a stove where milk was boiling. I guess the mother had instructed the child to watch the milk. What would the child have done had the milk boiled before the mother came back. The chances of the child sustaining burns were real, all it would have taken is some cat to topple the stove. And yet according to the new amendment the child was helping the mother in her domestic chores.

It is already a herculean task to implement the Right to Education Act and ensure that children go to school and stay in school till they are 14. The fact that it was 'illegal' not to send children to school was some sort of deterrent that we could brandish to parents to compel them to send their children to school. Now it will be difficult to counter the 'family enterprise' clause. Let me ask you a question. What  do your children do on any given day. I guess a generic answer would be: they go to school, study, play, watch TV, play games etc. Then they also go on vacation, sometimes to exotic locales and attend birthday parties and so much more. Now if we are all protected by the same Constitution then why does this not apply to ALL children and if there is a disparity then why is not the duty of the state to ensure that all children enjoy the same rights. Why are poor children pushed to working after school and during vacations as is stipulated by the new amendment. Do poor kids not have the right to downtime?

It said the amendment seeks to strike a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic conditions. Now to my mind a socio-economic scenario that finds it acceptable for tiny hands to break stone, make match sticks or bangles - and yes these are kosher family enterprises - is skewed and needs to be changes. Such an absurd law seeks to perpetuate outdated and inhuman mores that have no place in a self respecting society. Every child needs to be given an enabling environment where she or he can grow and acquire new skills and options. You cannot condemn her or him to the plight of its parents. This amendment bangs all doors shut in the face of poor children.

A politician asked to defend this amendment during a debate yesterday came up with an absurd comment. She said that it would help discover talent. She was alluding to the 'entertainment' clause of the amendment that now allows children to participate in talent shows. But should not creative subjects like music and dance be part of the school curriculum and talent discovered within the safety of a well run school? And we are not talking of song and dance here, we are talking of stone breaking and carpet weaving in dark airless spaces.

Another defence, this time by the labour minister, said that this was a good way for children to strike a balance between the need for education for a child and the reality of the socio-economic conditions. What the hell does that mean! That society has to remain frozen as it is, with the poor remaining poor and even poorer and the rich richer! I am flabbergasted so say the least. Here we are at project why celebrating when the child of a vegetable vendor completes her studies and gets a job in a bank and lurking around the corner is a law that would make it legal for her to sell vegetables when she finishes  school and in the scorching sun during her summer break. Which ever way I look at this amendment, I cannot find ONE tiny point to defend it, more so when all political parties want us to believe that they are the Messiahs of the poor and down trodden.

Till a few months ago these adorable kids had never seen a book or held a pencil. Their parents are agricultural labour who grow vegetables on the bank of the Yamuna on land that belongs to landlords of the nearby Khader village. Till a few months ago they were working in the family business. Then arrived a teacher who decided to educate these children and give them a better start. Last month Project Why 'adopted' these kids and our main mission was to see how to mainstream them, a tough call as these kids have no civic identity. They simply do not exist. Earlier the teacher only taught them for an hour or so in the middle of the day. We decided to create a school like environment and teach them from 9 am to 3 pm with a midday meal. We were aware of the fact that these little hands were part of the said socio-economic conditions and provided added and needed labour. We were confident that with the laws on our side - Right to Education and Minimum Age for child labour - we had enough to  convince the parents to send the children to the project from 9 to 3! Ah ha! Now with the new amendment should parliament pass sit - everything changes and we will be on shaky grounds.

The state does not have the resources to ensure that every child is in school. This is evident in the number of children we see working around us. And unlike my Yamuna kids who are invisible, the little kid who begs at the red light or the one who pushes a cart in the heat are VISIBLE. So before amending laws that would make these images legal provided they happen after school, would it not be better to first launch a campaign that pushes all kids into schools.

And I would like to ask the learned heads who conjured this inane amendment whether they would agree to their children working in their business after school giving up their homework time, play time, park time, siesta time, tennis classes, swim at the club and whatever else our kids under 14 do today! So a law that does not make sense and is highly unacceptable for YOUR kid cannot and should not be acceptable for any kid born in this country.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A priceless painting

This may look like a very mediocre and even gauche piece of art. And yet for me it is priceless; more so because it landed in my life at the end of a tedious and annoying day.  Let me tell you why. True this piece or art, as art it is, looks like a banal copy of an illustration in a school book sone by a child and it is. But this is probably the first time this child was give crayons and a pice of paper to draw.

Yesterday the children of our Yamuna Centre had their first ART class and their teacher was none other than our own Aman, s student of our women centre who is an excellent artists and who was sent to Art classes by Project Why! As it is still early days, our resources are few but the heart is there. For  more than an hour these children who have never been to school and whose world fits in a fist took their first step on the creativity trail. They were enthralled and a tad bewildered. As children of agricultural labour, their life is limited to helping their parents as soon as they are able to do so. For some months now they have been studying a little but never have they been given the freedom to express themselves.

The child who  drew this picture lives in a thatched hut and has never seen a house like this one. Come to think of it many Indian kids have not seen a house like this one, with a chimney but you will find them draw them with alacrity as we still have illustrations that reek of colonial times. What is impressive is their ability to copy respecting proportions. The little lad who drew the boat ha need seen the sea; true he lives on the banks of the river, but a river that spews toxic foams and has grey waters. He may live his entire life without see in an ocean but he drew one with flair!

Every alternate day, the Yamuna Project children will have Art classes and I intend to ask Aman to let their imagination run, to give them the freedom to splash colours on paper as their heart desires. I will also ask him to let them draw what they see, the fields they grew up in, the vegetables they know from seed to fruit, something city kids do not.

 Let them draw the tree they sit under, the dwellings they live in, the lush fields they run in. Let their imagination grow will and let them enjoy simply being children.

Friday, May 08, 2015

rich and poor

The picture you see is one of our new 'classroom' in the Yamuna Project. Classroom is a misnomer even by our standards. Actually this space was a shed made for two jersey cows who have now gone to greener pastures. If you look carefully you will see that the walls are thatched and the floor terribly uneven and uncomfortable to sit on even with a mat. When we adopted this project, the first thing that came to mind was to try and level the floor by cementing it. It seemed reasonable. Ah Ha! But that is not the reality. We were quickly informed that getting even a brick in this place was illegal as this was hold your breath: the flood plain! You were only allowed to build with thatch and mud. Seems politically and ecologically correct and one would no have said anything if the 'law' applied to one and all. But that is not the case. The Akshardhama Temple and Commonwealth Games village are built on the flood plain of this very river, albeit on the there bank. So how does one circumvent laws. Simply by being rich and well connected. If you are poor it is thatch and thatch only.

All the children live in thatched structures where sizzling and freezing winds blow with alacrity. Only a plastic sheet protects from perpendicular rain, if the winds blow the thatched walls are no protection.

This is yet again another India Story where the laws are different for the rich and the poor. Actually one should say the laws are for the poor, the rich manage to circumvent it or pay their way through.

There is an amendment to an existing law on child labour which will, if passed, allow children to work in family enterprises to get an entrepreneurial spirit. These are not my words but those of a Minister in the Government. You need not be a rocket scientist to figure which children the law will affect. Not yours or mine but the million of children who are trafficked to provide cheap labour. What entrepreneurial spirit do you learn when you break bricks with your are parents who are bonded labour, fetch and carry with your construction labour parents or beg with your beggar parents. And then every industry that employs children can be tagged: family business be it carpet making, match stick making and eve housework! Maids do bring their daughters to 'help'! The children it will not affect are ours as I do not see anyone 'employing' ones kid in the family business.

No school for the rich runs in 2 shifts as it is well known and documented that children learn best in the morning hours yet boys from humbler homes go to school at 1pm in Government run schools. In spite of large tracts of land that could double or even triple the existing capacity, Government schools are still run in one storey tin roofed shacks. Who cares about poor kids. There is no need to give them an enabling environment to grow. They have no voice and nobody to take up the cudgels for them.  They will learn on uneven grounds and sizzling temperatures. That is the price to pay if you are poor.

The day may come where the not-one-brick rule will be broken with impunity and the vegetable fields will become a gated community for the rich and famous. Mark my words, it is only a matter of time.

And as none of the above affects us, except if you should chose to purchase a flat when they happen, we will keep shut. Our kids go to school in the morning, they sit in comfortable chairs and even an air conditioned classroom and they will learn the entrepreneurial spirit in some Ivy college in the US!